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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  1. I think everyone --from those in the publishing to the lady on NPR who interviewed wanted to believe her.

    When I listened to that painfully long 35 minute NPR interview, I was struck by her way of putting off questions by answering with lots of words that just didn't make sense.

    In my satire, I've used the part about big things and little things. It makes no sense, and what I've written makes even more sense than the actual words she used. So there was a lot of bluster that she used as a means of deflecting closer inspection, she even used her perceived language of "the hood," interjection words here and there. I think people just didn't question her because their experience was so out of the realm of what she was talking about.

    You're right on so many points, Jane. They dropped the ball. They didn't fact check. They wanted to believe it because she was their window into an alien world.

  2. Jane - in the days I've been following the Seltzer story, I've had several people ask via email and phone if the freelancer who did the NYT piece was black. (I guess no one wants to be that bold in comments on a blog.) The answer, as you've surmised, is no.

    What astounds me even now is that the pundits and analysts that the media have sought out to explain this case are all white. (See Michael Kinsley's piece in the new issue of Time magazine if your blood isn't sufficiently boiled.)

    Are there no black memoirists who could raise the points you've raised here? Of course there are...and yet they still have yet to seek their expertise or opinion. (Although they certainly went to them when they needed jacket blurbs for the back of Seltzer's ridiculous tale.)

    The historian Nishani Frazier broke it down in the comments section of my blog better than anyone I'd seen in the mainstream media. I'd like to link this blog entry in my own coverage, too - your points are great.


  3. Kanani,

    Yeah. What struck me while I was reading the NY Times pieces I referenced here was that NO ONE asked her tough questions. They had found a white voice into a black world and they were content with that. Since I grew up in that neighborhood even though my parents took the steps to shelter me from gangs, I'm telling you now what she said was a load of crap.

    But it's clear she spent years lying to many people about this and was so involved in her lies that she'd built up a life around her that, in some ways at least, supported her claims.

    That's what is infuriating about this story. There has been black voice after black voice trying to bring attention to issues in South Central L.A. Yet the white dominated publishing industry embraced with rabid enthusiasm a white woman who was making it up.

    How ridiculous is that?

  4. Kevin,

    Actually, I found Michael Kinsley's piece, "An Old Story", and I think I "get" what he's doing. It actually made me laugh. I wouldn't say he's insulting the Obamas. He's picked up on this negative spin and lingering rumors that people have thrown out about them and written it all in the positive because if it's in a memoir, it's clearly a lie. That's clever.

    It's overstating the issue, but with memoir fraud stories like Seltzer's and Misha Defonseca's who admits that she wasn't protected by wolves from the Nazis, it's funny. Again, in Defonseca's case you have a non-Jew , or someone who adopted Judaism later on, spinning tales about the Nazi experience. I won't deny that Defonseca's life was touched by the war and that she has a story, but she admits the one she sold in that book is a lie.

    The section you quoted from what Nishani Frazier had to say is spot on. Why is it easier to get an account of the "black" experience from a white woman? Why are blacks perceived as so different that you can't get stories directly from us? I do think this is trying to be brought to the stage re the Obamas. No matter how educated we are and no matter how well-spoken and well-written we are some people try to distance themselves from what we're saying based on our color. I've written about how it happens to me here where I'm surrounded by white teachers and some of them, not all, layer assumptions on me based on strictly the expectations they've got about blacks. I can see why Kinsley tied it in. Now some might question his choice, but I'm tickled by what he wrote.

    Like I said in my Memoirs and Street Cred post. It's not so much that Seltzer lied, it's that there are black people who have real stories and real accounts of life in the neighborhood that I grew up in. Hell, I've got real stories and real accounts of life in that neighborhood. If our voices were valued, real stories like Seltzer's would come out. There was a white guy in my neighborhood who ran with the gang. However, instead of us, the publishing house was more comfortable with a white woman spinning tales about the black experience in South Central L.A. That's fiction. There ought to be a place for stories like that, no matter who writes them, so this race bias spins both ways.

    They deserved to be fooled because that's a foolish way to hire someone to sit down and write a memoir. How far would this have gone had Seltzer's sister not spotted the article? Who knows. I imagine that Seltzer might have gotten just as far and been just as famous of a fraud in the States as Defonseca was in Europe.


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