If the individual wishes, he can add touches to his clothes to make them a costume, expressing whatever he feels at the moment. With the magic deftness of stage sorcery, a headband can produce an Indian, a black hat a cowboy badman. Charles Reich (The Greening of America, 1970)
Les choses ne sont pas toujours telles qu’elles paraissent être : noires, blanches, grises ou brunes. Margaret B. Jones
There’s a very long history of fake Native American memoirs because in this country we see Native Americans as the most authentic Americans, in a way, as a doomed, suffering, pure group of people with great spiritual potential. I mean I think it’s significant that the most famous fake Native American memoir to this day is « The Education of Little Tree, » about a Cherokee orphan, which turned out to be written by a prominent Ku Klux Klansman, you know, a synagogue bomber, a church bomber. Laura Browder
Le problème est d’abord éthique : on ment sur la marchandise. Un livre qui ment sur son label c’est comme une lessive qui affiche “laver blanc” et qui teinterait vos chemises en noir. (…) à mon sens, c’est l’éditeur le seul responsable : il a la charge, comme le rédacteur en chef d’un journal, de vérifier les sources. Philippe di Folco
D’une manière générale, on note que ces histoires d’impostures réunissent trois personnes ou potentialités : l’impostant (l’imposteur en devenir), la future personne dupée, et le témoin qui atteste de l’honnêteté ou de la véracité des propos émis par l’impostant. C’est une règle en général gagnante à condition que l’impostant, comme au poker, ne révèle son jeu ni au futur dupé ni au témoin. Un jeu pervers, donc. Un « double-blind », un double aveugle maîtrisé par celui qui tire les ficelles. Je pense, et cela peut s’expliquer facilement, que celui qui est dupé prend du plaisir à l’être… Nous sommes dans l’ordre de la séduction et du simulacre, mais aussi et surtout dans une forme de musique, celle des mots ronronnant et caressant… « Cette personne me plait bien : elle sait me parler, j’aime écouter ses histoires qui me font rêver… Philippe di Folco
Retour, de la bonne soeur canadienne Maria Monk à l’ancien membre du Ku Klux Klan texan indianisé et à la jeune fille de bonne famille (mi-indienne, elle aussi, pour faire bonne mesure) prétendument élevée par un gang, sur le cas nord-américain …
Oriane Jeancourt-Galignani | Journaliste
L’« autobiographie », best-seller salué par les critiques, était inventée. Les éditeurs sont accusés de pousser les auteurs à l’imposture.
Une nouvelle arnaque secoue le prestigieux milieu littéraire américain. Une jeune femme a réussi, en publiant ses mémoires, a se jouer de sa propre maison d’édition et des critiques littéraires de tout le pays. Fausse autobiographie devenue best-seller, « Love and Consequences : A Memoir of Hope and Survival » (« Amour et conséquences, des mémoires d’espoir et de survie ») narre une lutte, celle d’une petite fille d’origine indienne adoptée par une famille noire dans les quartiers pauvres de Los Angeles.
Avec un singulier talent de narration, Margaret B. Jones raconte comment, dès ses 8 ans, elle a commencé à vendre de la drogue pour les gangs du quartier, jusqu’au jour où elle voit son jeune frère se faire descendre par un de leurs membres.
Ce livre, paru en mars aux Etats-Unis, fut d’emblée un best-seller : l’Amérique entière a pleuré sur le sort de cette jeune femme. Le Times a salué « des mémoires d’une profonde humanité », et un grand hebdomadaire culturel, l’Entertainment weekly, « une histoire puissante de résilience et d’amour inconditionnel ».
Héroïne moderne, de celles qui forcent l’admiration parce qu’elles ont inversé leurs destins, Margaret B. Jones est devenue très vite une cliente idéale pour les médias. La jeune femme a raconté sur toutes les chaînes, avec un accent afro-américain mimé à la perfection, son expérience du monde des gangs, de la drogue et des bavures policières. (Voir la vidéo, en anglais.)
Quelle ne fut donc pas la déception de ces millions de lecteurs lorsqu’ils découvrirent la véritable identité de Margaret B. Jones, alias Margaret Seltzer, jeune femme d’origine européenne élevée dans une école privée épiscopale des beaux quartiers de Los Angeles ! « Une grande trahison personnelle et professionnelle » pour l’éditeur
Ce scandale a été révélé par la propre sœur de Margaret Seltzer, et très vite relayé par tous les grands médias. La maison d’édition de la jeune femme, Riverhead Books, s’est déclarée victime d’une « grande trahison personnelle et professionnelle », et a fait retirer de la vente tous les exemplaires de « Love and Consequences ». Sur son site, l’éditeur propose même de rembourser les lecteurs floués.
Livre brûlant parce que faux, les mémoires de Margaret B. Seltzer font désormais partie des introuvables dans les librairies américaines. Sur les blogs de critiques littéraires, la jeune femme se fait désormais traiter de « grosse menteuse ». Alors, Margaret Seltzer n’est-elle qu’une mythomane qui voulait à tous prix ses quinze minutes de célébrité ? Refusant toute invitation à la télévision, elle s’est justifiée dans une interview parue dans le New-York Times : selon elle, son mensonge était le meilleur moyen de se faire le porte-voix des pauvres qu’elle a rencontré dans son quotidien d’aide sociale dans la cité des anges.
« Le problème est d’abord éthique : on ment sur la marchandise »
Est-ce à dire qu’il faut apposer le sceau « histoire vraie » à un récit pour qu’il émeuve les éditeurs et les lecteurs ? Déjà, en 2006, James Frey, l’auteur d’une autobiographie devenue best-seller, « A Million little Pieces », dans laquelle il relatait son combat contre la drogue, avait reconnu avoir menti dans certains passages, se justifiant par la pression des éditeurs pour vendre son livre comme une expérience vécue.
Comme l’explique l’écrivain Philippe di Folco, auteur des « Grandes Impostures littéraires » (éd. Ecriture, paru en 2006) : « Le problème est d’abord éthique : on ment sur la marchandise. Un livre qui ment sur son label c’est comme une lessive qui affiche “laver blanc” et qui teinterait vos chemises en noir ».
Or, ces impostures deviennent monnaie courante ; récemment la révélation des mensonges d’un livre, succès mondial, de Misha Defonseca, « Survivre avec les loups », récit d’une petite fille juive pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale qui échappe aux camps en survivant avec des loups, avait aussi posé la question de la véracité d’un témoignage invérifiable.
Pour Philippe di Folco, les auteurs ne sont pas les premiers coupables, « à mon sens, c’est l’éditeur le seul responsable : il a la charge, comme le rédacteur en chef d’un journal, de vérifier les sources. »
« Mentir sur ses écrits c’est rompre un pacte de toute façon rompu d’avance »
Dans le livre de Margaret B.Jones, certaines phrases auraient pu interpeller le lecteur attentif : « Les choses ne sont pas toujours telles qu’elles paraissent être : noires, blanches, grises ou brunes », écrit-elle. Même si la critique américaine se retrouve dégrisée par ses aveux, Margaret Seltzer renouvelle une grande leçon littéraire : tout récit est un leurre. Philippe di Folco le rappelle :
« Mentir sur ses écrits c’est rompre un pacte qui de toute façon est rompu d’avance : écrire c’est réinventer le monde. Aucune autobiographie ou biographie ne peut dire exactement ce qui a été de façon absolue. »
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, virtuose du mensonge autobiographique, promettait dans la préface de ses « Confessions » ; mémoires largement romancées, « le seul portrait d’homme, peint exactement d’après nature et dans toute sa vérité… »
Prêcher la sincérité pour mieux tromper son lecteur, promettre une vérité pour vendre le roman de sa vie, Margaret Seltzer n’a pas inventé ce procédé, elle a juste bénéficié des médias modernes pour faire la promotion de sa vérité littéraire. Après tout, l’écrivain a tous les droits, Borges l’affirmait une fois pour toutes dans « Fictions » : « Tout ceci est vrai parce que je l’ai inventé. »
March 05, 2008
Author Admits Gang Memoir Was Fabricated March 4, 2008
Margaret Seltzer has admitted to fabricating most of her memoir, Love and Consequences, which described her childhood as one plagued with drugs and violence. Three literary figures discuss other writers who have deceived their readers, such as James Frey and former journalist Stephen Glass.
MICHELE MARTIN, host:
I’m Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Tennessee Williams classic, « Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, » gets a twist in a latest Broadway production. We’ll talk to director Debbie Allen about it and about her own remarkable career. That’s a little later. But first, we learned yesterday that a young woman we’d interviewed under the name Margaret B. Jones had in fact made up the whole story, including that name. She claims that her book, « Love and Consequences, » which describes the life of a half-white, half-native American girl growing up in foster care in South Central L.A., was based on the accounts of friends and kids whom she had mentored. But that’s not how she presented herself to us and to the world. Here is a short clip from her interview with us. We did it about a week or so ago.
