Fake Autobiographies: A Great American Tradition

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MJs. Browder, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a writer for the History News Service and the author of Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities (2000).

Let's stop wringing our hands over the recent rash of fake autobiographies.
James Frey and other authors of faux memoirs give us the cliche we want about life on the margins. Only when we end our romance with what we imagine is authentic will we stop getting fooled by literary cons.
First, let's dispose of the idea that these books are merely evidence of deplorable new trends in the world of publishing. Rather, they fall into a centuries-old American tradition: the impersonator autobiography. The success of impersonator autobiographies has always depended on their authors' ability to exploit readers' preconceptions.
The most recent impersonator autobiographies take advantage of stereotypes about alcoholism, HIV-positive abused teenagers and American Indians. Navajo author Nasdijj is actually Timothy Barrus, a white, middle-class author of gay S/M fiction. JT LeRoy, the HIV-positive transgendered, former drug-addicted truck stop teen prostitute, is really Laura Albert, a well-off forty-year old woman.
The exposure of these works as fakes should make readers ask why these cliches are so compelling in the first place. Autobiographies, with their emphasis on individualism and self-fashioning, make up a form peculiarly suited to American national mythologies.
Famously, in 1784 Benjamin Franklin set out in his own autobiography to outline for readers the thirteen steps he considered essential for self-improvement. More than anyone else, Franklin introduced readers to believe that they, as Americans, could make of themselves what they would.
The thrill of reading this kind of autobiography is to see how one individual took the raw material of his or her life and formed it into something shapely, unique, successful. Tycoons' autobiographies and the memoirs of Hollywood stars often follow this template.
But, even as insiders like Franklin were offering readers the key to their success, outsiders were offering up their life stories to an audience eager to learn about life on the margins. As early as the 1830s, slave narratives (some of which were actually written by abolitionists) and"as told to" Native American autobiographies were widely read. Since then, the popularity of the outsider autobiography has only continued to grow.
 Outsider autobiographies offer the"authentic" voice of an ethnic, economic or other minority group to a primarily white, middle-class reading audience. Both the reader and the writer of an outsider autobiography understand that the memoirist is not telling his or her own story as much as the story of a people. Native American author Sherman Alexie noticed early on that Nasdijj's memoirs borrowed heavily from the work of several American Indian writers, including himself.
Readers usually prefer memoirs that tell them what they already think they know. Accordingly, abolitionist-penned slave narratives were sometimes judged by reviewers to be"more authentic" than the life stories of actual slaves. Perhaps that's why the former slave Frederick Douglass, when touring as a speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society in 1841, was told by abolitionist leader William Garrison not to sound too"learned," in case his audience not"believe you were ever a slave." Douglass refused.
The current brouhaha over James Frey's memoirs and others recalls nothing so much as the 1991 exposure of  Forrest Carter, the author of the wildly popular"memoir" The Education of Little Tree. In his pre-Cherokee life, Carter had penned George Wallace's"Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" speech. Fortunately for him, Carter turned out to be as adept at appealing to fans of sentimental Indian autobiographies as to white supremacists: Little Tree became a New York Times bestseller.
If there's anything that Carter's story proves, it's that we love comforting fictions more than we love the truth. Before the slippery character Asa Carter was exposed by historian Dan Carter (no relation) in 1991, he had been outed in 1976, also in the pages of the New York Times, by an Alabama journalist, Wayne Greenhaw. Alabamans acquainted with Asa Carter had recognized him in Forrest Carter's 1974 interview with Barbara Walters on the Today show and alerted Greenhaw to the deception. Yet even today Carter remains the best-known"Cherokee" author.
Our hunger for the authentic voice of a people seems always to be stronger than our skepticism or our memory. Even after its first exposure, Carter's Little Tree went on to sell a half million copies. It's certainly possible that in another twenty years, the works of Frey, LeRoy, and Nasdijj will be on college syllabi across the country.
We too often read outsider autobiographies to find out the definitive truth of a group's experience. Reading these books with the knowledge that they're fakes not only defies our expectations, but teaches us their futility. Yet, until our expectations change, the impersonator autobiography is sure to make its appearance -- and to find a receptive readership.  It will be a new day in America when it doesn't.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Kevin R Kosar - 2/22/2006

Misremembering is understandable, and no autobiography is going to be wholly unbiased. Who can see himself with absolute clarity?

Frey, it appears, did something altogether different. The evidence would seem to indicate that he wholly fabricated events in his life and grossly mis-
rendered himself. (i.e., Frey drew himself as an incredibly tough criminal and monstrous junkie who was wanted in multiple states and was misunderstood and mistreated by the great many. That's just not a factually accurate rendering.)

