15 March 2008

A slew of fake families

What is it that inspires the saga of fake families?

According to a March 8 story ("A Family Tree of Literary Fakers"), by Motoko Rich in the New York Times, the literary fakers history goes back at least to the 19th century when an 1863 slave narrative by Archy Moore was revealed as a novel by a white historian named Richard Hildreth. In the early 20th century, "Cradle of the Deep," by Joan Lowell, supposedly detailed her childhood on a ship in the South Seas - she really grew up in Berkeley, California.

The story details recent Holocaust fakes such as Binjamin Wikomirski's 1996 "Fragments," in which he claimed he was a Latvian Jewish orphan in a Nazi concentration camp. It was really written by Bruno Doessekker, who spent the war in Switzerland. The book's German and American publishers suspended publication following a Swiss historian's debunking.

Misha Defonseca's book, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” ("Surviving with wolves") covers a supposedly Jewish childhood running from Nazis, searching for deported parents, living with wolves and killing a Nazi soldier. It was translated into 18 languages and made into a French film. In February, the author, now 71 and living in Massachusetts, admitted she was Monique De Wael, a Belgian Catholic.

Other memorable frauds include that of Margaret Seltzer (aka Margaret B. Jones, "Love and Consequences;" James Frey ("Million Little Pieces") and Clifford Irving's bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes, now being released as a novel.

Stanley Crouch's column ("We fall for them every time") in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, discuses the long tradition of the fake.

As to Defonseca, "her tall tale not only includes a Jewish child walking from Belgium to Ukraine, but the lie pulls in the fable of Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by wolves before founding Rome."

We love to have our hearts broken and sealed back together by fantasies such as the supposedly healing saliva of wolves. Sometimes, however, the wolf is looking for no more than a meal at the expense of the dead and the brutalized, and will do just about anything to get it served -- the rarer, the better.

For another view of the frauds, see this article ("Why So Many Literary Frauds?"), on Tyee, an independent online magazine in British Columbia, Canada, by John Dolan.

Say you meet me at a party and I tell you that when I was 7 years old, I killed a full-grown military officer, then ran off and was nurtured by a pack of wolves. Would you believe me or begin edging away quietly, keeping the snack table between us at all times?

Or say I'm a healthy-looking, articulate young white woman, and I tell you I used to work for the Bloods in L.A. -- a full-time gun-strapped gangbanger. Would you believe me or laugh in my un-bruised, orthodontured face?

If you said you would believe these stories, then please stand by -- the process of natural selection will be along for you in a moment. More likely you scoffed at the idea you'd fall for such obvious crap.
But hordes of otherwise intelligent readers did believe those ridiculous stories, as told in two recent "memoirs" later shown to be invented.

Seltzer was uncovered by her sister, who called everyone to reveal the lies. Says Dolan, readers fall for these things for several reasons: "Improbability is crucial to these stories, a glamorous improbability, with heroes or heroines who survive exotic forms of suffering that people do not, in fact, survive."

On the topic of wolves, who he says become sexier the scarcer they are, he says:

The success of Jones's and Defonseca's books suggests that, to a modern North American book buyer, it would be glamorous to be a gang member or be raised by wolves. This is a very recent change; wolves were the villains of the older European folk tales. People who lived in the Northern forest were scared to death of wolves. As people concentrate in cities and wiped out the wolves, wolves become glamorous; glamour and scarcity, linked as always.

Belgian Catholic Monique de Waal had parents who were Resistance fighters murdered by the Nazis, but for some reason, she believed the true story wasn't good enough and added her "personal" Jewish twist to a Holocaust story.

Forgers count on a gullible, pious audience, though the pieties invoked may not be explicitly religious. Often, they're broader, older patterns of myth that we know at heart aren't true but want badly to believe. Misha's story, for example, clearly plays on the old nonsense that good will triumph over evil, even when "good" is a seven-year-old child and "evil" a full-grown SS officer. In a fight like that, it's not hard to see what would happen: child dies horribly, so is in no position to write her memoirs.

Dolan talks about the authors who take a huge risk to fake stories of suffering, and ends with

And when they do, their culture's desperate literary entrepreneurs will come up with their own forgeries, exploiting this older, more glamorous and scarce form of suffering. They will write fake memoirs with titles like I Was a Claims Adjuster in Tacoma or Three Years in a Tract Home Near Dallas. And their audience will shiver with horror and settle down for a nice, long read.

Do read these articles in their entirety. The next time a memoir appears that may not ring true, consider the possibility that it is fake, no matter how much you want to believe it is genuine.

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