The fake memoir isn’t a new phenomenon; people have been embellishing and altering their life stories since the dawn of writing. One of the earliest examples is Maria Monk’s The Awful Disclosures, published in 1836, which purported to describe her experiences in a convent where the nuns were sexually abused by priests. It is now considered to be more or less entirely made up.
Usually the revelation that a memoir was falsified casts a shadow on a book’s rep, especially one valued mainly for the sensational nature of the story. But every now and then, a memoir that turns out to be fake retains enough great writing and interesting ideas that it’s still worth reading despite its fraudulent nature—you just have to approach them as novels instead. These five “memoirs” were faked to some degree, but they’re still worth reading.
A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey
The most famous hoax memoir of recent history, Frey’s hugely successful book started off life as a novel he couldn’t sell. The story of Frey’s supposed battles with addiction, time spent in rehab and jail, and his relationship with a girlfriend who eventually killed herself—it’s all fodder for a powerful story. Frey clearly had serious problems, and although he’s admitted to changing and exaggerating huge portions of the book (journalists have tried repeatedly to find any evidence for some of the most outlandish sections without success), the parts that illustrates the way addiction takes over and then destroys lives ring powerfully true. Frey didn’t suffer overmuch for his crimes; aside from a bit of public humiliation and a legendary Oprah shaming, his book still sells, and he still writes and runs his own publishing company.
Papillon, by Henri Charrière
Charrière was, in fact, known as Papillon, a nickname given to him because of the butterfly tattoo he sported, and he did spend a lot of time in prisons around the world. His supposed memoir, Papillon, tells the story of a super-criminal who couldn’t be held, a man who suffered incredibly in brutal prison systems rife with abuse and mental torture—and a man who escaped from them effortlessly, often in extremely improbable ways (you try building a raft out of coconuts and let us know how it goes for you). Still, despite plenty of research that proved very little of his memoir is the straight story, Charrière went to his grave insisting this memoir is absolutely true. It’s a great read, even if the main character—Charrière himself, of course—comes off as an insufferably arrogant man. It’s a story of the durability of the human spirit, no matter how confined; Charrière manages to make breaking out of prison sound like the sort of thing everyone should do at least once in their lives.
Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks
Go Ask Alice is still officially listed as being an anonymous memoir of a teenage girl who descends into a hell of drug abuse, prostitution, and homelessness. Written during a time of moral panic among suburban parents who feared the 1960s sex-and-drugs culture was going to seduce their kids, the book raised eyebrows with its depiction of the narrator’s rapid descent into full-blown drug addiction, even if the way she hits every branch on the misery tree on her way down to the bottom is a bit on the nose for what is ultimately an anti-drug fable. Sparks, who wrote countless other fictional diaries, does succeed in capturing the lazy way disaffected youth can get into trouble through simple boredom and peer pressure, and the story is much more layered and brutal than you might imagine. That’s likely why it’s still in print more than 40 years later, and long after it’s veracity as a memoir was debunked.
The Hand that Signed the Paper, by Helen Dale
Helen Dale wrote a pretty great novel about a Ukrainian family, oppressed and abused by Soviet rule, who initially welcome the Nazis as liberators and even happily volunteer to serve in the German army. Although she never claimed it was a straightforward memoir, she did publish it under a pseudonym using a Ukrainian name and lied that her family’s own experiences informed it, and stated outright that the events described did happen. All of that was a lie. The novel’s unflinching depiction of the attitudes of the Ukrainian characters has caused many to label it antisemitic, but if you take the book to be a complete work of fiction, it’s still a powerful historical story with some basis in reality, and a thought-provoking and often emotionally powerful read. Questions of veracity aside, it was an award-winning and well-reviewed book in its initial release.
Odd Man Out, by Matt McCarthy
McCarthy was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in 2002 but never made it to the major leagues. He wrote Odd Man Out and sold it as a 100 percent truthful memoir of his time in the minors, and it caused a sensation due to his frank depiction of drug use, racism, and other unsavory aspects of low-level pro baseball. While he may have captured the atmosphere accurately, he certainly fabricated many of the events he described, making the rookie mistake (see what we did there) of actually naming names—making it very easy for reporters to prove that many of the people weren’t even on the team when McCarthy claimed they were doing outrageous things. Despite the falsehoods, McCarthy’s descriptions of minor league life ring true in general, and offer an interesting perspective on a career in pro sports that isn’t going to end in the Hall of Fame.