Lying is the New Truth

An author of a holocaust memoir admits she made the whole thing up

"This story is mine. It is not actually reality but my reality, my way
of surviving," Defonseca said in a statement released by the lawyers.
"I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed."

An author of a highly-praised memoir of her struggles as a gangbanger on the streets of South Central Los Angeles turns out to have been raised in an upper-class suburban home in Sherman Oaks and educated in elite private schools…

“For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my
opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to,” Ms.
Seltzer said. “I was in a position where at one point people said you
should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk.
Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good
that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to

[…]“I’m not saying like I did it right,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I did not do
it right. I thought I had an opportunity to make people understand the
conditions that people live in and the reasons people make the choices
from the choices they don’t have.”

A celebrity chef on the Food Network admits that he didn’t actually cook for the Royal Family or U.S. Presidents…

"I was wrong to exaggerate in statements related to my
experiences in the White House and the Royal Family," Irvine said
in a written statement. "I am truly sorry for misleading people
and misstating the facts."

And an elected official on the Three Valleys Water Board in Pomona, California admits he didn’t win the Medal of Honor or serve in the military as he claimed…

[Xavier Alvarez] didn’t deny claiming to have received the Medal of Honor. People
routinely say things at board meetings “just to entertain the public,”
he said.

The federal charges are the work of his political opponents, Alvarez
contends. When asked to specifically address the charges, his response
was disjointed.

“There’s people who go up there and say, ‘Oh, I’m homosexual. And I
belong to the homosexual community.’ I don’t say anything about that. .
. . I’m a rookie at this. You get nervous.”

But not one of these brazen liars, just four among many outed in recent weeks, actually admits to lying, merely living a different truth, or miss-stating facts, or "exaggerating," or being nervous, or speaking for the downtrodden, or being "directionally correct" but factually wrong (whatever the hell that means). 

Apparently, in today’s society, it’s okay to tell lies as long as you don’t get caught doing it…but, if you do, it’s imperative that you apologize without actually admitting to being a liar. Some are even saying that lying is a constitutional right. Take the Medal of Honor liar, Xavier Alvarez, or example. He is being prosecuted for violating the Stolen Valor Act of 2005:

In a motion
filed last month, Alvarez’s court-appointed attorney stated that his
false claim is protected under the First Amendment.

are not outside the realm of First Amendment protection, and therefore
restrictions on false statements must be supported by a strong
government interest and must be directly related to that interest,"
says the motion.

Is it just me, or are we seeing more and more of these outrageous cases of lying in the last couple of years? It’s even more amazing that this is happening during a time when it’s getting easier and easier to check up on people’s claims using simple search engines. But even the people who should be checking facts aren’t doing it, like Riverhead, the publisher of Margaret Seltzer’s memoir:

Ms. Seltzer’s sister, Ms. Hoffman, 47, said:
“It could have and should have been stopped before now.” Referring to
the publisher, she added: “I don’t know how they do business, but I
would think that protocol would have them doing fact-checking.”

What is it that drives these people to lie very publicly about their lives — medals of honor they didn’t win, diplomas they never received, presidents they didn’t cook for, etc. — and not expect to get caught doing it? Is it simply brazen arrogance? Rampaging stupidity? Or is it a profound laziness, a desperate desire to have accomplishments without putting in the actual work to achieve them?

18 thoughts on “Lying is the New Truth”

  1. I think part of what’s driving this is the publisher’s focusing on the marketability of the writer instead of the book. If the writer has a “compelling backstory” then the book itself doesn’t have to be as good.
    Basically publishers are asking themselves, “Would Oprah want this author on her show?”

  2. I heard on NPR this evening (from Sara Nelson, who is pretty authoritative) that Ms. Seltzer actually had people posing as her foster family over her three-year relationship with her editor at Riverhead. She went a long way to put one over on the editorial team.
    I personally think that part of the reason it has happened so often recently is that people are already used to getting away with it. It’s easy to create a virtual persona online; you can be anyone you want to be, and it takes some detective work for someone else to figure it out. The difference is that if you get popular enough online someone is eventually going to hack around and find out who you really are. Evidently some publishers don’t have the skillz to do that. 🙂 But masquerading as someone else to sell a book is really nothing new:

  3. The irony is that if these people had presented themselves as the fiction writers they actually are, they might have earned some praise for writing in an invented persona. But then again, we’re more forgiving of a badly-written book if we assume it details an interesting life. So maybe this is writing that wouldn’t cut it as fiction. I don’t think I’ll be reading any of them to find out.

