The Times Gets Taken in By Another Fabulist
Last Thursday, the Times' Motoko Rich profiled Margaret B. Jones, author of the gang memoir "Love and Consequences," for the Times' Home & Garden section. But the real drama came in Rich's shocking front-page follow-up - both the book publisher and the Times has been taken in by "Margaret B. Jones," whose life story turned out to be a lie.
It was raining - or rather, spritzing softly - as usual as Margaret B. Jones stood barefoot in her front yard last week. She'd just said goodbye to her 8-year-old daughter, Rya, a pale, shy beauty brandishing a jar of pet fish, who had left to spend the night with her father. In front of Ms. Jones was her recently frozen and now floppy garden, where she tends blueberries, rhubarb and roses, and around her was a middle-class enclave of apartment complexes, clapboard houses and little parks.
"Shoot, I'm happy," said Ms. Jones, 33, a single mother who spent her youth as a foster child and gang member. She was dealing drugs on the streets of South Central Los Angeles before she hit puberty. "I'm making do. At least I'm not in three rooms anymore."
Instead, she owns a four-bedroom 1940s bungalow near her alma mater - a university where she "learned big words for stuff I already knew," she said - and has just written a book, "Love and Consequences" (Riverhead Books), a heart-wrenching memoir that was released this week.
Ms. Jones is five feet tall in jeans, a pink camouflage hoodie, a toe ring and a fresh set of artificial fingernails. Besides being a consummate storyteller and analyst of inner city pathology, she is one of the few people who in the same conversation can talk about the joys of putting up her own jam ("I'm going to give you a couple of jars!") and the painful business of getting a tattoo of a large, weeping pit bull across her back the day the state of Nevada set a close friend's execution date. "It's the most ghetto thing on my body," she said.
Rich reveled in the details of Jones's gritty past life:
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.
On Tuesday Rich wrote a front-page follow-up, thoughshe probably would have preferred earning the prime real-estate some other way: A retraction of her previous article, after "Margaret Jones" older sister called the book's publisher to say that the gang memoir was utterly fake.
In "Love and Consequences," a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.
The problem is that none of it is true.
Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.
Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin Group USA that published "Love and Consequences," is recalling all copies of the book and has canceled Ms. Seltzer's book tour, which was scheduled to start on Monday in Eugene, Ore., where she currently lives.
In a sometimes tearful, often contrite telephone interview from her home on Monday, Ms. Seltzer, 33, who is known as Peggy, admitted that the personal story she told in the book was entirely fabricated. She insisted, though, that many of the details in the book were based on the experiences of close friends she had met over the years while working to reduce gang violence in Los Angeles.
Well, at least Seltzer had her heart in the right place. She told an obviously betrayed-feeling Rich (who referred to Seltzer's "mendacity" in the follow-up):
"I did not do it right. I thought I had an opportunity to make people understand the conditions that people live in and the reasons people make the choices from the choices they don't have."
Seltzer apparently learned most of what she knows about gang life at a Starbucks in South-Central Los Angeles.
Author William McGowan wrote http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=YTdlODUxNzQzNzkyMjUyOTJmYzBlYmQ2MWJkZDU5ZWIabout other cases of the Times being taken in, by the phony memoir of James Frey and the phony "transvestite truck-stop prostitute and drug addict" persona of cult novelist "J.T. Leroy."
While quite embarrassing, this latest gaffe isn't quite as bad as the first-hand deception pulled on Times reporter Nicholas Confessore in March 2006. Confessore, who was truly played for a sucker, produced a soft-soap profile of a Katrina "victim" a few days before she was arrested for fraud - the Queens woman had taken thousands of dollars in aid from state and federal agencies after falsely claiming to be a victim of the hurricane.