Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs
by Thomas Larson (July 2009)
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is the claim every storyteller is admonished to believe. What our ten-thousand-year-old tale-telling tradition (most of it oral) instructs us to do is to be good dramatists and let the story have its sway. This law of the tale, and our drama-loving DNA, is why the Bible has survived so long: its well-told stories were the means by which its morally sound messages were delivered and, tellers and scribes hoped, stuck. When disputes about a story’s authenticity arose, the Bible authors were less keen to preserve history or embrace veracity than to make the drama central, via legend, fantasy, parable, and the fictionalized life, based on Egyptian mythology, reified as well as purified, of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a work of narrative literature and a work of fiction. But, the problem is, its fiction has almost always been thought of as fact.
Against the tradition of fictionalizing fact is a counter-tradition: those who disbelieve the Bible’s authenticity, those who question the moral claims of mythic and fictional literature, those who find truth only in existential doubt. Dethroning literature of its moral supremacy—that Bible stories and other mythic dramas, whether in epic poem or realistic novel, illustrate what’s true—is giving way to a more adaptive literature, one where claims of mythic and dramatic truth are questioned, attacked, dismantled. Its form today is the memoir, which in storming the Babel of literature has knocked the good-story notion on its head. Trumpets raised, the memoir heralds that the truth should get in the way of a good story. That truth can only be deceived by drama and, thus, become its victim. We need look no further for evidence that the memoir is dethroning fiction’s reign than to look at the surprising celebrity accrued by the faked memoir.
Among the latest and most egregious example of a scoundrel who faked his memoir is Herman Rosenblat, the author of Angel at the Fence: A True Story of a Love That Survived. A so-called Holocaust memoir, the book was slated for publication this spring by Berkley Books. But it was pulled because Holocaust scholars refuted its central claim, namely, that a young girl tossed apples and bread through the fence of a concentration camp to a teenage boy, food which helped him survive. Scholars said this could not have happened at Schlieben, a satellite work camp near Buchenwald. The fences were electrified and heavily guarded on both sides. What’s more such exchanges could not have gone undetected for seven months as Rosenblat wrote.
Rosenblat also asserted that while on a blind date in New York thirteen years later, he met Roma, a Polish Jew, who told him that she had disguised herself as a Christian during the war and helped a boy survive the Schlieben camp by tossing him apples. Rosenblat confessed to her that the boy was him. What a moment that must have been! I can’t help but ask the questions: Had she made up the story to win him? Had he made up his response, her apples saved him, so as to win her affection? Has neither known the other was lying all these years? Regardless, their separate romantic needs were fulfilled, and the pair soon wed.
The case drew great attention following Gabriel Sherman’s Christmas-day 2008 article in The New Republic, who snooped his way mercilessly through Rosenblat’s whopper. Then, in the throes of new charges and counter-charges by scholars and movie directors (the story’s film rights were quickly sold), Rosenblat suddenly conceded that yes, he—and Roma—had made it all up.
He admitted to the ruse, saying he “wanted to bring happiness to people. I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world.”
The lie first found its public legs when, in 1996, Rosenblat submitted his story for a newspaper contest soliciting the “best love stories.” Not only did his apple-tossing tale win the contest but it was published as part of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” enterprise, which prides itself on the saccharine and, no doubt, embellished or invented tale to inspire its readers. Soon he and Roma were on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” side by side on the couch, not being analyzed but being feted with post-James Frey tears. She called their tale—before her staff (forget about the publisher) checked the story out—“the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air.”
As noted, the “memoir” has been cancelled, but we learned in January that another publisher will bring the book out as a novel, The Apple. Meanwhile, Oprah has aired her disappointment, and a feature film, the money already invested, is in production. This time we surely won’t see the subtitle, Based on a True Story.
