Who, exactly, is Margaret Seltzer? Empathic writer? Gangster wannabee? Estranged daughter? One-time aspiring eco-terrorist?
MEDIA ASSASSIN has obtained what appears to be the only known copy of a damning video that Margaret “B. Jones” Seltzer’s publisher, Riverhead/Penguin, buried last month, once the book documenting the author’s foster home-living, gangbanging, drug-running past—Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, right—was revealed to be completely and totally fabricated.
The 10:10 video, shot and edited before she was exposed as a liar, may be the only existing footage of Seltzer in her full-on “hood” persona.
It seems to have been shot as part of a companion “electronic press kit,” or EPK, for the disgraced author’s quickly-canceled book tour and publicity campaign. (In the wake of the outrageous controversy, Riverhead recalled all of the 19,000 copies of Love and Consequences it had previously shipped, from a 24,000 total copies printed, the sum of which were then certainly pulped.)
Seltzer, 33, who’d written her tome under the name “Margaret B. Jones,” was exposed March 4th on the basis of events initiated by her real-life older sister, Cyndi Hoffman, 47.
Hoffman, reading The New York Times the previous week, had come across a meditative and thoughtful February 28 profile of and photo essay on her apparently estranged sister by Mimi Read. (These had followed an approving book review by Michiko Kakutani, two days earlier.)
According to The New York Times’s Tuesday, March 4 edition, Hoffman, outraged by what she’d read, called and told her sister’s Riverhead editors that everything “Jones”/Seltzer had said in both the pieces and her book about her upbringing and teenage life—that she’d lived in foster homes, ran drugs for South-Central gangbangers, and was half-Native American—were lies.
Instead, Hoffman said, and as Seltzer’s 1992 senior class photo, right—most likely taken about the time of the L.A. riots—seems to suggest, Seltzer had grown up comfortably with both parents. She’d lived in the San Fernando Valley’s tony Sherman Oaks neighborhood, attending a private Episcopal day school, Campbell Hall, in North Hollywood. There, her mother, Gay, taught third grade, Seltzer studied humanities (especially, tellingly, theater), and friends called her “Peggy.”
That reality, however, is not the one that Seltzer, as “Jones,” outlines in this video. Indeed, her tape describes a wildly different life than the pampered one Seltzer actually lived. While, as soon became obvious, Seltzer’s actual memories are cozy ones of a fatted, safe existence, in contrast, her literary fantasies were hardscrabble tales of apathy, violence, and death.
Just as startling, though, perhaps, is one answer to the question the tape doesn’t address: What did Seltzer do before writing her book, and what did relentless bloggers uncover in the controversy’s early moments that The New York Times didn’t…but perhaps the FBI did?
Up next is a detailed outline and analysis of this exclusive video’s contents, followed by thoughts on these questions.
As the reel begins to play, white-on-black text somberly explains that “Margaret B. Jones grew up in a foster home in South Central Los Angeles and by the age of 13 had followed her foster brothers into the local sect of the Blood [sic] gang.” The tape fades to black, much as it will, poignantly, throughout the piece.
Then, suddenly, twenty-five seconds in, we see something we’ve never seen before, given the controversy and the “memoirist”’s subsequent reclusiveness: Seltzer, animated, perhaps a tad somber, but generally upbeat and talkative.
In the video, the compact and buxom writer is simply dressed, wearing jeans, a white T, and large silver hoop earrings. Her brown hair comes down gently to her shoulders. Shot mostly in medium close-up, she appears to be sitting high across the street from tan-colored tract housing, somewhere in South Central Los Angeles; tall palm trees dot the background, clearly not the flora of Eugene OR, where Seltzer now lives with her eight-year-old daughter.
As the piece progresses, Seltzer, speaking in an affected, urban drawl most genuinely associated with West Coast rappers, talks about a wide range of subjects, almost every one accompanied by a pithy quote. We’ve included time markers, in parentheses, for convenience:
• Becoming aware of gangs. (0:59) “I grew up looking up to the money, looking up to the power…. That’s what I wanted.”
• Gang recruitment and organization. (1:33) “It’s like the army: You have generals, you have lieutenants…it’s a definite class system within the gangs, and you have to work your way up.”
• The normality of brutal street violence. (1:43) “Violence in L.A. is like the smog: You just learn not to see it.”
• Why people join gangs. (2:58) “It’s like being a Palestinian suicide bomber. When you’re born into it…it makes perfect, perfect sense.”
