Fake memoirs

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Fake memoirs form a category of literary forgery in which a wholly or partially fabricated autobiography, memoir or journal of an individual is presented as fact. In some cases, the purported author of the work is also a fabrication. In recent years, there have been a number of such memoirs published by major publishers, some that were well received critically and became best sellers, even though subsequently proven to be partially or completely fabricated. A number of recent fake memoirs fall into the category of "misery lit," where the authors claim to have overcome bereavement, abuse, addiction, poverty and other overwhelming losses. Several more have detailed fabricated stories of Holocaust survival, with at least one having been penned by an actual Holocaust victim.

As a result of the recent series of best selling memoirs having been outed for falsification, there have been calls for stronger vetting and fact checking of an author's material.[1]

Public reception[edit]

A number of fake memoirs in recent years have been published by renowned publishing houses and received critical acclaim only to be exposed as partial or complete fabrications. Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood (Binjamin Wilkomirski), The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams (Nasdijj),[2] Love and Consequences (Margaret Seltzer),[3] and Go Ask Alice (Anonymous)[4] garnered praise from the New York Times prior to being exposed as false. Love and Consequences (Margaret Seltzer) and Odd Man Out (Matt McCarthy) were published by Penguin Group USA. A Million Little Pieces was published by Random House.

Two authors of recent fake memoirs, James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), and Herman Rosenblat (who was featured prior to writing Angel at the Fence), as well as an imposter assuming the name Anthony Godby Johnson (A Rock and a Hard Place), appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. All eventually had their mendacity made public, and the scheduled publication of Rosenblat's book was cancelled. Frey, accompanied by his editor Nan Talese, was confronted by Oprah during a follow-up episode.[5] The controversy over falsified memoirs inspired Andrea Troy to pen her satiric novel, Daddy – An Absolutely Authentic Fake Memoir (2008).

List of fake memoirs and journals[edit]

  • Niromi de Soyza (nom de plume),Tamil Tigress: My Story as a Child Soldier in Sri Lanka's Bloody Civil War (Allen & Unwin, 2011), an autobiography of the author, has raised substantial questions about its authenticity. It is considered a counterfeit.[6][7]
  • Matt McCarthy, Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, Viking (a division of Penguin Group USA) (February 2009) is a memoir describing McCarthy's summer as a minor league pitcher. He writes about playing with racist teammates who take steroids; however, statistics from that season, combined with transaction listings and interviews with former teammates, suggest that much of the book is false. Prior to having its authenticity challenged, the book was promoted by Sports Illustrated. Carolyn Coleburn, the publisher's vice president and director of publicity said, “We rely on our authors to tell the truth and fact-check.”[8]
  • Herman Rosenblat, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived (February 2009, cancelled) is a Holocaust memoir in which the author invented the story that, while he was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, a young girl from the outside would pass him food through the fence daily and years later they accidentally met and married. Rosenblat appeared twice on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Prior to the book's announced publication, Winfrey called the story "the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we've ever told on the air." The book was scheduled for publication in February 2009 by Berkley Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, but has been cancelled. Although the author fabricated details about how he met his wife, he is an authentic holocaust survivor.[9]
  • Margaret Seltzer (pseud. Margaret B. Jones), Love and Consequences, Riverhead Books (a division of Penguin Group USA) (2008) is a critically received memoir of a girl, part white and part native American, growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child in a world of drug dealers and gang members. In fact, the work was completely fabricated.[10] Prior to being exposed as fabricated, the book was praised as "humane and deeply affecting" by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times.[3]
  • A. L. Finch's Child P.O.W.―A Memoir of Survival (three self-published US editions, 2007, 2008 and 2011), about a mother and child’s experience as internees in Japanese captivity in the Philippines during the Second World War, has been exposed as a fabricated account.[11][12] Finch is the pen name of A. L. Peeples of Lakewood, Washington. The University of Puget Sound published a cover profile of Finch / Peeples in the Autumn 2009 edition of its alumni magazine Arches, but later removed that edition from its website.