If one wants to write fiction- fine, do so. But don't claim that is true.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/18/2006

I thought of course Ms. Browder was going to discuss "The Autobiography of Howard Hughes," by Clifford Irving, for which he served 14 months in jail... Franklin's opus is a work of art, was a revered best seller, is still read every day after 215 years by probably hundreds of people, and was at least written by him, so it doesn't belong on any list of frauds, in my view, whatever he may have fudged or left out.

Ron Whitby Macpherson - 2/17/2006

Do not we all yearn for the truth?

But is there not a strong tendency, in writing an autobiography, or even a biography, to slightly colour an incident, enlarge a description or augment a statistic, if only to make the story more readable, more exciting and perhaps more saleable?

I recall reading two or three biographies of Frank Sinatra, each one of them so different it was difficult to imagine they were about the same person. Remember the "unauthorized" biography of Jackie Kennedy? Later reports from friends and associates questioned almost every chapter of the book on this famous first lady.

And how about the four biographies of Jesus Christ? The first one written never mentions the supernatural happenings that suddenly appear in later versions. Some of the books even contradict facts that appear in others.

Supposing each one of us in Help.com were important enough to warrant a published autobiography. Would we not wish to stress our virtues and lessen our imperfections, perhaps even deleting actual events and inventing others more wishful?

Why not just read these books about the people we admire and enjoy the journey of their lives, perhaps questionning some improbable events and allowing these errors to be ones of interpretation rather than distortion of fact.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/13/2006

Mr. Maass, You would empty most federal and many state political offices if you made ghostwriting an impeachable offense.

Kevin R Kosar - 2/13/2006

Prof. Browder's piece is a good reminder that faked autobiographies are nothing new and that the American public does tend to trust what they see in print.

A question and two points of contention, though: Browder writes "Outsider autobiographies offer the 'authentic' voice of an ethnic, economic or other minority group to a primarily white, middle-class reading audience. Both the reader and the writer of an outsider autobiography understand that the memoirist is not telling his or her own story as much as the story of a people."

1. Does she really mean "offer" or does she mean "purport to offer"? I assume the latter, as she later writes "Readers usually prefer memoirs that tell them what they already think they know. Accordingly, abolitionist-penned slave narratives were sometimes judged by reviewers to be 'more authentic' than the life stories of actual slaves."

2. Browder wants to tie the Frey dust up into the desire of the public to learn about "marginal" people. What "people" does Frey represent? It seems to me that Frey's book was essentially of the "outlaw" genre, e.g., the loan male who spends hundreds of pages writing about how he was such a bad dude who was despised by the great many. One thinks of a swaggering James Dean or Brando, not marginalized racial minorities. Thus, Browder may be conflating two different publishing phenomena.

3. "Both the reader and the writer of an outsider autobiography understand that the memoirist is not telling his or her own story as much as the story of a people." Really? Readers KNOW that the author is fabricating? I somehow doubt that. In some instances, perhaps, folks read one person's tale and generalize it to larger populations (e.g., all American Indians face x, y, z...); but, readers also read the tales of Frey because they are so different, so unique (e.g., how many of us live lives like that lived by Benjamin Franklin or David Sedaris?)


Kevin R. Kosar
Author, Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education

John Muir - 2/13/2006

"When I write my autobiography I will sound like a saint, I'll leave it to the biographers to tell the truth." So sayeth the wise man.

John R. Maass - 2/13/2006

I was surprised to see the article here not discuss more modern POLITICAL autobiographies, including Hillary Clinton's (in that she did not write it herself). One must also include that of John Dean, who in the 1990s had to admit in a deposition that he actually did not write BLIND AMBITION, and that parts of it were not true.

Samuel Eugene Dicks - 2/13/2006

William Allen White covered himself. In his Autobiography wrote in the front of his work:
"This Autobiography, in spite of all the pains I have taken and the research I have put into it, is necessarily fiction. The fact that names, dates, and places seem to correspond with such things that may have occurred in real life does not guarantee the truth of these stories. So, in all candor, I wish to warn the reader not to confuse this story with reality. For God only knows the truth. I am hereby trying, in my finite way, to set down some facts which seem real and true to me. At best, this is only a tale that is told!"

Tim Lacy - 2/13/2006

I learned this from a Chicago Tribune story by Julia Keller, but Civil War veterans questioned the authenticity of Stephen Crane's 'The Red Badge of Courage' shortly after its release. In an ironic twist, in light of Frey, they accused Crane of hiding the fact that he was a veteran. The veterans argued that 'Red Badge' was a memoir and not a novel! In both Frey's and Crane's case, the idea of truth is obviously the the common thread.

[PS - I hope Keller was right about this, and that I'm not spreading a falsehood. - TL]