If you write an outrageously implausible story and get it published, congratulations -- you've just added yet another novel to the pile of thousands that come out every year. But if you write the exact same outrageous crap and put it in the biography section, then you've got yourself a best-seller and become a media sensation.
Authors know this, so the next time you read a biography filled with unusually inspiring, heartbreaking, or just plain awesome stories, keep in mind that there's a solid chance it's all complete and utter bullshit. For example ...
#6. Go Ask Alice Was a "Troubled Teen Diary" ... by a 54-Year-Old Mormon
Go Ask Alice is the diary of a 15-year-old girl whose drink is spiked with LSD during a party. Two years and several doobies, heroin shots, and blow jobs for money later, she's dead from an overdose. There's a good chance that your school either made you read this book or banned you from even looking at it. It's very popular with teachers, partly because of its "painfully honest" anti-drug message and partly because you can easily tell a student didn't actually read it when they call the unnamed protagonist "Alice" (that's the name of another character).
Cinema Studio Entertainment
In a plot twist, the narrator's true name is Tyler Durden.
In the four decades since its publication, the book has sold millions of copies around the world, and yet no one has been able to find out the identity of the stoner Anne Frank who wrote it. It's weird that none of the people who knew her have stepped up by now, huh? They're probably all dead from pot overdoses.
Wait, no, we do know who wrote the diary. Here's that young, troubled adolescent:
Beatrice Sparks via Daily Herald
Cheri Oteri was a heroin addict?
That's Beatrice Sparks, a Mormon youth counselor of dubious qualifications and master of the bullshit teen diary genre. Originally, Go Ask Alice was credited only to "Anonymous," but after it became a hit, Sparks came forward as its "editor," claiming in interviews that she transcribed a real teenager's diary, but she can't show it to you right now because, um, she left it in her other pants or something. Suspiciously, she was also the book's sole copyright holder. Oh, and there's the small fact that later editions had a disclaimer that flat-out said, "This is a work of fiction."
None of this fazed Sparks, who continued cranking out "real diaries" about teenagers having a shitty time, all written in the same mom-like style and lacking any of the inane stuff teens write about.
Harper Teen/Harper Collins/Harper Teen
Realistically, 90 percent of these should be terrible song lyrics.
But did any adults fall for this crap? The parents of 16-year-old suicide victim Alden Barrett apparently did, since they approached Sparks to publish their son's journal. Which she did ... after replacing most of it with a story about Satanism that she pulled out of her ass, of course.
#5. The Real Sybil Said She Never Had Multiple Personalities
Back in the '70s, multiple personalities were all the rage; teenage girls thought they were burly construction workers, bored housewives turned into Victorian empresses, Klan members became Native American tribespeople, etc. And it all started with the book Sybil, which documents the psychiatric treatment of a young woman of that name who has 15 other personalities living inside her head. Her psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur, discovers the traumas behind each "alter" and finally merges all of them into one Megazord of mental health.
The book has been adapted twice, most recently in the 2007 Jessica Lange feature of the same name:
Warner Bros Television
Seen here applying the classic Freudian therapy technique of gawking stoically.
Here's the thing: Psychiatrists aren't entirely sure that multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) actually exists -- in fact, some of them are positive it doesn't. Before Sybil came out in 1973, there were fewer than a hundred reported cases in Western medicine; now we're at over 40,000 (and most of them are in different people). Whether you believe DID is a thing or not, there's no doubt that Sybil's case influenced both patients and doctors to be on the lookout for her condition ... when there's a good chance she didn't even have it herself.
The real "Sybil," Shirley Ardell Mason, was being treated (read: given lots of drugs) by her friend Dr. Wilbur, and one day she started talking like a little girl and said her name was Peggy. We're sure the drugs had nothing to do with that.
"Oh good, now we can get movie tickets at half price."
Wilbur smelled a book deal and brought in schlocky writer Flora Schreiber to turn Mason's strange case into a literary hit. Letters between the women suggest they intentionally exaggerated the story to make it juicier, including faking grisly details about Mason's family. They were giving her a pseudonym anyway, so it's not like anyone could check.
Meanwhile, Mason just went along with it and brought out more and more alternate personalities, until she got tired of it and sent Wilbur a letter confessing she'd been lying the whole time. Wilbur went, "No you weren't," and continued with the treatment. Eventually, Mason was cured (we're sure discontinuing the drugs had nothing to do with that) ... until the book came out and the resulting attention ruined her life again. Whoops.
#4. Frances Farmer's Biographer Made Up Her Lobotomy
Shadowland chronicles actress Frances Farmer's stardom, alcoholism, and various run-ins with the law before the state decided to grant her a free mallet to the brain. You might recognize Farmer's name from the Nirvana track "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," a lovely ditty about her lobotomy. Or maybe you saw the biopic Frances with Jessica Lange, which climaxes on the same thing.
Talk about being typecast.
Farmer was a huge Hollywood star in the '30s and '40s, but this is her whole legacy now -- she's the famous lady whose brain got squashed by The Man.
And it isn't even true. The movie ends with a tragic scene from the book where a post-lobotomy Farmer is interviewed on TV and she "barely uttered a word." Since most people weren't about to go digging in the archives of a TV network, they assumed this was the truth ... but we have YouTube now. Here's the interview the book says she was "catatonic" in:
Yeah, that's not a lobotomy patient. Farmer was in Western State Hospital at a time when lobotomies were performed there, but there are no records of her being one of the lucky recipients. Her family, her friends, and the hospital staff all said there was no lobotomy. Her "biographer," William Arnold, just made that up, because apparently he wasn't too clear on his job description.
In fact, the whole book is filled with dozens of bizarre errors, starting with the year of Farmer's birth. Honestly, we're not sure if Arnold was completely aware of who Frances Farmer was.
"I cribbed chapters 5 through 9 from an episode of Bonanza."
Ironically, it was Arnold himself who eventually called bullshit on himself. You see, the producers of Frances never obtained the rights to adapt Shadowland, so when Arnold noticed that the totally made up portion with Farmer's lobotomy was in the movie, he sued the studio for copyright infringement. How dare they try to pass off his lies as their own? Shockingly, he lost, and Frances Farmer's lobotomy became another piece of Hollywood folklore, like Walt Disney's frozen head and Richard Gere's ass gerbils*.
* They were actually hamsters.