  • JT LeRoy (pseud. Laura Victoria Albert) published a number of fabricated writings (c. 2005) in which LeRoy was presented as a transgender, sexually questioning, abused, former homeless teenage drug addict and male prostitute.
  • James Frey, A Million Little Pieces, Doubleday Books (a division of Random House) (2003) is a bestselling memoir in which the author created and exaggerated significant details of his drug addiction and recovery. The author appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in September 2005, the book became an Oprah's Book Club selection. However, when the book's authenticity was called into question, the author and publisher Nan Talese were invited back and publicly scolded by Winfrey in a live face-to-face confrontation. The media feasted over the televised showdown. David Carr of the New York Times wrote, "Both Mr. Frey and Ms. Talese were snapped in two like dry winter twigs."[5] "Oprah annihilates Frey," proclaimed Larry King.[13] New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, "It was a huge relief, after our long national slide into untruth and no consequences, into Swift boating and swift bucks, into W.'s delusion and denial, to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying,"[14] and the Washington Post's Richard Cohen was so impressed by the confrontation that he crowned Winfrey "Mensch of the Year."[15]
  • Norma Khouri, Forbidden Love (also published as Honor Lost in the United States), Bantam Books, Australia (2003); Doubleday, New York (2003) was purported to be the story of the author's best friend in Jordan, Dalia, who fell in love with a Christian soldier. Dalia's Muslim father was not told of the relationship, and when he eventually discovered it, he stabbed Dalia to death in a so-called honor killing. The book was exposed as a hoax after the literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Khouri had not been living in Jordan during the timeframe of the book, and apart from a three-week stay to research her book, had not lived there since her early childhood.[16]
  • Michael Gambino (actually Michael Pelligrino) wrote The Honored Society, Simon & Schuster (2001). The book, supposedly by the grandson of Mafioso Carlo Gambino, described his life as a gangster, including spending 12 years in prison for bribery, gambling, extortion, kidnapping, money laundering, murder and pimping. Carlo Gambino’s real son, Thomas Gambino, exposed the fraud, and the publisher withdrew the book.
  • Nasdijj (pseud. Timothy Patrick "Tim" Barrus), wrote The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, Houghton Mifflin (2000), The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping (2003), and Geronimo's Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (2004). These works recounted various aspects of the author's supposed life, including his Navajo heritage, his self-destructive and abusive parents, his unhappy childhood as a migrant worker, his dysfunctional relationships with other family members, and, eventually, his growing up to become the nurturing father of first an adopted child with fetal alcohol syndrome and then one who is HIV-positive. Prior to being exposed as fabricated, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams was a New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and winner of the Salon Book Award. It was described by Esquire as an "authentic, important book...Unfailingly honest and very nearly perfect."[2]
  • Misha Defonseca (real name: Monique de Wael), Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, Mt. Ivy Press (1997) is a fabricated memoir of a supposed Holocaust survivor who walked 1,900 miles across Europe searching for her parents, killed a German officer in self-defense and lived with a pack of wolves. The work was a best seller, was translated into 18 languages and was made into a movie.[17]
  • Binjamin Wilkomirski (real name: Bruno Dössekker), Fragments, Schocken Books (US edition, 1996), is an acclaimed but fabricated Holocaust memoir.[18] Prior to its being exposed as fabricated, The New York Times called the book "stunning," the Los Angeles Times described it as a "classic first-hand account of the Holocaust", it received the 1996 National Jewish Book Award for Autobiography and Memoir, in Britain it received the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize, and in France it was awarded the Prix Memoire de la Shoah.[19][20]
  • Helen Demidenko (real name Helen Darville, also known as Helen Dale), The Hand That Signed the Paper, Allen & Unwin, Australia (1994) was presented as a supposedly autobiographical story of a student’s discovery of her family's bleak wartime history as peasants in Ukraine under Stalinism and their “liberation” by the Nazi invasion. In reality, the author had no Ukrainian family and was the daughter of British immigrants to Australia. The deception was revealed by the Australian media when the novel won the Miles Franklin Award; it later won the 1995 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal.
