The memoir genre is saturated with stories by every conceivable sort of person writing about every imaginable type of life. Far more rare is the sub-genre known as the fake memoir.
These exercises in literary subterfuge have been known to fool even the most discerning readers. Let’s take a look at the fakest of the fake: 10 memoirs so brazenly false they never should have fooled anyone.
1. Go Ask Alice
The author: Anonymous. But not really. The actual author is Beatrice Sparks, a Mormon youth counselor and grown woman who churned out fake memoirs by imaginary troubled teens.
The Plot: Go Ask Alice is the diary of an anonymous teenage girl who descends into drug abuse in the wild, wild 1960s. Highlights of her day-to-day life include dropping acid, premarital sex, experimentation with sleeping pills, heroin use, small business ownership, prostitution, and homelessness. She conveniently dies just after her final entry, so there will be no questioning the veracity of her experiences.
Who was fooled: Teenaged me. Also most of the reading public in 1971, when the book was published. It sold more than three million copies within four years, was made into a TV movie, and became a worldwide bestseller. People didn’t just buy the book, they bought the story that it was a real diary written by a real 15-year-old girl.
What gave it away: Publishers Weekly was initially skeptical, but no one paid the magazine much heed. Then author Beatrice Sparks started making the rounds hawking the “diary,” and it came to light the copyright records for the book listed Sparks as the author.
A 2008 Snopes investigation further revealed it was highly unlikely a teen could be the author of such a narrative: “The ‘diary’ is filled with sizeable words one would hardly expect to find in a teen’s private account of her life. Polysyllabic terms such as ‘gregarious,’ ‘impregnable,’ ‘conscientious,’ and ‘ecstatic’ turn up within four pages of each other, yet we’d be surprised to find any one of these words in a real teen’s diary.”
2. A Million Little Pieces
The author: James Frey, a middle-aged Generation X fabulist
The Plot: Our antihero, James Frey (age 23), dries out in rehab after a decade of alcoholism, three years of crack addiction, and a triad of arrest warrants. Frey’s frankly unbelievable misadventures in rehab are recounted in what author John Dolan denounced as a “childish impersonation of the laconic Hemingway style” presented in “one of the most heavily padded pieces of prose I’ve seen,” and summed it up as “the worst thing I’ve ever read.” He also referred to it as “a novel,” not a memoir.
Who was fooled: Oprah. She selected the book for her king-making Oprah’s Book Club in late 2005. Frey’s fellow writers were not so credulous, however.
What gave it away: Prior to its publication as a memoir in 2003, the book was originally pitched as fiction. So, that. Also, a six-week investigation by The Smoking Gun that culminated in an article, “A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction,” in January 2006.
Oprah was not pleased. She brought Frey back on her show and inquired as to whether he had merely exaggerated the truth … or outright lied (To her! To Oprah!). Under the terrible gaze of the mighty O, Frey crumbled like a cookie and admitted that his memoir was more fake than factual.
3. “The Hitler Diaries”
The author: Adolph Hitler. But not really. The real author was illustrator and forger Konrad Kujau, who spent two long years forging the diaries, and four and a half longer years in prison for his efforts.
The plot: Did you know that Hitler kept a diary? Neither did Hitler — der Führer is just as surprised as you. In this series of 60 journals, Hitler just Nazis around, thinking deep thoughts such as, “The English are driving me crazy,” and “How on earth does Stalin manage it?” and “I’m beginning to think [Himmler] is out of his mind.”
Who was fooled: Germany’s Stern magazine and the Sunday Times of London. The historians who had authenticated the diaries, too, but only briefly. By the time Stern and the Times went to print with the first volume of the collection, the experts were already questioning whether the diaries might be fake.
What gave it away: Feeling suspicious, the West German government tested three volumes of the diaries and proved that post-World War II paper and ink had been used to create them. Also, Hitler’s signature was very obviously forged.
4. The Honored Society
The author: Michael Gambino. But not really. His real surname was Pelligrino, a crucial difference that will soon become clear. Also, not really Pelligrino, but an unnamed ghostwriter.
The plot: Claiming to be the grandson of mafia kingpin Carlo Gambino via an illegitimate Sicilian-born son named Vito, “Michael Gambino” spills the dirt on the “innermost workings” of the mob, after a 12-year stint in a federal maximum security prison where he did time a few cells down from the former head of the Gambino mob empire, John Gotti. Though the book is positioned as a novel, it was the Gambino name and the presumed taint of authenticity that sold the story.
