Yesterday was April Fool’s Day, a day when people play practical jokes and hoaxes on each other. My favourite joke from yesterday was the announcement that Disney would be producing a Buffy movie and Ryan Gosling would play Angel. I admit to being a little disappointed. Even literature is not immune to hoaxes – remember the Hitler diaries?
For many of us, reading Go Ask Alice by Anonymous in our teens was a rite of passage. I remember, at age 13, being completely engrossed while reading this tale about a troubled teenage girl who became addicted to drugs. The book was originally promoted as nonfiction. Not long after its publication however, Beatrice Sparks, a psychologist, began making media appearances presenting herself as the book’s editor. Interestingly, she is listed on the copyright record as the book’s author, and not as the editor, compiler, or executor, which would be more usual for someone publishing the diary of a deceased person. In 1979, Alleen Pace Nilsen wrote an essay for School Library Journal in which she surmised Sparks partially based Go Ask Alice on the diary of one of her patients, but she had added various fictional incidents. Sparks told Nilson that she could not produce the original diary because she had destroyed part of it after transcribing it and the rest was locked away in the publisher’s vault. Sparks’ second “diary” project, Jay’s Journal, gave rise to a controversy that cast further doubt on Go Ask Alice’s veracity. Jay’s Journal was allegedly the diary of a boy who committed suicide after becoming involved with the occult. Again, Sparks claimed to have based it on the diary of a patient. However, the family of the boy in question, Alden Barrett, disowned the book. They claimed that Sparks had used only a handful of the actual diary entries, and had invented the great majority of the book, including the entire occult angle. This led many to speculate that “Alice’s” diary- if indeed it existed-had received similar treatment. No one claiming to have known the real “Alice” has ever come forward.
Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit is a 2009 memoir by Matt McCarthy in which McCarthy recounts his experiences as a professional baseball player in the Anaheim Angels minor-league system. Major themes include steroids, minor league living conditions, players’ sexual hijinks, the crass attitudes held by players and coaches, and the clubhouse segregation between white players and Latino players. McCarthy has stated that much of the book’s content was taken from detailed journals he kept while he was playing. However, several people mentioned in the book have criticized its factual accuracy. Two reporters from The New York Times pored over box scores and transaction listings as well as interviews with people named in the book, and concluded that many portions of the book are incorrect, embellished, or impossible.
Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood by Holocaust survivor Benjamin Wilkomirski, was published in 1995. The book won many prizes and was hailed as a classic of Holocaust literature. However, his story was debunked by Swiss journalist Daniel Ganzfried in 1998 and Zurich historian Stefan Maechler in 1999. Not only did his account contradict historical facts, but Wilkomirski’s real name was revealed to be Bruno Dossekker, a man who is neither a Holocaust survivor nor Jewish. Many people have excused this hoax for being emotionally honest, a lie pointing to a greater truth which can help victims of the Shoah.
Papillon is a bestselling memoir by convicted felon and fugitive Henri Charrière, first published in France in 1969, describing his escape from a penal colony in French Guiana. It even gave rise to a 1973 film starring Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. Charrière stated that all events in the book are truthful and accurate, allowing for minor lapses in memory. However, since its publication there has been controversy over its accuracy. Some consider that it is not actually true, noting not all the events and jails which he describes correspond to the time frame of the events in the book. In the view of some, it is best regarded as a narrative novel, depicting the adventures of several of Charrière’s fellow inmates. In an interview before he died, the book’s French publisher, Robert Laffont, admitted the book was originally submitted to him as a novel. Laffont specialised in real-life adventures, and had persuaded Charrière to release it as if it were an autobiography.
Tim Barrus, is an American author and social worker who is best known for having published three memoirs between 2000 and 2004 under the pseudonym Nasdijj, by which he presented himself as a Navajo. The books were critically acclaimed, and Nasdijj received several literary awards and recognition from major institutions. His memoirs, which dealt in part with issues of two adopted children who suffered from severe problems were also acclaimed by children’s rights and HIV/AIDS activists advocating for greater awareness of American children living at acute risk. In 2006 journalists revealed that Barrus had published the Nasdijj books under a fictional identity, and the events depicted in all three were largely fiction. Native Americans strongly criticized Barrus for appropriating the historic suffering of their people.
James Frey was exposed as a fraud for his ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces in what was probably the story of the year in 2006. The book centers on a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser and how he copes with rehabilitation in a twelve – steps oriented treatment center. While initially promoted as a memoir, it was later discovered that many of the events described in the book never happened. Published in 2003 to mixed reviews, it was picked as an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2005. Shortly after, the book topped The New York Times bestseller list for fifteen straight weeks. But after reporters at The Smoking Gun began questioning details about his so-called “criminal record” (they later found out he spent just three hours in jail, not the 87 days he had claimed), the book once dubbed “The War and Peace of addiction” quickly became the literary scandal of 2006. Frey consistently defended himself by pointing out that he was, in fact, a recovering addict, but that didn’t stop Oprah from inviting him (and book publisher Nan Talese) onto the show to explain the inconsistencies.