  • Wanda Koolmatrie (actually Leon Carmen), My Own Sweet Time, Magabala Books, Australia (1994), was presented as an autobiographical account by an aboriginal woman born in 1949, who was taken from her mother and raised by white foster parents. Its true author was Leon Carmen, a white Australian male taxi driver with literary aspirations who believed that he could not have gotten published under his own identity. The publisher discovered the hoax when Carmen attempted to publish a sequel.[21]
  • Anthony Godby Johnson, A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story, Crown Books, New York; Little Brown, London (1993), is the story of a young boy, sexually abused by his parents and later adopted, who discovers he is HIV-positive and who develops AIDS. This book has been challenged on a number of accounts and is alleged to be the fictional product of Vicki Johnson, also known as Vicki Fraginals Zackheim. "Tony," the subject of the book, made an "appearance" on the Oprah Winfrey Show, interviewed with his face obscured.[22]
  • Marlo Morgan wrote Mutant Message Down Under, MM Co. (self-published), Lees Summit, Missouri (1991); Harper Collins, New York (1994). The book claimed to be a memoir of her time spent with Aboriginals. The book has caused protests by Aboriginal groups. Parts of it have been asserted to be invented, and the publisher has reissued it labeled as fiction.[23][24]
  • Lauren Stratford (actually Laurel Rose Willson) wrote Satan's Underground, Harvest House, Oregon (1988), purporting to tell a true story of her upbringing in a Satanic cult, but later branded as fabricated. She later assumed the guise of a Holocaust survivor and adopted the alias of Laura Grabowski.
  • Konrad Kujau forged The Hitler Diaries in 1983. When first published in the Sunday Times, the diaries were authenticated by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, but they were demonstrated to be crude fakes, written on modern paper, within a few weeks.
  • David Rorvik wrote In his Image: the Cloning of a Man, J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia and New York (1978),[25] in which he claimed to have been part of a successful endeavor to create a clone of a human being. In a subsequent defamation suit, a court found the book was a hoax, which the publisher subsequently acknowledged, but Rorvik continues to maintain it is truthful.[26]
  • Forrest Carter (pseud. Asa Earl Carter), The Education of Little Tree, Delacorte Press (1976), was presented as the author's memoir about growing up among the Cherokee, but is in fact fiction written by a former white supremacist.[27]
  • Clifford Irving, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, McGraw-Hill (1972) is a fabricated autobiography of the reclusive billionaire.
  • Anonymous (actually Beatrice Sparks), Go Ask Alice, Prentice-Hall (1971), was originally presented as being the real diary of an anonymous teenage girl who died of a drug overdose in the late 1960s. Sparks later became known for producing several additional books purporting to be the "real diaries" of troubled teenagers.[28] Prior to the book's authenticity being challenged, The New York Times praised it as an "extraordinary work for teenagers" and "a document of horrifying reality and literary quality".[4] It was later reclassified by its publishers as fiction.
  • Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books that describe his training in traditional Mesoamerican shamanism, starting with The Teachings of Don Juan, University of California Press (1968). His 12 books have sold more than 8 million copies in 17 languages. It is disputed whether his stories are truthful or fabricated.
  • Slavomir Rawicz, The Long Walk (originally published 1955) is a ghostwritten book in which Rawicz, who was a Polish Army lieutenant imprisoned by the NKVD after the German-Soviet invasion of Poland, claimed to have escaped in 1941 from a Siberian Gulag camp and traveled approximately 6,500 km on foot through the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas to reach British India.[29] In 2006, the BBC released evidence showing that Rawicz had not escaped, but in fact had been released and transported to Iran.[30] Another Polish WWII veteran, Witold Gliński, has since claimed that he, not Rawicz, was the person who actually made "the long walk".[31][32]
  • Friedrich Nietzsche My Sister and I (1951) was supposedly written in 1889 or early 1890 during Nietzsche's stay in a mental asylum. It makes several bold and otherwise unreported claims, most notably of an incestuous relationship between Nietzsche and his sister.