Ms. MARGARET B. JONES (Author, « Love and Consequences »): Gangs in L.A. recruit like the NFL. They go out, they look at kids – okay, that kid doesn’t have parents, that kid’s kind of messing up at school. Oooh, look at that kid, that kid can fight.
MARTIN: We all know now that that was a lie. Her real name is Margaret Seltzer, she’s white, not mixed. She went to private school in the San Fernando Valley. But the question remains, why did she do it? How did she think she could get away with it? I’m joined now by three people who have to think about these questions a lot. Chuck Lane is on the editorial board at the Washington Post. He also teaches a class on journalistic fraud at Princeton University. But he was formerly an editor at The New Republic, where he helped uncover stories fabricated by reporter Stephen Glass. Lane joins us on the phone from his home in Chevy Chase.
Vera Lee was the ghost writer for Misha De Fonseca, whose book, « Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, » was a best seller in Europe, but recently revealed as a fabrication. She’s on the phone from her home in Newton, Massachusetts. And also with us is Laura Browder, the author of a book about the history of fake ethnic autobiographies. It’s called « Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities, » and she’s on the phone with us from her home in Richmond, Virginia. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CHUCK LANE (Princeton University): Thank you, Michel.
Ms. VERA LEE (Author): Thank you.
Ms. LAURA BROWDER (Author): Thank you.
MARTIN: Chuck Lane, if I could begin with you. That whole Stephen Glass episode must have been very traumatic for you and I just wanted to ask, you know, when you think about it now, what do you think about why something like this happens?
Mr. LANE: I think there are some people who, for whatever kind of twisted internal reason, enjoy tricking other people, and there is a tremendous rush that they get. At least I think that was part of what was going on with Stephen Glass. Psychologists even have coined a name for it. They call it duping delight. And if you can get away with it for a long time and get rewarded for it, I think the delight just grows even stronger.
MARTIN: Laura, what’s your take on this?
Ms. BROWDER: Well, I think there’s a long history of these kinds of autobiographies, and people write them for a couple of reasons. There are a number of people who are caught in historical traps. You know, their identities are such, like a Sylvester Long, who was an early Indian impersonator, who grew up in North Carolina, was defined as colored by the racial laws of his time and was working as a janitor. When he re-invented himself as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, he suddenly could become an international movie star, have his own line of running shoes. It was a better life.
But then there are other people like Margaret Seltzer who I think feel pain, feel traumatized, feel unhappy, and they want to attach that kind of inchoate pain to an identity that everyone recognizes as suffering. And that’s why we get a lot of fake Holocaust memoirs. That’s why we get fake Vietnam vets, and that’s why we get fake memoirs like this, where she is a foster child, parentless, she’s in a gang. You know, everyone understands that she’s had a bad time when she attaches this to a racial or ethnic identity, to poverty, to parentlessness.
MARTIN: I take it that you think it’s significant that she chose to be part Native American.
Ms. BROWDER: Absolutely. There’s a very long history of fake Native American memoirs because in this country we see Native Americans as the most authentic Americans, in a way, as a doomed, suffering, pure group of people with great spiritual potential. I mean I think it’s significant that the most famous fake Native American memoir to this day is « The Education of Little Tree, » about a Cherokee orphan, which turned out to be written by a prominent Ku Klux Klansman, you know, a synagogue bomber, a church bomber.
MARTIN: Yes, you’re right, that is a remarkable story. And Vera Lee, the story in which you are involved just happened very recently. Misha de Fonseca’s book perhaps not as well known in the United States but a bestseller in Europe. And how did it come apart? How did it get unraveled?
Ms. LEE: It became unraveled because there was a genealogist who either was invited to research the – Misha’s background or she just happened to. I never got that part of the story right. But apparently the jig was up. Misha knew that she had been discovered and she thought that she had better admit to it.
MARTIN: No, but in hindsight, and I’m getting these emails now from people saying almost everybody knew that was made up, and who – I smelled a rat from the beginning. And of course Misha’s story or Monique’s story is actually, is rather remarkable, she says that she kind of ran off to escape the Nazis into the woods and was on her own for quite a long time living in the forest among the wolves as a very young child. But did you ever feel that way when you were working with her? Did you ever suspect something was wrong?
Ms. LEE: I did see discrepancies, definitely. And I wondered a lot about it and I did research into it, talked to many people about it. But the more I spoke with Misha, and the more research I did, the more I thought it was quite possible, not in the small details, because after all she was trying to reconstruct memoirs from her childhood – and that had been 50 years ago – but in general I would say it made sense to me.
MARTIN: Speaking of sort of the little variations around the details, I have a short clip from my interview with Margaret, I guess I want to call her Margaret Seltzer, who presented herself as Margaret Jones, where she sort of – she admits to me that she, that some of the characters were composites. But here is her explanation for that. Let’s play that short clip.
Ms. MARGARET SELTZER: Everything is true. It’s just, let’s say like the scene where I went to the grocery store with my little sisters. There was more like, instead of three of us there was five of us. But I sort of combined them into one person just because, well if you’re keeping track as a reader of five kids running around the store, you’re not focused on any one of them.
MARTIN: I understand what you’re saying.
So Chuck Lane, talk to me about this. When you were trying to figure out what was going on with Stephen Glass, is this the same kind of explanation he gave? Now, obviously he’s a journalist. He’s supposed to be doing sort of news stories, and I think people are willing to give memoir, you know, memoirs a little bit more latitude, because how could you possible reconstruct, you know, conversations, you know, from when you were 12? So I do think people give people a little bit more latitude there. But is that a common thing?
Mr. LANE: As I listened to your clip there, I had a sense of déjà vu; it was just like listening to Stephen Glass. In his first line of defense, his first attempt to defend his stories from the discrepancies, from the discrepancies that we discovered, he said, oh well, look, you have to understand, I wasn’t there at this particular meeting but I reconstructed it later on. One of the themes that my students and I were discussing this term is this whole issue of the composite.
This is a very, very common excuse that fraudulent writers develop when they come under suspicion, because if you think about it, it’s very difficult to disprove. Once you start talking about how I combined the elements of several different people or whatever, it just makes the job of the fact checker that much more difficult. And so I’m not at all surprised to hear that this Margaret Seltzer is adopting this as an attempted line of defense because it’s so commonly used by fraudulent writers.
MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about Margaret Seltzer’s confession that she fabricated her memoir, « Love and Consequences, » and I’m joined by three writers who have a close experience with the previous literary frauds – Chuck Lane, formerly an editor at The New Republic, Vera Lee, a ghost writer for Misha de Fonseca, whose memoir about fleeing the Nazis has been exposed as a fraud, and Laura Browder, author of a book about ethnic impersonation in American literature.
Laura, I’m just curious about the question of whether you think that these writers, the whole controversy of taking on an identity other than one’s own, I mean fiction writers can do that. In fact, some have really celebrated works, like thinking of « Memoir of a Geisha » was written by somebody who was not Japanese, not a woman. There’s, you know, « Remains of the Day, » written by somebody who is not an English sort of butler. So I’m curious why people, because these people are all talented writers, why they don’t just write a novel and take on whatever voice they want?
Ms. BROWDER: Well, I think that Americans are in love with the idea of authenticity. And this is demonstrated by the vast popularity now of memoirs and memoir writing and by our idea that people who are not white and not middle class are living more authentic lives and having more authentic lives and having more authentic experiences than white middle class people, and I think because of this, the people like Margaret Seltzer feel that their stories will have more power and more grit if they present them as authentic memoirs.
MARTIN: What do you buy of her story that she thought she was doing something positive to get this story out in a way that she feels it would not have been received otherwise, that she felt she was kind of, what is it, showing the flag, you know, for the hood as it were and doing something positive?
Ms. BROWDER: You know, it’s so funny. When I read that, I immediately thought of all those white abolitionists who wrote fake slave narratives in the 1840s and 1850s because they felt that they were more qualified to tell the authentic stories of slaves than the slaves were themselves.
So that’s got a long history, and you see it also in a memoir like Grace Halsell’s « Soul Sister, » which she wrote in the ’60s. She was a speechwriter in the Johnson White House who decided that she needed to become black, had melanin treatments, moved to Harlem, and wrote about how she soon became more authentically black than the actual black people that she met because she felt that they were not suffering enough, they were not embracing what she saw as their primitive spirits.
So this idea of white middle class people feeling that they are more qualified to tell the story of someone who is black and poor than actual poor black people has a long, long history in American literature.
MARTIN: Vera, what about Misha or Monica? Does she feel sorry about this, to your knowledge? I mean, her explanation when she was reached by a reporter – and she’s given very few interviews – was to say this really is my story as I understand it, but she does seem to know the difference between fact and fiction. I mean…
Ms. LEE: Yes, and apparently she did issue an apology, a general apology to anybody that she had offended by her duplicity, but it’s hard to know what’s in her mind. She’s a very complicated person.
