Margaret Seltzer Joins List of Fabricating Writers
MICHELE MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Tennessee Williams classic, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," gets a twist in a latest Broadway production. We'll talk to director Debbie Allen about it and about her own remarkable career. That's a little later. But first, we learned yesterday that a young woman we'd interviewed under the name Margaret B. Jones had in fact made up the whole story, including that name. She claims that her book, "Love and Consequences," which describes the life of a half-white, half-native American girl growing up in foster care in South Central L.A., was based on the accounts of friends and kids whom she had mentored. But that's not how she presented herself to us and to the world. Here is a short clip from her interview with us. We did it about a week or so ago.
Ms. MARGARET B. JONES (Author, "Love and Consequences"): Gangs in L.A. recruit like the NFL. They go out, they look at kids - okay, that kid doesn't have parents, that kid's kind of messing up at school. Oooh, look at that kid, that kid can fight.
MARTIN: We all know now that that was a lie. Her real name is Margaret Seltzer, she's white, not mixed. She went to private school in the San Fernando Valley. But the question remains, why did she do it? How did she think she could get away with it? I'm joined now by three people who have to think about these questions a lot. Chuck Lane is on the editorial board at the Washington Post. He also teaches a class on journalistic fraud at Princeton University. But he was formerly an editor at The New Republic, where he helped uncover stories fabricated by reporter Stephen Glass. Lane joins us on the phone from his home in Chevy Chase.
Vera Lee was the ghost writer for Misha De Fonseca, whose book, "Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years," was a best seller in Europe, but recently revealed as a fabrication. She's on the phone from her home in Newton, Massachusetts. And also with us is Laura Browder, the author of a book about the history of fake ethnic autobiographies. It's called "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities," and she's on the phone with us from her home in Richmond, Virginia. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CHUCK LANE (Princeton University): Thank you, Michel.
Ms. VERA LEE (Author): Thank you.
Ms. LAURA BROWDER (Author): Thank you.
MARTIN: Chuck Lane, if I could begin with you. That whole Stephen Glass episode must have been very traumatic for you and I just wanted to ask, you know, when you think about it now, what do you think about why something like this happens?
Mr. LANE: I think there are some people who, for whatever kind of twisted internal reason, enjoy tricking other people, and there is a tremendous rush that they get. At least I think that was part of what was going on with Stephen Glass. Psychologists even have coined a name for it. They call it duping delight. And if you can get away with it for a long time and get rewarded for it, I think the delight just grows even stronger.
MARTIN: Laura, what's your take on this?
Ms. BROWDER: Well, I think there's a long history of these kinds of autobiographies, and people write them for a couple of reasons. There are a number of people who are caught in historical traps. You know, their identities are such, like a Sylvester Long, who was an early Indian impersonator, who grew up in North Carolina, was defined as colored by the racial laws of his time and was working as a janitor. When he re-invented himself as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, he suddenly could become an international movie star, have his own line of running shoes. It was a better life.
But then there are other people like Margaret Seltzer who I think feel pain, feel traumatized, feel unhappy, and they want to attach that kind of inchoate pain to an identity that everyone recognizes as suffering. And that's why we get a lot of fake Holocaust memoirs. That's why we get fake Vietnam vets, and that's why we get fake memoirs like this, where she is a foster child, parentless, she's in a gang. You know, everyone understands that she's had a bad time when she attaches this to a racial or ethnic identity, to poverty, to parentlessness.
MARTIN: I take it that you think it's significant that she chose to be part Native American.
Ms. BROWDER: Absolutely. There's a very long history of fake Native American memoirs because in this country we see Native Americans as the most authentic Americans, in a way, as a doomed, suffering, pure group of people with great spiritual potential. I mean I think it's significant that the most famous fake Native American memoir to this day is "The Education of Little Tree," about a Cherokee orphan, which turned out to be written by a prominent Ku Klux Klansman, you know, a synagogue bomber, a church bomber.
MARTIN: Yes, you're right, that is a remarkable story. And Vera Lee, the story in which you are involved just happened very recently. Misha de Fonseca's book perhaps not as well known in the United States but a bestseller in Europe. And how did it come apart? How did it get unraveled?
Ms. LEE: It became unraveled because there was a genealogist who either was invited to research the - Misha's background or she just happened to. I never got that part of the story right. But apparently the jig was up. Misha knew that she had been discovered and she thought that she had better admit to it.
