Legally Speaking: The Memoirs Are Fake, But The Lawsuits Are Real

John G. Browning Mar. 4, 2009, 8:48am

Remember the old saying "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story?"

It seems that many of the authors popping up on the bestseller lists for supposed nonfiction are all too well-acquainted with that phrase, judging by the rate at which "memoirs" of overcoming drugs, alcohol abuse, or surviving serious trauma and even the Holocaust are being exposed as fraud.

Remember James Frey, once Oprah's fair-haired boy? His 2006 book "A Million Little Pieces" practically spawned a million little lawsuits when it was revealed that the book was rife with embellishments and outright fabrications (example – Frey's book goes into great detail about his three-month-long stint in prison and the horrors he witnessed there; in reality, Frey spent a total of three hours in jail).

The revelations resulted in a public shaming on Oprah's show, loss of credibility for Frey, and multiple lawsuits against Doubleday, Frey's publisher. Doubleday insisted that subsequent editions of the book feature an "Author's Note" from Frey explaining the scandal as well as a "Publisher's Note" in which Doubleday apologized to readers, noting "We bear a responsibility for what we publish."

If you thought the public shame and legal backlash would make publishers more wary of such hoaxes, you'd be wrong. Last year, the book "Love and Consequences" was pulled from bookstores by its publisher Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin Group USA).

What some reviewers called " a humane and deeply affecting memoir" about a half-white, half-Native American girl raised in south-central Los Angeles by a black foster mother led others to doubt the account.

One person who had a hard time believing Margaret B. Jones' tale of growing up in poverty and selling drugs for a local gang was Margaret's sister, Cyndi Hoffman.

After reading an article about Margaret in The New York Times, Cyndi blew the whistle on her. She called the publisher and revealed that "Margaret B. Jones" was actually Margaret Seltzer, a white woman who grew up in a well-to-do Sherman Oaks family and attended tony private schools.

Faced with the truth, the 33-year-old Seltzer admitted fabricating the book, but maintains that she did it solely to draw attention to the problems of gang violence in L.A. She told The New York Times, "I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don't listen to."

Riverhead Books responded by cancelling Seltzer's bookstore and media appearances, and by recalling copies of her book that had already been shipped. Her editor, Sarah McGrath, described the revelation about the book being a fake as a "huge personal and professional betrayal."

Riverhead, in turn, maintained that it "relies on authors to tell us the truth. Indeed, an author promises us the truth in their publishing agreement."

But shouldn't publishers do a better job of fact-checking before releasing a book? After all, newspapers and magazines routinely fact-check articles, and usually under considerably stricter time pressures than book publishers encounter.

And what about aspects of a story that raise red flags about its veracity – such as an author's claim that she was raised by wolves?

That apparently didn't create any doubts among the publishers of the 1997 memoir "Misha: a Memoir of the Holocaust Years" written by "Misha Defonseca."

"Misha's" book told the story of a child who survived the Holocaust, killed a German officer in self-defense, walked 3,000 miles across Europe in search of her parents and lived with a pack of wolves. The book became a best seller, was translated into 18 languages, and even inspired a French feature film.

Unfortunately in 2008 the Belgian-born, U.S.-raised author (real name: Monique de Wael) admitted that she hadn't undertaken the travels she described, hadn't lived with wolves to escape the Nazis – and in fact wasn't even Jewish!

Sometimes, fake memoirs don't just result in lawsuits from betrayed readers but also lead to litigation from people directly affected by the books' skewed accounts. In November 2008, British author and lawyer Constance Briscoe found herself in court as the defendant in a libel suit brought by her mother.

It all stemmed from Briscoe's book "Ugly," a harrowing tale of childhood emotional and physical abuse. The 51-year-old Briscoe, the child of Jamaican immigrants, grew up in an impoverished part of London; "Ugly" recounts episodes of beatings, starvation, cigarette burns, and other trauma culminating in being abandoned at the age of 13.

Briscoe went on to become a lawyer and one of the first black female judges in the country. After selling a half million copies of "Ugly," Briscoe wrote a sequel, "Beyond Ugly."

The accounts of cruelty and abuse were disputed by the author's mother, 74-year-old Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell. Mitchell sued her daughter and the publisher Hodder & Stoughton, maintaining that the abuse allegations were "nonsense" and that they were "a very happy family."

Although Mitchell pointed to the absence of any formal complaints to police, social service workers or teachers, Briscoe's attorney claims that medical records, tax records, and other documents support his client's claims of "sustained cruelty."

Be forewarned, parents: last week's spanking may be creatively "remembered" years from now as part of a tell-all memoir.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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