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Autobiography is a genre premised on individualism, expressed in an act of self-fashioning, in which a subjective narrative is presented as a personal truth; it’s a genre in which fact and fiction exist alongside each other on a long continuum. It is also vulnerable, then, to distortions of the truth, whether deliberate or inadvertent, through exaggeration, self-aggrandisement, mis-recollection, or solipsism. It’s a short step from there to the phenomena of the fake memoir, sometimes called impersonator autobiographies, which are a kind of literary forgery or hoax, where a fictional life is presented as a real one, sometimes by a made-up author. The interesting question, I think, is why fake memoirs are so often more popular, and read as more authentic, than real ones?
· It was Oprah Winfrey who was so famously taken in, then equally famously outraged, by James Frey’s false account of his alcohol and drug addiction and consequent 12-step rehabilitation in A Million Little Pieces. Ironically, he had been unable to interest a publisher when he had presented it as a novel.
· Purportedly the anonymous diary of a teenage girl who develops a drug addiction and runs away from home, Go Ask Alice was written by therapist and youth counsellor Beatrice Sparks, who persistently presented herself as the recipient, transcriber and editor of a real diary by a real girl. Her next diary project, Jay’s Journal, encountered a similar controversy about its veracity.
· Though Henri Charrière asserted until his death the truth of his 1969 autobiography, Papillon, about the brutal years he spent in a French penal colony, its authenticity has since been conclusively challenged as others have come forward claiming the story as their own.
· A personal essay by a Navajo writer called Nasdijj about the death of his son due to fetal alcohol syndrome, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams was discovered, seven years later in 2006, to be the work of Timothy Barrus, a white author of gay pornographic fiction. In the meantime, Nasdijj published three memoirs, one of which was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times.
· JT LeRoy appeared in the 1990s as the author of three autobiographical books by an HIV-positive, transgendered, former drug-addicted truck-stop teen prostitute, including The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. In the 2000s, LeRoy was revealed as a literary persona – who had written emails and made phone-calls and was represented by an actor in public appearances – of Laura Albert, a well-off, middle-aged woman.
· The reclusive Howard Hughes was silent when in 1972 Clifford Irving claimed to have co-written an authorised autobiography – aptly titled The Autobiography of Howard Hughes – stoking the fires of a media sensation; just before publication, Hughes revealed the book as a hoax, leading to Irving’s prosecution and imprisonment for fraud.
· Der Stern Magazine paid millions for 62 hand-written volumes of The Hitler Diaries, covering the period from 1932 to 1945, before they were revealed as forgeries by both scientific tests and a number of inconsistencies with historical fact; the magazine’s handwriting experts had been fooled by comparing the handwriting to other documents in Hitler’s hand that had also been forged, by the same forger.
· A Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence, was pulled from publication just before it was due to be shipped to bookstores, when it was discovered that its author, Herman Rosenblatt, had fabricated the story of how his future wife saved him as a young boy in Buchenwald by throwing an apple to him over the camp fence every day for seven months.
· Inspired by real scandals about unreal memoirs like these is the bitingly satiric novel Daddy – An Absolutely Authentic Fake Memoir by Andrea Troy (2008), a fictional tell-all about a hypocritical moralist by his adult daughter.