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.

An older book, which was published in English in 1997, was also recently uncovered as fiction rather than fact.  “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust years” by Misha Defonseca was a bestseller, translated into 18 languages and made into a feature film in France. 

Defonseca’s memoir discussed the seizure by Nazis of her parents when she was 4 years old, leading to her wandering in forests for four years and being raised by a pack of wolves that protected her.  This is quite an unusual, captivating story.

Defonseca is quoted in “Author: My bestselling Holocaust book is a hoax,” a Feburary 29 Associated Press story, stating "This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving."

Her memoir was published at the urging of publisher Jane Daniel, after Daniel heard Defonseca tell her story in a synagague.  Daniel was ordered by a Boston court in 2005 to pay Defonseca and her ghost writer $2.5 million from the profits on the book.  Evidently in this case, crime paid.

In their shared quest to be heard, Margaret Seltzer, James Frey and Misha Defonseca made up the truth – and tried to turn fiction into fact – in the cause of a greater truth. 

We have all been faced with the opportunity to spin a good yarn at some point in our lives.  Small children often make up stories, either to get out of trouble, or to get attention.  We often tell “white lies” in order to avoid hurting our friends, or to avoid dealing with disappointment.

The use of the parables in the Bible allows for the revelation of larger truths.  The truth is not of the details of the story itself – but the underlying truth that the story reveals.

While an anecdote can be an important and effective way to communicate – truth is not something that we believe in – it must also be true.  To label fiction as fact is deceptive and manipulative.

It’s unlikely that Cindi Seltzer’s gang memoir will be the last attempt by a writer to pass fiction off as truth, but the recent publication and rapid withdrawal of “Love and Consequences” reminds us to be skeptical, that a compelling story might not always be a true story. 

Beware of stories that sound too good to be true, they might not be.


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”.