Because Rosenblat’s claim that he lied to make people happy, his book zeros in on the nonfiction author’s intent. When a nonfiction writer adds fictional details large and small, we readers must examine his conscious intent (ends justifying the means) beside the murkier “intent” of memory and its motives (the reasons we mis-remember) to best understand what’s at issue. At the same time, in analyzing the work itself, the writer’s motivation, even if determinable, remains separate from our aesthetic judgment.
How did this apple-tossing myth get started? Was it a collaborative production between the couple? Did Roma bring the delusion to Herman? She seemed to be a co-partner. Did she, as Herman remembered the event over the years, reinforce the story? Roma’s part is even more intriguing—and more suspicious—because scholars have found that she and her Jewish family disguised themselves as Christians and spent the war some 210 miles away from Buchenwald.
Was it closer to what his new publisher asserted, “a story he told himself and others repeatedly until it was integrated seamlessly into his otherwise factual account”? Were those “others” part of the daisy chain? Did they want, as Oprah did, to parade him and his tale before a national audience? And what of memory’s role? To what degree did memory—the blind psychotherapist—help Rosenblat “cope” with the trauma of his years in Schlieben, in part, by mythologizing his experience?
And finally, what does his act reveal about the current state of literature? What does it mean to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust that a retired couple, living in Miami Beach, concocted or dreamed (in the end, does it matter?) this lie about the most fiercely authenticated event in recent human history? Two Jews playing fast and loose with sanctified Jewish truth.
Previously, there have been two faked and discredited Holocaust memoirs: Fragments by Benjamin Wilkomirski, a complete work of fiction by a Swiss boy who imagined his youth in a camp, and Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca, in which the author, among other claims, said that a pack of wolves had helped her escape from the Nazis. The first book was pulped soon after publication; the second one, in 2008, had been widely disseminated and translated into eighteen languages before the ruse was revealed. In both cases, author and publisher admitted what they’d done and, to some degree, owned up to their mistake.
Defonseca pleaded for her audience’s pardon: “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving. I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed. I beg you to put yourself in my place, of a four-year-old girl who was very lost.”
Adding to Rosenblat’s and Defonseca’s defenses, I want to add one other discredited memoirist, Margaret Seltzer. Last year, as Margaret Jones, she wrote and almost published (before the book was exposed as a lie by Seltzer’s sister), Love and Consequences. It was the story of a white girl who ran with African-American gangs in Los Angeles. Her rationale begged for a hero’s waiver: “For whatever reasons, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to. I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing—I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”
How thick is the swamp of self-justification! And notice how, on some level, it’s about making something good out of the bad. Still, I balk at the depth of these authors’ irrationality. That a person could be, out of near-congenital trauma, so immersed in a fantastic childhood tale may be true. But then to never speculate as a writer that it might be possible for a child’s memory to be manipulated by time and the writer’s own agenda in escaping the Nazis is unbelievable. That a person could be, out of devotion to a cause, so easily swayed that the ends justify the means is often the case with those who join causes. But then to go to the egregious extent of making a personal memoir the means of seizing your “opportunity” to do good in the world, which carries with it the likelihood that you’ll be caught in the lie and revealed not as the passionate servant of others but as entirely self-serving seems to negate the notion that there was any good intent to begin with.
What’s odd here is that Defonseca’s memoir is dependent on the child’s unknown consciousness while Seltzer’s is dependent on the adult’s knowledge—it’s the difference between being vaguely fictional and willfully fictional. I label the former vaguely fictional, in part, since I don’t think I can judge what must have been a frighteningly traumatized life, suffering the deprivations of the camp as a child. Perhaps the deep stamp of a child/survivor’s dream can fully cloud one’s knowing. Indeed, her fictionalization is as much an expression of yearning to have been saved (wolves more likely than humans) than actually having been saved. It’s Seltzer’s willfulness, though, that really gets to me—and, I think, resonates with us more because we see how such ruses are unstoppable in our exhibitionist culture.
