Friday, March 7, 2008

Memoirs and Street Cred: II

Susan Seubert for The New York Times (annotation by your friendly opinionated blogger)

Update 1: March 12, 2008 @ 5:45pm

Thanks for the link Racialious: links for 2008-03-11

I was going to write this as an update to the Memoirs and Street Cred post, but it took on a life of its own.

It's the weekend here and I've been backtracking to some articles on this and the New York Times is, of course, scoring with quotes from the publishing professionals who worked on this project.

This section of Tracking the Fallout of (Another) Literary Fraud, however, seems to be just horse ca-ca to me:
Ms. Bender, Ms. Seltzer’s agent, said that the author had been using a false persona for years and that friends and colleagues — including Ms. Bender — believed she had grown up in foster care in the gangland of Los Angeles.

“There was no reason to doubt her, ever,” Ms. Bender said. Similarly, reporters who interviewed Ms. Seltzer were also taken in by her story. Tom Ashbrook, the host of “On Point,” a program on public radio, ran an interview with Ms. Seltzer (as Margaret B. Jones) in which she recounted her fake life. Mimi Read, a freelance reporter, wrote a profile of Ms. Seltzer that appeared on Thursday in the House & Home section of The New York Times and did not question the memoirist’s story.

“The way I look at it is that it’s just like when you get in a car and drive to the store — you assume that the other drivers on the road aren’t psychopaths on a suicide mission,” said Ms. Read, who was never told Ms. Seltzer’s real name by the publisher or by Ms. Seltzer. “She seemed to be who she said she was. Nothing in her home or conversation or happenstance led me to believe otherwise.”

Ms. Read said that she did contact Ms. Seltzer’s fiancé and also asked her to provide information about Uncle Madd Ronald, who Ms. Seltzer claimed was her gang leader and was now in prison. Ms. Seltzer provided a prison name and prison identification number, and a copy editor confirmed that the prison existed.

Okay, so what her agent is saying is no one thought to question why a social service agency would place a white child with a black foster mother? No one thought to try to verify this story through L.A. social services? No one thought to just ask for proof on paper? That would have been the easiest thing to verify, I think.

I'm adopted. The hoops my black parents had to jump through to adopt me were intense. If you want to verify my story, I know L.A. county has my adoption records on file. I have them. Yes, they couldn't request them directly, but why couldn't they ask Seltzer for this stuff? Honestly, if I were writing a story about my life, I would expect the publisher to ask me for some tangible proof about my background. Jobs demand academic transcripts, but it's unreasonable for agents and publishers dealing in memoirs to ask for documents?

I know that foster parents have to go through steps too and they get reimbursed by the government for taking care of these children in need, so there are surely a good number of black foster parents. However, I'm beyond certain that social services would try their damnedest to place a white child with a white foster parent. If the child were part "whatever" then they'd try to place that child with a "whatever" foster parent, but half-white, half-Indian gets placed with a black foster mother. Were there really ever that few foster parents? Really? (The L.A. CWS's Handbook on placing children in foster care.)

Is the NYC literary scene THAT whitewashed and politically correct that they were blinded to this race issue?

To me, it shows whites just haven't really been listening to us. Well, I guess it's just so overwhelming to actually listen when we're playing that pesky "race card."

I don't know if I agree with the Ms. Read, who wrote the House & Home profile, that she assumes a person is who they say they are. Aren't reporters supposed to suss out details and ask tough questions? It seems that everyone assumed that someone else had asked. Not asking tough questions gets you this load of hooey.
Ms. Jones’s foster siblings have met with a range of fates. Her brother Terrell was killed by the Crips at 21. Her brother Taye, 36, has three children and lives in Tacoma, Wash. The last she heard, he worked for Sprint. Her youngest sister, NeeCee, killed herself three years ago. Nishia, another sister, works at a day care center in Los Angeles and braids hair on the side, but they stopped speaking several years ago after a financial dispute, Ms. Jones said.
Okay, some of these people are dead. You can look up death records. When I'm feeling melancholy I'll sometimes hop online and track down the records of my parents, so I don't forget the details. Morbid, yes, but if there is nothing the author is giving you to verify, you dig until it's verified.

There are others who were allegedly alive. According to Seltzer's story, Taye was alive and well and living in Tacoma, Washington. Well, dammit, find him. You can track down Nishia the hair braider. I know I could. I tracked hair braiders down in San Francisco. I tracked them down when I moved to Seoul too (yes, there are Africans who braid hair in Seoul.) A fiancé has a vested interest in not pissing his betrothed off.

Oh, BTW, you can visit people in prison most of the time. This I lay on the publisher whose employee said the person existed. Did they check? Maybe this person does exist. Maybe he does know Seltzer. However, has anyone tried to talk to him to see HOW he knows her? I don't think they would have needed to go that far had they just demanded foster care records.

The more and more I read about this it's clear that the lack of any black person, or person of color with some insight on how the other side lives, in the line of decision making here seems to be a factor. Now I could be completely wrong if it turns out that someone in the Love and Consequences line of authority wasn't white and had some authority. However, I'm really doubting that.

Would it have been different if the book industry was more open to people who look like me? I think so. However, they're so damn busy stereotyping and pigeonholing blacks that why on earth would we be needed in the publishing industry? Terrell, Taye, Nee-cee, Nishia and I can't read or write with any precision anyway.

I'll admit that I could be off base and sussing out her story have been much more complicated if it turns out that Seltzer wasn't alone in duping her publisher. I mean in Ms. Read's article there is a picture of a black man, Steven Moore, who was reported to be staying at her home to recover from a gunshot wound. But isn't that the nice little "reality" you're going to build-up around you when you take on a lie this huge?

Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but the digging they needed to do could have been started with just some questions about these foster relatives: names, details, street addresses, phone numbers, some title checks, etc.

Maybe it's just the claims adjuster/investigator in me coming out (that was my first job out of college for an insurance company.) But I truly think I would have questioned her story, tried to dig and kept a paper trail for when I would inevitably get shut down by others who believed her load of crap.

For all my spinning, I do think that even if there had been someone in the line of authority who wanted a more rigorous investigation that they probably would have been shut down anyway. These people shock me with how easily they were duped. I suspect it's because they really did think they had a "read" on the black community via their white muse embodied in Seltzer. They didn't ask her any tough questions it seems, and, for that reason, they were easily conned.

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