Who was fooled: Publishers Weekly. In a 2001 review, the publication gushed, “Though promoted as fiction by its publisher, Pocket, Michael Gambino’s The Honored Society reads like a memoir … the directness and honesty of its recounting are notable.” Also a not-insignificant number of book reviewers, including journalist Charles Laurence, who wrote, “In these days of fake television gangsters and wannabe tough guys, Gambino is the real thing.”
What gave it away: Don’t mess with the mafia. The Gambino family caught wind of the book, and they were most displeased. As it happened, there was a real Michael Gambino out there, but he was the great-grandson of Carlo Gambino, not the grandson. And, as the Guardian noted in 2002, he wasn’t exactly a hardened wiseguy. “The real Michael Gambino is a 16-year-old schoolboy in upstate New York.” The Gambinos sicced another Michael (Rosen, a lawyer) on the publisher of the false Michael (Pelligrino, a convicted thief and con artist). Less than a year after it was published, the book was withdrawn by Simon & Schuster.
To repeat: Don’t mess with the mafia.
5. Sarah, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and Harold’s End
The author: JT LeRoy, a.k.a. Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, a.k.a. Laura Victoria Albert.
The plots: These three books almost don’t qualify as fake memoirs, because they were positioned from the start as semi-autobiographical fiction. However, the “semi” part turned out to be strained to the point of incredulity, landing them squarely in fake town.
LeRoy was supposedly a former transvestite child prostitute, abuse victim, heroin addict, self-harmer, and homeless HIV-positive writer who published his first piece of prose in 1997 at age 17; his first novel, Sarah, at age 20; and his first short story collection, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, at age 21. In actuality, he was a she; and she was not a teen writing phenomenon and abuse survivor, but a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert.
Who was fooled: Madonna, Shirley Manson of the band Garbage, director Gus Van Sant, actors Carrie Fisher and Tatum O’Neal. And far too many of the literati elite. It all came down to LeRoy’s horrifying backstory, which was believed without question, though pretty much no one had ever met the young man.
As Bruce Handy recorded in Vanity Fair, “The books were mostly well reviewed, and even critics who didn’t care for the prose, or found the disturbing subject matter overwrought as art, paid obeisance to the horrible contours of the life. … Most of his writer friends had never met him in the flesh; he was famous for ducking people, even editors and agents.”
Hm … I wonder why?
What gave it away: In a time when email was still a relative rarity, LeRoy operated via fax. Despite playing up a “pathologically shy writer” persona, eventually LeRoy had to show himself. In 2001, Albert took advantage of LeRoy’s cross-dressing background and began appearing in public disguised by a girlish blond wig and sunglasses. “LeRoy” was supposed to be a male in his early 20s. Albert was a woman in her late 30s, and looked it. That’s when the cracks in LeRoy’s biography began to show.
“How had a homeless teen developed both the writing skills and that endless ambition? How could somebody so pathologically shy be working as a prostitute? And how did he manage to send those faxes? It seems LeRoy himself is keenly aware of the implausibility of some of his claims,” wrote Stephen Beachy in “Who is the Real JT LeRoy?”
The debacle wound up as one of Law & Order’s “ripped from the headlines” episodes, with LeRoy-stand in “Sweetie Ness” exhorting readers to purchase his memoirs by chirping, “Buy a copy, save a slut.”
6. My Sister and I
The author: Friedrich Nietzsche. But not really.
The plot: German philosopher Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche got it on with his sister. He also did the nasty with the wife of opera mega-composer Richard Wagner. He wrote these and other confessions while holed up in a mental asylum. Scandalous!
Who was fooled: Not Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann, that’s for sure. My Sister and I was first published in 1951. By 1952, Kaufmann had published an article in Partisan Review denouncing the book as a fraud.
What gave it away: It sounded like the plot of a V.C. Andrews novel, for one thing. There were also issues with the chronology of events; strange references to Detroit, of all places; and, worst of all, the fact that the very sister with whom Nietzsche supposedly made the beast with two backs was 1) a Hitler supporter later accused of altering her brother’s writings to give them a pro-Nazi slant, and 2) a proven forger.
More like this: “How to write a fake memoir”
7. Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit
The author: Matt McCarthy
The plot: McCarthy, an Ivy League alumnus and single-season professional baseball player, recounts his experiences playing in the Minor League for the Provo Angels. Racism, performance enhancing drugs, faked injuries, and something called a “Rally Penis” figure heavily in his account of what it’s “really” like to play professional baseball.
