5 Memoirs That Were Too Good to Be True

By: Dave Roos  | 
"A Million Little Pieces"
"A Million Little Pieces" got the Oprah's Book Club stamp of approval before the author admitted he had made most of it up. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Yes, writers should be granted artistic license to play with conventional notions of identity and authorship. But if you put your name on a book, call it a "true story" and then make the whole thing up, your artistic license should probably be revoked.

Here are five glaring examples of authors who duped millions of readers into believing their fictionalized tales actually happened, starting with the man who broke Oprah's heart.


1. "A Million Little Pieces"

 James Frey
Writer James Frey as photographed in 2009, three years after Oprah Winfrey lambasted him for duping her and her audience. Winfrey later apologized for berating him on national TV. Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey shocked her loyal Book Club readers in 2005 when she selected a dark and debauched memoir by a little-known author, James Frey, about his downward spiral from a sheltered, suburban childhood to becoming an alcoholic, crack addict and criminal. That's what Frey called himself repeatedly (eight times, exactly) throughout his 2003 tell-all book.

Frey, it turns out, was also a liar, or at least a wild embellisher of the truth. To ramp up the drama of his "real life" degeneracy, Frey turned a few hours in the holding pen of a small-town jail into 87 days of hard time in prison. He reimagined an incident in which he drunkenly parked a car on a curb and was charged with a DUI into a multiple-felony crime spree that included striking an officer with his car, being beaten with police batons, being arrested with a bag of crack and trying to incite a riot.


After being outed by the online publication The Smoking Gun, Frey returned to Oprah's show in 2006, and she lambasted him for "duping" her and millions of readers. Frey apologized and his publisher offered to refund any reader who felt cheated by the fictionalized memoir. Less than $30,000 in refunds were paid out.

2. "Go Ask Alice"

It was a classic cautionary tale that felt all too real to anxious parents in 1971 America: a 15-year-old girl from a good home gets caught up with the wrong crowd, starts taking drugs and ends up running away, living on the streets and turning to a life of crime and prostitution. Even when her family ultimately rescues her, she relapses and dies from an overdose.

That was the "true story" told in "Go Ask Alice," a bestseller that was banned in some schools for foul language and explicit sex, and was marketed as the real diary of a real teenager who really died from a drug overdose.


But the real truth was even stranger. The author of this raw and raunchy teenage diary was actually a middle-aged Mormon mom from Utah named "Dr." Beatrice Sparks.

Sparks claimed to be a therapist, although she lacks credentials (hence the "Dr." in quotes), and insisted that the anonymous author of "Go Ask Alice" was a patient whose parents gave Sparks the girl's diary after her death. After the runaway success of "Alice" — the book has sold an estimated 5 million copies — Sparks published a seven-book series of other "anonymous" teenage diaries like "Jay's Journal," "The Book of David" and "Breaking Bailey."


3. "The Education of Little Tree"

"Gone to Texas"
"Gone to Texas" was another book by Forrest Carter, who was later discovered to be Ku Klux Klan member Asa Carter, 1975. The biography as given on the book jacket is mostly fake. Thomas S. England/Getty Images

In the early 1990s, readers of all ages fell in love with "The Education of Little Tree," a heartwarming tale of a young half-Cherokee boy who spends idyllic summers with his Granma and Granpa learning important life lessons from his Native American ancestors. The book, originally published in 1976, was taught in schools, plugged by Oprah (again!) and rose to the top of The New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list.

The author, Forrest Carter, died in 1979 but said that he based his book on his own childhood as a half-Cherokee boy growing up in 1930s Texas. For those who knew Carter later in life, including his agents and publishers in the New York City book world, the author was simply an old cowboy who wanted to share his folksy wisdom with the world.


But none of them knew the real Forrest Carter, aka Asa Carter, a former Ku Klux Klan member and speechwriter for Alabama Governor George Wallace. The real Carter was responsible for writing Wallace's infamous 1963 rebuke of the Civil Rights movement: "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"

No one knows exactly what prompted Carter, a man who's been called "one of the most notorious racists in the state of Alabama," to write a touchy-feely memoir about the sage wisdom of Native Americans. Some of his old Alabama buddies claimed Carter was trying to dupe the New York elite who despised him. Others wondered if he felt some kind of romanticized affinity for Native Americans. "I heard him say many times that Blacks don't know what it is to be mistreated. The Indians have suffered more," a childhood friend told Texas Monthly.

People who never knew the "old" Carter hoped that the book was a sign that the former Klansman had repented for his racist ways.


4. "Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years"

In 1997, a Belgian Jewish woman named Misha Defonseca published a gripping Holocaust memoir. When Defonseca was a young girl, her parents were arrested and deported by the Nazis. Alone and distraught, she set out on a grueling 1,900-mile (3,058-kilometer) trek across Europe to find her parents. According to Defonseca, she was accompanied and protected by a pack of friendly wolves.

Ironically, it was Defonseca's publisher that first began to question the claims of the star author. Together with a genealogist, the publisher dug into Defonseca's childhood in Brussels and discovered that Defonseca's real name was Monique De Wael. She was Catholic, not Jewish, and spent the war enrolled in school, not walking across Europe.


Not that Defonseca didn't endure her share of wartime trauma. Her parents, who were members of the Belgian underground resistance, were indeed carted away by the Nazis and killed. Under interrogation, Defonseca's father reportedly gave up the names of other resistance members, and young Defonseca was bullied and ostracized as the "traitor's daughter."

In an apology published in 2008, Defonseca admitted that the memoir was fiction, but said, "There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world." She added, "Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish." In 2014, a court ordered her to repay her publisher $22.5 million.


5. "Catch Me If You Can"

Frank Abagnale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg
(L-R) Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, director Steven Spielberg, author Frank Abagnale and actor Tom Hanks appear at a press conference before the U.K. premiere of "Catch Me If You Can" in 2003. DiCaprio played Abagnale in the movie, which also starred Hanks and was directed by Spielberg. John Li/Getty Images

Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ve probably seen the 2002 movie of the same name. Both tell the story of Frank Abagnale, who conned people into believing he was a pilot for Pan Am, as well as a doctor, lawyer and college professor — all while still a teenager — and cashed more than $2 million in fake checks. In his 1980 memoir, Abagnale explained in great detail how he was able to pull off his cons and how he was let out of the federal penitentiary (after being sentenced) to work for the FBI. Even today, Abagnale's website states that he “lectures extensively at the FBI Academy and for the field offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

But what if none of this was true? In 2021, science journalist Alan C. Logan published a book called “The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can.” In it, Logan detailed how most of Abagnale’s claims are either exaggerations or outright lies. In reality, Abagnale posed as a TWA pilot for a few weeks, befriended a flight attendant and stole some checks from her parents which he forged. He was arrested and spent time in prison during those teenage years when he was supposedly posing in other occupations. Logan also told WHYY that was no record of Abagnale working for the FBI, although he has given some talks at the FBI academy.


After a second stint in prison for theft, Abagnale started to give lectures presenting himself as a reformed conman trying to help others. As he became better known, his tales got bigger. Eventually, Abagnale ended up on the TV game show "To Tell the Truth" which led to appearances on TV talk shows and his memoir. Logan was not the first journalist to point out discrepancies in Abagnale's story. In the past, Abagnale brushed these off by saying the people the journalists had spoken to were "too embarrassed" to admit they had been conned, which was why they would not confirm the accounts.