So you've got an idea for a novel. Big deal, right? Thousands of those are published every year and most collect dust on the shelves. How can you call attention to yours?
Hey, why not claim all the stuff in the book actually happened to you? Instead of a ridiculous product of your deranged imagination, it's an inspiring true story!
Be careful, though, because apparently that plan can blow up in your face.
In 2003, author James Frey published a "memoir" about his life as a total unrepentant addict, alcoholic, criminal and all-around bad-ass motherfucker. So bad-ass, in fact, he has a tattoo on his forearm that says "FTBSITTTD," which allegedly stands for "Fuck The Bullshit, It's Time To Throw Down."
His book describes one fucked up incident after another. How he'd been arrested 11 times before he reached the age of 19. How he was investigated by the FBI for his massive drug-running empire but was never caught. How, drunk and high on crack, he nearly ran down a cop in Ohio. Then he took on said cop's backup, almost won and, instead, wound up in the slammer.
In reality, of course, Jimmy Frey never did any of those things. Oh, there's a microscopic grain of truth to some of it. He did not run down a cop, but he did blatantly park illegally near one, was busted for driving under the influence and having an open beer in the car with him, and spent about five whole hours in jail before a buddy ponied up a few hundred dollars in bail.
The cop he "almost ran down" did call for back up, but that was because he was a foot patrolman and didn't have a car to transport the reportedly "polite and cooperative" Mr. Frey to the Big House. You can guess how much truth there was in his claim to being a Tony Montana-esque drug kingpin.
Now, normally, this level of horseshit is reserved for the dumb fucker you meet in a bar who turns his routine traffic stop into the finale of Bonnie and Clyde. You know it's crap, but you play along because either A) The story is at least entertaining; B) The guy's so hammered you're bound to get into a "Oh yeah? YOU CALLIN' ME A LIAR, MOTHERFUCKER?" confrontation; or C) You just don't care enough to call the dude on his bullshit.
But what makes Mr. Frey's deceit so monumental is that he spun it into a best-selling novel and managed to con the famously gullible Oprah Winfrey. When Oprah slapped her "Book Club" sticker on this pile of bullshit wrapped in a hardcover and dustjacket, it spent weeks and weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.
The Smoking Gun found that not only were his stories of drug running and cop smooshing bullshit, but that he had inexplicably written himself into the tragic auto vs. locomotive death of three teens in his hometown of St. Joseph, Michigan.
Oprah, Valkyrie of wounded dignity that she was, brought Frey and his publisher back onto her show. She reduced Frey to a stammering six-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar and forced his publisher to admit that she never really got around to checking the veracity of Frey's claims 'cause, you know, he seemed so trustworthy. For an admitted drunk, junkie and criminal, that is.
Our second entry in the "lame-ass white kid wants to be a stone-cold criminal" category is Love and Consequences penned under the nom de bullshit "Margaret B. Jones."
In this fauxmoir, "Jones" claims she is a half American Indian/half white foster kid growing up in the baddest parts of South Central Los Angeles, a world renowned war zone. She details her life with her foster mother, "Big Mom," her various foster brothers and sisters (many of whom die in violent and tragic ways), her experiences as a drug runner for the infamous Bloods gang at the age of 13 and cooking up some crack cocaine to pay the water bill at the age of 16.
"Jones" is actually Margaret Seltzer: an all white, upper-middle class girl who grew up in the oh-so-dangerous, predominantly white, San Fernando Valley suburb of Sherman Oaks. That's right kids, the killer drug running chick is actually a true-bred "Valley Girl."
How did Seltzer manage to get away with this crap before her own family sold her down the river? Through the totally convincing use of street slang, yo. For instance, she would spell words with a "k" instead of a "c". What, you didn't know gang folk did that? In her own words:
"... I want people to understand how deep-seated the hatred really is between CRIPs and Bloods. CRIPs celebrate C-days rather than B-days (birthdays) and Bloods smoke bigarettes not cigarettes. The hate is so deep that, as a Blood, you automatically change the spelling in words with a c in them."
That's... plausible. Right?
Poor Seltzer didn't get the chances that Frey did, such as scamming Oprah on national television. No, before her book tour got started Seltzer was ratted out... by her own sister. So that probably made for an awkward Thanksgiving.
Seltzer got the idea, she claimed, by hanging out very briefly at Grant High School in a less affluent area of the San Fernando Valley. These were the stories, she claimed, of friends and acquaintances she had made during that time and she felt their stories should be heard.
The Grant High School Marching Bloods.
As to why she chose to tell those stories as though they had happened to her, we're not entirely certain. Perhaps she thought it might give her some of the "street cred" that is so desperately necessary when attempting to "represent" to the "homies" at Trader Joe's.
In 1956, a publishing sensation swept through England. Finally, finally, someone had written a true-life story about being a Tibetan lama... and there was magic and ninjas and stuff in it! Just what the country ordered!
The Third Eye, authored by a man with the improbably hilarious name of Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, told the true story of a young Tibetan boy (the author) who became a lama (religious teacher) at a young age. Over the next few years he flies, meets yetis and has a hole drilled in his forehead to open his "third eye." Why does he do this last thing? Because the Dalai Lama has foreseen the Chinese re-taking of Tibet, and Lobsang's third eye will give him super-powers for reading minds.
Having lived through far too much awesomeness for one book, he continued it in sequels in which Lobsang flies airplanes for the Chinese in WW II, gets captured and spends time in a P.O.W. camp, survives Hiroshima, goes to England, is tortured, escapes his torturers in a luxury car and finally...
... he dies. Yes, he wrote his own death into his autobiography. While he was walking around alive.
To be fair to his publishers, he didn't work the whole "And then I totally died!" part in until his third book. And it was probably a James Frey situation, where the guy really was a lama but had to spice things up a little. Or a lot.
The famous Tibetologist and adventurer Heinrich Harrer (played by dream-boat Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet) became suspicious of Lobsang and hired a private detective to track the elusive lama down. And that detective did find his man... namely, Cyril Henry Hoskins, an Irish plumber's son who knew no Tibetan, had never been to Tibet and in fact did not even have a passport.
When all the academics cried in unison "Shenanigans, sir!" Cyril waved it off and told them the real story: That he was Tuesday Lobsang Rampa's spirit, and he was inhabiting the body of Cyril Hoskins. Undeterred, the man went on to write 24 books total, including tale about his real trip to Venus in a spaceship.