MARTIN: No, but in hindsight, and I'm getting these emails now from people saying almost everybody knew that was made up, and who - I smelled a rat from the beginning. And of course Misha's story or Monique's story is actually, is rather remarkable, she says that she kind of ran off to escape the Nazis into the woods and was on her own for quite a long time living in the forest among the wolves as a very young child. But did you ever feel that way when you were working with her? Did you ever suspect something was wrong?
Ms. LEE: I did see discrepancies, definitely. And I wondered a lot about it and I did research into it, talked to many people about it. But the more I spoke with Misha, and the more research I did, the more I thought it was quite possible, not in the small details, because after all she was trying to reconstruct memoirs from her childhood - and that had been 50 years ago - but in general I would say it made sense to me.
MARTIN: Speaking of sort of the little variations around the details, I have a short clip from my interview with Margaret, I guess I want to call her Margaret Seltzer, who presented herself as Margaret Jones, where she sort of - she admits to me that she, that some of the characters were composites. But here is her explanation for that. Let's play that short clip.
Ms. MARGARET SELTZER: Everything is true. It's just, let's say like the scene where I went to the grocery store with my little sisters. There was more like, instead of three of us there was five of us. But I sort of combined them into one person just because, well if you're keeping track as a reader of five kids running around the store, you're not focused on any one of them.
MARTIN: I understand what you're saying.
So Chuck Lane, talk to me about this. When you were trying to figure out what was going on with Stephen Glass, is this the same kind of explanation he gave? Now, obviously he's a journalist. He's supposed to be doing sort of news stories, and I think people are willing to give memoir, you know, memoirs a little bit more latitude, because how could you possible reconstruct, you know, conversations, you know, from when you were 12? So I do think people give people a little bit more latitude there. But is that a common thing?
Mr. LANE: As I listened to your clip there, I had a sense of déjà vu; it was just like listening to Stephen Glass. In his first line of defense, his first attempt to defend his stories from the discrepancies, from the discrepancies that we discovered, he said, oh well, look, you have to understand, I wasn't there at this particular meeting but I reconstructed it later on. One of the themes that my students and I were discussing this term is this whole issue of the composite.
This is a very, very common excuse that fraudulent writers develop when they come under suspicion, because if you think about it, it's very difficult to disprove. Once you start talking about how I combined the elements of several different people or whatever, it just makes the job of the fact checker that much more difficult. And so I'm not at all surprised to hear that this Margaret Seltzer is adopting this as an attempted line of defense because it's so commonly used by fraudulent writers.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Margaret Seltzer's confession that she fabricated her memoir, "Love and Consequences," and I'm joined by three writers who have a close experience with the previous literary frauds - Chuck Lane, formerly an editor at The New Republic, Vera Lee, a ghost writer for Misha de Fonseca, whose memoir about fleeing the Nazis has been exposed as a fraud, and Laura Browder, author of a book about ethnic impersonation in American literature.
Laura, I'm just curious about the question of whether you think that these writers, the whole controversy of taking on an identity other than one's own, I mean fiction writers can do that. In fact, some have really celebrated works, like thinking of "Memoir of a Geisha" was written by somebody who was not Japanese, not a woman. There's, you know, "Remains of the Day," written by somebody who is not an English sort of butler. So I'm curious why people, because these people are all talented writers, why they don't just write a novel and take on whatever voice they want?
Ms. BROWDER: Well, I think that Americans are in love with the idea of authenticity. And this is demonstrated by the vast popularity now of memoirs and memoir writing and by our idea that people who are not white and not middle class are living more authentic lives and having more authentic lives and having more authentic experiences than white middle class people, and I think because of this, the people like Margaret Seltzer feel that their stories will have more power and more grit if they present them as authentic memoirs.
MARTIN: What do you buy of her story that she thought she was doing something positive to get this story out in a way that she feels it would not have been received otherwise, that she felt she was kind of, what is it, showing the flag, you know, for the hood as it were and doing something positive?
Ms. BROWDER: You know, it's so funny. When I read that, I immediately thought of all those white abolitionists who wrote fake slave narratives in the 1840s and 1850s because they felt that they were more qualified to tell the authentic stories of slaves than the slaves were themselves.
So that's got a long history, and you see it also in a memoir like Grace Halsell's "Soul Sister," which she wrote in the '60s. She was a speechwriter in the Johnson White House who decided that she needed to become black, had melanin treatments, moved to Harlem, and wrote about how she soon became more authentically black than the actual black people that she met because she felt that they were not suffering enough, they were not embracing what she saw as their primitive spirits.