  4. It’s not just you, Lee. It seems that society has changed and is still changing so that new cultural creations are popping up that seem somewhat strange according to a set of rules that were established in the past. I know very little about it but the lies you are pointing out may show up som of the differences between MODERNISM and POST-MODERNISM.
    Modernism had a sense of boundary. Things were themselves and nothing else and nothing more. Modernism had a sense of something at the center, like truth, love, goodness, courage. So for a writer, it is central to his work that he owns the rights to his characters and that this boundary cannot by crossed by fans who might want to write stories with these characters. A Modernism outlook would say absolutely that the fans have no rights to do so.
    But POST-MODERISM isn’t interested in what’s at the center because who knows and who can tell and how can you prove it? But “connection” is something you can feel and profit from and flow with, which is cool, and which feels better than sitting within a set of MODERNISM boundaries trying to contemplate the meaning of Life. And in POST-MODERNISM there is a sense that if you listen to a story, this, just listening, gives you the right to tell the story to others, and to change it anyway you like, and to add and delete whatever you want. You connect to the original story-teller, then create with the story as you wish, and then let the story flow out to others. The original story-teller has no absolute right to own the story or, to be more precise, the trend is moving, maybe, in that direction. So we get fanfiction and stories with lies as you have rightly pointed out.
    That said, in each example, there is a sense that the story-teller heard the story from somebody, then added in what could be called a lie (MODERNISM point-of-view) or new and more interesting information (POST-MODERN point-of-view). And in the examples the story-tellers aren’t certain why, which shows that new cultural ideas are working unconsciously, but, perhaps, legitimately, from a cultural shift point-of-view.
    POST-MODERISM analysts make another point. They saw that there are various “language games” which each have their own rules. In MODERISM, a story was true or false. But in POST-MODERNISM, if you tell a joke, a myth, a science story, and so on, you are playing a game according to the rules of the “language game” you are working in. So the story-tellers were following the rules. That is, they felt empowered to say what they said, they just didn’t get it that this is okay within POST-MODERNISM. The girl who connected with the street gang and presented a story in first-person narritive did not “lie” — she just played a language game and for a great purpose, but if we look at the center we see she crossed a boundary, but that doesn’t matter in POST-MODERISM, where you’re allowed to do that.
    Anyway, I’m not sure any of this helps but there’s a new book out called, “Post-Modernism for Beginners” by Jim Powell, which explains this stuff in a nice understandable way.

  5. Actually, for a large percentage of humans, lying is completely “normal behavior” from toddler-age to the grave. Here’s a link to an article from the American Psychological Association:
    But since real, sophisticated editing and the prerequisite fact-checking have been downsized in recent years by publishing houses (in reverse proportion to the number of published non-fiction titles), it’s much easier for the liars to develop into full-fledged con-artists.
    Without some checks and balances, a lot of fiction is being dressed up as non-fiction or memoir these days.

  6. During the past several decades, American society has gradually shed firm moral standards and replaced them with a euphemism-rich relativism. For many, good and evil simply don’t exist anymore, nor does sin. Instead, people make “unhealthy choices” and commit “errors.”
    For some of us, an error is adding a column of numbers incorrectly. However, today it seems that an ever-increasing number of Americans consider lying, cheating, and violent behavior to be “errors in judgment.”
    Oddly (and sadly), it seems that persons who graduate from our most prestigious universities are more likely to embrace these misguided notions of morality.
    I remain hopeful that common sense will make a comeback at some point, but its resurgence seems long overdue!

  7. It’s almost as though a new genre can be created: The bogus memoir. How long before someone simply writes a memoir and outs themselves as a fake as part of the marketing?

  8. What gets me is how stupid these people are. For example, didn’t it ever occur to Seltzer that once her picture started showing up in newspapers and magazines in relation to her memoir that someone — from her family, from her friends she grew up with, from the Sherman Oaks neighborhood she lived in, from the private school she attended — would recognize her and expose her outrageous lies?