MARTIN: Chuck Lane, what about Stephen Glass? Do you – and I, as a journalist obviously you’re very concerned that people sort of tell the truth at the work, have the power of truth, with journalism very much sort of under fire in this country and around the world, you know, frankly, in lots of places for not, you know, sort of getting it right.
But do you think that Stephen Glass – I’m still interested in his motivation. Do you think that he thought he was doing something worthwhile or he just wanted to be famous and thought he could get away with it?
Mr. LANE: I think Stephen Glass is different from some of the memoirists that your other guests are very astutely discussing here. I think he was not – I don’t think he had a larger kind of project to document the plight of a particular group or anything like that.
I think Stephen Glass was actually a much, much – sort of like a super-prankster, a kind of journalistic vandal, if you like, who just delighted secretly in knocking over all the furniture of our profession.
And he was lavishly rewarded for it. He was on his way to making a lot of money, to having lucrative freelance contracts with other magazines, not just the New Republic, and in a way the real question might be why wouldn’t he do it, as long as he was getting away with it.
I just want to say, if I might, I think there is a real harm, though, done, perhaps not so much by the content of a Stephen Glass story, but when you have people faking documents about the Holocaust, unfortunately there are Holocaust deniers in this world, and that sort of fabrication can really feed very pernicious views about the underlying truth of what are actual historical events.
MARTIN: And also I think the realities life as experienced by people. That’s some of the e-mail I’m getting from people, saying, okay, now when people who really are experiencing these things, you know, who’s going to believe them, people who are abused in foster care, people who are lured into gang life. Who’s going to believe them?
Laura Browder, how do these people think they’re going to get away with it? In Margaret Seltzer’s case, it seems that her sister saw her picture in the New York Times and called the publisher and said, you know, no way. So why do these people think that nobody’s going to tell?
Ms. BROWDER: Well, probably because very often either people don’t tell, or even when these memoirs are exposed, you know, people are shocked for a day and then get over it. You know, « The Education of Little Tree » was exposed in 1976 after Asa Carter, the Klansman, got on the Barbara Walters show as Forrest Carter, the Cherokee orphan, and his old friends in Alabama saw the show and said, hey, that’s Asa.
So there was a little article in the New York Times, fine. Time went by, the book sold another 600,000 copies, and it was finally exposed again in the early ’90s. But it’s still selling, and many people to this day don’t know that it’s a fake.
So I think the Margaret Seltzer story is unusual in that publisher acted so quickly to recall the copies. Most of the time there’s a scandal, everyone’s shocked, everyone forgets.
MARTIN: Vera, final question to you. What has this been like for you?
Ms. LEE: For me?
Ms. LEE: Reading about this? I find it really fascinating, and you know, I agree with Chuck. We shouldn’t forget that some real harm is done, because most of the time ethnic-impersonator autobiographies succeed because they cater to people’s preconceived ideas about what the experience of Native Americans or black people living in the inner city or immigrant Jews or whoever the particular group is – they cater to stereotypes, and so they tend to reinforce those stereotypes.
I mean, in a very concrete way I think of Asa Carter, who was literally financing his career as a white supremacist by writing these fake memoirs.
MARTIN: We’re going to have to leave it there. All right, thank you so much. We heard from Laura Browder. She’s the author of a book about authors who assume ethnic identities in their autobiographies. It’s called « Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. » We were also joined by Chuck Lane. He’s on the editorial board at the Washington Post, a former editor at the New Republic who exposed Stephen Glass as a fake. And we were joined by Vera Lee, ghost writer for the book « Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years. » That story was also recently exposed as untrue. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LEE: Thank you.
Mr. LANE: Thank you.
The New York Times
February 26, 2008
LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES
A Memoir of Hope and Survival
Margaret B. Jones
296 pages. Riverhead Books. $24.95.
Editors’ Note Appended
In the South-Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Margaret B. Jones grew up in the 1980s, gangs recruited “with the same intensity as the N.F.L. did,” she says, and shootouts and hits were so ubiquitous that “the odds were stacked against a male child living to see 25.” Peddlers went door to door selling life insurance policies, reminding parents of these deadly stats, and even teenage girls and elderly church ladies carried pistols to protect themselves. As the crack epidemic metastasized, and turf wars escalated, the ’hood became a combat zone, with police raids and deadly face-offs between Bloods and Crips becoming routine parts of daily life.
A dealer the young Ms. Jones made deliveries for lays out the unforgiving rules of the street:
¶ “Trust no one. Even your own momma will sell you out for the right price or if she gets scared enough.”
¶ “War has no room for diplomacy, war is outright vicious. Never expect mercy and never show it.”
¶ “There is no greater sin in war than ignorance. Never speak or act on anything you aren’t 100 percent sure of, or someone will expose your mistake and take you down for it.”
This violent world has been memorably depicted before in Sanyika Shakur’s “Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member” (1993) and Leon Bing’s “Do or Die” (1991). What sets Ms. Jones’s humane and deeply affecting memoir apart is not just that it’s told from the point of view of a young girl coming of age in this world, but also that it focuses on the bonds of love and loyalty that can bind relatives and gang members together, and the craving after safety and escape that haunts so many lives in the ’hood.
Although some of the scenes she has recreated from her youth (which are told in colorful, streetwise argot) can feel self-consciously novelistic at times, Ms. Jones has done an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood. She captures both the brutal realities of a place where children learn to sleep on the floor to avoid the random bullets that might come smashing through the windows and walls at night, and the succor offered by family and friends. She conveys the extraordinary stoicism of women like Big Mom, her foster mother, who raised four grandchildren while working a day job and a night job. And she draws indelible portraits of these four kids who became her siblings: two young girls she would help raise, and two older boys, whom she emulated and followed into the Bloods.
Ms. Jones — or Bree, as she was known to family and friends — was abused as a child, put in foster care, and after three years of carrying a trash bag filled with her possessions from one temporary home to another, ended up, at 8 ½, in Big Mom’s home in South-Central — a part white, part Native American girl who looked utterly out of place in this nearly all-black world.
Bree had been told she had attention deficit disorder, reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and labeled “S.E.D. (severely emotionally disabled).” By age 8 she had “decided not to hurt anymore” and mastered the art of detachment: “I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of it before. I would watch my life from the outside rather than feel it from within. If I couldn’t feel it, it couldn’t hurt me.”
Though her foster family’s love would help heal Bree’s heart, the numbness always threatened to return, and she observes that this sort of emotional hibernation was rampant in South-Central. When Bree went to visit her foster brother Taye in prison — he’d been sentenced for selling drugs — he told her he loved her but didn’t want her to come back for any more visits: waiting for visits and letters, he said, “was killin me,” and he’d decided he wasn’t going to “even find out what was up wit y’all.” He had to do his “time solo” or he “ain gonna make it.”
Ms. Jones’s portraits of her family and friends are so sympathetic and unsentimental, so raw and tender and tough-minded that it’s clear to the reader that whatever detachment she learned as a child did not impair her capacity for caring. Instead it heightened her powers of observation, enabling her to write with a novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines.
She tells us how her brother Terrell became an “official” Blood, getting “jumped into” the gang by surviving a savage initiation beating. (“So five grown men beat 13-year-old Terrell for two minutes in the street.”) She tells us about getting a .38 for her 13th birthday and learning how to cook up a batch of crack to pay her family’s overdue water bill. She tells us about survival tips for visiting the local park. (“You must always scan the park, figure out who is where and the best escape route from each direction.”) And she tells us about the iconography of the tattooed tear many prisoners and ex-prisoners wear on one cheek. (It “can mean a few things, but usually it’s that the wearer killed someone in prison or lost a loved one while in prison.”)
Ms. Jones’s own story is strewn with loss and death and grief. She saw a gang elder named Kraziak, who’d patiently taught her about the history of L.A., gunned down by rival Crips. She saw her next-door neighbor Big Rodney, who used to give her books to read, grabbed by the police in a violent raid.
Both her older brothers, Terrell and Taye, were sent to prison, and after his release, Terrell, who’d talked of getting a straight job so his children wouldn’t grow up in the ’hood, was shot to death by Crips as he sat outside Big Mom’s house, waiting to meet his son for his weekend visit. Ms. Jones’s friend Marcus, a brother figure with whom she used to drive around Los Angeles, dreaming of what life might be like “beyond the lights” of the city, was shot and killed, she says, and her boyfriend, Slikk, was arrested for an attempted murder he didn’t commit.
Although one of Bree’s teachers urges her to apply to college, the idea initially seems “almost unimaginable” — “so beyond my reach that I couldn’t really picture myself doing it.” Finally, however, she does apply and eventually graduates from the University of Oregon with a degree in ethnic studies. She finds love with, of all men, a Crip who “changed every detail of my life” and who taught her that “we are not each other’s enemies,” we “were just born into different streets and neighborhoods.”
