by Rachel Stone
Most people don’t have lives that make interesting memoirs. But change your name, background, or significant plot details, and the narrative gets more compelling: Janet Smith, a white woman from an upper middle-class background in a Boston suburb occasionally working as a babysitter and Lyft driver in between shifts as a non-employee at one of the less disreputable viral aggregators, becomes Lorde Winters, an Inuit woman who, after climate change destroyed her village in Greenland, came to sunny Los Angeles, where she found work as a hotel maid and eventually as a nanny for a Los Angeles family made wealthy by their vast pornography empire, the subject of her tell-all book.
The most recent memoir to follow this bullshit blueprint is Primates of Park Avenue, but Wednesday Martin is far from the first author to write plot holes “big enough to drive an Escalade through.” Can’t remember if a book is true or not? Come, enter the compendium of bullshit.
Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven
Premise: If readers look to literature to explain questions of mortality and existence, Alexander’s Proof of Heaven delivers all that with a neurosurgeon’s credentials. Written as memoir, Proof tells how the author, a doctor, fell into a coma from spontaneous E. coli bacterial meningitis, and during that brief lapse of consciousness, went to Heaven.
Bullshit: While the existence of an afterlife has yet to be thoroughly debunked, much of Alexander’s claims — including his assertion that he was completely brain-dead for a week and his omission of being placed into a medically induced coma — have not stood up to scrutiny. And Heaven in general might need a fact checker? Alex Malarkey, the quadriplegic car-accident survivor and author of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven admitted on his personal blog: “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” Sixteen-year-old Malarkey reached out to the media after his book had been making money for the evangelical publishing. (The author of Heaven is For Real, Colton Burpo, maintains that heaven is not malarkey and he did in fact travel there.)
David Brooks, The Road to Character
In 1950, the Gallup Organization apparently asked high school seniors: “Are you a very important person?” And in 1950, twelve percent of high school seniors said yes. They asked the same question again in 2005; this time it wasn’t twelve percent, it was eighty percent. David Brooks uses this statistic in almost all of his lectures, interviews, and T.V. spots, and his recently released book, The Road to Character.
Bullshit: Or was it 1989? 2001? Brooks doesn’t seem to be sure. When David Zweig investigated in a Salon article, he found that Brooks would frequently merge the dates he mentioned, or cite the same poll but with different numbers. “Nearly every detail in this passage,” writes Zweig, “is wrong.”
James Frey, A Million Little Pieces
Premise: Alcoholic, addict and self-professed criminal James Frey wrote a searing and honest memoir about his journey to redemption. This memoir, spanning Frey’s junkie past and continuing into his time in rehab, garnered the attention of Oprah Winfrey; with the help of her publicity, A Million Little Pieces sold over 3.5 million copies.
Bullshit: In 2006, James Frey was caught by the investigative site The Smoking Gun; journalists had attempted to find his mugshot and were not able to, and after some searching they realized that Frey exaggerated much of the book. Many of his claims, like being arrested fourteen times, assaulting a cop, and being in jail for three months when he was only there for a few hours, were fudged. He came clean to Oprah, who publicly flayed him on her show.
Margaret B. Jones, aka Margaret Seltzer, Love and Consequences
Premise: Jones tells the story of her life as a half white half Native-American girl living in a foster home in a gritty L.A. neighborhood, where she experienced tragedy, poverty, and was recruited to run drugs for the Bloods.
Bullshit: Margaret B. Jones was really Margaret Seltzer, who was known by her friends as Peggy. She had apparently been living with her caucasian biological family in the wealthy San Fernando Valley and attended a private Episcopal day school during the time she was purportedly gangbanging. Seltzer had used the narratives she heard from her experience doing anti-gang community outreach to inform her “memoir.”
Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works
Premise:In his wildly successful book, Lehrer included a lost Bob Dylan quote, “It’s a hard thing to describe…It’s just this sense that you got something to say,” to elaborate his thesis on creativity.
Bullshit: Dylan never said this at all. Beyond revealing how Lehrer invented this quote, investigations of his work uncovered Lehrer’s self-plagiarism, ordinary plagiarism, recycling, altering quotations, and factual inaccuracies. These lapses in journalistic ethics prompted NYU professor Charles Siefe to write, after an investigation for Wired and published on Slate: “Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood.” (And he still does!)
JT “Terminator” LeRoy, aka Laura Albert
Premise: JT LeRoy surfaced on the San Francisco writing scene with a backstory that rivaled his fiction: as New York reported, he was a “teenage hustler who’d been pimped out as a cross-dressed prostitute by his mother at truck stops throughout the South, until he landed on the streets of San Francisco in the early-to-mid-nineties” and published the bestselling novel Sarah. He was often shy in public readings, and if he appeared, he did so in a wig, glasses, and a fedora.