• L.A. as an “urban Third World.” (3:11) “We used to say, growing up, ‘I’m not from America, I’m from South Central L.A.’”
Captivating as this part of the video is, however, it’s the next section that’s the proverbial gold mine. There, Seltzer talks at length about:
• “A couple” of her best friends and her brother being killed, with her brother leaving behind a son. (4:23) “You’re watching that kid grow up, it’s got his name, it’s got his face. Looks just like him. But he’s not there.”
It’s in moments like these, before Seltzer’s ruse was even exposed, that her linguistic two-mindedness might have given her away, and careful observers, watching her at a near distance, would have felt a strong PHONY alarm going off.
Let’s walk through this:
You’re a woman with a foster brother, to whom you’re as close as a blood sister. He is violently killed by sudden gunfire, and leaves behind a small child, whose face you see every day. As that child grows up, he reminds you not only of your loss, but of the debt you now owe this young boy.
Perhaps, as you’re reading this, you’re thinking of a young, fatherless relative whose experienced a tragedy of this sort, and you with him. Reflect on that. Hold the feeling of that thought.
Now, a question:
Would you, as the foster step-aunt of such a child, ever, even accidentally, refer to him as “it”? (Think about your own relatives, then try it, to see how natural it feels.)
Foster does. She says, “You’re watching that kid grow up, it’s got his name, it’s got his face.” Not, “He’s got his name, he’s got his face,” but “it’s.”
Then, immediately after this (4:47), Seltzer says, “And that’s all you’ve got left is this little thing….”
She actually says thing. She stops, as though choked up, but actually she’s catching herself.
Call it the visceral tongue of disingenuousness. In TV dramas, this is what smart detectives look for when someone, making up an alibi, says, for example, “I was with a friend,” and the cop quickly asks, “What’s his name?, and the suspect stumbles. When there’s really no person there, the nobody you make up is merely “a friend.” Here, they are an “it” or “this little thing.”
Seltzer then goes into:
• Her indecision about going to college and leaving South Central. (5:05) “Big homie’s telling me, ‘Represent your hood with a book in your hand. You could come back.’ He said, ‘There’s nothing in L.A. changes but the date and the time.” She then adds, “I think that’s what gave me the permission to leave: Knowing nothing would change and I could come back.” She follows this with a reflective nod.
• Finding herself unable to compete in college, because (6:09) “I come from the inner-city. I comer from a home situation that wasn’t ideal,” but not giving up.
Seltzer, in her “Jones” persona, speaks only extremely briefly about her time at the University of Oregon, but more, and poignantly, about her graduation from the school.
But then she lets loose with this whopper (6:32):
“I graduated. I got a ethnic studies degree. My teacher, when I graduated, cried when she handed me my diploma. Like, it was a amazing moment. And I think one of my most prized possessions that I own is, one of the big homies whose been on death row, he sent me a graduation card for graduation. And he told me they passed it around and they all toasted my graduation.”
Seltzer, here, seems neither familiar with the physical layout of death row in U.S. prisons and their emphasis on “client” isolation—can such inmates really pass around greeting cards and propose toasts to each other?—nor with the diminutive roles that professors, vs. trustees and deans, typically play on-podium at college graduations.
That may be because she’s never been to the joint—yet—and, according to the Eugene OR Register-Guard, while confirming that Seltzer did attend the University of Oregon as an ethnic studies major, the school says she did not receive her diploma, “because of a dispute over credits for an independent study project and another class.” There was no graduation, teary or otherwise.
Seltzer finishes the video by talking about the much-ballyhooed “International Brother/SisterHood” a non-profit organization Seltzer claims she founded—a “gang truce foundation” is how she describes it.
She describes her work with the organization as writing, mentoring kids, getting universities and bookstores to donate books to prison, teaching kids history classes through the mail and through the internet, talking to parents, publishing her own writing on gang truce web sites, talking to kids, talking would be gang members out of forming new gang chapters, etc. In other words, a fantastically busy life.
However, no one was ever able to find an address, or tax records of any kind, for the foundation, nor, for the most part, has anyone been able to even make sense of how such a group would function.
For example, the week after the scandal, Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times book blog, noted that, in a Penguin author’s interview, Seltzer had said
The idea for the organization came from two homies who have been on death row for twenty years and who felt something needed to be done. … We go out and talk to these little kids because they look up to us.