“Unlike most of my homies,” she writes, “I made it out of L.A. with my life and without a prison record. Wait, let me reword that, as it is not entirely true as it stands. I made it out of L.A. with what life I had left. I wake up in the morning, and where I live, in a little house on a dead-end street in a small Oregon town, I hear birds singing in a big-leaf maple outside my bedroom window, and I thank God because I know it shouldn’t have been so.”
There are “some parts of me that did die in L.A.,” she adds, “and that I’ll never get back, and other parts of me that die daily because I exist away from the city, in a world where people can’t begin to imagine what it was like where I grew up.”
One of her friends in prison writes her that “so few of us will ever get the chance to see what it’s like outside L.A.,” that she should “be our eyes.” That Ms. Jones has done, and with this remarkable book she has also borne witness to the life in the ’hood that she escaped, conveying not just the terrible violence and hatred of that world, but also the love and friendship that sustained her on those mean streets.
Editors’ Note: March 5, 2008
The Books of The Times review in The Arts on Feb. 26 and an article in House & Home on Thursday described the experiences of Margaret B. Jones, who said that she had been a foster child and gang member in South Central Los Angeles and survived to write a book about that life. “Margaret B. Jones” turned out to be a pseudonym, and her story a complete fabrication, as The Times reported on Tuesday. An article about how her publisher, and the newspaper, failed to discover the truth earlier appears today in The Arts.
Dan T. Carter
October 04, 1991
« Surprising best sellers often provide publishing’s sweetest stories, » began a story that appeared in USA Today on Tuesday about the nonfiction paperback hit of the summer, « The Education of Little Tree. »
First published in 1976 by Delacorte Press and reprinted in 1986 by the University of New Mexico Press, the late Forrest Carter’s gentle memoir of his Native American childhood has remained in first or second place on The New York Times paperback best-seller list for 14 weeks.
Adolescent and adult readers have warmed to the uplifting story of how this well-known writer of westerns — author of « The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales » and « Cry Geronimo » and friend of Clint Eastwood — came to know the wisdom of his Cherokee ancestors. In the wake of the success of « Dances With Wolves, » there is even talk of a Hollywood film.
Unfortunately, « The Education of Little Tree » is a hoax. The carefully constructed mask of Forrest Carter — Cherokee cowboy, self-taught writer and spokesman for Native Americans — was simply the last fantasy of a man who reinvented himself again and again in the 30 years that preceded his death in 1979.
His real name was Asa (Ace) Earl Carter. We share a common Southern heritage and he may be a distant relation of mine. Between 1946 and 1973, the Alabama native carved out a violent career in Southern politics as a Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble-rousing demagogue and secret author of the famous 1963 speech by Gov. George Wallace of Alabama: « Segregation now . . . Segregation tomorrow . . . Segregation forever. »
He even organized a paramilitary unit of about 100 men that he called the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. Among its acts, these white-sheeted sociopaths assaulted Nat (King) Cole during a concert in Birmingham in 1956. In 1957, the group, without Mr. Carter present, castrated a black man they chose at random in a Birmingham suburb as a warning to « uppity » Alabama blacks.
His agent and publishers have described Mr. Carter as a self-taught writer. Indeed he was. For almost 30 years he honed his skills by spewing out racist and anti-Semitic pamphlets. In 1970 he wrote that all N.A.A.C.P. presidents « have been Jews . . . the same gang who financed the Russian Communist Revolution with millions out of New York City. »
The same year, in a disquisition on the prospect of black policemen, he wrote: « SOON, you can expect your wife or daughter to be pulled over to the side of the road by one of these Ubangi or Watusi tribesman wearing the badge of Anglo-Saxon law enforcement and toting a gun . . . but [ he will be ] as uncivilized as the day his kind were found eating their kin in the jungle. »
Those who knew the gun-toting Ace Carter never found him very amusing, certainly not the two fellow Klansmen who were critically wounded by Mr. Carter in a 1957 shootout over Klan finances. Though Mr. Carter was indicted for assault with intent to murder, the Jefferson County district attorney, influenced by the highly charged racial climate in Alabama, ultimately decided to drop the charges.
But anyone who transformed himself into a new-age wise man for the greening of America while taking the name of « Forrest » Carter couldn’t have been entirely humorless. Mr. Carter, after all, took his new name from Nathan Bedford Forrest, the tobacco-chewing ex-mule skinner, slave trader and Civil War general who founded the original Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1866.
Can this be the same man who wrote « The Education of Little Tree » with its saccharine environmentalism and patronizing descriptions of imaginary Cherokee grandparents? (« They gave themselves . . . to nature, not trying to subdue it, or pervert it, but to live with it. And so they loved the thought, and loving it grew to be it, so that they could not think as the white man. »)
One explanation is suggested by the Calhoun County High School yearbook for 1943. The senior class prophet predicted he would return to Calhoun County as a « famous movie star. » When he died in Abilene, Tex., of heart failure at the age of 53, he was on his way to California with a screenplay for his second Josey Wales book. Handsome, energetic, ambitious, always the actor, his classmates had known that Asa Carter would do whatever he had to to escape the sleepy little Alabama town of Oxford.
In his lifetime, Forrest Carter was able to move from Klan rabble-rouser to speech writer for George Wallace’s white backlash to successful author and screenwriter by finding a voice in harmony with a changing America.
In Asa Carter’s first book, the rebel outlaw Josey Wales seeks common ground with the Commanche chief, Ten Bears, in a soliloquy that Clint Eastwood repeats in his film. « What ye and me cares about has been butchered . . . raped, » Wales tells Ten Bears. « It’s been done by them lyin’, double-tongued snakes that run guv-mints. Guv-mints lie . . . promise . . . back-stab . . . eat in youre lodge and rape youre women and kill when ye sleep on their promises. »
Even the gentle Little Tree, Mr. Carter’s newly popular hero, learned to despise all representatives of organized society — teachers, politicians, religious leaders — as « powerful monsters who had no regard for how folks had to live and get by. »
From Tom Mix to Gary Cooper, the task of the traditional western hero was to replace the savage world of the desperado with the civilized community governed by the rule of law. Americans might feel a loss at the end of the frontier, but the word « outlaw » was seldom a compliment.
All that changed in the 1960’s. American moviegoers flocked to see Clint Eastwood in « A Fistful of Dollars, » his grimy spaghetti western, and by the 1980’s, Rambo was king of the box office. Asa Carter’s celebration of sadomasochistic violence and thinly veiled vigilantism in his westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s had become a powerful theme of American popular culture.
In the last three years of his life, with his books on « The Education of Little Tree » and « Cry Geronimo, » Mr. Carter changed course. But there are threads that stretch from Asa Carter’s racist pamphlets to his new-age novels of the Native American: We live unto ourselves. We trust no one outside the circle of blood kin and closest comrades. We have no responsibilities outside that closed circle. Government and all its agencies are corrupt. Politics is a lie.
What does it tell us that we are so easily deceived?
Dan T. Carter, professor of history at Emory University, is working on a biography of George Wallace.
How the author of a current best-seller conned the world into believing he was a gentle Texas novelist instead of a vicious Alabama Klansman.
Everyone knew Forrest Carter had been drinking. It was October 1978, and the novelist from Abilene was a guest speaker at the Wellesley College Club book-and-author luncheon in Dallas. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, the author of the Rebel Outlaws: Josey Wales and other Western adventures delivered a slurred speech about the need for people to love one another. The message was straight out of Carter’s 1976 book, the Education of Little Tree, an account of his upbringing in the backwoods of Tennessee, where his Indian grandparents taught him self-reliance, distrust of “guvmint,” communion with nature, and love of one’s fellow man.
In the grand ballroom of the Sheraton, the audience shifted uneasily at this gushing of bonhomie. Most of the listeners were well-groomed North Dallas men and women—the distinguished supporters of what passed for the city’s literary scene. In an expansive moment, Carter pointed across the podium at his fellow speaker, historian Barbara Tuchman.
“Now, she’s a good ol’ Jew girl,” Carter said. Then he swung his arm toward Stanley Marcus, who was in the audience. “Now, Stanley,” he went on, “there’s a good ol’ Jew boy.”
A few uneasy titters arose from the audience as Carter’s boozy attempts to demonstarte his bigheartedness. The listeners were left to wonder how someone who had written so poignantly about humanitarian values could suddenly start talking like an anit-Semite. The answer was not fully known until last summer, when The Education of Little Tree improbably reached the New York Times best-seller list, fifteen years after its publication and twelve years after Forrest Carter’s death.
As it turned out, he was not a cowboy author after all. He wasn’t even Forrest Carter. His real name was Asa Earl Carter, and he was not from Texas but Alabama. He had sounded like an anti-Semite because he had been one all his life. He had also been a racist, an open advocate of white supremacy. As Asa Carter, he had been a writer, not of novels but of incendiary speeches for George Wallace, the David Duke of twenty years ago. The most famous lines Carter ever wrote were for Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”
What’s more, all of this was known to many people during the years that Asa Carter masqueraded as Forrest Carter. The story had appeared in the New York Times in 1976, two years before Carter’s speech to the Wellesley College Club. Yet it was forgotten — or ignored — for years. Not until The Education of Little Tree became a best-seller did the truth resurface that Carter and the book were phonies. By that time, Carter had joined Clifford Irving and the forgers of the Hitler diaries as perpetrators of the century’s most brazen literary hoaxes.
THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE SOLD moderately well during Forrest Carter’s lifetime. But when it was reissued in 1986, its gentle message of environmentalism and multiculturalism was perfectly attuned to the times. Carter’s story about life with Granma and Granpa is filled with rhapsodic passages about nature:
I trotted behind Granpa and i could feel the upward slant of the trail.
I could feel something more, as Granma said i would. Mon-o-lah, the earth mother, came to me through my moccasins, i could feel her push and swell here, and sway and give there … And the roots that veined her body and the life of the water-blood, deep inside her. She was warm and springy and bounced me on her breast, as Granma said she would.
Last summer, Little Tree mania broke out across the country. Hollywood studios competed for movie rights. School-children formed Little Tree fan clubs. But then an Atlanta historian wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that unmasked Asa Carter a second time. For weeks, Carter’s agent, Eleanor Friede, vehemently denied any link between the two men. “An anti-semite, anti-Negro? That was never Forrest,” she said. Not until Carter’s reclusive widow acknowledged the truth in October did the Times shift The Education of Little Tree from its nonfiction list to fiction.
With the book revealed as a fabrication, the questions remained: Who was Forrest Carter? How could someone who had ranted about the “bestiality” of blacks, who had once vowed to die to preserve the Anglo-Saxon race, write so movingly about downtrodden Indians? Did he undergo a spiritual conversion? An emotional breakdown? The mystery was enhanced by the silence of Carter’s wife and four children, who refused to discuss the details of Carter’s double life. His New Age fans desperately wanted to believe he had changed, for if he had not, they had been duped. Worse, they would have to acknowledge that the book they had seen as a validation of their leftist beliefs actually sprang from the far right, from a value system they abhorred.
The only way to learn the answers was to reconstruct Carter’s life — to talk to his friends in Alabama who knew him as Asa and to the Texans who knew him as Forrest. In Alabama, he saw himself as a crusader, the last defender of the noble south. He clung to the idea of a white uprising against the civil rights movement, but by 1970 he had to concede that his cause was lost. A defeated man, Asa Carter did what so many other Southerners had done when faced with failure — carved “GTT” on the porch post and headed West, gone to Texas. But where others moved to find a new future, Asa Carter moved to find a past. To become Forrest Carter, all he had to do was dress up in cowboy clothes and alter his Southern self-reliant ideology to a Western frontier guise. So convincing was his performance that he seemed to believe it himself. Two days after the book club luncheon, Dallas Morning News columnist Bob St. John wrote, “I tell you the man was amazing, as much of an established character as anybody in his books.” Unknowingly, St. John had hit upon the truth: Forrest Carter had become his own best character.
GROWING UP NEAR CHOCOLOCO CREEK, in the piedmont of the Appalachians in northern Alabama, Asa Carter was fascinated by his geneology. His roots were deep in the Confederacy. His maternal great-grandfather was James Weatherly, a Confederate capatain and one of Morgan’s raiders. His great-uncle on his father’s side served with Mosby’s Partisans and was hanged by the Union general Philip Sheridan.
Carter was already ideologically uncompromising when he graduated from high school in 1943. He enlisted in the Navy, he told friends, so he wouldn’t have to fight the Germans, whom he regarded as racially akin to his true ancestors, the Scotch Irish. Moreover, Germany hadn’t attacked our country. Why should the United States be fighting a Jewish war? Carter returned from the service in 1945, having been a boxing champ in the Third Fleet in the South Pacific. That year he married his quiet high school girlfriend, Thelma India Walker. They moved to Colorado, where he studied journalism and worked at a radio station. In 1953, at 28, he moved back to Alabama with Thelma and their son and quickly became enmeshed in the racial upheaval that was spreading across the South.
Figuring out Carter’s political beliefs is not difficult; copies of his radio broadcasts are available, as are issues of the Southerner, a monthly newsletter he wrote and edited. Many of his associates from the fifties and sixties are eager to talk about their notorious colleague. Their stories are chilling. On the issue of race, Carter was ruthless. To him, white supremacy was the foundation for law, order, and civilization. Racial equality would lead to race mixing, or “mongrelization,” which was against the laws of nature and God. The NAACP was the “National Association for the Agitation of Colored People,” and the civil rights movement was a concotion of world Jewry — the impetus behind the liberal tide that was threatening American democracy. In Carter’s view, blacks were to be pitied, but Jews were to be feared. Blaming them had a kind of dark logic; how else could you explain why previously docile Negroes would suddenly revolt?
His conception of the South was caught up in a mythic notion of noble people and an aggrieved land. He saw himself as an Ivanhoe, the valiant knight who fights romantic battles against great odds for a pure motive. The struggle against integration was, to him, Reconstruction all over again. Blacks, he said, were undeserving compared with the patient and brave Indians, who had suffered terrible wrongs inflicted by the Yankees. “I heard him say many times that blacks don’t know what it is to be mistreated,” says Buddy Barnett, Asa’s friend from childhood, who lives in Oxford, Alabama. “The Indians have suffered more.”
Asa’s views found adherents, particularly among Birmingham’s wealthy establishment, but he was always on the political fringe. Time and again he was frustrated when he tried to run for public office: for the Birmingham city commission, for lieutenant governor, and later for governor of Alabama. In 1954, the year of the landmark school desegregation ruling, he attracted the attention of the American States Rights Association, a Birmingham businessmen’s group opposed to integration. Carter was hired to stir up support for its cause through broadcasts on radio station WILD. But Carter was fired after six months because he used his broadcast to blast National Brotherhood Week, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Later that year, Carter formed a white citizens council. Throughout the South, the citizens council movement was gaining support as a respectable segregationist alternative to the Ku Klux Klan. Membership began to boom after the Montgomery bus boycott got under way in December 1955; at one time, Carter’s group claimed thirty to forty chapters. But Carter soon ran into trouble with other Alabama citizen council leaders because, once again, his views were too extreme: He wouldn’t allow Jews in his group. “We believe that this is basically a battle between Christianity and atheistic communism,” he told a reporter. He saw conservative values threatened everywhere — even in the Blondie comic strip, where, he said, Dagwood’s foolishness undermined fatherhood. He picketed a rock concert with signs that said, “Jungle Music Promotes Integration” and “Bebop Promotes Communism.”
In the mid-fifties, Asa Carter always seemed to be on the periphery of violence. Although he denied that he was a member of the Klan, his signature appears on the articles of incorporation of a shadowy paramilitary gang called the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, whose members met secretly and wore Rebel-gray robes. Meetings were called to order with the thrust of a sword into the floor and a knife into the speaker’s stand. In 1957, two men were wounded and left for dead in a gunfight at a statewide meeting of Carter’s Klan. One of them later identified Asa as the robed and hooded man who had shot him, but the state never prosecuted the case. On Labor Day, 1957, six alleged members of his Klan abducted a black handyman, sliced off his scrotum, and tortured him by pouring turpentine on his wounds. Buddy Barnett says Asa was scornful of the way his cohorts had treated the black man. He says Carter told him, “It would have been better to have killed him than to do that.”
In his speeches, Asa openly advocated violence. Newspapers reported that at one rally he vowed to put his “blood on the ground” to halt integration; at another, he said of the federal government, “If it’s violence they want, it’s violence they will get.”
Even among his most resistant segreationist circles in the South, Carter’s tactics were beyond the pale. Eventually he was drummed out of the citizens council movement. In the spring of 1958, he made a pitiful stab at the Democratic primary for state lieutenant governor and finished fifth in a five-man field. Dispirited, he was quoted in a newspaper article as calling the Klan leadership “a bunch of trash.” And then just when Asa hit bottom, he hooked up with someone who offered fresh hope.
IN 1958, A YOUNG LAWYER NAMED GEORGE WALLACE ran for governor of Alabama against the state’s attorney general, John Patterson. Backed by the Klan, Patterson campaigned for a white Alabama and trounced Wallace, who was considered a moderate. After the election, Asa Carter was invited to join the Wallace team as a speech writer. Wallace was a skilled extemporaneous speaker: very forceful but only in spurts. Ace — as he was known to Wallace’s men — had a talent for inflated images and grandiloquent language. “Wallace wanted him to use hate,” says Seymore Trammell, Wallace’s former finance director. “He wanted it real strong.”
