Meet Margaret Seltzer, pen name Margaret Jones, who until this week was a half-white, half-Indian gangland drug runner who grew up a foster child in predominately black South Central Los Angeles. Her memoir was hailed as a "raw... remarkable book" in the Times, won her tentative online admirers and became the 28th best selling memoir on Amazon after it was released Friday. Of course Seltzer basically made her whole "memoir" up, being entirely white, having grown up in the predominately white San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, having gone to a fancy private school and having been raised by her biological family. Her book tour was supposed to start today in Eugene, Oregon but her publisher, a division of Penguin Group, has canceled all that and recalled her books. How did she get caught? Her lies worked too well:
Seltzer's adulatory press was her unraveling. After a profile last week in the House & Home section of the Times, Jones' older sister called her publisher to rat her out.
Seltzer told the Times the whole thing started after she spent time with some people from the wrong side of the tracks:
Ms. Seltzer said she had met some gang members during a short stint she said she spent at "Grant" high school "in the Valley." (A Google search identifies Ulysses S. Grant High School, a school on 34 acres in the Valley Glen neighborhood in the east central San Fernando Valley.) "It opened my mind to the fact that not everybody is as they are portrayed on the news," she said. "Everything's not that black and white or gray or brown."
... Ms. Seltzer, who writes in an author's note to the book that she "combined characters and changed names, dates, and places," said that these characters and incidents were in part based on friends' experiences. "I had a couple of friends who had moms who were like my mom and that's where Big Mom comes from - from being in the house all the time and watching what goes on. One of my best friend's little brother was killed two years ago, shot," she said.
Ms. Seltzer added that she wrote the book "sitting at the Starbucks at the corner of Crenshaw and Stockyard. People would come in and say, ‘What are you doing?' because I would be sitting there all day every day. I would talk to kids who were Black Panthers and kids who were gang members and kids who were not gang members."
From before she was caught, here are Seltzer's rules of the street, which she said were conveyed to her by a compatriot in the drug trade. Her publisher would have been wise to follow them, particularly given the moral landscape in the memoir trade these days, which at this point would startle even the most hardened blood or crip:
¶ "Trust no one. Even your own momma will sell you out for the right price or if she gets scared enough."
¶ "War has no room for diplomacy, war is outright vicious. Never expect mercy and never show it."
¶ "There is no greater sin in war than ignorance. Never speak or act on anything you aren't 100 percent sure of, or someone will expose your mistake and take you down for it."
The saddest thing for Seltzer in all this is that she couldn't drag her deception out just a little bit longer. Her adulatory Times clips had her on track for bestseller status in the mold of A Million Little Pieces, by fellow lying memoirist James Frey. If she had been caught a few months down the road, she would still have been disgraced, but at least would also have had a shot at profiting off her infamy by selling a clearly labeled work of fiction for upwards of $1 million, as Frey did.
Related: Review - However Mean the Streets, Have an Exit Strategy (Times)
Related: Profile - A Refugee From Gangland (Times)
(Thanks to Josh for the tip.)