10 Autobiographies That Were Totally Bogus
What drives someone to pass off a lie as the truth? This seems to happen all the time in the publishing world, but rather than burn itself out, each successive hoax just reaffirms that another one is just around the corner. At this point, dozens of authors have been found out as liars, men and women who published autobiographies filled with pain, despair and triumphant resilence that turned out to be pure hogwash. Maybe they worried that amateurishly telling a trashy story would relegate them to the remainder bin, so they opted to sell their story as truth. Whatever the authors’ reasons, the autobiographies below were made out of whole cloth. Read them if you want, but know that you’re in for a fictional journey.
- Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, Margaret B. Jones: Margaret B. Jones earned loads of sympathy upon the release of her memoir, Love and Consequences, which detailed her experiences growing up as a half-white, half-Native American foster child in Los Angeles. The book told of her social isolation and struggle to fit in, all of which led her to join the Bloods and run afoul of the law in South Central. There’s just one catch: none of it was real. Jones’s real name is Margaret Seltzer, she’s fully white, and she grew up in Sherman Oaks, a nice little suburb of the San Fernando Valley. She also attended Campbell Hall, a private Episcopalian school in North Hollywood, which is about as far from the gang life of South Central L.A. as it sounds. She even scored a nice review from The New York Times before her fraud was uncovered when her own sister called the publisher and told them the truth. Thanksgiving was probably awkward that year.
- Angel on the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, Herman Rosenblat: This one didn’t even make it to print before it was discovered to be a fiction. Herman Rosenblat’s book revolved around his youth spent in the Buchenwald prison camp in the Holocaust, and how a local girl would pose as a Christian and meet him at the fence to give him food. Her charity kept him alive until the war ended and he was released, and he lost track of the girl until fate brought them together years later on a blind date, at which point they discovered their shared history. It’s a textbook tearjerker, and even before the book came out, the film rights had been optioned and the tale had earned the praise of Oprah Winfrey, who never, ever gets caught peddling fake or misleading books, right?. The trouble is it’s totally a lie. Rosenblat did survive the Holocaust, but everything else about the story just isn’t true. His tale crumbled when Holocaust scholars — of which there are, you know, a few — started doing basic fact-checking and came to the conclusion that there’s no way his story could have happened. As a result, the planned February 2009 publication was canceled the December before.
- A Million Little Pieces, James Frey: Perhaps the most infamous author ever to swindle Oprah, James Frey was heralded for his honesty and skill in writing A Million Little Pieces, a harrowing tale of his drug addiction and subsequent attempt to get clean. The book was released in 2003 but didn’t gather steam until September 2005, when Oprah selected it as a book club pick for her viewers. In January 2006, The Smoking Gun released a report detailing the way Frey had manufactured his story. In an attempt to save face, Oprah invited Frey back on her show for a public smackdown in which she took him to task for lying to the nation. He did not get a free Pontiac.
- The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, Nasdijj: This 2000 autobiography was the first in a series of memoirs in which Nasdijj wrote about his dysfunctional childhood, Navajo heritage, and the abuse he suffered as a young boy. It was followed by The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping in 2003 and Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me in 2004. His stories followed his life as he grew up and eventually adopted a child with fetal alcohol syndrome and another who was HIV-positive. You know where this is going. In January 2006, around the time the Frey story was breaking, L.A. Weekly published a report revealing that Nasdijj was just some guy named Tim Barrus with an ex-wife, a current wife, and a penchant for freelancing as the author of gay S&M fiction. The ensuing Esquire takedown makes for fascinating reading.
- Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, Misha Defonseca: Published in 1997, this fake autobiography dipped again into the Holocaust well, which, along with drug addiction, is one of the most popular sources of inspiration for phony memoir writers. Author Misha Defonseca writes of surviving the Holocaust and then wandering across Europe to find her parents, and at one point she apparently lived with a pack of wolves. In February 2008, after years of skeptics questioning her authenticity, Misha revealed that her real name was Monique de Wael, and that she wasn’t Jewish, and in fact her parents were Catholics and had been taken by Nazis for being part of the Belgian Resistance. The book had received its fair share of adoring press when it came out, but that all disappeared when people learned how unbalanced and deceptive de Wael had been.
- Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, Binjamin Wilkomirski: Binjamin Wilkomirski’s manufactured life story started catching heat the same time as de Wael’s did; he just got caught more quickly. Originally published in 1995, Fragments detailed the author’s childhood in the Holocaust as he is shuttled to labor camps and eventually wins liberation, only to spend the rest of his life trying to assemble an accurate portrait of what happened. It only took a few years for the truth to be revealed. The author’s name was an identity assumed by Bruno Dosekker, born Bruno Grosjean, who cooked up the whole thing.
- The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, Clifford Irving: Clifford Irving’s insane plan to co-author a fake autobiography for Howard Hughes was so shocking it inspired a film about the events 35 years later. Irving, desperate to boost his career, claimed to have co-authored the autobiography of the reclusive billionaire. He got further than he probably expected, but eventually Hughes stepped forward and revealed the hoax before the book went to print. Irving spent 17 months in prison on a fraud conviction, but was able to find the silver lining by writing a book about the whole ordeal. (This would have seemed to be the easier plan all along, but whatever.)
- A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story, Anthony Godby Johnson: Anthony Godby Johnson’s autobiography detailed his horrific childhood of sexual abuse and his realization at age 11 that he was HIV-positive. His point person for public contact was Vicki Johnson, his adoptive mother, but investigations into the veracity of the story revealed a major problem: not only was the story not true, there wasn’t even an Anthony. No one — agent, editor — had actually seen Anthony, they’d just dealt with Vicki. Keith Olbermann hired a private eye who found that Vicki had invented the story herself. Armistead Maupin, who’d praised the book and lent his name to a critical blurb, was so disillusioned by the experience that he wrote The Night Listener, a novel about a radio host taken in by the manufactured stories of a boy who claims to have AIDS.
- The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter: The Education of Little Tree follows Forrest "Little Tree" Carver, a Cherokee boy in the early 20th century who learns about life from his grandparents. He resists the ways of the Western world and only attends a residential school for a few months before breaking out. The catch: Forrest Carter was the manufactured identity of Asa Earl Carter, a raging white supremacist and Klansman who worked at one point as a speechwriter for George Wallace. Carter’s one of two men credited with crafting Wallace’s slogan, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Peachy guy. He took on the Forrest mantle when he began his literary career, and though he died in 1979, the word about his fabrications eventually got out.
- Cradle of the Deep, Joan Lowell: Born in 1902, Joan Lowell was an actress in silent films before becoming a reporter in Massachusetts and New York. In 1929, she published Cradle of the Deep, an autobiography in which she recounted growing up at sea with her father, a ship’s captain. She wrote of living on the boat until she was 17, adventuring around the globe with the sailors until the ship caught fire one night three miles off the coast of Australia. Lowell wrote that she swam to shore with a family of kittens holding onto her back. (This is probably where most people smelled the lie.) The epic story was, predictably, utter fiction, and debunked not long after it came a best-seller. It’s somehow reassuring to know that these kinds of fakes are nothing new. Now if only we’d get better at spotting them.