Then the paper asks the obvious question:
But who talks to the little kids? The author lives in Oregon. The homies live on death row. What “we” goes into the community?
So far, according to the New York Times, it appears that the organization only existed as a web site that Seltzer’s agent, Faye Bender lent her money to create and host:
Ms. Bender said she helped set up Ms. Seltzer’s foundation Web site because the author said she lacked money to buy Internet server space. “She explained several times that it was a budding organization,” Ms. Bender said. “She said that the people involved were gang members and they were working to help other gang members and help other kids not get into gangs.” Ms. Bender said she asked no further questions, but added that Ms. Seltzer did not solicit funds on the site.
Most of all, however, no one working in L.A. gang reform work—the area in which Seltzer, even after being exposed, admitted she had actually been laboring, and from which she’d lifted her narrative foils and ideas—seems to have heard of or met the zaftig Zelig. Wrote the New York Times:
Leaders of several other groups combating gang violence in Los Angeles who were listed on Ms. Seltzer’s Web site said they did not know of the International Brother/SisterHood or of Ms. Seltzer or Margaret B. Jones.
“I’ve never heard of her before in my life,” said Malik Spellman, an intervention prevention specialist at Unity T.W.O., which works to provide social services and stop gang activity in many South-Central Los Angeles neighborhoods and was listed on Ms. Seltzer’s site. “I believe if she was active, I would probably know her by name or the organization.”
Khalid Shah, executive director of Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace Foundation, another organization listed by Ms. Seltzer, said he had not heard of Ms. Seltzer or her foundation. “She’s been doing her homework if she has all those organizations listed,” he said. “She must know something about something, or has done a lot of reading. It’s easy to get a lot of stuff off the Internet.”
Constance L. Rice, a co-director of the Los Angeles office of Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group, who wrote a report last year about reducing gang violence for the Los Angeles City Council, said that there were 50,000 to 80,000 gang members in Los Angeles County, and it was always possible that Ms. Seltzer worked with some of them. But Ms. Rice said that she did not know Ms. Seltzer or her foundation and noted that, as a white woman, Ms. Seltzer would have likely stood out in most neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles.
One more surprising detail pops out when one asks this question purposefully, an aspect completely unmentioned, even at the controversy’s peak, by the mainstream media, but uncovered by tireless bloggers like Kevin Allman and Steve Ruff. It may be, after the fiasco itself, the most curious fact of Seltzer’s history: What Allman calls “the eco-saboteur connection”
Logging onto the web under the name “blastedagronaut”—that’s her picture profile, right (an argonaut, says the dictionary, is “someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure”)—Seltzer, reports Allman,
was involved in the effort to free the eco-saboteur Jeffrey “Free” Luers, who was convicted in 2000 of torching three SUVs in Jones/Seltzer’s adopted hometown of Eugene, Ore. [NOTE: Earlier this year, Luers was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the crime.—H.A.]
In a bulletin dated Aug. 2001, A-Infos, a news website for self-described anarchists, lists Jones/Seltzer’s email address as a contact in the effort to reduce or commute Luers’ sentence:
I’d suggest that anyone trying to get to the truth of who Margaret Jones/Peggy Seltzer may really be might want to stop concentrating on South Central L.A. and the private schools of the San Fernando Valley…and start checking around the eco-communities of Eugene, Ore.
There is a fascinating moment in the Seltzer video where she says, “I can tell stories. … I can tell you stories, you would crack up. I could tell you stories where you would cry, too, and it would stick with you forever.”
She pauses for a second, thinking, perhaps, of all the things that she’s “done,” and the shame they might create were she exposed.
Then she adds perhaps the truest, most relevant words in the entire recording, given the spectacle of her charade: “You don’t want people to pity you. There’s some extent to which it’s funny, but it’s not fun to be laughed at.”
In the New York Times, Constance Rice of Advancement Project, says
it was just as likely that Ms. Seltzer had taken her inspiration from television and movies. “She’s been watching too much of ‘The Shield,’ ” said Ms. Rice, referring to the rough-edged police drama on FX set in Los Angeles. “All you have to do is go to a couple of movies or watch ‘The Wire,’ ” the Baltimore street drama on HBO. “You could riff off that forever,” she said.
Not any more. As you all know, The Wire aired its series finale March 9th, only five days after this controversy broke wide open. That TV drama is now over.
So is Margaret Seltzer.
Through the magic of video, though, we’ll be able to watch them both, over and over again, for a very long time.