But Carter’s sinister reputation presented a problem. Nervous about their candidate’s being linked with Carter, Wallace’s men arranged for him to be paid sub rosa through various Wallace cronies — a Montgomery printer, a road contractor, and an insurance executive. At Wallace’s campaign headquarters, Carter was given a rear office, where he could work unnoticed. After Wallace’s victory in 1962, Carter took over a cubbyhole in the basement of the capitol. “We would go into the room, and by the time we got through talking for two hours, we’d get him riled up,” says Trammell. “We fed him raw meat. We would treat him almost like an animal — like you would give a race-horse a shot.” Carter would take a pack of Pall Malls, close the door, and emerge hours later with a riveting speech.
Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address — delivered on the steps of the Alabama state capitol, where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy — was a call to arms for the embattled people of Alabama: “In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say: Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” The audience leapt to their feet. Six months later, in Tuscaloosa, Wallace delivered his “Standing in the schoolhouse door” speech, also largely written by Ace Carter. These speeches helped propel Wallace to national prominence.
But Carter frightened even Wallace’s toughest men. A large man with a barrel chest, jet-black hair, and thick eyebrows, he exuded an air of danger. He kept an old Webley six-shooter with him at all times. In his personal life, he was circumspect. During the week, he lived at the Jefferson Davis Hotel in Montgomery, where Wallace’s men picked up the tab. On weekends, he would drive 120 miles up to Oxford to see his wife and four children. To his Montgomery friends, who talked politics with him at the Sahara restaurant, he had one weakness: After a few drinks, he turned belligerent. “I would not be around him when he was drinking,” says former Wallace associate Ray Andrews. “He more or less would start foaming at the mouth.”
Increasingly, Carter saw Wallace as the nation’s would-be savior. If he could make it to the presidency, he could prevent the country from falling prey to the evils of integration and communism. When Wallace was excluded from the governor’s race in 1966 because of a nonsuccession rule, he toyed with a run for the Senate. But Carter was among those who discouraged him; he thought Wallace would have to make too many compromising stands. Instead, he encouraged Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, to run for governor. After she won the election, Lurleen wanted to make Ace her press secretary, but her husband’s staff thought that was too controversial, so he continued to write speeches. When Lurleen died of ovarian cancer after only eighteen months in office, Carter was once again out of a job.
In 1968, when Wallace ran for president on a third-party ticket, Carter made several trips through the Midwest with Bobby Shelton, the Grand Wizard from Tuscaloosa, drumming up support for the campaign. But by then Wallace had tempered his racial rhetoric, and Carter’s skills as a speech writer were no longer helpful. He wanted Wallace to use language like “race mixing,” while Wallace insisted on “busing.” For Carter, Wallace’s political shift was a profound betrayal. So complete was his estrangement from Wallace that in 1970, Carter even ran against him as a Democratic candidate for the governor’s seat. His platform was predictable: anti-integration, anti-pornography, anti-Red movie writers in Hollywood. One Montgomery lobbyist recalls watching Carter campaign at the Talladegah County courthouse, protected by a phalanx of bodyguards. On the lawn before him was a large crowd, including a group of blacks trying to disrupt his speech by heckling. Carter kept gesturing to the blacks and saying, “This is a nigger mentality. This is typical slave mentality. This is all they know how to do.”
One of five candidates in the primary, Carter came in last, with only 15,000 votes. Then he made what must have been a humiliating pact: In exchange for the payment of his campaign debts, he agreed to write speeches for Wallace in the runoff against liberal Albert Brewer. But in his heart, Carter felt Wallace was a traitor. At Wallace’s inauguration in January 1971, Carter picketed with signs that said, “Wallace Is a Bigot” and “Free Our White Children.” Shortly after the ceremony, reporter Wayne Greenhaw recalls Carter’s complaining bitterly that Wallace had compromised his Southern ideals just when the fate of the nation hung in the balance. “If we keep on the way we’re going, with the mixing of the races, destroying God’s plan,” Carter told Greenhaw, “there won’t be an earth on which to live in five years.” When Carter finished, tears were streaming down his face. “You could see this horribly tortured human being,” Greenhaw says, “a totally defeated person.”
After that, Carter tried to found a string of all-white private schools, then feuded with Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley over taxes. In the Southerner, he raved because Baxley had appointed a “bushy headed black buck” as his assistant. Carter also blasted Wallace for letting blacks join the state highway patrol. “Soon,” Carter wrote, “you can expect your wife or daughter to be pulled over to the side of the road by one of these Ubangi or Watusi tribesmen wearing the badge of Anglo-Saxon law enforcement and toting a gun … but as uncivilized as the day his kind were found eating their kin in the jungle.”
In early 1971, Carter set up a statewide paramilitary organization whose members wore gray armbands with Confederate flags. Like his earlier political ventures, this one ended in failure. After one speech, a reporter wrote, Carter “seemed to have lost his spirit as he marched back and forth in a cadence before his assembly with a memorized speech. he drew but one applause.” The following year, Carter was arrested three times on alcohol-related charges. Then he seemed to drop from sight.
“EVERYBODY WANTS TO WRITE BOOKS,” Carter once told Bob St. John, explaining how he had come to be an author. “I also had developed this great interest in history and got the yearn to make some of the characters of which I’d heard real.” One lobbyist remembers visiting Carter’s home in the early seventies, around the time that he dropped out of politics. In the middle of the day, Carter was in pajamas and a smoking jacket, writing in longhand on lined yellow paper. He was working on an adventure novel about a die-hard Confederate soldier. The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales is based on the life of Jesse James. After Josey Wales’s wife and children are butchered by Union sympathizers, he continues to fight for his cause, time and again outfoxing the enemy with cunning tactics.
But the book is also about Asa Carter — or about the author as he saw himself persecuted by the federal government. By the time it was privately printed in 1973, Carter has selected a new name — Forrest Carter — borrowed from Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate hero and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Changing his name was no big deal; he had gone by Bud as a boy and Earl in Colorado. This time the reason for his deception was simple: His discredited career as Asa Carter would prevent him from becoming a writer; adopting a pseudonym was a way to start afresh.
In 1973, Asa and Thelma Carter auctioned their home in Alabama and moved to Florida. Their two eldest sons settled in Abilene, where their father set them up with a filling station. That year, Carter’s book was accepted for publication by Eleanor Friede and Delacorte Press.
Carter visited Abilene often, sometimes staying for months in the house he had bought his sons – whom he now called his nephews. He cultivated a new circle of friends, for whom he had to concoct an entirely new past. He told them he was part Cherokee, a former cowboy, bronc rider, dishwasher, and ranch hand, a man with no formal education but with a knack for writing. He said he spent his time drifting around the country from his home in Florida, where his wife lived, to the Indian nation, where his kinfolk lived. Everything about the way he presented himself was a fraud, from his ungrammatical speech to his cowpoke ways. He wore jeans, a bolo tie with a turquoise stone, and a black cowboy hat. His Abilene friends loved him for his fabulous stories and his highspiritedness. Sometimes he woud sing ballads. And sometimes, especially if he had been drinking, he would preform Indian war dances and chant in what he said was the Cherokee language.
Speaking to a literature class in Hardin-Simmons University, Carter talked about how he had rambled around the country looking for work. He said he had gone to the back door of a ranch house north of Dallas “when I was almost starved to death” and asked for work. The owner had offered him a meal, “but I wouldn’t take it without working first,” Carter said. He eventually became close friends with the rancher, Don Josey. Today, Josey is the president of Rancho Oil in Dallas. He and Carter were friends all right, but the rest of the story was a lie. Josey says he met Carter at a rally for Lurleen Wallace. The heir to an oil fortune, Josey is also a Confederate history buff. He and Carter had a lot in common, Josey says, including a shared sense of mirth over Carter’s ability to pull of a hoax.
Of all the people Forrest Carter deceived, it was perhaps his agent, Eleanor Friede, whom he betrayed the most. Carter had no respect for the agents, the editors, the lawyers, and, above all, the Jews who ran the New York publishing world. Friede, who had become famous for discovering Jonathon Livingston Seagull , was a Manhattan liberal married to a Jewish publisher – just the kind of person Carson would be likely to hate. But he and Friede struck up a strange relationship. With her, Carter played his wide-eyed bumpkin role to the hilt. Friede, who now lives in rural Virginia, recalls that when she met Carter in 1976, she was astonished to find a large man with a commanding presence. From his letters and phone conversations, he had come across as an awestruck country boy. “He really seemed like a child,” she says.
Because Friede was Carter’s main contact with the publishing world, maintaining the masquerade with her was essential. Ron Taylor, one of Carter’s close friends in Alabama, says he helped Carter to keep up the image of a drifting cowboy. Taylor would mail Friede telegrams signed by Carter from various places throughout the South. “He kept feeding her these side stories to confuse her,” Taylor says. Carter told Friede he could write only when he retreated to meditate, fast, and commune with nature. he called it ‘hidin’ out.” Friede saw it as part of his creative, tormented personality; she still defends Carter, maintaining that The Education of Little Tree is no hoax. There’s no doubt that Carter shamelessly manipulated Friede. To her face, he was tender. He called her ‘Miss Eleanor.” But in letters to friends, he put her down. the relationship he cultivated with her was part friendship, part con game.
