We Can Remember Minutely and Precisely only the Things Which Never Really Happened to Us - Eric Hoffer

Sometimes the line between fact and fiction is broad and deep and straight; but, other times, it is narrow, shallow, and very curvy. We have a few of these curvy titles in our library. You may look at them with new eyes when you consider the backstory.

Novels of J.T. Leroy

On our shelves we have several fiction works by J.T. LeroyHarold’s End; The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things; and Sarah. All these novels, which were well received by critics, were published as the work of J. T. (“Terminator”) LeRoy. We now know that J.T. LeRoy is the pen name of Laura Albert.

Usually a pen name is an innocuous kind of entity. It allows a real person (the author) to take a pseudonym. The pen name may be cute or satiric. It may be used by the author to try out a different genre of writing, indicating by the pen name that the work is to be seen differently from the author’s usual writings. Sometimes, a pen name is simply for the purpose of anonymity.

But not in J.T.’s case. Here the real author, Laura Albert, deceived the literary world by posing as the real "autobiographical novelist" J.T. LeRoy. She even had a real person (whose name was Savannah Knoop) act as J.T. in public – attending readings, photo shoots, book signings. But both identities were false – J.T. was neither the person seen in public nor did he exist as the real author of the novels. The fictional author LeRoy had a great cover story to sell his so-called autobiographical fiction about troubled, down and out types: he claimed to be an ex-drug addict from West Virginia, a one-time vagrant in California, and a dabbler in prostitution. And this backstory made J.T.’s novels all the more compelling and sellable – as tales that mirrored the so-called author’s ‘real’ story. But the real author, Laura Albert, was female, not from West Virginia, and had not exactly lived the life that J.T. claimed. It was much more than a pen name. Mercer County Library owns all of these titles. Might be worth a read – as the sheer chutzpah of the author cannot be the only reason the novels sold – there must be some compelling fiction-fiction there too – really!

Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan
Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan

In the early 1990s, Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan was published as a novel about a middle-aged white woman’s physical and spiritual journey across the Australia continent with a small tribe of Australian Aborigines. The novel was marketed as based on the author’s real life experiences. Morgan claimed that she came from Aborigine ancestry and that the Aborigines, the Real People, appearing in her work were closely based on a real Australian tribal group. Mutant Message was very popular and sold well. It was an alternate selection of the Doubleday Book Club.

None of the above claims are true. According to a lengthy report by the Perth-based Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation there is no substantive proof that Morgan ever made any kind of trek or pilgrimage in Australia nor that there exists any tribe like the Real People. The Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation found Morgan’s remarks and writings deeply offensive to the Aboriginal people – a case of a white person manipulating Aboriginal culture and society for personal gain and publicity.

You can find this novel in our collection. The new age aspects of the story may be compelling, but the author’s own personal story is misleading.

Even more drastic than the Mutant Message case are writers who falsely present themselves as members of a minority writing their own non-fiction memoirs. Here are two interesting cases where the authors masquerade as Native Americans.

The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter

First published in 1976 and made into a film in 1997, The Education of Little Tree was originally marketed as the ‘true story’ of and by Forrest Carter, a mixed-blood Cherokee, orphaned as a young child and raised by his wise Cherokee grandparents, schooled in the ways of his indigenous ancestors. The book sold over a million copies and was a recommended read on Oprah Winfrey’s website.

Yet, it is now well established that Forrest Carter’s self-reported identity is a lie and that the book is a fabric of fabrication. Mercer County Library has moved this title into the fiction section.

Forrest Carter is really Asa Carter. Asa Carter was known for his anti-Semitic and racist views. He was a founder and contributor to the racist journal The Southerner and at one time in charge of the Birmingham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1960’s he wrote the infamous speech of Governor George Wallace (Alabama) which included the line: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Why did Carter write this novel and how did he get away with this false identity? Some speculate that he sought to atone for his racist deeds and past. Others that the theme of the noble American Native persecuted and oppressed by U.S. Federal Government policies has great appeal to someone like Asa/Forrest Carter with his virulent anti-government bias. It was not until 2007 that Oprah Winfrey removed the novel from her website’s list of recommended readings. The charade of Forrest Carter had lasted long and penetrated deeply.

The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams: a Memoir by Nasdijj
The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams: a Memoir by Nasdijj

Nasdijj’s The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams and a companion title The Boy and The Dog Are Sleeping were published as the autobiographical reflections and story of a mixed-blood Navajo Indian, Nasdijj - the father of an adopted Navajo Indian child, Tommy Nothing Fancy, who had died of fetal alcohol syndrome. The Blood Runs like a River started out as an essay in Esquire (June 1999), earned a National Magazine Award finalist position, and was expanded into a book which was listed as a Notable Book by the New York Times and won the Salon Book Award. The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping won the PEN/Open Book (Beyond Margins Award) in 2004.

None of these ‘facts’ were really facts. The books were written by a non-Native American, Timothy Barrus, who never had adopted any such child. The child is a completely fictional character. The real author Timothy Barrus was from Lansing, Michigan and had found that the hook of the all-suffering Nasdijj persona won him literary contracts and attention. The truth came out in the LAWeekly 2006 article Navahoax by Matthew Fleischer. You can still read it on the web. Writes Fleischer “… If Nasdijj is not Native American, he’s not only misinforming his audience, he’s making it harder for genuine work to come forward. The PEN/Beyond Margins Award is given annually to a Native American writer to help spread racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities. When Nasdijj accepted the award in 2004, he accepted money and prestige specifically earmarked to help Native Americans share their story …”

The Mercer County Library system has moved these Nasdijj books to adult fiction.

There are more genres of faux memoirs – several notorious hoaxes have been perpetrated in the field of Holocaust survivor stories. There are also fascinating cases of false prison memoirs. But that is the topic of a future blog. Just remember the three caveats:

Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)

Caveat venditor (let the seller beware)

Caveat lector (let the reader beware)

Karen S.


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