Five Writers Who (Almost) Got Away With Lying
Laura Albert's creation of JT LeRoy wasn't the only identity-switcheroo pulled by a writer.
"The book says clearly on the jacket 'fiction.' The rest is extra." Laura Albert says this in the VICE Films–produced, Jeff Feuerzeig–directed documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story while holding a copy of Sarah, the first novel she published under the pseudonym JT LeRoy in 2000. While Albert wrote, she recruited her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to appear as LeRoy at book readings and meetings; armed with sunglasses and a blond wig, Knoop brought LeRoy to life and kept her that way for nearly seven years.
That is, until 2006, when the New York Times exposed Albert as the mastermind behind LeRoy. Author: The JT LeRoy Story recounts the events that culminated in Albert's creation of LeRoy—specifically, being the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and struggling with self-esteem issues related to body image concerns and her inability to express her own ideas. Woven together by clandestine recordings of phone conversations Albert had as LeRoy with Asia Argento, Courtney Love, Dennis Cooper, Mary Karr and others in the upper echelon of the art world, Author is a fascinating—and, surprisingly, empathetic—view into the emotional and psychological decisions behind Albert's gambit.
For Albert, the avatar of LeRoy provided the ultimate opportunity to write about things she was unable to do as herself. The acclaim was intoxicating, and whether intentionally or not, Albert fell into the role of puppet-master. "I didn't know where it was going to go, ever, but it kept weaving and I'd watch it unfold," she reveals at one point in Author. "And it was so. Much. Fun."
And Albert's far from the only author who has shaken up the literary world by blurring the lines between truth and fiction: Below are five writers who fooled editors, publishers, journalists and fans alike with their shrewdly crafted takes on "authenticity."
Timothy Barrus wanted the type of literary exposure that his sadomasochistic novels had failed to attract, so he assumed the alter ego of a Navajo man, Nasdijj, who lost his son to fetal alcohol syndrome. The resulting essay, "The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams," was published in the June 1999 issue of Esquire, was chosen as a National Magazine Award finalist, and resulted in a book deal with Houghton Mifflin. Seven years and two award-winning memoirs later, LA Weekly busted Barrus' con, forcing him to fess up and lose the credibility had had worked—and lied—so hard to get.
Margaret B. Jones
Before Rachel Dolezal was exposed, there was Margaret B. Jones. In 2007, her "memoir" Love and Consequences rose to the top of best-seller lists. The book was a detailed retelling of her childhood as a half-white, half–Native American girl surviving the gang-ridden streets of Los Angeles's South Central neighborhood. Jones wrote at length about living in a black foster home and dealing drugs for the feared Bloods gang, and fans ate up the harrowing stories—until the author's older sister recognized her photograph in the New York Times and revealed Margaret B. Jones to be Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer, a private school–educated woman raised by her biological parents in the affluent, Sherman Oaks neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley.
If nothing else, the author of 2003's A Million Little Pieces serves as a reminder to never, ever lie to Oprah Winfrey. The 2003 memoir documented Frey's rabid drug addiction, following the author as he bounced from hospital, to jail, and finally to rehab. Oprah selected A Million Little Pieces for her book club and book sales skyrocketed; three years later, reporters at The Smoking Gun discovered that his 87 days in jail had been wildly exaggerated—he only spent three hours locked up. To make matters worse, Oprah brought him and book publisher Nan Talese on her show for a televised takedown of the memoir's inconsistencies.
Faking Holocaust memoirs has become a genre of its own: Herman Rosenblat admitted that his book Angel at the Fence was fabricated, and Benjamin Wilkomirski's tale of surviving German camps in occupied Poland was proven to be about a falsely concocted Jewish persona. However, very little compares to Misha Defonseca's level of deception in her 1997 book Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years. In Misha, Defonseca details how she escaped Nazis, walked from Belgium to Ukraine, and took shelter among wolves along the way. Shockingly enough, the entire narrative was untrue: Defonseca admitted her real identity—Monique De Wael, the orphaned daughter of two Catholic members of the Belgian resistance—and in 2014, a Massachusetts court ordered Defonseca to repay her publisher a staggering $22 million.
At 25, Stephen Glass was a journalistic wunderkind, a reporter with bylines appearing in the most reputable publications across the nation. By 1998, he was an associate editor at the New Republic. His story "Hack Heaven" caught the attention of Forbes investigative journalist Adam Penenberg, who began digging around Glass's story of a teenage hacker's exploits and soon uncovered that the entire story was fake. Glass was later exposed as a serial fabricator who made up stories about a George H.W. Bush–worshipping evangelical church and a political memorabilia convention selling condoms plastered with Monica Lewinski's image, as well as false tales of former presidential advisor Vernon Jordan lusting after young female colleagues. In the aftermath from the "Hack Heaven" piece, Glass was subsequently fired from the New Republic. He attempted a career switch, graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 2000, but in 2014, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that he would not be licensed to practice law thanks to his disgraced reputation in journalism.
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this article referred to German concentration camps in occupied Poland as "Polish concentration camps." We have changed the article to correct the error.