This summer I spent a couple of weeks in a bookshop in Paris called Shakespeare & Company, under the vague pretence of ‘work experience’. I spent most of my time reading books and walking the owner’s dog. They hold an annual literary festival and this year’s theme was ‘Real lives; exploring memoir and biography.’ Famous (and not so famous) writers and journalists came and spoke about the fact that the books they write aren’t completely true, and that sometimes memoirs aren’t really memoirs at all.
Obviously it’s near impossible to write a memoir that isn’t at all distorted by weakness of memory (no one can re-create word for word a conversation they had thirty years ago, for instance) and again it’s clear that most people, when writing a book about themselves, won’t be completely honest about what they’ve said or done. I know I wouldn’t be, but then a completely true book about my life wouldn’t exactly be a best seller… Yet. But there are some people out there whose ‘memoirs’ and ‘biographies’ are just utter bullshit.
Binjamin Wilkomirski wrote a moving memoir called ‘Fragments’, a heartbreaking tale about his childhood growing up in Auschwitz. Written from the viewpoint of a very young Jewish boy, the book instantly became a success (everyone loves a good holocaust read) and won several awards, including the National Jewish Book Award in the US. But shockingly it turned out that Wilkomirski was in fact a Swiss citizen, called Bruno Doessehker who had never even visited a concentration camp. In another case, an American woman named Margret B Jones published ‘Love and Consequences’, a gang memoir supposedly written by a half-white, half native-American woman raised as a foster child by a black family in a deprived area of LA. Again, this turned out to be another neatly constructed sob-story. The writer was in reality a white Marget Selzter, born and raised in Sherman Oaks, part of LA’s prosperous suburbia.
James Frey is a more famous example of this literary fraud. The author of ‘A Million Little Pieces’ and ‘My Friend Leonard’, both autobiographical novels, Frey has become an international bestseller with his books translated into 31 languages. Frey was accused of lying in his books and was scrutinised for exaggerating certain ‘facts’ in his memoirs. When he was first charged with writing inaccurately he just dug himself in deeper by stating, “The only things that I changed were aspects of people that might reveal their identity. Otherwise, it’s all true.” Really James Frey? Really? Oprah got involved, and it came to light that when Frey had written that he’s been jailed for 87 days for driving under intoxication, he had actually been held at a police station for five hours tops and got away with a few hundred dollar fine for minor charges. His books were full of these ‘small’ changes. Drama queen.
The most elaborate of all lying authors award has to go to J T Leroy, the master of all literary hoaxes. J T LeRoy wrote horrible and disturbing books about his experiences of child abuse and being pimped out across the south of the US as a cross dressing prostitute. These books sold terrifyingly well (I can’t account for why) yet no one had ever seen LeRoy in person. He only ever gave interviews via the phone or email and obviously this began to accrue suspicion. It was eventually discovered that far from being a young victim of a horrific childhood and years of sexual abuse, resulting in a disturbed and transgendered genius, the writer was in fact a forty-year-old woman called Laura Albert. To keep journalists off the track, she had employed her sister in law to wear a wig and sunglasses and present herself as the elusive LeRoy at public appearances. This disguise had convinced LeRoy’s agent, manager and movie producer, as well as several journalists, for years. I’m not sure how you’d even go about asking your sister in law to do this for you. “You know how you look a bit like a transsexual prostitute? Well, I was wondering if you could do me a favour…” When you read the stories it’s hard to say what’s more worrying, the actual stories, or the fact that they’re not real and someone’s imagination could be so twisted.
The literary hoax isn’t new or anything, people have been writing fiction and calling it fact for years. In the 18th century a teenage poet called Thomas Chatterlon got his work published as that of a 15th century monk. In America, writing schools have whole departments called ‘creative non-fiction’. One side-effect of autobiographies being exposed as lies is their fan base feel personally betrayed. But realistically, they all wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies had they admitted their stories were fiction; people love a good sob-story. There is even an entire shelving section in W H Smith’s devoted to ‘tragic life stories’. It’s forgivable though, as the insane stories behind the story only add to its intrigue.
The complete inversion of the trend in ‘real life fiction’ is O J Simpsons notorious book, “If I Did It”, written after being acquitted for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman. The announcement of Simpson’s plans release the book caused heated debate across America, with the families of the deceased outraged that Simpson could make money from their loss. However in 2007 the rights for the book were passed to the Goldman family, who then published it so that the world could know the truth. “I DID IT” is emblazoned across the cover, with “if” in a much smaller font inside the “I”. It seems they don’t mind profit being made from their tragedy as long as they’re the ones benefitting.
Don’t always trust what you read; just because it’s been printed doesn’t make it the truth.