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Buck Stops Here!

March 20, 2008 By:
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Two strange "these-memoirs-are-actually-fiction" cases cropped up within days of one another earlier this month. The first concerns Misha Defonseca's Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. The other deals with Love and Consequences, which describes gang life in Los Angeles; its author was listed as Margaret B. Jones.

Most amazing of all was that the revelations about the latter made the front page of The New York Times on March 4, and a story in the arts section followed the next day. The paper had to do it this way to save face because it had already run a book review and a feature about the author. Talk about being scammed.

The reporter for the front-page story was Motoko Rich, who first described how Jones "wrote about her life as a half-white, half- Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods." Of course, none of it was true.

"Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym," we were told, "for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed."

She admitted to Rich, tearfully, that, though "entirely fabricated," many of the book's details were based on the lives of friends she's made while working to combat gang violence in L.A.

As for the Defonseca masquerade, it was disclosed in an arts brief in the March 3 Times. The Associated Press first reported that the book -- a best seller translated into 18 languages -- was fantasy. The author "was never trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. Neither was she adopted by wolves who protected her from the Nazis, nor did she trek 1,900 miles across Europe in search of her departed parents or kill a German soldier in self-defense. She wasn't even Jewish ... "

Defonseca, 71, a Belgian writer now living in Massachusetts, said in a statement: "The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving. I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed. I beg you to put yourself in my place, of a 4-year-old girl who was very lost."

What I don't understand is how these people think they'll get away with it all. It's not like there haven't been precedents in both of these cases -- and precedents that have been covered widely by the press.

Still, there's another problem: Are these the fantasies of the authors who somehow feel that memoirs will sell quicker than fiction? Or does the problem stem from the publishers, who are hot to make a buck on anything that sounds outrageous and don't ask the questions they're supposed to? Are there really no real editors around, just people acquiring books with eyes pasted to the bottom line?


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