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Fake Autobiographies: A Great American Tradition

by Laura Browder on Feb 12, 2005

Laura Browder

Let's stop wringing our hands over the recent rash of fake autobiographies.

James Frey and other authors of faux memoirs give us the cliches we want about life on the margins. Only when we end our romance with what we imagine is authentic will we stop getting fooled by literary cons.

First, let's dispose of the idea that these books are merely evidence of deplorable new trends in the world of publishing. Rather, they fall into a centuries-old American tradition: the impersonator autobiography. The success of impersonator autobiographies has always depended on their authors' ability to exploit readers' preconceptions.

The most recent impersonator autobiographies take advantage of stereotypes about alcoholism, HIV-positive abused teenagers and American Indians. Navajo author Nasdijj is actually Timothy Barrus, a white, middle-class author of gay S/M fiction. JT LeRoy, the HIV-positive transgendered, former drug-addicted truck stop teen prostitute, is really Laura Albert, a well-off forty-year old woman.

The exposure of these works as fakes should make readers ask why these cliches are so compelling in the first place. Autobiographies, with their emphasis on individualism and self-fashioning, make up a form peculiarly suited to American national mythologies.

Famously, in 1784 Benjamin Franklin set out in his own autobiography to outline for readers the thirteen steps he considered essential for self-improvement. More than anyone else, Franklin introduced readers to believe that they, as Americans, could make of themselves what they would.

The thrill of reading this kind of autobiography is to see how one individual took the raw material of his or her life and formed it into something shapely, unique, successful. Tycoons' autobiographies and the memoirs of Hollywood stars often follow this template.

But, even as insiders like Franklin were offering readers the key to their success, outsiders were offering up their life stories to an audience eager to learn about life on the margins. As early as the 1830s, slave narratives (some of which were actually written by abolitionists) and "as told to" Native American autobiographies were widely read. Since then, the popularity of the outsider autobiography has only continued to grow.

Outsider autobiographies offer the "authentic" voice of an ethnic, economic or other minority group to a primarily white, middle-class reading audience. Both the reader and the writer of an outsider autobiography understand that the memoirist is not telling his or her own story as much as the story of a people. Native American author Sherman Alexie noticed early on that Nasdijj's memoirs borrowed heavily from the work of several American Indian writers, including himself.

Readers usually prefer memoirs that tell them what they already think they know. Accordingly, abolitionist-penned slave narratives were sometimes judged by reviewers to be "more authentic" than the life stories of actual slaves. Perhaps that's why the former slave Frederick Douglass, when touring as a speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society in 1841, was told by abolitionist leader William Garrison not to sound too "learned," in case his audience not "believe you were ever a slave." Douglass refused.

The current brouhaha over James Frey's memoirs and others recalls nothing so much as the 1991 exposure of Forrest Carter, the author of the wildly popular "memoir" "The Education of Little Tree." In his pre-Cherokee life, Carter had penned George Wallace's "Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" speech. Fortunately for him, Carter turned out to be as adept at appealing to fans of sentimental Indian autobiographies as to white supremacists: "Little Tree" became a New York Times bestseller.

If there's anything that Carter's story proves, it's that we love comforting fictions more than we love the truth. Before the slippery character Asa Carter was exposed by historian Dan Carter (no relation) in 1991, he had been outed in 1976, also in the pages of the New York Times, by an Alabama journalist, Wayne Greenhaw. Alabamans, acquainted with the man they knew as Asa Carter, had recognized him in Forrest Carter's 1974 interview with Barbara Walters on the Today show-and alerted Greenhaw to the deception. Yet even today Carter remains the best-known "Cherokee" author.

Our hunger for the authentic voice of a people seems always to be stronger than our skepticism or our memory. Even after its first exposure, Carter's "Little Tree" went on to sell a half million copies. It's certainly possible that in another twenty years, the works of Frey, LeRoy, and Nasdijj will be on college syllabi across the country.

We too often read outsider autobiography to find out the definitive truth of a group's experience. Reading these books with the knowledge that they're fakes not only defies our expectations, but teaches us their futility. Yet, until our expectations change, the impersonator autobiography is sure to make its appearance — and to find a receptive readership. It will be a new day in America when it doesn't.


Laura Browder, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a writer for the History News Service and the author of "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities" (2000).