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Truth and Consequences: Little House in the Ghetto

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Los Angeles is a place where, to put it mildly, it's a little hard to tell the truth from the lie. Are you really standing inside a giant ice cave? Or are you down on Stage 6 again? People come here to reinvent themselves. And sometimes they begin to believe that story they've told everyone. Then they write about it. In February of this year, Margaret B. Jones, foster child, incest victim, gang member was revealed to be Margaret Seltzer, longtime Sherman Oaks resident, leading us to consider why people write fake memoirs, and what those memoirs are like. So we begin with our semi-regular series, Truth and Consequences, where we live in Los Angeles, and consider the question -- what is real?

Margaret Jones (AKA Seltzer) claims that she wrote part of her book, Love and Consequences from inside a Starbucks in South Central. Despite glowing reviews in the NYTimes, blessings from NPR and People, it feels like just that – like a view of the ravaged and ravaging gang world of Los Angeles from inside a safe, coffee-scented, air conditioned bubble. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback these things – to point out that the book seemed a little unreal after it has been called a hoax. But when I started reading my first thought was that Seltzer (full disclosure: Peggy Seltzer’s mother was my third grade teacher, and she was great) sold this book as a memoir because she couldn't get it published any other way. In all honesty, it’s not very well written. It’s written like white people expect someone from South Central to write like.

Seltzer’s biggest writing problem isn’t her annoying way of slipping in and out of the language of her “homies,” in a way that’s both random, and dated, but that she breaks one of the first rules you’re taught in any creative writing class – show don’t tell. (You should bring the reader directly into the event, instead of just telling them it happened.) Seltzer commits this sin over and over again, often with the books most dramatic material – the drive-by shooting death of her brother, as he sat on the porch waiting for his son to be dropped off for a weekend together, the death of her foster mother, the riots in 1992. All are dispensed with in a few lines.

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Furthermore, there's a feeling of unreality to the book; characters are trotted in to make points - and almost all of the men are the same. They're tough-assed gangstas, who will just as soon cut you as look at you, but, to a man, they are helpful, sympathizing and respectful of Margaret (or "Bree" as she's called.) They give her books, a dog, advice. She is never demeaned in any way. Now I realize that, in a way, this is a good thing: it's defying the stereotypes we hold about gangsters. But they are so unvaried, so one note, that it feels like she's walked into Disneyland. And when one man is lost, whether because he is arrested or shot, he is replaced by another.

To be fair, Bree, with her resourceful toughness, her resistance to self-pity, is a very likable character. She's comfortable in her world, and it's interesting to watch her navigate it. She's loving to her sisters, kind to her mother, and she shows a real empathy for the struggle between family and the life that her peers (all guys, really) deal with.

In the wake of the scandal that has cause her publisher to recall the book, The New York Times interviews Ms. Seltzer's editor. She describes Seltzer as "naïve," someone who had heard many of these stories from close friends and who had worked tirelessly against gang violence. (It has subsequently been proved that the anti-gang organization that Seltzer claimed to be a part of doesn't exist.)

Even giving Peggy the benefit of the doubt, as her editor did when she informed the NY Times that Seltzer thought hearing these stories would open up that world a little more, let people understand it, but that she went about it all wrong. I disagree. I think the book's central problem isn't that it's fake, but that it's toothless. Why recall this book? Because it's a G-rated cautionary tale -- without some kind of first person legitimacy, it can't stand on it's own.

Seltzer claimed that "I wasn't interested in the whole South Central as petting zoo thing," but that's what she's selling in this book, a nice story of redemption to brighten the hearts of housewives living in Kansas. But this is LA, it eats its own. We're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Photo by Sol Neelman