Monday, April 14, 2008

When Memoirists Lie: Revisiting the Margaret B. Jones Controversey

ONE THING IS FOR sure, we may hate fraud, but we are attracted to it. In yet another example of literary fraudulence, Margaret Seltzer’s (aka Margaret B. Jones) recently exposed memoir, Love and Consequences, continues to make the news. It also continues to delight and anger various bodies in the blogosphere. At the University of San Francisco, I teach a class called "Ethics, Writing, and Culture," with a specific section on ethics and autobiography; so this issue is particularly interesting to me.

On March 16, I published an Op-Ed piece on the Seltzer/Jones controversy in some of the Bay Area News Group papers, that includes the Oakland Tribune and San Mateo Times. Below is a shorter, edited, more blog-friendly version of that piece.


No one who watched Oprah Winfrey confront James Frey will forget Ms. Winfrey’s outrage, disappointment, and, in particular, her overwhelming sense of betrayal over the fact that Frye’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, turned out to be a thousand little lies. Though Ms. Seltzer’s fabrications were exposed last week before millions of readers could fully internalize her story of growing up in a gang-ridden Los Angeles foster home, there was notable furor over yet another false memoir. The New York Times, for example, ran the story on the front page of the newspaper’s web edition, to be followed by pieces in USA Today, Slate, and coverage by NPR, all of which underscored the severity of Ms. Seltzer’s transgression.

Less interesting than the details of Seltzer's fictitious memoir are the questions such falsehood raises and the emotions it elicits. Why, for example, do memoirists lie? What is at stake when they do? And, even more importantly, if we lie about our own life story now and then, why do readers feel so hurt when authors lie about theirs?

One reason memoirists fib is the simple fact that most people live unremarkable lives, and those very rarely translate into captivating memoirs. To wit, Ms. Seltzer’s and Mr. Frey’s tales of drugs, violence, addiction, mixed-blood ethnicity, gang life, and foster homes pretty much hit all of the hot button topics of contemporary culture. Quiet memoirs about a life of introspection and illumination don’t sell; it’s the story about bottoming out, about personal and societal violence, about grappling with the demons of identity, abuse, and shame that speak to the people who relate to those stories and who are voyeuristically drawn to them. We love the shocking memoir because another’s reality is often more appealing (or revolting) than our own.

In their memoirs, Ms. Seltzer and Mr. Frey engage in what I call “edited reality”-- a cut and pasted mix of fact and fiction whose strongest advocate is reality TV. More than authorial license or shock value, edited reality may lie at the core of these authors’ justifications to craft an invented world. In the most popular contemporary texts, truth is edited to create a more exciting truth. Acting has become more authentic than authenticity. Publishers want fact over fiction, drama over poetry. Our culture is on reality overload. Thus, a bizarre formula begins to emerge: demand for reality + advocated edited reality = fake memoirs.

The question remains, though, if television programs can get away with it, why can’t authors?

Old school though it may be, we still hold print to a higher standard of ethics than any other media. Most of us assume television is invented (that’s one reason we like it), but we expect serious journalism and literary publishing to tell us the truth. Something about the printed nature of the written word, its fixed nature, its immutability, demands an ethical code. This is true for memoirs and for this very publication. When that is broken, so is the trust the publishing world relies on.

The main reason readers feel betrayed by false memoirs it's due to the special relationship between reader and author. Oprah felt *personally* let down by James Frey. When was the last time anyone felt personally betrayed by Big Brother? We don’t care if TV lies to us because we don’t know a TV show’s author. Unlike a novel, which we assume mixes fact with fiction, we come to memoirs having made a silent pact with the author—you give me truth and candor, and I’ll let you into my life.

Ultimately, what is at stake when memoirists invent their lives is the realization that our emotional reaction to their story, like the promise that one life may enlighten another, could also be an illusion.


  1. Interesting. A long post! How long was the original essay? What if these writers don't watch reality tv? Do you think they still "edit" reality?

  2. came across your blog from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today. You have some very interesting things to say about race and culture.

  3. Thanks to Caille Millner at the San Francisco Chronicle for turning me on to a great "interview" with Jones in New York Magazine. You can read it here: