Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Why I Have A Million Little Reasons For Thinking That Roger Clemens Might Have Used Performance Enhancing Drugs (And Other Modern Lies)

In my experience, a great many people who lie keep on lying until they are faced with indisputable proof that they are, in fact, lying. Doctors, athletes, journalists, college professors, cops, politicians. Every profession has liars. Such people, who have lied successfully over and over, will keep doing it until they are stopped, often in a very dramatic and public way. Probably none of us who has had a plagiarized book manuscript sent to us for review ever forgets the experience of uncovering the lie and, when the shock passes, of wondering where it all started: and all of us in teaching eventually have to deal with cheating, a paper purchased off the internet, or one of the other cumbersome, time-consuming ways some students find to not do their own work.

I am willing to wager, after the most recent fraud to rock the publishing world, that many celebrities who lie come to believe the lie as a part of an image and a self that is a tissue of lies and truths concocted by others: a certain track star and her power-hitting pal who supposedly believed they were being injected with flax seed oil, for example (why would someone inject you with flax seed oil, pray tell?) Then there are those who want to become celebrities by any means necessary, who also come to believe they are telling is the truth until they are presented with such overwhelming proof that their stories crumble. What then follows is the justification for why these wanna-be's (who have already spent the advance, thank you) thought it would be okay to lie, something that may be a particular feature of literary liars, who pretend to a social and cultural mission that professional athletes or people pretending to be plastic surgeons have a difficult time claiming. Margaret Soltan, at University Diaries has one of her most hilarious commentaries ever on the latest invented memoir scandal, this time at Riverhead Books. The faux memoirist, Margaret B. Jones (pictured above left), who claimed to be a part Native American woman raised by a foster family of African-American gang bangers, was turned in by her (white) sister. The sister from the white suburban family she actually grew up in.

Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall at their next family gathering?

Who can be fooled by the fake memoir? Well, just about everybody, it turns out, even in a post-James Frey world. Try writing one and see. Apparently Riverhead sent Jones a six-figure check and invested large sums in all the expenses attendant to publication and publicity of a new blockbuster, but they claim never to have met her face to face. Like Margaret Soltan, I find this very strange.

But who am I to judge? I am the idiot who has personally known two -- count 'em, two -- people with Munchausen Syndrome who pretended to have the same tragic and fatal disease featured in the 1970's teenybopper hit, Love Story. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. And I have known any number of students who have cheated in one way or another, denied it for weeks up until the moment we were in the disciplinary hearing and I started reading from the book they copied from, and then they said -- "OK, I did it." A few years back there was one of my favorite Presidents, who lied about his relationship to "that woman," until he was has confronted with indisputable proof, and then he said some version of "Oh -- is that what you mean by 'sex'? Well you should have said so."

The faux memoir writer is, of course devastated. She has clearly has a modern college education because her reason for having impersonated a drug dealing member of a drug dealing foster family, who has all sorts of hairy adventures with all sorts of hairy people -- all of whom are made up -- is that she has met a lot of people like them, and she wanted their voices to be heard. Can the subaltern speak?

Gee, I dunno. But my advice is: next time, meet the subaltern face-to-face before you put a big check in the mail and get her book reviewed in the New York Times.


TheCrankyProfessor said...

But she DID meet the subaltern face to face - at Starbucks!

Anonymous said...

It is unlikely that this particular author has met any of those subaltern who are speaking without her help in Eugene Oregon or in her private Episcopalian school before college.

More importantly, unlike other "liars," this "memoir" taps into a historical phenomena in which white authors put on literary black face particularly with regards to indigenous and urban communities. What your piece leaves out is that she not only wrote a memoir in the voice of drug dealing, subsistence level, foster kids of color but that she passed herself off as 1/2 indigenous. Her reliance on gendered racial stereotypes and the "perils of indigenous female identity" are ones that are all too common in literature and some historical journals.

When I heard this news break last night, I immediately thought of Andrea Smith's book Conquest in which she addresses similar narratives of trying on indigenous identity in literature, memoir, and journal writing as one of many acts of colonial fantasy. Under the circumstances I think she is less symptomatic of the modern turn toward lying in print and part of a much larger history of cultural appropriation and neo-colonial fantasy.

Anonymous said...


Tenured Radical said...

Dear professor black woman,

Right you are -- Piri Thomas for one, Down These Mean Streets. I didn't quite leave it out that she was "playing Indian," as Phil Deloria and Rayna Green, in addiiton to Smith, would say: "The faux memoirist, Margaret B. Jones (pictured above left), who claimed to be a part Native American woman raised by a foster family of African-American gang bangers, was turned in by her (white) sister. The sister from the white suburban family she actually grew up in."

But yes -- your point is correct: whether you want to call it racial masquerade or minstrelsy, it is a long tradition. And it is usually associated with a kind of white "longing" -- for authenticity, for love, for an idealized "home."

And yeah, I guess they did meet in Starbucks. But jeez, academia does few things right, but I don;t know anybody who would turn over a 100K research account over a cup of coffee to someone they hadn't checked out at all.


Anonymous said...

You mean like Ward Churchill?

And all those Soviet and East German "chicks" from the 70s? (I'll take a double-dose of whatever Marion was using over that stuff, thank you.)

Yep, a whole lotta lyin’ goin' on; been goin' on for years. It’s amazing what people can convince themselves of when they’re sure of their ideological superiority…


Anonymous said...

Sorry about that; you didn't leave that part out.

And I agree he had 3 years to check her story out but I think it was the whole sway of colonial fantasy that made it possible. If she is 1/2 indigenous living amongst black and brown drug running youth than it confirms a number of liberal and conservative stereotypes/myths/desires about the lives of urban youth of color. If she is white writing fiction, then it is harder not confront the racialized (and gendered) gaze in which she writes these fantasies into being.

Anyway it will be interesting to see how she spins it as she wraps up that creative writing degree.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Rick,

Tell me about it -- remember David Brock, who wrote Blinded By the Right: the Conscience of an Ex_conservative, in which he admitted that he made up nearly everything he wrote about the enemies of the conservative establishment, including the hatchet job on Anita Hill, and writing all those homophobic tracts when he himself was a closet queer?

Boy, what people will do when they are convinced of their ideological superiority.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely TR – No doubt it had something to do with his sexuality, which probably caused some sort of identity crisis, resulting in ideological extremism.

It’s very much a part of the self-delusion / lie theme; some people actually think that a significant number of others care about their sexuality, when in fact very few people care the slightest whit about another person’s sexuality (or bathroom habits, or pick any other biological function.)

It’s surely a pity when a biological function, instead of a critical analysis of truth and how it pertains to the human condition i.e. economic well-being, freedom from political tyranny, etc, ends up driving a person’s ideology, isn’t it?


Anonymous said...

What I find fascinating about this story is that this apparently affluent white woman convinced everyone she was otherwise. We certainly should consider that this may be an instance of "colonial fantasy" or white people's desire to to be Other but we should not ignore the other side of this issue. If she did indeed "[tap] into a historical phenomena in which white authors put on literary black face," she also 'tapped' into her readership's imaginary and desire for such "authentic" stories of life on the margins. Doesn't the fact that she convinced so many people (even Oprah) by assuming a voice that wasn't hers demonstrate a remarkable understanding of that which she is not and of what her readers long for. Rather than assuming this is a manifestation of her desire to be Other, couldn't other things be at work here?

And no one saw Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS recently, demonstrating the myth of indigenous ancestry among African-Americans?

Anonymous said...

anon - hope you saw my reference to the colonial fantasies of the readership and the publisher; I'm not just talking about the author. Smith and Green both talk about the entire audience for such narratives. (sorry TR haven't read Deloria)

I don't know about Gates and his myth-making; clearly there is a long history of that in both the Af-Am and white community perpetuated in part by the marketing of "the Indian Princess" images. However there are actual black people with indigenous ancestry as several anthologies on the topic, an annual conference, as well as well-publicized oustings of afro-indigenous people from native nations in the last 20 years attest to. It's an interesting connection to go from a white undergrad writing a stereotypical poverty turned good narrative to one of a famous black academic claiming a piece of indigeneity, especially after claiming she "demonstrate[s] a remarkable understanding of that which she is not." Hmmm things to think about it . . . tho I am sure I have thrown your blog off focus once again TR. sorry.

Amy said...

The worst part of the story is that the book would have been just as interesting if she had written it honestly, as an observer. Or as fiction.

It is a shame - so many people's careers damaged.

Anonymous said...

How do you feel about borrowing the words of others without attribution? Even when it's your friends...

Anxious Black Woman said...

If this story were passed off as "fiction," it would then be obviously racist since it's penned by a white woman stereotyping African American gangbangers and calling her foster mother "Big Mom" (clearly an indication that she's nota woman of color because who talks like that?!), as prof black woman already pointed out.

Seriously, what is the fascination that certain whites have about the racial Other, especially this need to "pass as Native/brown/black"?

Anonymous said...

Gates was not participating in the myth-making; he was exposing pervasive claims of indigenous ancestry in the black community as more often myth than not. Of course, there are black as well as white people with actual indigenous ancestry - the point being?

What I'm getting is that fantasies about and, in some cases, the desire to be the Other is not limited to any one social category of people.

Anonymous said...

Not to belabor the point any longer but I am confused. So we are comparing the following:

A white woman author from a privileged and racially exclusive experience who passed as 1/2 indigenous and penned a work that supported stereotypical images of indigenous, African American, and Chican@ communities for a thirsty white audience

Oprah Winfrey's book club

Skip Gates genome supported assertion about the existence of bi-racial indigenous African Americans

Obama's uncited use of a quote by a black man running part of his campaign; which both Obama and the quoted person say he had permission to use.

Forgive me, maybe I have spent too much time watching Sesame Street with my kids lately but "One of these things is not like the other; One of these thigns does not belong."

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book. So, I don't know to what extent her book reproduces gendered racial stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

Piri Thomas?

What's the controversy with him?

Anonymous said...

parts of it are quoted in the NY Times spread - which I think ABW is quoting - and whole sections were circulated on the internet yesterday. (I know that's not your point, but just in case anybody is interested in reading some, since it looks like you can only get used copies now from major distributers).

Anonymous said...

"even" Oprah?

Susan said...

Just in terms of racial fantasies, it's probably significant that she claimed to be part Native American, not part African-American. I remember years ago a friend saying that it was quite common for whites to "discover" Native American ancestry, but few discovered African- American ancestors.

Not that this will surprise your readers, but just saying...

Anonymous said...

This is for confused: You still cite sources even if you have permission to use them. Duh.

Anonymous said...

To Susan: Whites? Which whites? I suspect all kinds of people -- white or otherwise -- discover all kinds of interesting/exotic/other ancestry. I also suspect there is no good study of who claims what ancestry and for what reason/s, except Native American, and that's for legal/administrative reasons. "Exotic" depends on where you stand in the narrative.

Anonymous said...

Susan, firstly I've no idea why someone, of any race would claim they have ancestors from any other race, when they don’t.
But I can understand if a white person was to lie about it that they would chose to lie about having Native American ancestry, over claiming they have African- American ancestors.
It's quite simple really; it would be easier to get away with it. The difference b/w a white person’s skin tone & a Native Americans is a lot less then the difference b/w a white person’s and an African Americans.
One lie people may believe, another will most likely be scoffed at. If you’re going to the trouble of lying, you might as well make it more likely to be believed.