When Riverhead Books yanked Margaret B. Jones’s fabricated memoir Love and Consequences from the market in early March, the literary world surged with all the usual anxieties of quality control. Should nonfiction authors submit to fact-checking protocols, as magazine writers routinely do? And if so, how can editors and writers collaborate closely under the assumption that the submitting writer may well be a charlatan? How can editors–let alone readers–reasonably expect to encounter anything resembling “the truth” on a printed page, anyway?
Lost amid such tail-chasing reveries is what you might call the demand side of the struggle for authenticity in the literary genre of memoir. As observers fret over how it is that a major house like Riverhead could be gulled by a scheming prevaricator, it seems at least as worthwhile to ask what makes fictions such as Love and Consequences so compelling to publishing professionals in the first place.
You can glean a bit of this appeal by reviewing the facts of the memoir’s exposure. In late February, Jones (whose real name is Margaret Seltzer) sat for a gushing profile in the New York Times‘s “House and Home” section. After the profile ran, Seltzer’s sister outed her as not the hardened half-white, half-Native American South Central gangbanger she claimed to be but rather as a privileged daughter of Sherman Oaks, a tony section of LA, who graduated from North Hollywood’s Campbell Hall, the same Episcopalian Day School that had incubated the Olsen twins. These revelations sat awkwardly alongside the profile, which burbled that Jones was “a consummate storyteller and analyst of inner-city pathology”; an accompanying online slideshow supplied a bit of gender essentialism for good measure, noting that “unlike several other recent gang memoirs, all written by men, Ms. Jones’s story is told from a nurturer’s point of view.”
Such effusions were nothing, though, compared with the critical judgments of Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who marveled at how the book showcased a “novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines.” And even though the book’s gritty depictions of gangland squalor in South Central can “feel self-consciously novelistic at times,” Kakutani wrote, Jones nonetheless does “an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood…both the brutal realities of a place where children learn to sleep on the floor to avoid the random bullets that might come smashing through the windows and walls at night, and the succor offered by family and friends.”
Such plaudits–echoed widely among the book’s initial reviewers–show that, content aside, Love and Consequences had hit the memoirist sweet spot: here was a wrenching narrative of personal triumph over adversity, pitching a tough but sentimental ingenue against the lurid doings of a cruel, dangerous world. The formula, indeed, was right there in the book’s subtitle: A Memoir of Hope and Survival.
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The twin poles of extremity in suffering and the quiet grace of self-deliverance are the lodestars of the memoir industry, regardless of the truth value of any particular entrant. A glance back at recently exposed fakes shows the same basic story line: The trio of anguished memoirs published under the name Nasdijj, a supposed transient Native American who turned out to be a frustrated middle-aged white writer named Tim Barrus; the streetwise sagas of alleged young-gay-hustler-on-the-make J.T. Leroy, who turned out to be novelist Laura Albert; and, of course, James Frey, whose publisher Nan A. Talese was burned by the many fabrications in his 2003 Oprah-anointed memoir A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s next publisher, Riverhead, was left to do some shamefaced cleanup work, issuing the no-less empirically challenged sequel, My Friend Leonard, as fiction while quietly canceling a contract for Frey to write a novel with the house, even though fiction was all that Frey had any demonstrated aptitude for.
Bogus Holocaust memoirs form a whole subset of the genre: Misha, a harrowing account of childhood exile during World War II, was not the story of the nonexistent Misha Defonseca but rather the handiwork of Monique De Wael, the orphaned daughter of two members of the Belgian resistance; Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments, meanwhile, was a gruesome flight of fancy concocted by a Swiss writer named Bruno Doessekker; a woman named Laurel Wilson impersonated a Holocaust survivor named Laura Grabowski in a memoir while also pursuing a lucrative sideline as a memoirist named Lauren Stratford, who cashed in on the great Satanic ritual abuse scare of the 1990s with unspeakable abuse at the hands of pornographers and devil worshipers.