FOR SEVERAL YEARS THE LIE worked flawlessly. Not until the summer of 1976 did Alabama newspaper Wayne Greenshaw figure ot that Forrest was really Ace. He wrote an article saying so for the New York Times, but his revelations had practically no effect. A few months later, Delacorte came out with The Education of Little tree which it promoted as a true story. That was also the year that Clint Eastwood turned Josey Wales into a hugely successful movie. Invited to appear on the Today show with Barbara Walters, Carter was petrified that she might learn about his background, so he took pains to disguise himself. He was forty pounds lighter than he had been in Alabama. He was tanned and had grown a moustache. And he wore a cowboy hat pulled down over his face. Walters did not probe into his past, but several of Carter’s Alabama acquaintances saw the program, recognized their friend, and laughed at how old Ace had pulled a fast one.
Carter’s views did not mellow in Texas. His easygoing humor was a facade he had adopted to preserve the mask. An Abilene friend, Louise Green, remembers hearing Carter rage about blacks more than once. At a steakhouse in Abilene, Carter flew into a nasty tirade. ‘He said he didn’t want anybody to take care of his poor old mother, and he didn’t want to take care of ‘some niggers old mother either’,” Green says. On and on he went, louder and louder, about how “the niggers ought to go back to Africa.” until other diners began to glare.
Only a few friends knew of his double life, and to them, he revealed a profound cynicism about the people he was deceiving. “He said,’Y’all screwed me all those years, and I’m gonna get you back,’” says his Birmingham attorney, R.B. Jones. “‘Y’all think you’re so damn smart. I’ll show you who’s so damn smart.’” To Don Josey, Carter wrote about his plans for a Little Tree sequel, which would cover his life from the age of nine to fourteen, when he had supposedly rambled the Oklahoma backwoods with the Cherokees and then crossed into Texas. Carter wrote that he intended to ‘work some good stuff in there about knocking on your back door for work and eats, etc. in the process of which we will try to learn them sick New Yorkers something.”
By 1979, the lies and the liquor had caught up with him. he had gained weight and look dissipated. His friends in abilene worried that he might never dry out enough to write another book. On June 8, 1979, Carter was passing through Abilene on his way to Hollywood to discuss the feature film version of Watch for Me on the Mountain his fourth and final book, which was about the life of Geronimo. It was at his son’s home in Potosi, south of Abilene, that Carter died mysteriously. Listed as the cause of death on the certificate was ‘aspiration of food and clotted blood’ due to “history of fist fight.” The ambulance driver told one of Carter’s friends that Carter had had a drunken fight with his son, fell, and most likely choked on his own vomit.
It is possible to read The Education of little Tree as a story about a child beset by evils of organized religion and intrusive government. The characters of Granpa and Granma personify pure goodness that Carter imputed to Native Americans. But there is little that is truly autobiographical about the book. According to Doug Carter, Asa’s younger brother, Granpa is based on great-grandfather James Weatherly, who died sometime around 1930, when Asa was about five — too young for Asa to have remembered him in detail. There is no counterpart to Granma in the Carter family. No one in the family ever called Asa Little Tree. According to Eleanor Friede, Carter’s wife maintains that the family is of Cherokee descent. But Doug Carter insists that there isn’t any Indian blood in the family.
Asa Carter admired the Indian people, especially the Cherokees. But the Cherokee language used in the book is mostly made up. There is no such thing as “Mon-o-lah, the earth mother.” His depiction of the Cherokee way of life is romanticized, like something out of Longfellow. “It’s very precious,” says Cherokee Geary Hobson, a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. “The Indians are sweet, sweet little creatures who can’t do any wrong.”
Only in an ideological sense is The Education of Little Tree true. It expounds an extreme kind of Jeffersonian political attitude that can be extended in any number of directions. To the left, it intersects with liberalism and multiculturalism; to the right, with libertarianism and anarchism. Out of context, the book might sound like a New Age manifesto. For many readers, it can exist on that level—surely all works of art take on a reality independent of their creators’ prejudices. But viewed in the context of Carter’s life and writings, The Education of little tree is the same right-wing story he had been telling all along. Perhaps there is another sense in which the story of Little Tree is true. Maybe, for Asa Carter, it represented a wishful kind of truth, the upbringing he wished he really had. “I think he felt so close to the background of the character he created,” says Doug Carter, “that I don’t believe he ever thought of it as deception.”
Motoko Rich and Joseph Berger
The New York Times
December 29, 2008
A man whose memoir about his experience during the Holocaust was to have been published in February has admitted that his story was embellished, and on Saturday evening his publisher canceled the release of the book.
And once again a New York publisher and Oprah Winfrey were among those fooled by a too-good-to-be-true story.
This time, it was the tale of Herman Rosenblat, who said he first met his wife while he was a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and she, disguised as a Christian farm girl, tossed apples over the camp’s fence to him. He said they met again on a blind date 12 years after the end of war in Coney Island and married. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.
Ms. Winfrey, who hosted Mr. Rosenblat and his wife, Roma Radzicki Rosenblat, on her show twice, called their romance “the single greatest love story” she had encountered in her 22 years on the show. On Saturday night, after learning from Mr. Rosenblat’s agent that the author had confessed that the story was fabricated, Berkley Books, a unit of Penguin Group that was planning to publish “Angel at the Fence,” Mr. Rosenblat’s memoir of surviving in a sub-camp of Buchenwald with the help of his future wife, canceled the book and demanded that Mr. Rosenblat return his advance.
Harris Salomon, who is producing a movie based on the story, said he would go ahead with the film, but as a work of fiction, adding that Mr. Rosenblat had agreed to donate all earnings from the film to Holocaust survivor charities.
Berkley’s decision came in the same year that another unit of Penguin, Riverhead Books, was duped by Margaret Seltzer, the author of “Love and Consequences,” her fabricated gang memoir about her life as a white girl taken into an African-American foster home in South Central Los Angeles. She had in fact been raised by her biological family in a well-to-do section of the San Fernando Valley. It also followed the revelations, nearly three years ago, that James Frey, the Oprah Winfrey-annointed author “A Million Little Pieces,” had exaggerated details of his memoir of drug addiction.
This latest literary hoax is likely to trigger yet more questions as to why the publishing industry has such a poor track record of fact-checking.
In the latest instance, no one at Berkley questioned the central truth of Mr. Rosenblat’s story until last week, said Andrea Hurst, his agent. Neither Leslie Gelbman, president and publisher of Berkley, nor Natalee Rosenstein, Mr. Rosenblat’s editor at Berkley, returned calls or e-mail messages seeking comment. Craig Burke, director of publicity for Berkley, declined to elaborate beyond the company’s brief statement announcing the cancellation of the book. In an e-mail message, a spokesman for Ms. Winfrey also declined to comment.
After several scholars and family members attacked Mr. Rosenblat’s story in articles last week in The New Republic, Mr. Rosenblat confessed on Saturday to Ms. Hurst and Mr. Salomon that he had concocted the core of his tale. Ms. Hurst said that in an emotional telephone call with herself and Mr. Salomon, Mr. Rosenblat said his wife had never tossed him apples over the fence.
In a statement released through his agent, Mr. Rosenblat wrote that he had once been shot during a robbery and that while he was recovering in the hospital, “my mother came to me in a dream and said that I must tell my story so that my grandchildren would know of our survival from the Holocaust.”
He said that after the incident he began to write. “I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people,” he wrote in the statement. “I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.”
According to Ms. Hurst, who represents other inspirational writers including Bernie Siegel, author of “Love, Medicine & Miracles,” Mr. Rosenblat first concocted his story in the mid 1990s as an entry to a newspaper contest soliciting the “best love stories.” In 1996, he appeared on Ms. Winfrey’s show with his wife and repeated the fabricated story. From there, it snowballed, with versions appearing in magazines, a volume of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, and a children’s book, “Angel Girl,” by Laurie Friedman, released in September by an imprint of Lerner Publishing. Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblat, who now live in North Miami Beach, appeared on CBS’s “Early Show” in October.
As media coverage of Mr. Rosenblat’s story spread, scholars and others began to question the veracity of the romance throughout the blogosphere, pointing out that, among other things, the layout of the camp would have prevented the pair from meeting at a fence.
In a telephone interview in November, Mr. Rosenblat defended his story against such doubts. He said that his section of Schlieben, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, was not well guarded and that he could stand between a barracks and the six-to-eight-foot fence out of sight of guards. Roma was able to approach him because there were woods that would have concealed her.
In recounting the stunning “reunion” with Ms. Radzicki 12 years later as survivors living in New York, Mr. Rosenblat said Ms. Radzicki told him she had saved a boy by hurling apples over a fence to him.
“Did he have rags on his feet instead of shoes?” Mr. Rosenblat said he asked her.
