Writers, Hoaxes, and the Psychology of Fraud
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
The importance of being authentic
When I accidentally discovered a story about Ern Malley, a non-existent person who became a prominent poet through a literary hoax, I started wondering: Who does this kind of thing? What drives people to perpetrate flagrant untruths?
The Education of Little Tree
I had a vague memory of a book that my sister loved and had given me in the early 90s. It was called The Education of Little Tree. It was a lovely memoir about an orphaned boy raised by his Cherokee grandparents. They were kind, intelligent caregivers who taught the boy about nature and goodness.
It was a lovely story….until it wasn’t. The author, Forrest Carter, was ultimately “outed” as Asa Earl Carter, a prominent member of the Klu Klux Klan, fervent anti-semite, and staunch supporter of White Supremacy. The book was NOT a nonfiction memoir, but a purely fictional story.
The strange thing is that the novel had been published in 1976 to modest success. It took fifteen years for its popularity to hit its peak. Reprinted in 1986, it accumulated readers because its message of environmentalism and simple living resonated with the public. It climbed to the NYT bestseller list in 1991. The Education of Little Tree even won the first-ever American Booksellers Association Book of the Year, (The Abby).
Stranger still, even in 1976, lots of people KNEW that Forrest Carter was not who he claimed to be. A historian published a piece in the New York Times revealing Forrest Carter’s true identity, but it went unheeded. It took another fifteen years, surging popularity for the book, and an expose by Dan T. Carter to irrefutably prove that Forrest Carter was Asa Earl Carter.
You may wonder why — if the story was a good one — the identity of the author mattered so much.
And that’s the crux of the issue. The authenticity of the author is crucial to the story. No one wants to be lied to.
Why do authors commit literary hoaxes?
If writers are talented and tell a good story, why do they feel the need to hide their identity in false works? Why do they perpetrate fraud?
“The Psychology of Hoaxing” suggests that people do it for these reasons:
to draw attention to their fraudulent skills
to create financial gain through deceit
to target specific individuals to vilify or discredit, especially those who pose a threat
to feed secret prejudices and beliefs
to fool people because it’s fun
to get a “sense of potency…fame in a very back-handed way.”
In the case of The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter wanted to make money from books, and he couldn’t do it if people knew his true identity. An acknowledged racist and writer of George Wallace’s speeches, famous for penning the line, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Carter would be unbelievable as the young boy raised to live in peaceful co-existence with the world.
Literary hoaxes occur more often than you’d think
Forrest Carter and Ern Malley were just two characters in a long line of literary hoaxes, from revered writers to contemporary novelists:
Jonathon Swift must have wanted to discredit astronomer, John Partridge. Swift assumed the pen name of Isaac Bickerstaff and published a prediction that John Partridge would die from a raging fever on March 29, 1708. Partridge rebuked that prediction, but on the predicted day, Jonathon Swift, a.k.a. Bickerstaff, wrote an elegy on a pamphlet proclaiming Partridge’s death. Partridge spent the rest of his life trying to convince people that the story was a hoax and he was, in fact, NOT dead.
Davy Crockett got his reputation as an eccentric, carousing frontiersman from a book entitled, Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas, Written by Himself. The book perpetuated falsehoods and rumors and was a total fake, written by a novelist named Richard Penn Smith. The author said he composed the book in less than 24 hours.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story entitled “The Balloon Hoax,” supposedly detailing the true adventures of a Trans-Atlantic crossing by Monck Mason and published in the New York Sun. The story was completely false.
Clifford Irving and his friend, Richard Suskind, wrote an “autobiography” of the recluse Howard Hughes, making it look real by creating false documents and forging Hughes’ signature. Hughes’ total withdrawal from society and the eccentricities of his character made him an enticing figure for a book, and Irving got huge advances. Howard Hughes came out of hiding for a press conference that revealed the hoax. Irving spent 17 months in prison for fraud.
Oprah Winfrey liked the memoir, Angel at the Fence, so much that she invited the author, Herman Rosenblat, to appear on her show twice. Then The New Republic published a piece exposing the falsehoods in the book. Rosenblat was forced to admit his book wasn’t true at all.
Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, written by Misha Defonseca, was promoted as a true story about a woman who escaped the Nazis and lived among wolves. It was NOT true. (She had to pay $22.5 million back to her publisher.)
Poor Oprah. In her attempt to find compelling reads, she’s found several false ones. One of the most prominent cases of a hoax she promoted was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which purported to be a true story of a drug addict, his incarceration, and his long road to recovery. It was not true. (Frey, however, recovered and went on to write another bestseller, Bright Shiny Morning.)
Who knew that authenticity would be so hard to find?
How to be authentic:
The obvious way to be authentic is to be HONEST. Be who you truly are, without embellishment or artistic license.
Understand the different genres of literature. A memoir is “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.” The author’s memories are based on REAL experiences. Autobiographies are authors’ stories about their lives, expected to be TRUE.
Know the difference between FACT and FICTION. If you want to write about your life and then “stretch” the truth, embellish the experiences, add characters, expand the action, or distort reality, you are NOT writing a memoir or an autobiography. You are writing a novel and must present it as such. Your novel may be in the form of diary entries, letters, or first-person narrative pretending to be a memoir, but if any part of it isn’t true, it becomes fiction.
An authentic writer tells agents and publishers the real story., admitting whether the book is loosely based on a fact — with embellishments (a novel), or a memoir (cemented in hard truth.)
The marketing of any book has to be true to the book’s reality. Many literary hoaxes have occurred because the publisher markets it as a nonfiction memoir only to find out that the works were more fiction than fact.
Authenticity means — no joke — that you haven’t adopted an entirely new identity and totally ignored or misrepresented your past. (Getting a new style of dress, hairstyle, accent, address, and name are dead giveaways that the author isn’t authentic, as in the case of Forrest Carter.)
The mind of a hoaxster
There are dozens more literary hoaxes to add to the above list of authors who are anything BUT authentic. Hoaxsters are people who don’t mind sticking it to others by purposely promoting dishonesty. They’re con artists who write fiction in the guise of nonfiction, and who’ll ruin a story by pretending to be something they’re not.
The mind of a hoaxster is a tangled mess, intent on mischief, meanness, fortune and fame, regardless of how they achieve it. They shamelessly blur the lines between fact and fiction to achieve notoriety and market their books. It’s a gutsy move in today’s world where facts are so easily checked and records appear at the click of a finger.
Maybe I’m just not gutsy enough.
Sometimes I wonder if my memoir would be published if I embellished the truth. If I add wild events just to hype up the readers’ emotions. What if I created some characters that weren’t real, exactly, but would add flash?
Is the reading world so starved for sensational stories that true nonfiction is no longer is enough?
I believe authenticity matters.
You’ll have to choose for yourself.
Buy The Education of Little Tree from Bookshop.org.