  9. Here’s a related round-up/critique of the “misery memoir” in UK/Ireland:
    What you point happens in news coverage as well. After the Duke lacrosse rape (mis)reporting, Newsweek defended its coverage in this way: “the narrative was right but the facts were wrong.”

  10. There has to be something more than mere market concerns in this. Perhaps the desire to “be” the character created–living a life worthy of a memoir. And I really would like to know-was her writing any good? Would it stand up as a novel? Or was it just fodder for the public’s taste for misery.

  11. Depending on your political persuasion, you could blame this on either, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” or, “Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

  12. I really was miffed over this yesterday. The idea that agents and publishers are this clueless is sad. These are the people who reject 99 percent of what comes in. Anyone read her chapter at NYT? God what a hackneyed cliche. And they worked with her for three years!
    This is about the culture of money. If it will sell lets’s do it! Truth is the first victim of money.

  13. “What gets me is how stupid these people are. For example, didn’t it ever occur to Seltzer…[that someone] would recognize her and expose her outrageous lies?”
    I’m guessing, Lee, that Ms. Seltzer knew she was taking a risk but that the cause she was furthering was worth it to her. She said:
    “I thought I had an opportunity to make people understand the conditions that people live in and the reasons people make the choices from the choices they don’t have.”
    It’s the “so what?” argument or moral position that new cultural ideas of POSTMODERNISM are making legitimate. She can say, “So what if some of the reported facts weren’t true since the intention was to right a wrong. Righting the wrong is what’s important and so who cares, really, if the means used to generate the energy to right the wrong weren’t totally factual?”
    This is the same argument President Bush used when there were no WMD in Iraq. “Well, so what if there weren’t, the important point was to give democracy a chance in Iraq and to remove a dictator, which was done. That’s what’s important, not how many WMD he had or didn’t have.”
    This way of viewing story-telling is horrible if you have a MODERNIST point-of-view since a lie is a lie and a lie is wrong, bad, immoral, rotten and awful, and so are the people who tell them.
    But if the story-telling is seen as a POSTMODERN language game that uses information creatively to get good results, then the story-teller has a justification in that they do no real harm, so they argue, while they promote a higher good, a higher good that wasn’t getting done in a world where lies are lies, etc.
    Anyway, MODERNISM was nice and simple and clear. POSTMODERNISM is anything but, because any information can be used in any way for any purpose under this system. The intention of the story-teller is what’s important not all the factual details.

  14. “Postmodernism’s head is so far up its ass that it’s come out the other side and thinks it looks normal.”
    Sometimes, sometimes not.
    In Tess Gerritsen’s blog recently, she mentioned meeting Donald Maass, a NY literary agent and novelist, who runs his own agency on West 57th Street in Manhattan. I’ve read his book on writing before, “Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level,” but I’m now rereading it. Some chapters have a wandering focus, but I can whole-heartedly recommend this book to everybody in writing, published or not. (And in fact he is writing it for mid-career novelists who need a lift with their next book, both with critics and with higher sales.) Anyway, as it happens, he has some things to say about Postmodernism that help give understanding as to why certain things are happening in the culture, in his remarks about Theme in the novel:
    “It is not so easy to vigorously express one’s views, especially in our Postmodern, politically correct era. We fear offending others. We respect other’s views. We listen and defer. We weigh pros and cons and sit quietly through countless meetings.
    We admire those who respect others, but I believe there are those whom we admire even more: people who take a stand. Do you remember Tienamen (sic) Square? Chinese students rallied for democratic reforms, and the world was moved. What stirred us most deeply, though, was the image of the nameless man who lay down in the path of a rolling tank…He was a true hero. He had great courage and deep convictions.” (p. 230-1)
    Whenever I think of this image, I am moved deeply as are millions. But how many of us would feel justified in appropriating this image and using it in our own work? MODERNISM would say it’s a shameless rip-off, doing a disservice to the original experience. But POSTMODERISM opens up this possibility and thereby gives writers and creators more capability. It’s like the recent Joe Eszterhas book on screenwriting that consists of nothing but quote after quote of other screenwriters and critics and commentators. So it’s not a question of which is right, MODERNISM or POSTMODERISM, but an explanation for why people feel empowered to do some new things (like write first-person accounts of another person’s life as if it was her own.)
    As a person influenced by Postmodernism, I tend to take each case and weigh the pros and cons rather than operating out of a broad general principle that seeks to categorize the individual cases.


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