Jackie Gingrich Cushman

The real story is almost as good as the fictional one – but not quite.

Cindi Seltzer Hoffman must have been shocked when she read “A refugee from Gangland,” a February 28, 2008 profile in the New York Times’ Home and Garden Section about her sister, Margaret Seltzer.  It described Margaret B. Jones, the author of the new memoir “Love and Consequences,” as “a single mother who spent her youth as a foster child and gang member…..dealing drugs on the streets of South Central LA.”

Margaret B. Jones is really Margaret Seltzer, Cindi’s sister.

Cindi knew that “Love and Consequences” was fiction masquerading as truth.  She called Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin Group USA that published the book, and told the real truth about the book, which had just launched to great fanfare and good reviews.  I can only imagine the repercussions inside the publishing house -- disbelief, surprise, anger – then rapid recovery and damage control. 

In short order, Riverhead Books recalled all copies of “Love and Consequences,” and canceled Seltzer’s book tour.

As Motoko Rich noted in her March New York Times article, “Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction,” there was only one problem with “Love and Consequences,” “The problem is that none of it is true,” she wrote.

Rich quotes Seltzer’s defense, “For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.  I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

While we often hear that truth is stranger than fiction – and it often is – it’s different when fiction is represented as truth.

I remember the furor that surrounded the 2006 admission by James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” that not all the details of his memoir were true.  He had to endure Oprah’s wrath in front of her millions of viewers. 

Today, “A Million Little Pieces” is being sold with an author’s note that includes the statement, “memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments.” Frey also writes that “jail time I served, which in the book is three months, … in reality was only several hours.” Embellishments are one thing, changing facts another.

Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.