She said yes and he told her, “That boy was me.”
In a telephone interview Sunday, Ms. Hurst, who sold the book to Berkley for less than $50,000, said she always believed the essential truth of Mr. Rosenblat’s tale until last week. “I believed the teller,” Ms. Hurst said. “He was in so many magazines and books and on ‘Oprah.’ It did not seem like it would not be true.” On Sunday, Ms. Hurst said that she was reviewing her legal options because “I’ve yet to see what kind of repercussions could come from this, and I was lied to.”
Ms. Hurst said that Mr. Rosenblat did provide some documentation, including a 1946 letter from a warden with the Jewish Children’s Community Committee for the Care of Children From the Camps that said Mr. Rosenblat had attended a technical school in London. Evidence of an organization with that name did not appear in Internet searches on Sunday.
Susanna Margolis, a New York-based ghost writer who polished Mr. Rosenblat’s manuscript, said she was surprised by his description of his first blind date with Ms. Radzicki. “I thought that was far-fetched.” she said. “But if somebody comes to you, as an agent and a publisher, and says, ‘This is my story,’ how do you check it other than to say, ‘Did this happen?’ ”
That so many would get taken in by Mr. Rosenblat’s inauthentic love story seems incredible given the number of fake memoirs that have come to light in the last few years. The Holocaust in particular has been fertile territory for fabricated personal histories: earlier this year, Misha Defonseca confessed that her memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” about her childhood spent running from the Nazis and living with wolves, was not true.
A decade ago, a Swiss historian debunked Binjamin Wilkomirski’s 1996 memoir, “Fragments,” which described how he survived as a Latvian Jewish orphan in a Nazi concentration camp. It turns out the book was written by Bruno Doessekker, a Swiss man who spent the war in relative comfort in Switzerland. Mr. Rosenblat, at least, appears to have told the truth about being a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps.
The primary sleuth in unmasking his fabrication of the apple story was Kenneth Waltzer, director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University. He has been working on a book on how 904 boys — including the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel — were saved from death by an underground rescue operation inside Buchenwald, and has interviewed hundreds of survivors, including boys from the ghetto at Piotrkow in Poland who were taken with the young Herman Rosenblat to the camp.
When Dr. Waltzer asked other survivors who were with Mr. Rosenblat about the tossed apple story, they said the story couldn’t possibly be true.
In his research of maps drawn by ex-prisoners, Dr. Waltzer learned that the section of Schlieben where Mr. Rosenblat was housed had fences facing other sections of the camp and only one fence — on the south — facing the outside world. That fence was adjacent to the camp’s SS barracks and the SS men there would have been able to spot a boy regularly speaking to a girl on the other side of the fence, Dr. Waltzer said. Moreover, the fence was electrified and civilians outside the camp were forbidden to walk along the road that bordered the fence.
Dr. Waltzer also learned from online documentation that Ms. Radzicki, her parents and two sisters were hidden as Christians at a farm not outside Schlieben but 210 miles away near Breslau.
Holocaust survivors and scholars are fiercely on guard against any fabrication of memories because they taint the truth of the Holocaust and raise doubts about the millions who were killed or brutalized.
“There’s no need to embellish, no need to aggrandize,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, the Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. “The facts are horrible, and when you’re teaching about horrible stuff you just have to lay out the facts.”
Stories and lies I
The New York Times
On a March day four years ago, a very old lady, striking, snowy-haired, unsmiling, was looking at me with disgust. A Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust, she’d been telling me how she and her young son had managed to keep a step ahead of the people who were hunting them down, and at the end of this stupefying tale of survival I’d looked up at her and said, « What an amazing story! » It was at that point that she flapped her spotted hand at me in disdain.
« Amazing story, » she mimicked me, tartly. She fetched a heavy sigh.
« If you didn’t have an amazing story, you didn’t survive. »
She was referring to literal survival, of course – survival at its meanest, most animal level, the mere continuance of the organism. At a time when Jews throughout Europe were being rounded up like livestock or hunted down like game, survival indeed depended on feats of endurance or daring so extreme, on accidents or luck so improbable, that they can seem too far-fetched to be true.
A Jewish couple who hid in the attic of a Nazi officers’ club, forced to listen as the soldiers below joked and drank after a day’s slaughter; two young brothers who hid in a forest, strapping the hooves of deer to their feet whenever they ventured into the snow to confuse those who were trying to find them; a youth who, the day before the Germans entered his Polish hometown, left home and just kept walking east, until he reached China.
I heard these stories firsthand five years ago, while researching a book about relatives of mine who didn’t survive. But still they keep coming. Last Monday, I heard about an orphaned Jewish girl who trekked 2,000 miles from Belgium to Ukraine, surviving the Warsaw ghetto, murdering a German officer, and – most « amazing » of all – taking refuge in forests where she was protected by kindly wolves.
The problem is that this story is a lie: Recounted in a 1997 international bestseller by Misha Levy Defonseca, it was exposed last week as a total fabrication – no trekking, no Warsaw, no murder, no wolves. (No Jews, either: The author, whose real name is Monique De Wael, is Roman Catholic.) To be sure, phony memoirs aren’t news: In 1998 the acclaimed child-survivor memoir « Fragments » was proved a fake, and more recently James Frey’s credibility infamously exploded into a million little pieces. But the trickle now seems to be a flood.
Just days after the revelations about De Wael’s book yet another popular first-person account of extreme suffering turned out to be a fraud. (This one, « Love and Consequences, » purports to be the autobiography of a young half-white, half-American Indian woman who was raised by a black foster mother in the gang-infested streets of Los Angeles.) This trend sheds alarming light on a cultural moment in which the meanings of suffering, identity and « reality » itself seem to have become dangerously slippery.
Each of the new books commits a fraud far more reprehensible than Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. De Wael was a Christian Belgian who was raised by close relatives after her parents, Resistance members, were taken away; Margaret Seltzer, the author of « Love and Consequences, » grew up in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood and attended an Episcopal day school.
In each case, then, a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit – a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too. Seltzer has talked about being « torn, » about wanting somehow to ventriloquize her subjects, to « put a voice to people who people don’t listen to. » De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: « I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community. » (« Felt Jewish » is repellent: Real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)
While these statements want to suggest a somehow admirable desire to « empathize » with the oppressed subjects, this sentimental gesture both mirrors and exploits a widespread, quite pernicious cultural confusion about identity and suffering. We have so often been invited, in the past decade and a half, to « feel the pain » of others that we rarely pause to wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing.
Empathy and pity are strong and necessary emotions that deepen our sense of connection to others, but they depend on a kind of metaphorical imagination of what others are going through. The facile assumption that we can literally « feel others’ pain » can be dangerous to our sense of who we are – and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. « We all have AIDS, » a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t. And to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.
Similarly – to return to the world of the Holocaust – a museum that offers ticket holders the chance to go inside a cattle car, presumably in order to convey what it was like to be in one, can ultimately encourage not true sympathy or understanding, but a slick « identification » that devalues the real suffering of the real people who had to endure that particular horror. (When you leave the cattle car, you go to the cafeteria to have your chicken salad; when they left it, they went into a gas chamber. Can you really say you « know what it was like »?)
In an era obsessed with « identity, » it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred. As, indeed, De Wael has so clearly blurred it, for reasons that she has suggested were pitiably psychological. « The story is mine, » she announced. « It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving. »
« My reality, » as opposed to « actual reality, » is, of course, one sign of psychosis, and given her real suffering during the war, you’re tempted to sympathize – until you read that her decision to write her memoir came at a time when her husband was out of work, or (we real Jews call this chutzpah) that she successfully sued the publisher for more than $20 million for professional malfeasance. Or until you learn about her galling manipulations of the people who believed her. (Slate reported that she got one rabbi to light a memorial candle « for animals. »)
« My reality » raises even more far-reaching and dire questions about the state of our culture, one in which the very concept of « reality » seems to be in danger. Think of « reality » entertainments, which so unnervingly parallel the faux-memoirists’ appropriation of others’ authentic emotional experience: In them, real people are forced to endure painful or humiliating or extreme situations, their real emotional reactions becoming the source of the viewers’ idle gratification. Think of the Internet: an unimaginably powerful tool for education but also a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it « published, » and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic identities, reality and fantasy.
That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true. Perhaps the most dismaying response to the James Frey scandal was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, « redemptive » experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel – er, memoir.
But then, we all like a good story. The cruelty of the fraudulent ones is that they will inevitably make us distrustful of the true ones – a result unbearable to think about when the Holocaust itself is increasingly dismissed by deniers as just another « amazing story. » Early on in my research for my book, another very old woman suddenly grew tired being interviewed. « Stories, stories, » she sighed wearily at the end of our time together. « There isn’t enough paper in the world to write the stories we can tell you. » She, of course, was talking about the true stories. How tragic if, because of the false ones, those amazing tales are never read – or believed.
Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of « The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, » is a professor of humanities at Bard College.