You'd think there couldn't be a new angle on the Margaret Jones/Peggy Seltzer story, but then again, you probably haven't met the woman's former literature professor, Gordon Sayre of the University of Oregon in Eugene. Professor Sayre remembers Mama in this morning's Eugene Register-Guard:
In 2001 Peggy Seltzer, aka Margaret Jones, was a student in my course on Native American literature. We kept in touch from time to time, and last month I received an advance copy of her book Love and Consequences....
When early on the morning of March 4 I went out to get the newspaper and learned that I had read a novel, not a memoir, I was neither angry nor disappointed. If Peggy’s assertion that she had spent part of her childhood on the Quinault reservation was untrue, if the paper she had written about this experience was based on false premises, at least it was backed up by enough research to be convincing.
Lord have mercy. As Kate Coe puts it on Fishbowl LA:
There's a moral assertion--lying is okay, provided you're good at it. Or else, a professor of Native American literature knows little or nothing about the lives of actual Native Americans.
What says Professor Sayre (who teaches a course called "Early American Ethnic Autobiography")?
Every memoir or autobiography is an individual’s fashioning of his or her life, directed toward that individual’s conception of audience. The more intimate or psychological the events recounted — of childhood trauma, of addiction, of religious conversion, or even of racial identity — the more ludicrous it is for readers to insist upon documentary truth.
Actually, 'ludicrous' is when a literature professor prefers documentary truthiness to documentary truth. What kind of education are those U of O kids getting for their parents' money, anyway?
Despite his defensiveness, I'm sure Sayre knows the difference, at least at some level. Even the most fusspot of critics wouldn't be hanging Seltzer out to dry if she had simply misremembered a fact or two: misidentifying a Tercel as a Corolla, or setting a scene in 1988 when it was 1989, or calling the neighbor lady Miss Mary Jane when she was Miss Martha Joan. Jones/Seltzer, of course, did none of those things; she constructed a story and a persona that was nothing but a lie...a distinction that's obvious to nearly everyone but Professor Sayre:
[I]t is no accident that the notorious recent memoirists J.T. Leroy and James Frey also wrote accounts of lives on the margins of society, feeding readers’ lurid curiosities or morbid fascinations.
JT LeRoy wasn't a memoirist, but Sayre's already said that he doesn't know, or care, about the difference; using his yardstick,The Diary of Anne Frank could've been a fictional account written by Jackie Collins, and as long as Jackie got the sound of the jackboots right, who dare insist on 'documentary truth'?
Sayre's essay, though, is a good reminder that fabulists don't work in a vacuum; for every habitual liar, there's a habitual lie-ee, someone who listens and believes and rationalizes and, when the truth eventually emerges, enters into the role of enabler.
How much did Professor Sayre believe Peggy Seltzer? Enough to thank her in the acknowledgements of his book The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero (hat tip, again, Kate Coe) -- a detail he left out of his Register-Guard essay:
...and Peggy Seltzer of the Quinault nation alerted me to the annual ride of the Sioux and inspired my teaching of Native American literature at Oregon.
I can see why he wouldn't want to brag about that. What I can't see is why he'd write an admiring newspaper essay about the woman, all these years later. (See: enabler.)
Beauty is truthiness, truthiness beauty; that is all ye know in Professor Sayre's class, and all ye need to know. Seltzer seemed to learn that very well, but it didn't serve her well in the end, of course, since the real world and Professor Gordon Sayre's class at the University of Oregon are two very different things...and thank God for that.