Bullshit: Despite LeRoy’s high profile supporters (Denis Cooper, Mary Karr, Sharon Olds, and Mary Gaitskill among them), LeRoy was revealed to actually be the forty-year-old writer Laura Albert. LeRoy had spoken about Albert indirectly during his interviews; LeRoy ostensibly wrote the lyrics for the band Thistle, whose bandmates use pseudonyms themselves. Astor, the lead guitarist of Thistle, was a stage name for Geoffrey Koop; his wife Laura Albert was known as Speedie. In public performances, Albert enlisted Geoffrey Koop’s half-sister, an aspiring actress, to play LeRoy in full disguise.
Wednesday Martin, Primates of Park Avenue
Premise: Martin’s recently released exposé of Upper East Side stay-at-home moms was noted for its anthropological insight into the world of elite preschools and the ‘wife bonus,’ a year-end bonus wealthy husbands dole out to their wives depending on good performance.
According to an article in the New York Post, many details, including the number of years Martin claimed to be living on the UES (three years, not six, as the book claimed), early aughts-set conversations about Uber, and the macaron company Ladurée (both of which only came to New York in 2011) were less than true. On the topic of the wife bonus itself, Martin called bullshit on herself and backpedaled, telling New York: “I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread. It was just one of the many strange-seeming cultural practices that some women told me about.”
Joseph Mitchell: New Yorker Profiles
Premise: New Yorker
writer Joseph Mitchell was legendary for creating exquisite portraits of oddball New Yorkers like Joe Gould, a homeless man living in Greenwich Village writing the Oral History of the Contemporary World, old Mr. Hugh G. Flood, and Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, a ninety-two-year-old gypsy king.
According to Thomas Kunkel’s biography of Joseph Mitchell, most of his famous characters, Hugh G. Flood and Nikanov among them, were either composites of multiple characters or complete fabrications. Mr. Flood turned out to be several men telescoped into one, and Joe Gould’s oral history was never fully written. The New Republic review of Kunkel’s biography relates Mitchell’s confession to the New Yorker in-house attorney: “Insofar as the principal character is concerned, the gypsy king himself, it is a work of imagination. Cockeye Johnny Nikanov does not exist in real life, and never did.”
Not that any of this matters, Janet Malcolm argues: “…we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. … His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.”
Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time
Premise: In 2006, activist and c0-creator of Central Asia Institute Greg Mortenson wrote a book detailing how, through his efforts, CAI created over sixty schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book details how Mortenson, weak from climbing K2, found refuge with the citizens of the Pakistani village of Korphe, and, after they helped him rebuild his strength, he promised to repay the village by building them a school — as well as other stories that cast Mortenson as a hero.
In 2011, 60 Minutes exposed Mortenson and his co-author David Oliver Relin for fabricating much of the narrative, and outed Mortenson for using the money from his charity on his own travel expenses. According to an article in the Washington Post, “his book turned out to contain large-scale fabrications. Some of the schools he boasted of had no students. Some appeared not to have been built at all.” Even his origin story proved improbable; according to Jon Krakaur’s exposé Three Cups of Deceit, Mortenson would not be able to have wandered from K2 to Korphe, as the geographic location would make it impossible to get to without first arriving at Mortenson’s original destination.
Nasdjjj, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams + The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping
: Nasdjjj’s memoir spans twenty short, novelette-like chapters and details his childhood of domestic abuse, alcoholic parents, homelessness, and life around Indian reservations. An excerpt of this, detailing the story of his adopted, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome-ridden son, was published in Esquire to great acclaim, and launched Nasdjjj’s career.
In a very Rachel Dolezal twist, the Native American Nasdjjj was actually Timothy Barrus from Lansing, Michigan, an Anglo-Saxon protestant, middle-class writer of gay pornography. Barrus turned to the character of Nasdjjj after Barrus’ other journalistic ventures were rejected by publishers. As he told Esquire in their 2006 expose on the “story of a fraud,” he chose “nasdjjj” because word itself means “to become again.”
Herman Rosenblat: Angel At the Fence, the True Story of a Love That Survived
Herman Rosenblat wrote a memoir account of how, as a child in the concentration camp Buchenwald, a young girl would throw him apples over the fence to keep him alive. He would meet this woman years later on a blind date, and they married soon after. Rosenblat’s story gained publicity after he sent in a few paragraphs of what would become Angel at the Fence to a New York Post love story contest; he won the contest and the admiration of Oprah, who invited him and his wife onto her show.
Bullshit: Perhaps because no one wants to question a Holocaust narrative, the false or exaggerated Holocaust memoir has become practically a genre unto itself. Angel at the Fence was never fact checked, and, like Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, it turned out to be completely fabricated. The author of “Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America” told the New York Times: “As far as I know, book club selections are not routinely vetted for veracity.”
Photo by Larry Koester