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How Did a Valley Girl Convince Times She Was a Ghetto Chick?

A Literary Fraudster Takes the Newspaper of Record for a Ride -- and Our Columnist Suffers Flashbacks

By Published on . 2

On Feb. 28, my journalist friend Matt Haber e-mailed me a link to an article titled "A Refugee From Gangland" from that day's New York Times, along with a note that read, "OK, maybe I'm a cynic, but doesn't this woman's story seem a bit fantastical? Or at least a bit perfectly memoir-ish?"
The memoir touted by the New York Times was exposed as a fraud.
The memoir touted by the New York Times was exposed as a fraud.

The piece was a profile of Margaret B. Jones, "a mixed-race white and Native American foster child ... who was dealing drugs on the streets of South Central Los Angeles before she hit puberty," as the Times put it. In addition to that profile, I'd also read the paper's rave about Jones' just-published memoir, "Love and Consequences," days earlier, and I wrote back to Matt, "Oh geez, I know! I thought exactly the same thing when I read the book review. ... I thought, something doesn't ring quite right here." Then, on March 4, in a front-page piece titled "Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction," the Times revealed that Jones is actually a white chick who, growing up as a Valley Girl (she went to private school in Sherman Oaks), was known as Peggy Seltzer. In a tearful interview, Seltzer said she was just trying to give "a voice to people who people don't listen to."

Though the Times gets credit for exposing the faux gang memoir, the paper had been, in the preceding weeks, Jones/Seltzer's biggest booster, not only with its admiring profile and glowing review but by offering an exclusive excerpt -- the first chapter of "Love and Consequences" -- on its website. In a connection that probably didn't hurt Jones/Seltzer's chances of getting taken seriously by the Times, her editor at Riverhead Books, Sarah McGrath, is the daughter of Times writer Chip McGrath, who was previously the editor of The New York Times Book Review.

You might think that I'm writing about all this to gloat a bit about the fact that my friend Matt and I smelled a fraud before America's newspaper of record did. But I'm actually writing from a place of deep humility and extreme sympathy for Sarah McGrath and the other victims of Seltzer's deceit because, well, I've been had too -- by one J.T. LeRoy. (I've not written about this until now.)

LeRoy, a transgender, Southern-born, former street kid/hustler not far out of his teens, mostly wrote fiction, but he made it clear in interviews that his work was autobiographical. He not only seduced literary lights such as Dennis Cooper and Dave Eggers, he became a celebrity cause célèbre in the early 2000s, with stars such as Bono and Madonna praising his work. As it happens, along the way I'd commissioned an essay by LeRoy for an art book I was editing, and he turned in what he characterized as an autobiographical, nonfiction essay. As with much of his writing, his essay dealt searingly and explicitly with child abuse -- namely the sexual abuse he'd suffered as a young boy. (It's worth noting that, in addition to LeRoy's piece, I also edited essays for the same book by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and John Malkovich, all of which included deeply personal opinions and memories that I also had no way of vetting.) LeRoy, who lived in San Francisco, had a way of insinuating himself into the lives of the writers, editors and celebrities in his ever-expanding circle, and before long he started calling me at odd hours in New York to engage me in endless therapy sessions (he was a wreck, for instance, when a story of his was rejected by The New Yorker). He was needy, nutty and fascinating.

Then, in the fall of 2005, I learned that my old employer, New York magazine, was preparing a profile of LeRoy suggesting that he was a fraud. Though I didn't doubt that some details of LeRoy's personal narrative had been massaged and exaggerated -- he was a writer, after all, who mostly expressed himself through rather baroque fiction -- given that I'd spent countless hours on the phone with him and had met him in person several times over the years, I vouched for him. (A diminutive, baby-faced girly boy, he had a sort of ethereal, shy air in person.)

New York mag didn't quite have the smoking gun, but its October 2005 "Who Is the Real J.T. LeRoy?" story was ultimately vindicated (to my great shock and sadness) when The New York Times later revealed that LeRoy's constant companion, a 40-something woman named Laura Albert, was the real writer of the books and the voice of LeRoy on the phone -- and that, astonishingly, Albert had been paying the sister of her boyfriend for years to portray LeRoy in person. It was an elaborate, decade-long ruse by a family of grifters who played a fictional sympathy card (Albert, acting as LeRoy in phone conversations, frequently let it be known, for instance, that "he" had all kinds of health problems related to having contracted HIV while turning tricks on the street) to extract almost absurd levels of generosity and consideration. It was as if Albert, fake sob story at the ready, was running a personal Make-a-Wish Foundation, with herself as the beneficiary.

There are people who are looking to extract object lessons from the "Love and Consequences" (ironic title!) fraud -- about how publishers of both books and newspapers must do a better job of checking facts. Fine; that's all very well and good. But I also believe that Seltzer and Albert are depraved and cunning megalomaniacs who sought a truly perverse sort of glory and reward through wannabe victimhood and self-debasement ("Hug me, I was raped as a child!"), which is, of course, sick. Crime can be reduced through better policing, sure, but it can never be eliminated because mental illness can never be eliminated.

Sarah McGrath, speaking of Peggy Seltzer, told the Times, "There's a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one."

I know exactly how she feels.
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