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Memoir a fake, author says

Sister blew the whistle on writer who said she was a foster child in South L.A., but really grew up in the Valley.

March 04, 2008|Bob Pool and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

The gripping memoir of "Margaret B. Jones" received critical raves. It turns out it should have been reviewed as fiction.

The author of "Love and Consequences," a critically acclaimed autobiography about growing up among gangbangers in South Los Angeles, acknowledged Monday that she made up everything in her just-published book.

"Jones" is actually Margaret Seltzer. Instead of being a half-white, half-Native American who grew up in a foster home and once sold drugs for the Bloods street gang, she is a white woman who was raised with her biological family in Sherman Oaks and graduated from Campbell Hall, an exclusive private school in the San Fernando Valley.

Her admission that she is a fake came in a tearful mea culpa to the New York Times, which last week published a profile of Seltzer using her pseudonym. It was accompanied by a photograph of the 33-year-old and her 8-year-old daughter in Eugene, Ore., where they now live.

Seltzer was unmasked when her sister Cyndi Hoffman, 47, saw the newspaper's profile and notified the memoir's publisher, Riverhead Books, that Seltzer's story was untrue.

Riverhead announced Monday that it had withdrawn "Love and Consequences" and canceled a book tour that was supposed to have started yesterday in Eugene.

Seltzer could not be reached at her home for comment late Monday.

In a brief telephone interview, Seltzer's mother said her daughter was very upset and contrite about the fabrication, but had been advised by her editor not to speak further about it for the moment.

"I think she got caught up in the facts of the story she was trying to write," Gay Seltzer said. "She's always been an activist and she tried to draw on the immediacy of the situation and became caught up in the persona of the narrator. She's very sorry and very upset."

Gay Seltzer of Sherman Oaks said she had been aware of her daughter's book, but had not read it or known that it was a purportedly personal account of gang life.

She confirmed that Hoffman had revealed the hoax.

Margaret Seltzer's literary agent, Faye Bender, declined to comment.

"I'm so sorry, I can't be a part of it. I'm running out" the door, she said.

But Sarah McGrath, Seltzer's editor at Riverhead, told the New York Times on Monday that the publishing house was stunned by the disclosure.

"It's very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and felt such sympathy for her and she would talk about how she didn't have any money or heat and we completely bought into that," McGrath told the newspaper.

McGrath, whom the paper identified as the daughter of former New York Times book review editor and current writer-at-large Charles McGrath, characterized the deception as "a huge personal betrayal" and "a professional one."

"Love and Consequences" drew admiring reviews from critics. Los Angeles Times book reviewer Susan Salter Reynolds on Feb. 10 cited "her loyalty to the language, the sense of community, the tight bonds she formed with her gang."

The review told of how "at 5, Margaret B. Jones, part white, part Native American, was taken from her suburban Southern California home after she came to school bleeding from what the teachers and social workers assumed was a sexual assault. She spent three years in foster care before landing with 'Big Mom,' a hard-working black woman raising four grandchildren in South-Central Los Angeles. It didn't take Jones long to fall in with the Bloods, the dominant gang in her neighborhood."

The reviewer told of how the book described "Jones" selling drugs at age 12 because she was "eager to earn my own money toward the flame-red Nike Cortez with fat laces that everyone else wore, but even more excited to prove myself worthy of wearing the affiliated color and moving up the ranks."

Seltzer told the New York Times that although the personal story told in the book was fabricated, other details were based on friends' real experiences. She insisted to the paper that she wrote the book at a Starbucks coffeehouse in South L.A.

"I just felt there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it," she said.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

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