Thursday, March 06, 2008

They really didn't know?

I've been keeping up with the reports on the rash of faked memoirs lately.  Well, I guess it's only two.**  The first is the Holocaust memoir by Misha Defonseca and the second is the Growing Up in the 'Hood memoir by Margaret Seltzer.  The first one, called: "Misha:  A Memoire of the Holocaust Years."  The author recounts her experiences of escaping the Nazis, being adopted by wolves, taking 1900-mile trek across Europe, and shanking a German soldier (SS or Luftwafen, I don't know, I haven't read the book) at the age of seven, I think.  No need to blink, put on your glasses, or re-read the last sentence, your vision is not blurry and there are no typos there, you got it right the first time--your girl Misha said she was raised by wolves.

The second, a ghetto fantasy, if you will, is called:  "Love and Consequences," and describes Seltzer's experiences as a half-breed (Native and white) living in an African-American foster family (!) in  South Central Los Angeles, where she quickly becomes engulfed in the whole Bloods/Crips saga as a drug runner and then dealer grace a her foster brothers Jamal and Devante.  No, I'm kidding, her foster brothers' names were Terrell and Taye.  Check out the NY Times article on the subject.

Everyone with good sense knows that anything is possible.  Really, I am a firm believer that no story is too fanciful, because after my share of adventurous living--and I mean that in the substance-free sense of things--I have some stories that one would have to live to believe. Having said that, however, sometimes, things just really don't add up.  Ms. Seltzer's tale is one of those that leave you wondering...

Well, it turns out that her "memoir" is actually the ghetto fantasy of an upper-middle class, 100% white woman who was so fascinated by the 'hood and all of its trappings after a short stint as a teacher, in what I am assuming was the public school system, that she decided to create a life and write a book about it, claiming the story as her own.  

I will not deny, that ghetto/gang life can be seductive to the outsider.  Even to the insider, or so many people wouldn't be down for whatever.  While desperation and/or poverty might push you out there I don't believe the two are enough to keep you out there like that, that life, from my observations is just too hard on the soul.  

My first encounter with the culture, which came after living the white-bred life of just about every American black kid whose parents move them to to suburbs in this country, smacked of romanticization. But after realizing that I was not so far from that life, that my parents and I were both born into that life and that thankfully unlike most of my extended family we had escaped.  It's not fun, and seeing friends and family atrophy in cellblocks or in crack houses, or even at local departments of human services, well, I snapped out of it.  Don't get me wrong, the ghetto has its charms, where else can you indulge passions for fancy hairdos, fancy kicks, and fried shrimp and catfish all in a two-block radius.  I mean really, some of those catfish shacks turn it out.  Still and all I'd rather just visit and go back to my cozy de-luxe apartment in the sky (not really, all that, but you know...), especially if I happen to working in the 'hood too, then its definitely sensory overload, but that's another story.  My point is, the 'hood is not to be romanticized.  I like the 'hood.  I like the ghetto, it feels like home, because it is for me at the root of all things.  BUT...

So my point is, that anyone with any commonsense would see that this story is highly unlikely for several reasons:

1.  I can't imagine a foster care system anywhere that would put a white kid in the 'hood with a black family, even if said white kid was half Native.  That's even more of a reason they wouldn't do it.  It's the same reason you never see black people adopting white kids.  I'm pretty sure adoptions agencies don't bring out the Asian-white-Native baby books when Black couples roll up.  It's just not done.  And if it is, somebody tell me something, please.  

2.  At one point in the book (as quoted in the article) the author says that:
"One of the first things I did when I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot..."  What? I say.  This kid is supposed to be 14 when this all starts.  You're telling me she had the forethought to prepare for imminent death at 14?  I was a public school teacher for six+ years and while I had some true geniuses,who were triple threats with street smarts and commonsense on top of it all--the smartest among my students were usually out in the streets like this woman claimed she was--I could never see it.   Not when there are the latest Air Force Ones, bad gangsta rap, and plenty of Flamin' Hots to be purchased.  Or even food, clothes, or transportation for the family in some cases. Come on now.  No kid has it like that.  Most adults don't.

3.  Finally, and this may sound comical, the foster mother is called Big Mom. What I'm referring to here are the snippets of language in quotes from the book.  For example the character used drug money to buy a burial plot.  People say that, but not so much and if her character was writing a true-life gritty street tale of the streets, she probably wouldn't either. It's interesting that the article cites several reviewers of the book thought the language to be contrived or a bit too embellished or even awkward.  

The kicker is that she got busted because her sister saw a profile of her in the New York Times referencing her as the author of the book and then subsequently blew the whistle on her.

At the end Seltzer says essentially that she just wanted to bring attention to the plight of the people about whom she wrote and that maybe she didn't do it in the best way.  Publishers who worked with her seem to justify her and themselves by saying that it all happened because she's just so naive.  Humph. I'm not sure naive is what I'd call her.

What I don't understand, is why not just bill it as a work of fiction?  Why co-opt a story built from fantasy.  Why own such a story?  People who live these stories don't necessarily want to own them.  SIGH.  It reminds me of one of Dave Chappelle's standup acts where he talks about people repping the streets constantly, with a declarative "I'm from the streets!" in response to which he says basically:  'Oh, how unfortunate for you.'  

Doing you is ok.  Really.  And no matter what anybody says, it's not ok to do somebody else for money (in either sense of this unavoidable pun).  I'm certain this woman would have never said a word if she hadn't gotten busted, she would have raked in the cash, gone on the book tours, inevitably shared a couch with Oprah.  I wonder if she would have given some of her earnings to the people whose stories she claimed as her own.  

I guess we'll never know.  Too bad she and Misha didn't have access to this from the good people at

**Let me add to this list Ishmael Beah ("A Long Way Gone"), Marjane Satrapi (for taking "extensive liberties..." with the subject matter of "Persepolis' and "Persepolis 2"), and Dave Eggers for actually not taking liberties in "What is the What".  The thing is these books sound fabulous, without the extras, with the exception of Eggers, who I am not feeling.  Ever.  Hated "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," found it to be 400+ pages of smart-ass-(racist)-white-boyese.  As you can see I still haven't gotten over it and I read it about six years ago.

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