Nonfiction writing holds a certain kind of mystique. The facts draw a thin line between nonfiction and fiction, memoir and novel. The truth holds all the power in nonfiction, as it should, yet not everyone has adhered to this standard over the decades.
Whether motivated by readership, prestige, or merely ego, these seven books lied to their readers, painting fantastical works of fiction as truth and falsities as fact.
Michelle Remembers by Lawrence Pazder
Michelle doesn’t, in fact, remember.
Michelle Remembers claimed to document the terrible abuse that Michelle Smith supposedly suffered at the hands of Satanists for their rituals.
Her psychiatrist at the time, and co-author of the book, Lawrence Pazder, asked her leading questions to get her to think that awful things were done to her by the very new Satanic church. The psychiatrist and author in question, Lawrence Pazder, ended up marrying Michelle, so his credibility as an unbiased professional remains even more in question.
Smith later recanted all that she said, but the book had already spurred mass paranoia and the damage of the Satanic Panic had already ruined lives, as in the case of the McMartin preschool trial.
Redman Echoes by Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance
Author Sylvester Clarke Lance changed his name to Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance per the narrative he was trying to sell as fact.
He claimed to be the child of a Blackfoot chief, and his memoir became such a bit hit that he achieved literary celebrity, giving speeches and starring in silent films.
However, Lance’s father was not a chief, but a janitor, and his fans rebuffed him when the truth came out.
Papillon by Henri Charriere
The downfall of Papillon began at the start. Charrier’s fantastical story of arrest and prison break was originally meant to be published as a novel, but his publisher encouraged him to put the book out as a memoir instead.
Charriere claimed to be wrongfully convicted of murdering a friend, escape capture multiple times, stab someone, escape French prison on a raft of coconuts, and impregnate teenage sisters in Venezuela (which altogether sounds obviously fake but that’s not the discussion).
Charriere was convicted of killing his friend, and did escape from the French penal colony in Frerich Guiana before fleeing to Venezuela, which one would suppose is interesting enough without embellishment.
However, the lies weren’t enough to prevent the book from being turned into an adaptation in 1973, three years after Charriere was confirmed to have lied, and again in 2017.
Go Ask Alice edited by Beatrice Sparks
The immensely troubling “real-life” diary of a teenage girl plagued by drug abuse, ending in her overdose, shocked and arrested the attention of readers everywhere.
Turns out, the “real” diary was anything but.
In reality, Mormon youth counselor Beatrice Sparks confessed that the story was a work of fiction that she had slapped the label “memoir” onto. Sparks merely edited the fictional story of one of the girls she counseled and attempted to pass it off as truth.
Honor Lost by Norma Khouri
Khouri, whose real name is Norma Majid Khouri Michael Al-Bagain Toliopoulos, wrote a “memoir” about the honor killing of her friend Dalia because of a relationship she had with a Roman Catholic named Michael.
In dramatic fashion, the lies of author Norma Khouri gradually unspooled as a film crew accompanied her to Jordan, where the story supposedly took place, to try and verify her untruths.
Khouri actually grew up in Chicago, and much of the memoir was proved to be false.
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
This one is a doozy, to say the least.
Frey made it onto the coveted Oprah Winfrey Book Club, and it all came crashing down.
Frey claimed, among many things, that he spent 86 days in jail, his girlfriend Lily had hung herself, and that he received a root canal without anesthesia while in prison, all of which were false. In fact, Frey spent a few hours in jail, a huge jump from his initial claim.
Initially, Winfrey stuck by Frey when allegations of his lying first surfaced. Frey’s defense of his falsities crumbled when he appeared on the late Larry King’s CNN program and admitted that he had embellished, and outright fabricated, aspects of his book. Afterward, Frey appeared on Winfrey’s show, where he attempted to soften the fact that he had overtly lied and stood by those lies for so long.
Winfrey didn’t take his pseudo-apology well, saying she felt “duped… But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen
Wow, did things go downhill fast for Mortensen.
Three Cups of Tea claimed to document Mortensen’s travels across the world as he built schools, fought terrorism, and participated in other humanitarian efforts.
However, journalist Jon Krakauer grew suspicious of Mortensen’s story and voiced these accusations in his own piece, Three Cups of Deceit (burn).
While Mortensen claimed that his tendency to not take substantial notes—and his collaboration with another writer—might have made some inaccurate details in his account, his excuses didn’t hold up very well. On top of this, a lawsuit against Mortensen alleged that he lied about building schools (among other things) in his book, which led to the truth eventually coming out.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, there were claims that Mortensen mismanaged funds meant for his nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute, which was designed to help build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Talk about a downward spiral.