Who was fooled: Publishers Weekly, which called the 2009 book “an eye-opening read about the wildly unpredictable life of a minor-league ballplayer” and “a pull-no-punches work that will give many baseball fans a glimpse into a part of baseball not seen on ESPN’s SportsCenter.” Also Sports Illustrated.
What gave it away: One month after the book was published, the New York Times reported, “statistics from that season, transaction listings and interviews with his former teammates indicate that many portions of the book are incorrect, embellished or impossible,” adding, “McCarthy directly quotes people stating incorrect facts about their own lives and tells detailed (and mostly unflattering) stories about teammates who were in fact not on his team at the time. The book’s more outrageous scenes could not be independently corroborated or disproved; several teammates who were present said in interviews that they were exaggerated or simply untrue.”
The L.A. Times got in on the action, too, interviewing Provo Angels Manager Tom Kotchman. “‘I’ve gone through it multiple times,’ Kotchman says. ‘In so many places it’s just flat-out wrong or fabricated.’”
8. Under the Same Stars
Author: Rose Christo, a.k.a. Theresa Christodoulopoulos
Plot Summary: Under the Same Stars: The Search for My Brother and the True Story of My Immortal tells the story of “how a young girl infiltrated and used the fan fiction community to search for her brother by baiting their attention with a deliberately badly written tale.” That badly written tale was the infamous “My Immortal,” a mind-blowingly awful Harry Potter fanfic written by (in a prequel to the many misspellings found throughout the text) XXXbloodyrists666XXX. It has been called “the worst thing ever written.” It was so unfathomably atrocious, in fact, that some posited the work was actually satire.
Christo’s rists [sic] may or may not have been bloody as she wrote the 22,000-word obliteration of the English language back in 2006, but the rest of the 2018 memoir, no longer available on Amazon, is about her attempt to find her brother after the siblings were separated by the New York City foster system.
Who was fooled: A lot of fanfic writers and readers who wanted a definitive answer to the question, “Who wrote ‘My Immortal?’” But some were not so gullible and demanded proof.
What gave it away: Christo herself. And the brother she claimed she had been searching for.
As Vox reported in late 2017, “Christo’s story seemed like some sort of social justice fairy tale readymade for Tumblr. She claimed to be a Native American Cree lesbian … placed in New York City foster care as a victim of child abuse and child pornography.” But not everyone accepted Christo’s wild tale.
After the book was announced in September 2017, “Initially, readers of Christo’s Tumblr, where she first came forward as the author, were skeptical of this highly dramatic tale; however, Christo claimed to have provided substantial proof to her publisher that she was the author of ‘My Immortal,’” wrote Vox.
Then in late September, someone claiming to be Christo’s long-lost brother came forward to dispute the accuracy of her description of her childhood — specifically, she is not Native American but white, her brother has never been in foster care, and her tales of abuse were embellished.
It was further alleged that Christo used Photoshop to alter documents she gave her publisher to back up her assertions of authorship of “My Immortal” and the veracity of events in her memoir.
Days later, in a now-deleted Tumblr post, Christo admitted, “I did something pretty stupid during the publication process. I didn’t want my family’s real names getting out, largely because some of the things that happened during childhood were embarrassing. I wanted my brother, my grandparents, and even my parents to have privacy. So when it came time to provide documentation, I altered the photocopies to disguise their names.”
She claimed that she still had the original documents but, conveniently, declined to produce them. “I’ve already been branded a liar, so it’s too late for that.”
9. All memoirs written by politicians
10. False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story
The author: That would be me.
The plot: Journalist Katherine Luck was writing a book about a serial killer. She never expected to get caught up in a terrifying mystery.
Veteran crime reporter Jack O’Lies became notorious for his disturbingly perceptive articles about an unidentified murderer who was terrorizing Seattle … one who eventually murdered Jack’s wife. Twelve years later, another killer is stalking the city. Jack, an alcoholic with a violent temper who’s one drink away from being fired, is obsessed with finding out who he is. But this time, Jack is the one in danger.
To save himself, Jack must share his darkest secrets with someone. And the person he chooses is Katherine. But that might be the worst mistake he’s ever made. And writing this book might be the worst mistake she’s ever made.
Who was fooled: That remains to be seen. The title kind of gives away the game, don’t you think? The author of a genuine fake memoir always claims their story is true. I never made that claim. I just implied it real hard.
What gave it away: Well, it’s shelved in the Fiction section. So …
False Memoir is now available on Amazon. Get your copy before someone blows my cover.