Oprah Winfrey was recently embarrassed yet again when a memoir she had promoted on her television show and in her book club was revealed to have been faked. The book, "Angel at the Fence," told the story of a young boy and girl, each on the opposite side of a Buchenwald fence in Nazi Germany. Little Roma would throw apples to her little boyfriend Herman, her love keeping him alive through the horrors of the Holocaust.
It was, Oprah said, "the greatest love story" she had ever heard. It was also a fake; the author, Herman Rosenblat, admitted that he and his wife actually met on a blind date years ago in Manhattan. The book has since been scrubbed, though plans for a film version of the tale are continuing.
It is the latest in a series of faked (or partially faked) memoirs. Among the more memorable:
1. "A Million Little Pieces," by James Frey
The most high-profile Oprah-endorsed fiction parading as memoir, James Frey's best-seller "A Million Little Pieces" told the moving story of a young alcoholic drug abuser who struggles to get clean and sober in a treatment center. The 2003 book was praised by many and heavily promoted in Oprah's book club before being revealed as largely faked. Frey's publishers at first defended the book, but as evidence mounted that much of it had been fabricated, they offered refunds for fiction sold as fact and added disclaimers to later editions.
2. "A Rock and a Hard Place," by Anthony Godby Johnson
When it comes to tragic stories, Anthony Godby Johnson's is without equal. According to his 1993 book, "A Rock and a Hard Place," his parents beat him, allowed their friends to rape him, and denied him food and a bed. In 1989, when he was eleven and on the verge of suicide, Tony fled from his horrific abuse and into the arms of a New York City couple who adopted him. Yet there was more tragedy lying in wait: Tony soon found out that he was dying of AIDS. Tony's book garnered much acclaim, with USA Today calling Tony a "boy with a powerful will to love." Yet a few intrepid journalists unmasked "Tony" as not merely a pseudonym but a fictional character; none of his information was verified, and Tony's inspirational story was a complete fiction.
3. "Satan's Underground," by Lauren Stratford
"Satan's Underground" was a 1991 book in which the author described her first-hand experience inside a Satanic cult. Stratford's book included horrific depictions of baby-killing rituals, pornography, torture, rape, and other abuse. Like Anthony Godby Johnson, Stratford claimed to have been continually physically and sexually abused by her parents and forced into prostitution. She also described being locked in a metal drum with the bodies of four babies who had been sacrificed to Satan. The book became a best-seller, helping fuel the "Satanic panic" hysteria that swept across America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet skeptical investigation revealed that the story was a complete hoax. None of Stratford's claims were true; every gruesome, sensational detail was made up. Stratford later changed her name and began claiming to be a Jewish Holocaust survivor, still trying to wring sympathy from the public.
4. "I, Rigoberta Menchu," by Rigoberta Menchu
In her 1984 memoir, "I, Rigoberta Menchu," Guatemalan rights activist Rigoberta Menchu described her struggles as a poor, uneducated, and oppressed Quiche Indian. Using her best-selling book as a platform, Menchu became an international spokeswoman for the rights of indigenous people. She was given honorary doctorates, and even awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. "I, Rigoberta Menchu" is required reading in many universities as a true, first-hand account of native Indians' struggles in Guatemala. Only it isn't: a decade-long investigation by an American anthropologist revealed that while some parts of her memoir are true, large sections of it were simply fabricated, with Menchu lying about significant aspects of her past. Menchu at first blamed inaccuracies on the book's translator, but eventually admitted that some parts of her memoir were faked.
5. "The Diary of Jack the Ripper," by James Maybrick
Jack the Ripper, the London serial killer who took the lives of five women in 1888, has captured the public's imagination for over a century. The Ripper has been the subject of countless books, articles, films, and television shows, so when in 1993 Warner Books was set to publish the recently-found diary of the infamous killer, it was poised to become a best-seller. In his diary, a Liverpool merchant named James Maybrick confessed his double life as the infamous Ripper. Yet through forensic document analysis it was revealed it a hoax, a faked memoir dating back to the 1920s.The publisher pulled the book, and Maybrick's legacy remained intact.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.
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