Truth and Consequences
News of the latest case of a fabricating memoirist sent me to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
I wanted to see if Margaret Seltzer, a k a Margaret B. Jones, the 33-year-old author of Love and Consequences, fits the description of someone with "anti-social personality disorder," more commonly known as a sociopath.
Not being a mental health professional, and never having met Margaret Seltzer, I am hardly qualified to say that the young lady is a sociopath.
And far be it from me--especially in this integrity-challenged era of insta-pundits, citizen journalists, and reality show mavens turned lifestyle experts--to say that the editors at Riverhead Books are the innocent victims of a glib, manipulative, remorseless, lying sociopath in the body of Margaret Seltzer.
Yet it is worth considering some of that DSM description of anti-social, or sociopathic behavior, in the context of this situation. Key traits of such individuals include:
• Glibness and superficial charm.
• Manipulative and conning.
• Grandiose sense of self.
Feels entitled to certain things as their right.
• Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility.
Changes their image as needed to avoid prosecution;
changes life story readily.
Certainly, that final characteristic--"changes life story readily"--appears to apply to Seltzer/Jones, a young woman who managed to fool a lot of smart, important people: her book editor, Sarah McGrath at Riverhead, publisher of Love and Consequences; her agent; a former writing teacher; the publicity folks at Riverhead; and some big-league journalists.
The memoir--a hard-luck story of growing up in a "gang family" in South Central Los Angeles--received a wet-kiss review February 26 from New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, and from other book critics as well. Seltzer/Jones sold the "memoir" as a thrill-a-minute story of shooting, drug dealing, and gang-bangin' as lived by a half-white, half-Native American girl who was abandoned shortly after birth and taken in at age 8-and-a-half by a generous black South Central woman known as "Big Mom."
But after the Times published a bittersweet profile of Seltzer/Jones in its Home and Garden section February 28, the truth came out. Cyndi Hoffman phoned Riverhead, identified herself as the sister of "Margaret B. Jones" and disclosed that Jones was really Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer, the daughter of a well-to-do-family in the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks.
In the days since that fateful call, we've seen a whirl of news coverage. Absent so far, though, is any meaningful analysis of how and why the book publishing community (and McGrath and her crew in particular) managed to fall so hard for an untested writer with a story that unquestionably hinges on a set of cultural stereotypes and tropes that are--let's face it--sensational and potentially explosive.
Love and Consequences is not the first nonfiction book to traffic in these hoary images, and probably not the first delivered by a writer with anti-social personality disorder. Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member, by an imprisoned former gang-leader Sanyika Shakur, a k a "Monster Cody Scott," for example, was published by Atlantic Monthly books in 1993 to decent reviews.
But the prevailing narrative of the Love and Consequences hoax told by book industry insiders, including McGrath, the seemingly wronged editor, and Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief at Publisher's Weekly describes a horrible situation that they describe as sadly unavoidable.
"It's very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and we felt such sympathy for her and she would talk about how she didn't have any money or any heat and we completely bought into that and thought we were doing something good by bringing her story to light," McGrath told the New York Times on March 4.
A Times follow-up story reported that McGrath never actually met the author before the book was published, but that Seltzer/Jones had "provided what she said were photographs of her foster siblings, a letter from a gang leader corroborating her story and had introduced her agent, Faye Bender, to a person who claimed to be a foster sister." Bender told the Times that "there was no reason to doubt her, ever." Maybe from Bender's seat there was no reason to doubt. But McGrath and others at Riverhead have some serious explaining to do. Barely two years ago, A Million Little Pieces, a similarly shocking "memoir" of drugging and hard-luck living by James Frey, was found to be mostly fabricated, too, a belated disclosure that led many editors at mainstream houses to make a lot of honorable-sounding statements about ensuring truth and accuracy.
Unlike Frey, who had embellished his life story significantly, Seltzer/Jones apparently made up her entire story, which was never exposed during the three-year process of writing the book. How did this happen, especially in the still-hot light of the Frey scandal?
Could it be as simple as a case of innocent victims--the editor, the agent, the writing teacher--being duped by one sociopathic young lady?
Maybe. But it also may also be true that when it comes to a hard-luck gang story, McGrath, Bender and others involved in the publication of Love and Consequences were more inclined to err on the side of sensationalism and exploitation over the hard work of grooming an author who might give readers genuine authenticity. And it is more than a bit ironic that their apparent quest for vividly told ghetto authenticity led them to nurture and promote a white woman writer whose story, even if it were true, represented only a one-dimensional version of the Authentic Black Experience.
This is not the first time that white, upper-middle class gatekeepers at a mainstream media outfit have been undone by their lust for an "authentic" ghetto experience told by an insider with an entré into the deep, scary recesses of the inner city. (Even Jayson Blair, the infamous fabulist at the New York Times, admitted playing on the ignorance and unseemly attachment to ghetto tropes that some of his editors displayed.)
So while a small part of my heart goes out to McGrath for getting hoodwinked, she and the other publishing types who enabled this latest fiasco are not innocent victims, even if it turns out that Seltzer/Jones is indeed a sociopath. It boggles the mind to learn that even the author's false claim of earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon went unexposed, despite the relative ease of nailing down that bit of information. Have they ever heard of Google? Had they ever thought to check her "street cred" with, I don't know, cops or journalists on the ground in Los Angeles?
A day after the Love and Consequences story broke, I phoned Celeste Fremon, a former writer at the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and senior fellow at the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC. Fremon also runs an initiative for current and former gang members called the Homeboys Story Project, a writing program designed to help kids understand that, as she says, "their voices are worth something." Of course, Fremon is steaming over Seltzer/Jones's hoax. There are many true stories of blood-soaked gang lives, retribution and redemption, out there in the streets of East and South Central LA. But for some reason, she notes, some book editors can't help but opt for a tale told by a "guide who looks like them" over a story told by a truly authentic but untested writer.
"Why do they keep falling for it? Because it is like an adventure, a kind of 'safari' experience for them," she said. "We like a guide who is familiar," Fremon, who is white, added dryly. She is also, by the way, author of a nonfiction book, G-Dog and the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles, about local Catholic priest who met Latino gang members where and how they lived.
A prepackaged narrator of a supposedly authentic, inner-city story is too seductive for editors ensconced in far-off East Coast publishing houses to pass up.
It is also a recipe ripe for exploitation, whether by a curly-haired, middle-class white guy like James Frey, or by a young woman whose secondary education took place at an exclusive San Fernando Valley private school such as the one reportedly attended by Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer.
The publishing industry has a lot of work to do, beginning with its editor pipeline. The best, first step toward not being taken in by another James Frey or Margaret B. Jones is to have acquisition editors who either know enough about "urban settings" to spot a liar, or who have enough sense to get on a damned airplane and check out a potentially exploitable story themselves.