It doesn’t take long, in the overcharged narrative of Love and Consequences, to see how seamlessly Seltzer fits into this tradition of the highly personalized, ever-lurid appropriation of the Other. The book opens with an author’s note throwing down the gauntlet of linguistic authenticity: “My words and views were learned in the dirt and desolation of South Central Los Angeles,” Seltzer announces in a flourish that seems equal parts Oprah and Mickey Spillane. “You will see that reflected in the language and vision of the book”–a vision that includes the frequent use of ghetto slang that otherwise sounds jarring from the pen of a white writer, and the seemingly random interpolation of “k”s for “c”s in much of the book’s quoted dialogue. “I choose to write as we chose to speak in the world of my childhood,” she writes portentously. “A world where Bloods and Crips have such a deep-seated hatred for each other that Bloods smoke bigarettes and Crips celebrate C-days rather than B-days (birthdays).” What all this has to do with Seltzer’s own K-centric alphabet abuse isn’t clear, but it doesn’t much matter, either: she has brandished the calling card of authenticity, and we, like her Riverhead editor, are meant to take her at her word.
From there on out, the sordid victimization comes fast and furious: an opening set piece introduces, then violently dispatches, one of Seltzer’s alleged gang mentors, an OG (or “original ganster,” as the ever didactic Seltzer notes) named Kraziak, whose legacy includes this signature bit of Cagneyesque advice to the narrator: “Be true to the game, live by her rules, and she will always bless you.” Then, to seal Seltzer’s hermetic claims to victimhood, we are taken back to the episode that launched her bumpy tour through the foster-care system of greater Los Angeles: a kindergarten interview with a social worker that strongly suggests that the narrator has been sexually abused by her father. As for her early career as a foster child, well, that was some authentic suffering. Not only was there all manner of abuse–“physical, mental, and sexual”–but also rampant theft and virtual starvation: at one foster home, “we would devour anything on the table and where there was not enough, the mother would tell us to break open the chicken bones and eat the marrow.”
But this ghastly deprivation stops when she’s finally transferred to the foster family who raised her from the age of 8 onward: a plucky clan headed up by a soulful South Central Earth Mother named Evelyn, who for the course of the book goes by the far more apt name Big Mom. This maternalist whirlwind is raising a quartet of grandkids while working a number of thankless low-wage service jobs, cleaning downtown office buildings and tending the offspring of white suburban families. She also has very large, all-embracing arms and a penchant for broad gestures and down-South speechifying that seems more at home in the world of Porgy and Bess than Boyz n the Hood: “I need help, Lord. I need help. This ain the world I knew. She shook her head slowly in disbelief, wiping at her eyes with a kerchief. I don’t kno what ta do. Please, Lord, guide me. Momma’s shoulders collapsed under her burdens and she started to cry hard, head down on the table, one hand held up to God.”
The source of Big Mom’s duress is the wayward path taken by her two eldest grandsons, Terrell and Taye, both of whom are eager recruits to Blood gang membership–and they, too, are largely creatures of black melodrama central casting. Here, for instance, is Terrell, back from his first jail term, contemplating the burdens of his impending fatherhood: “I done gave up on the whole family thing long ago. I mean I tried an tried again when I first got out. Y’all prolly hate me, but I jus hit this point where I got sikk of all Momma’s hypocritical shyt, all the demands. I just figured that karin bout people was a bitch and I get all I need from the block and the homeboys.”
It’s this sort of rudderless projection–the use of slapdash characters as pop-up message-delivery systems–that makes Love and Consequences actively offensive rather than just another installment in the nation’s ongoing sick love affair with exhibitionists in print and on the screen. For Seltzer’s claim to a special, privileged knowledge–I lived it, man–ultimately hinges upon surrounding herself with pasteboard African-Americans, who mouth (and gesture) well-worn pieties and hard-bitten gang slogans with equally careless aplomb. Any competent editorial review of the book manuscript would have turned up numerous factual discrepancies that should have been cause for alarm. For example, Seltzer sloppily transplants the gang argot of a later time–“trippin,” “that’s wack” and “punk ass nigga”–into the mouths of elementary school kids in the early 1980s. She also garbles the book’s chronology at key points–referring, for instance, to a never previously specified series of kitchen crack-production sessions with Taye and Terrell, who would then have been no older than 14 and 9, largely for the sake of setting up a no-more plausible episode where she cooks up the drug to pay off an overdue water bill. But the real scandal of Love and Consequences isn’t so much the fact that its author is a liar: it’s that she trafficked so skillfully in lies the literary establishment desperately wants to be told about the racial character of our common life.