So this idea of white middle class people feeling that they are more qualified to tell the story of someone who is black and poor than actual poor black people has a long, long history in American literature.
MARTIN: Vera, what about Misha or Monica? Does she feel sorry about this, to your knowledge? I mean, her explanation when she was reached by a reporter - and she's given very few interviews - was to say this really is my story as I understand it, but she does seem to know the difference between fact and fiction. I mean...
Ms. LEE: Yes, and apparently she did issue an apology, a general apology to anybody that she had offended by her duplicity, but it's hard to know what's in her mind. She's a very complicated person.
MARTIN: Chuck Lane, what about Stephen Glass? Do you - and I, as a journalist obviously you're very concerned that people sort of tell the truth at the work, have the power of truth, with journalism very much sort of under fire in this country and around the world, you know, frankly, in lots of places for not, you know, sort of getting it right.
But do you think that Stephen Glass - I'm still interested in his motivation. Do you think that he thought he was doing something worthwhile or he just wanted to be famous and thought he could get away with it?
Mr. LANE: I think Stephen Glass is different from some of the memoirists that your other guests are very astutely discussing here. I think he was not - I don't think he had a larger kind of project to document the plight of a particular group or anything like that.
I think Stephen Glass was actually a much, much - sort of like a super-prankster, a kind of journalistic vandal, if you like, who just delighted secretly in knocking over all the furniture of our profession.
And he was lavishly rewarded for it. He was on his way to making a lot of money, to having lucrative freelance contracts with other magazines, not just the New Republic, and in a way the real question might be why wouldn't he do it, as long as he was getting away with it.
I just want to say, if I might, I think there is a real harm, though, done, perhaps not so much by the content of a Stephen Glass story, but when you have people faking documents about the Holocaust, unfortunately there are Holocaust deniers in this world, and that sort of fabrication can really feed very pernicious views about the underlying truth of what are actual historical events.
MARTIN: And also I think the realities life as experienced by people. That's some of the e-mail I'm getting from people, saying, okay, now when people who really are experiencing these things, you know, who's going to believe them, people who are abused in foster care, people who are lured into gang life. Who's going to believe them?
Laura Browder, how do these people think they're going to get away with it? In Margaret Seltzer's case, it seems that her sister saw her picture in the New York Times and called the publisher and said, you know, no way. So why do these people think that nobody's going to tell?
Ms. BROWDER: Well, probably because very often either people don't tell, or even when these memoirs are exposed, you know, people are shocked for a day and then get over it. You know, "The Education of Little Tree" was exposed in 1976 after Asa Carter, the Klansman, got on the Barbara Walters show as Forrest Carter, the Cherokee orphan, and his old friends in Alabama saw the show and said, hey, that's Asa.
So there was a little article in the New York Times, fine. Time went by, the book sold another 600,000 copies, and it was finally exposed again in the early '90s. But it's still selling, and many people to this day don't know that it's a fake.
So I think the Margaret Seltzer story is unusual in that publisher acted so quickly to recall the copies. Most of the time there's a scandal, everyone's shocked, everyone forgets.
MARTIN: Vera, final question to you. What has this been like for you?
Ms. LEE: For me?
Ms. LEE: Reading about this? I find it really fascinating, and you know, I agree with Chuck. We shouldn't forget that some real harm is done, because most of the time ethnic-impersonator autobiographies succeed because they cater to people's preconceived ideas about what the experience of Native Americans or black people living in the inner city or immigrant Jews or whoever the particular group is - they cater to stereotypes, and so they tend to reinforce those stereotypes.
I mean, in a very concrete way I think of Asa Carter, who was literally financing his career as a white supremacist by writing these fake memoirs.
MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there. All right, thank you so much. We heard from Laura Browder. She's the author of a book about authors who assume ethnic identities in their autobiographies. It's called "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities." We were also joined by Chuck Lane. He's on the editorial board at the Washington Post, a former editor at the New Republic who exposed Stephen Glass as a fake. And we were joined by Vera Lee, ghost writer for the book "Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years." That story was also recently exposed as untrue. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LEE: Thank you.
Mr. LANE: Thank you.
MARTIN: To hear a full version of my conversation with Margaret Seltzer, the author of made-up memoir "Love and Consequences," you can check out our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. There you can also find a full text of the response from Riverhead Books, Seltzer's publishing company.
And if you like to tell us about a time when you perhaps stretched the truth, padded a resume, or why you did it, we'd like to hear from you - npr.org/tellmemore - or call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.