The Fake Memoir

April 21, 2011 § 8 Comments

Steve Almond usually manages to be wise, amusing, and sensible all at once in his occasional Rumpus pieces, and he’s kicked the proverbial triple pickle again this week with his post The Heroic Lie: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir

Here’s an excerpt, but when you have a moment to spare, hop on over and read the entire thing.  Make your students read it.  Tattoo it on your dog:

You will have heard, by now, of the curious case of Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. As documented by the author Jon Krakauer, among others, Mortenson appears to have falsified vast swaths of his best-selling memoir, including a dramatic abduction by the Taliban.

Over the past decade, the fake memoir has become a genre unto itself. A few years ago, an Oregon writer named Margaret Seltzer wrote a fake memoir called Love and Consequences, about her years running drugs in South Central Los Angeles. Around the same time, Misha Defonseca wrote Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, in which she claimed to have lived with a pack of wolves, while wandering Europe in search of her parents. Defonseca was not even Jewish. The list goes on.

Every time one of these memoirs gets debunked, writers and critics debate what constitutes non-fiction. Often, there’s an argument put forward about something called “emotional truth,” which is supposed to provide moral cover for lying. My definition of creative non-fiction is simple. It is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place.

The moment you start making up events that you know did not take place, you’re doing another sort of work. It’s called fiction.

Thank you, Mr. Almond.

On Truth in Memoir: Remembrance and Amnesia

April 9, 2008 § 3 Comments

(Another note from Gary Presley, author of the Brevity essay Proselegy and Coda)

Funny things happen on the bumpy road from life to death, and being mauled by a grizzly bear would rank far down on my list of incidents to include in a memoir. But as part of a discussion group focused on creative nonfiction piece, I did read an interesting take on a bloody confrontation with Ursus arctos horribilis.

One member of the group asked, “Why do we read this stuff?” I knew what she meant. When I was a kid, I was a worry wart, and a kindly teacher once told me “Sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof,” which I learned later she borrowed from the Holy Carpenter.

But the question also made me realize that I believe reading for information and knowledge may be secondary in the human dynamic. I think we crave Story. I think we seek to fill the same need once expressed around campfires thousands of years ago – when we had nothing to protect ourselves from grizzly bears and other things intent on blood and slaughter but a flint-pointed stick.

The thing is, every person has more than one Story, and sometimes, at least for me, I write and rewrite and edit so much that I feel as I’m drifting away from those memories that comprise who I am. By that I mean the the internal narrative I relate to myself, the film strip that unwinds in memory as I subjectively reconstruct what happened.

I begin to think, “Is it a true internal narrative, at least in the sense that readers will understand as true.”

Hold on now — I’m not going to go all Peggy Seltzer on you.

The quality I am attempting to describe is more akin to remembrance. We humans are prone to back-construct a narrative, one often more dramatic than what actually occurred – primarily because we need a memory with which we can live without huddling in a corner crying.

I’m a forgiving sort, and so understanding all the foibles which plague our fragile psyches, I think most internal narratives may consist of both remembrance and amnesia, missing perhaps some things so deeply painful or guilt-inspiring or less-than-heroic that we cannot face, explain, or even understand.

Obviously then, if there is an internal narrative, there is a narrative constructed from outside perceptions.

There are people I know who look through the window into the zoo enclosure where this creature named Gary Presley lives, and they glimpse a beast far different from the one shining in its internal narrative. There are windows for my wife, for my brother, for his wife, for my one-time boss — for every person who knew me “when” and those who knew me “then.”

Like every other human being, I am a prism. No single person (call that person a “biographer,” or classify that person as yourself with the memoirist label) will ever be able to construct a complete and unbiased and entirely truthful narrative of a human life.

I suppose – no, let’s say “I have faith” – that there is be One Mystic Ultimate Truth, but there are many truths. The best we can do is to find the truest part of our own when we want to set down our world on paper.

Gary Presley

So, What Exactly Are They Smoking in Eugene, Oregon?

March 26, 2008 § 10 Comments

Or, Why You Should Never, Ever Send Your Children to School in Oregon.


While commentators elsewhere in the country were condemning [Peggy] Seltzer [and her fraudulent memoir, Love and Consequences,] for deceit and betrayal, the intellectuals of Eugene have been circling their academic wagons around her. So far, a professor of English and one of philosophy at the University of Oregon have put their prestige on the line with spirited public defenses of Seltzer’s moral right to lie. A teacher of memoir writing at Lane Community College has also been very sympathetic.

Linda S. Clare, the LCC memoir teacher, admits in a March 13 guest viewpoint that she herself advises her students to “embroider” their dull life stories with untruths.  [SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE, Dec. 2009]

Seltzer, she says, simply went too far. (Perhaps it should be noted here that Seltzer, who is white and was raised in middle class comfort, somehow passed herself off as a half-Native American, who was brought up by black foster parents in South Central Los Angeles where she ran drugs for the Bloods.)

“In my mind,” says Clare, “that doesn’t make the writing any less complex or beautiful. What I don’t know is what to call it.” While commentators elsewhere had no trouble in knowing what to call Seltzer’s book, Clare reluctantly concludes only that: “ ‘Love and Consequences’ probably can’t be a memoir.”

But Gordon Sayre, a professor of English at the UO, has no such ambivalence. Seltzer’s book, in his estimation, is a fine example of a memoir in the great American tradition.

“Since the early days of American literature,” writes Sayre in a March 9 guest viewpoint, “the boundaries between novel and autobiography have been indistinct, and readers have eagerly confounded them.”

Sayre’s point is that readers like to be duped by fantastic true life tales, and so what if they do? Who’s hurt by it, anyway?

Certainly not Sayre, whose Native American literature students at UO included Seltzer. The professor feels no resentment that his prized student fooled him with her memoir and snookered him with a class paper in which she fabricated a childhood on an Indian reservation.


REPLY:  In December 2009, Linda Clare responded to the blog with a comment, which we reprint here in its entirety, because fair is fair.  Though we at Brevity would still disagree with her limited definition of embroidery — even adding decorative details which the writer knew to be false would be dishonest under our definition — it does seem as if the  Eugene newspaper expanded some on Ms. Clare’s ideas.

Linda S. Clare
URL    :

I only just today came across the blog entry and the comments about Peggy Seltzer. For the record, I do not ever encourage my students or anyone else to “embroider with untruths.” My essay in fact, stated, “So I tell them (students) that in dramatizing a story, it’s sometimes necessary to embroider.”  The author’s embellishment of the word embroider certainly changed my intent, which was to say that one may “misremember,” details as a comment remarked, but to fabricate the event itself or change the intent of the story is not what a memoir should be.  I’m sorry if my remarks were misinterpreted.  In my mind, embroidery is the addition of details to the story.  An untruth is simply a lie.

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