Consequences of a hoax

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that Margaret B. Jones was a literary fraud. Weren’t the characters in her memoir about growing up a foster child in South Los Angeles, “Love and Consequences,” just a little too archetypal to be true? Could anyone believe that Kraziak, the original gangster who recruited her to sell drugs for the Bloods gang and provided history lessons to his young charges, was a real person and not, say, a modern Fagin? Or that her foster mother Big Mom, a hardworking single grandmother raising five kids and scraping by through willpower alone, wasn’t a composite of every mother-in-the-inner-city character ever invented by Hollywood?

It should have been obvious, perhaps, but it wasn’t. Certainly it never occurred to her publisher, Riverhead Books, to make even the most rudimentary check into her background, which would have quickly revealed Margaret Jones to be a character created by one Margaret Seltzer. Seltzer, who as Jones claimed to have entered the foster system after a sexual assault at age 5 and went so far as to invent an ethnicity for herself -- half Native American and half white -- is in fact all white and grew up with her biological family in Sherman Oaks.

Those who believed in Margaret Jones and were inspired by her courage are justified in feeling angry and betrayed. So are the residents of South Los Angeles, whose real stories, and real pain, were appropriated and repackaged for the purpose of selling books to a largely white audience. Yet Seltzer’s unmasking is more sad than infuriating. Her fictional self was so inspirational because hers was a tale so seldom told. There have been other gang memoirs -- “Monster” by Sanyika Shakur and “Inside the Crips” by Colton Simpson come to mind -- but none we’re aware of from a woman’s perspective. “Love and Consequences,” in the words of one radio commentator, gave “a girl’s-eye view of the brutality and tenderness” of growing up in a gang neighborhood. That’s a story we’d still very much like to hear -- only next time from someone who actually lived it.