Author of Hoax Book Created Elaborate Backstory

Publishers of fake memoir say they checked the story out but were still duped.

February 10, 2009, 8:51 AM

March 4, 2008— -- The publishers of a critically acclaimed memoir about a girl raised by a black foster family who ran drugs for a notorious Los Angeles street gang pulled the book after revelations that the story was an elaborate fabrication.

The book, "Love and Consequences," was recalled just a week after it hit stores, when it emerged that the author, Margaret B. Jones, had lied about her name and every detail of her life.

Jones was a pseudonym used by Margaret Seltzer, 33, of Eugene, Ore., who lied about being half-Native American and having been raised in south-central Los Angeles by a black foster mother she called "Big Mom." She also claimed to have run drugs for the Bloods street gang and that one of her foster brothers was killed by rival Crips gang members.

Seltzer's true identity was revealed after her sister, Cyndi Hoffman, read a New York Times article profiling the author and called the book's publisher, Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group, the paper reported.

In reality, Seltzer grew up in the San Fernando Valley in California with both her white biological parents, according to the Times. She attended a private Episcopal day school and never lived with a foster family or sold drugs for a gang.

Seltzer's memoir is the second book of non-fiction in as many weeks to be revealed as a hoax and the latest in an increasingly lengthy list of biographies found to be false.

Since 2006, when it was discovered that best-selling memoirs by J.T. Leroy and James Frey were in fact works of fiction, little has been done been done in the publishing world to improve fact-checking, industry insiders told ABC

"I think it's unfortunately another black eye for publishing. The publishing industry, and media in general, need to determine what the requirements for memoir are," said Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of trade magazine Publishers Weekly.

"Non-fiction was traditionally vetted just for libel. My understanding is that most publishing houses say they are going to look at things more closely, but it is unclear whether they really are," she said.

Nelson said a certain degree of embellishment is expected with any memoir, but over-emphasizing some details is less a sin than creating a story from whole cloth.

Complicating the process for publishers are hoaxers who are so devious that they employ fake sources to provide publishers during the fact-checking process.

"This was a clearly educated, middle-class, seemingly white woman who has a rather incredible story of living with a black family amid gunfire. It seems to me that those details alone would inspire a publisher to ask a lot of questions," Nelson said.

Seltzer admitted to the Times that her memoir was fabricated. Many of the anecdotes in the book were culled from memories of friends she worked with doing anti-gang outreach in L.A.

"For whatever reason, I was really torn, and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don't listen to," she told the Times.

The publishers claim they fact-checked Seltzer's story and she provided them with photos, documents and people who claimed to be her foster siblings.

"Prior to publication the author provided a great deal of evidence to support her story: photographs; letters; parts of Peggy's life story in another published book; Peggy's story had been supported by one of her former professors; Peggy even introduced the agent to people who misrepresented themselves as her foster siblings," wrote Marilyn Ducksworth, a Riverhead spokesperson, in an e-mail to ABC NEWS.

Ducksworth also said that Seltzer had promised to tell the truth in a signed publishing agreement.

Seltzer's editor, Sarah McGrath, told the Times that the author's story had been consistent over three years of their working together.

"I've been talking to her on the phone and getting e-mails from her for three years, and her story never has changed," McGrath told the paper. "All the details have been the same. There never have been any cracks."

Calls made to Seltzer's home by ABC News were not returned.

Last week, the Holocaust memoir "Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years" by Misha Defonseca was revealed to be a fake. Published in 1997 and translated into 18 languages, "Misha" describes a Belgian Jewish girl's trek across Europe to find her parents. Along the way, she takes shelter among packs of friendly wolves. Faced with documentary evidence, Defonseca's lawyer admitted the woman was not even Jewish and had spent the war in Brussels.

Two years ago, James Frey, author of the best-seller "A Million Little Pieces," was forced to come clean on the Oprah Winfrey Show, admitting that he had fabricated and exaggerated details about his drug use and rehabilitation.