  • John Knyveton (actually Ernest Gray) wrote three medical diaries: The Diary of a Surgeon in the Year 1751-1752, edited and transcribed by Ernest Gray, New York, D. Appleton-Century (1938); Surgeon's Mate: the diary of John Knyveton, surgeon in the British fleet during the Seven Years War 1756-1762, edited and transcribed by Ernest Gray, London, Robert Hale (1942); and Man midwife; the further experiences of John Knyveton, M.D., late surgeon in the British fleet, during the years 1763-1809, edited and narrated by Ernest Gray, London, Robert Hale (1946). These three diaries were well received when published, but doubts were later raised about their authenticity. They are now known to be fictitious, written by Ernest Gray and loosely based on a short biography of Dr Thomas Denman, 1733-1815.[33][34][35]
  • Joan Lowell wrote Cradle of the Deep, Simon & Schuster (1929), in which she claimed that, before she was even a year old, her sea captain father took her away from her ailing mother to live on the Minnie A. Caine, a trading ship, and that she lived on the ship, with its all-male crew, until she was 17. The book ends with the ship burning and sinking off Australia as Lowell swims three miles to safety with a family of kittens clinging by their claws to her back. In fact, Lowell had been on the ship, which remained safe in California, for only 15 months. The book was a sensational best seller until it was exposed as a pure invention.[36]
  • Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (actually Sylvester Clark Long) wrote an autobiography entitled Long Lance, Cosmopolitan Book Company (1928), in which he claimed to have been born the son of a Blackfoot chief in Montana's Sweetgrass Hills and later been wounded eight times in World War I and promoted to the rank of captain. In fact, the story was fabricated and Lance was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
  • Abel Fosdyk (likely A. Howard Linford), Abel Fosdyk's Story, published in The Strand Magazine, 1913, is an almost certainly fabricated story, in diary form, of the mystery of the abandoned Mary Celeste, written by a supposed passenger.
  • Edmund Backhouse wrote China Under the Empress Dowager: being the History of the Life and Times of Tzu Hsi, Compiled from State Papers and the Private Diary of the Comptroller of her Household, London, Heinemann; Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. (1910). The diary on which the book was based was later shown to have been fabricated by Backhouse.
  • Philip Aegidius Walshe (actually Montgomery Carmichael), The Life of John William Walshe, F.S.A., London, Burns & Oates, (1901); New York, E. P. Dutton (1902), was presented as a son’s story of his father’s life in Italy as “a profound mystic and student of everything relating to St. Francis of Assisi.” In fact the son, the father, and the memoir were all invented by Montgomery Carmichael.[37]
  • Davy Crockett, Col. Crockett's exploits and adventures in Texas: wherein is contained a full account of his journey from Tennessee to the Red River and Natchitoches, and thence across Texas to San Antonio; including many hair-breadth escapes; together with a topographical, historical, and political view of Texas ... Written by Himself, T.K. and P.G. Collins, Philadelphia (1836), was supposedly Crockett’s journal taken at the Alamo by Mexican General Castrillón and then recovered at the Battle of San Jacinto, but was in fact written by Richard Penn Smith and Charles T. Beale.[38] The work has been called "ingenious pseudo-autobiography."[39]
  • Maria Monk, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk: as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice, and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hôtel-Dieu Nunnery at Montreal, Howe & Bates, New York (1836), is a wildly sensationalistic story of life in a Montreal convent where nuns were forced to have sex with the priests in the seminary next door. The book may have been written by Theodore Dwight, John J. Slocum or William K. Hoyte.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Lies and Consequences: Tracking the Fallout of (Another) Literary Fraud", New York Times, 2008-03-05, p. B1. See also "A Family Tree of Literary Fakers," New York Times, 2008-03-08, p. A17.
  2. ^ a b Nasdijj (5 March 2009). "The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping ,Nasdijj, 9780345453891 - Powell's Books". 
  3. ^ a b Barnes & Noble. "Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival". Barnes & Noble. 
  4. ^ a b Patti Smith. "Used, New, and Out of Print Books - We Buy and Sell - Powell's Books". 
  5. ^ a b Carr, David (30 January 2006). "How Oprahness Trumped Truthiness". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-05. 
  6. ^ "Outing a Counterfeit Guerrilla: A tale of lies by Tamil Tigress Niromi de Soyza". Groundviews. 
