TOP TEN INFAMOUS FAKE MEMOIRS
A memoir can hardly be expected to contain the whole truth. Memories are faulty and the authors, of course, are presenting their own personal view of themselves. But faulty memories, omission, and slight exaggeration are far different than completely warping the truth or creating an entirely imaginary life. Whatever their motivation, many people have published false memoirs and many more people have unknowingly and ardently supported them. When the memoir is revealed as false, a surprisingly common reaction is to appeal to the emotional truth of the story. It’s about how we feel in our guts, not what reality dictates. I submit that such ideas are dangerous and should be strongly opposed. The truth is important, and it should not be sacrificed for romantic notions rooted in irrationalism. We read and create true stories of triumph and tragedy all of the time, but if we have the urge to dramatize real events we can: it’s called fiction. Below are ten false memoirs in chronological order.
Sylvester Clark Long is probably the easiest fake memoirist on this list to sympathize with. Long soared to fame after he adopted the name Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance and published his memoir, Long Lance. Long’s book detailed his life as a Blackfoot chief’s son. He claimed that he had graduated from West Point, and had served heroically in the First World War, gaining the rank of captain after having been wounded eight times. The truth, however, was that Long had been born in North Carolina to a mother of mixed Croatan and white ancestry and a father who was black, Cherokee, and white. Rather than being a chief, Long’s father had been a humble janitor. In the segregated south, Long was classified as black and had little chance of advancement. As a child he claimed to be half Cherokee and attended an Indian Residential School in Pennsylvania, where he excelled. After graduating from a military academy in 1915, he joined the Canadian Forces and fought in the Great War. Following the war, he settled in Alberta, claiming that he was an American Cherokee and a war hero. He landed a job with the Calgary Herald, which he held for three years before being fired and moving on to a successful career in freelance writing. While in Alberta, Long took the opportunity to absorb all of the information he could on the culture and issues facing the First Nations. Long was heavily critical of the Canadian government for their unjust policies toward the natives, leading to his adoption by the Kainai Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy. After publishing his highly successful memoir, Long became a darling of New York’s high society and used his fame to give expensive speeches, promote a shoe for the B.F. Goodrich Company, and even star in a 1929 Silent Film. When it emerged that Long was not a full-blooded Blackfoot and that he, in fact, had black ancestry, he was quickly abandoned by his former admirers. One of these former admirers, author Irvin Cobb, reportedly exclaimed, “We’re so ashamed! We entertained a nigger!” Although Long did use his fame for personal gain, he also used it to bring attention of the many injustices facing First Nations in both the United States and Canada. Following his exposure and plummet from celebrity, Long grew depressed and committed suicide in 1932. His will bequeathed his remaining assets to a Residential School in Southern Alberta.
Papillon is a memoir written by convicted felon, Henri Charrière, in which he related the tale of his adventures in various prisons and penal colonies throughout French Guiana and its environs. The book was a runaway bestseller when it was released in France in 1969, was translated into over 15 languages, and was made into a 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. When Charrière shopped the book, it was intended as a novel, but he was convinced to sell it as a personal memoir by his publisher, Robert Laffont. Nevertheless, Charrière insisted to the public that the entire book was true for the rest of his life. In a narrative brimming with self-importance, Charrière maintained that he was wrongfully convicted of killing a friend, sentenced to hard labour, and that he had a series of escapes and recaptures before being sent to the Devil’s Island Penal Colony. On Devil’s Island, the butterfly-tattooed convict maintained the he made yet another daring escape on a raft made of coconuts. After this escape, he claimed he had been sent to a Venezuelan detention camp before being pardoned and becoming a Venezuelan citizen. Among his claims, were the assertions that he had stabbed a snitch in prison, lived among natives where he had married and impregnated two teenage sisters, and that, after being recaptured, he had convinced a judge to reduce his sentence because they hadn’t hit the prison guards that hard when they had escaped. So what was true? Henri Charrière had been convicted of killing a friend, he had escaped from the French Penal Colony in French Guiana, he had been sent to solitary on the island of St. Joseph, and he had eventually escaped to Venezuela after being transferred back to the mainland. The rest of the story was embellished with the accounts of other prisoners and with fantasy from Charrière’s fertile imagination. There is no reason to believe that Charrière was innocent, his first escape was closer to a year than a week after his imprisonment, and many of the excessive rules and conditions Charrière described had been abolished before his arrival. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Charrière had ever even been on Devil’s Island as it was reserved for those convicted for treason, and, even if he had been on Devil’s Island, this French MacGyver never escaped on a coconut raft. Fellow inmates and prison records attested to the fact that, contrary to his portrayal of himself, Charrière was a rather quiet and submissive prisoner who caused few problems. Already in 1970, the claims of Papillon were overturned by Gérard de Villiers in Papillon Egpinglé (Butterfly Pinned). Charrière vehemently denied de Villiers’ claims, even trying to have his book banned. Still, if internet articles are any indication, there are those who continue to believe the events described in Papillon are gospel.