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On storytellers and synthetic nonfiction

Out of My Head

Posted: March 8, 2008 2:32 a.m.
Updated: May 9, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 
Growing up along the mean streets of Southside Milwaukee, I longed for a happy, stable home environment.

Born to Russian immigrant parents with mere fourth-grade educations, I frequently looked at other kids with anger and resentment. Alone and crying in my bed at night, I prayed for what many of them had: a father who actually worked for a living (instead of drinking vodka, chasing women and shooting craps all day), good food, clean, pretty clothes, and a mother who didn't sell her body for rent money.

I wanted a solid future, a life I could be proud of, and then one day, a husband who would love me for who I am - despite what I had come from.

More than anything, however, I wanted to be a best-selling autobiographer, someone whose life story sounded so raw, so very compelling, that, when put to ink, it would make me a household name - and very, very rich.

So what if I blurred the boundaries a little in getting my story out?

(OK, well, maybe more than a little, like maybe, um, 99.7 or so percent?) So what if I really grew up in a loving, two-parent domicile in a safe community and had plenty to eat and decent attire?

I could always use the excuse that I was a voice for the people who truly suffer. Yeah, that's it - sort of a first person-third person saga of torment and (sound the violins...) survival.

No, come to think of it, maybe I'll just sell my spellbinding fabrication as a fiction novel and take my chances at literary fame.

That'll spare me, my publisher, and my readers the unpleasant consequences of deceptive memoir-penning, which after all, do not make for best-selling books.

OK, well maybe in the first printing, but rarely for a second.

* * *

Literary renown can be so fleeting. Especially when your hit reviews quickly become embarrassing dismissals.

Case in point: Several days ago author Margaret B. Jones - whose memoir about her difficult youth spent as a drug-running, gang-hanging foster kid in South Central L.A. - got "outed" by her own sister.

Unfortunately, her critically acclaimed autobiography, "Love and Consequences," which was published only last week, is a bunch of baloney.

Gifted with an aptitude for good writing - but hampered with a need for pulling fast ones - Ms. Jones (aka Margaret Seltzer of Sherman Oaks) now gets filed along the library shelf known as "Has-beens and Deceivers." There she will share company with other capable writers who have chosen the same path.

Included in that less-than-stellar line-up: James Frey, whose best-selling (and Oprah-approved) drug addiction and recovery memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," turned out to be a million little fibs, and Misha Defonseca, whose Holocaust memoir turned out to be an un-kosher counterfeit.

You've got to wonder what fuels these people to lie about their lives. What drives them to craftily draw others into their webs of deceit, burning well-respected publishing houses and readers who shell out small bundles for their hard-knocks in hard-bound.

* * *

Throughout my life, I have often felt much resentment toward people who lie. After all, one's word is one's bond. And if you cannot depend on someone's word, you ultimately cannot depend on them.

Having known several chronic liars, most of whom when caught in a spun tale have even lied that they've told a lie, I have come to believe that something is fundamentally wrong with their wiring.

A little research into the matter backs up that assumption.

People who radically lie often suffer from problems more pressing than penchants for fish tales. Many of them have longtime tales of woe to deal with, yes. But their struggles are often in the form of troubled childhoods, bipolar disorder, or drug/alcohol issues, attention deficit disorder, or conduct disorder.

Oh, I know, it's easy to point one's finger and laugh at the fraud who's been caught with their pants down - in front of the whole wide world, no less. They're bogus and they prey on the masses, right?

Them along with all those snake-oil salesmen with their false promises for cancer cures, and used car salesmen who sell hyped-up lemons.

But I'm not so sure that disdain completely belongs here.

Believing that it takes a brilliant mind to write a brilliant book, I admit to having a soft spot for Ms. Seltzer and others like her.

What a waste of literary talent!

It's sad when that enviable endowment arises from someone whose most compelling saga probably lies outside of their confabulations, and within the untold pages of their mind.

Perhaps in identifying that human back-story, their greatest work will evolve - finding the root cause of their dishonesty, and then chronicling their journey to the truth.

Now, whether it will be a bestseller in our ravenous, tell-all society, that's a different story altogether.

Diana Sevanian is a freelance writer and Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own opinion and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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