  7. ^ "Forbidden Fruits: Niromi de Soyza's "Tamil Tigress", Noumi Kouri and Helen Demidenko?". Groundviews. 
  8. ^ Hill, Benjamin; Schwarz, Alan (3 March 2009). "Errors Cast Doubt on a Baseball Memoir". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  9. ^ "Publication of disputed Holocaust memoir canceled". Associated Press. 27 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  10. ^ "Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction". The New York Times. 4 March 2008. 
  11. ^ J. Michael Houlahan, “Fiction as Fact: False Memories of WWII in the Philippines”, Asia-Pacific Social Science Review (De La Salle University, Manila) 10:2 (2010), pp. 83–86.
  12. ^ Sascha Weinzheimer Jansen, Philippine Scouts Heritage Website, http://www.philippine-scouts.org/cgi-bin/yabb2/YaBB.pl?num=1271251020
  13. ^ "CNN.com". CNN. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  14. ^ Dowd, Maureen (8 January 2006). "Oprah's Bunk Club". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-05. 
  15. ^ Poniewozik, James (26 January 2006). "Oprah Clarifies Her Position: Truth, Good. Embarrassing Oprah, Very Bad". Time. Retrieved 2007-10-05. 
  16. ^ Knox, Malcolm (24 July 2004). "Bestseller's Lies Exposed". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 18 June 2011. 
  17. ^ Holocaust Book Hoax See also [1]
  18. ^ "Other Voices 2.1 (February 2000), Renata Salecl "Why One Would Pretend to be a Victim of the Holocaust"". 
  19. ^ Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Harcourt Inc., 2008, p. 82
  20. ^ Peskin, Harvey (19 April 1999). "Holocaust Denial: A Sequel", The Nation
  21. ^ Carmen, Leon (15 March 1997). "Leon and a ruse called Wanda". The Daily Telegraph. News Corporation. pp. 30–31. 
  22. ^ "Excerpt Four: Revealing a Literary Hoax: The Strange Case of Anthony Godby Johnson". Archived from the original on 27 April 2009. 
  23. ^ "Mutant Message Down Under". 
  24. ^ "BOOK NEWS Other literary hoaxes", Los Angeles Times, 2008-03-09
  25. ^ Rorvik, David Michael (1978). In his Image: The Cloning of a Man. Philadelphia and New York City: J. B. Lippincott. ISBN 978-0-397-01255-8.  The author (Rorvik) intentionally left the word "his" uncapitalized in the title of this book. See Talk:David Rorvik
  26. ^ "The Cloning of a Man". 
  27. ^ The Education of Little Tree and Forrest Carter
  28. ^ "Curiouser and Curiouser": Fact, Fiction, and the Anonymous Author of Go Ask Alice
  29. ^ "The Greatest Escape - war hero who walked 4,000 miles from Siberian death camp". 
  30. ^ Levinson, Hugh (30 October 2006). "Walking the talk?". BBC News, International version. BBC News. Retrieved 18 January 2009. 
  31. ^ Dennis Ellam and Adam Lee Potter (16 May 2009). "The Greatest Escape – war hero who walked 4,000 miles from Siberian death camp". Mirror.co.uk. 
  32. ^ Скрадзенае жыццё Вітальда Глінскага (Belarusian)
  33. ^ Evans, Martin H. & Hooper, Geoffrey: "Three misleading diaries: John Knyveton MD - from naval surgeon's mate to man-midwife." International Journal of Maritime History (2014) 26: 762-788.
  34. ^ Hooper, Geoffrey: BMJ, 344:e3019 (2012)
  35. ^ Eugene L. Rasor, English/British Naval History to 1815: A Guide to the Literature (2004) p. 226.
  36. ^ Colby, Anne (2008-03-14). "Meet the grandmother of memoir fabricators". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  37. ^ (1 September 1906). Saturday Review of Books, p. BR537.
  38. ^ Howes, US-IANA, S654
  39. ^ Richard R. Flores, Remembering the Alamo : Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol, Univ. of Texas (2002), p. 139.
  40. ^ New York Herald, 1836-08-12, p.2, col. 1 ; The Colophon, pt. 17, 1934.