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Book Review May 19, 2008
Literary Frauds Strike Again ...and Again
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4

So naturally, writers, always desperate and cunning, start thinking: wouldn't it be great to make myself the hero(ine) of a story of modern suffering that was no fault of my own? That'd really have them sobbing at my feet and bring in the money too.

Jones and Defonseca found different but similar routes to a solution, fixing on suffering that was glamorous, familiar and yet exotic to their office-bound readers: the Holocaust and the L.A. gangsta life.

It's important to realize here that the "suffering" of these stories is erotic to the reader, just as the vision of a magic table always full of food was erotic to a medieval audience. And by looking at what forgers feed their gullible readers, we can see how cultures change.

The success of Jones' and Defonseca's books suggests that, to a modern 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.

The ethnic background concocted by "Misha Defonseca" is also very revealing of social changes. Very few Europeans pretended to be Jewish before 1945. It was, indeed, rather more common to pretend not to be Jewish. The fact that Misha, born into a Belgian Catholic family named de Waal, lied to make herself Jewish reflects the impressive success of American Jews in the latter half of the 20th century and the special status accorded to the Holocaust and its survivors. What's truly remarkable about the author's ethnic shift is that Monique de Waal's parents were in fact heroic Resistance fighters and really were murdered by the Nazis. But "Misha" decided that Belgian Catholic resistants were not saleable and made herself a Jew.

Misha's publisher, Jane Daniel, said, "It's almost impossible when you are up against a Holocaust survivor. That mantle became a bullet-proof vest or a Teflon coat with an assumed air of moral superiority."

Of course Daniel is hardly an innocent herself. In fact, she's the defendant in a huge lawsuit brought by Monique de Waal, or whatever you want to call her, claiming that Daniel cheated the writer and failed to honor her responsibilities as publisher. Don't expect good guys or innocents in stories about literary fraud. There are none. Everyone, even the reader—especially the reader—is complicit in such frauds.

But Daniel is right about the dangers of doubting any claims by Holocaust survivors, or even people who tell stories on their behalf. When Steven Spielberg was asked what right he had to make Schindler's List, he flat-out lied and said that he had been persecuted for being Jewish at his high school in Saratoga, California. When journalists went to Saratoga to follow up on this claim and came up empty, they didn't call Spielberg on it—they just dropped it. Cultures tend to punish harshly those who puncture sacred narratives and reward those who buttress them, no matter how flimsy the claim or unqualified the storyteller.

So you'll always find the sleazy literary forger being blessed by the most sanctimonious priests, secular or religious, in any culture. Take Oprah, who famously canonized forger James Frey on her show, then excommunicated him for lying to her. She was appar-ently scheduled to interview the author of Misha before the charade collapsed. Oprah is to the contemporary dullard what the religious hierarchy is to most earlier cultures; she separates the wheat from the chaff, the worthy from the unworthy.

Until the 20th century, many forgers exploited the religious hierarchy in the same way Frey exploited Oprah. One hilarious example is of a cunning French impostor who landed in London, hungry and penniless, in the early 18th century. Quickly sizing up the possibilities for a glib liar, the new arrival claimed he was "Psalmanazar," a Taiwanese refugee. "Psalmanazar" was actually a young man from the South of France, one of those European drifters who, like the young Rousseau, traveled the continent exploiting the missions of one or another Christian sect. When he reached England, he cleverly put his "Taiwanese" act to work by having a well-timed epiphany upon hearing the central tenets of Anglicanism.

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