Seltzer’s was not an inside job, that is, inside the mind in the way that Defonseca’s may have been. Seltzer did not conspire alone. She had lots of help. A creative writing teacher work-shopped the stories for years, an agent encouraged the author to add more detail and punch up the drama of the story, and a friend acted as the head of a sham charitable foundation. Some were, some weren’t in on the scam. Seltzer also changed her name and foxed huge personal leaps: she became a half-white, half-Native American girl raised by black foster parents in South-Central Los Angeles who also ran drugs for the Bloods.
She also shaped the book (as James Frey did with A Million Little Pieces) therapeutically: one girl’s throw-away life saved by the love of a few dedicated psychologists and her own dogged perseverance. I’m not sure such a rosy ending (one critic noted about Rosenblat that true tragedy, fiction or nonfiction, can never be “heartwarming”) would fly as a novel. Novels have a kind of purity of story about them: reading one for the purpose of changing one’s life is secondary to the novel’s zeal for fitting plot to character and vice versa. This is why Eat, Pray, Love is so successful: it changes readers lives—women and men are leaving marriages and jobs and traveling to India and Indonesia to find themselves. Novels rarely spur such moves. Novels purify; memoirs testify.
Or put it another way. Giving the contemporary memoir a mythological function means that it’s easier to get the book culture to play along, especially agents and editors. Seltzer’s editor, Susan McGrath, worked with her for three years, never met her, and yet believed her implicitly. “We spent so much time with this person”—how quickly Seltzer became a non-entity—“and we felt such sympathy for her.” For her faked self. Such long-distance trust, like the mail-order bride, insures the deal’s promise. Cinches it. What you don’t know you don’t need to know. You believe the life presented to you because it conforms to the kind of life you’ve already imagined: Jewish survivor of the holocaust who lived with animals. Contract, please! White girl raised by black parents in the ghetto who grows up to do the right thing. Book tour, please! If the publisher believes such books are therapeutic and benevolent, then you’re birthing more than a memoir. You’re party to a vast conspiratorial midway. Next stop, Dr. Phil!
How easily we get taken in, up and down the line, whether it’s a faked memoir or it’s the reconstructed hero’s story. Recall a few years back, when Rick Bragg was hired to take us through the journey of an Iraq veteran, Jessica Lynch. There, too, we had the outlines of the story already present, a sacrificial darling and a country at war in need of a redemptive soldier’s tale. And Bragg, an imaginative memoirist and fine re-constructor, gave the story its unsubtle due by finishing it in two months. Memoir as product more than personal discovery. We see this all the time in the countless celebrity tales that defer to the news cycle and dish the prurient. Hit while it’s hot.
My point is that Seltzer and, to some extent, Defonseca and the Rosenblats, get their authorial passes from our culture’s industry of delusion. Often the bigger the stakes, the more fakery there is. Americans were held spellbound by the undeviating salesmanship of the Iraq War handlers, with “mission accomplished,” “cut and run,” and the unopposable success of “the surge.” Before that there was the “fiction” of weapons of mass destruction, which, via Rumsfeld and Cheney, became a fact for as long as it needed to be a fact. A country that defines itself as the greatest show on earth will do anything to sustain that belief. When we think of Senate seats for sale, bonuses to bailed out bank executives, investor Ponzi schemes, secret prisons, torture, and more, we find a culture that accepts and rewards deluders whose faked memoirs fit right in.
The real tyranny of the faked memoir is not that one has factually lied. That’s bad enough—stupid, really—in an age of Internet searches and viral circulation when anyone can be found out and quickly shamed. No, the faked memoir is an abomination because of its intentional “goodness” as literature and of its wrongfully elevating dramatic truth over experiential truth, the esthetic over the ethical.
In understanding truth in life writing, some believe that an author’s good intention gives his motivation to lie value, as Rosenblat expressed it, and, thus, legitimizing it. This is often called the good lie—what Joseph Wambaugh, the policeman and crime novelist, once distinguished as an untruth: a lie used in pursuit of the truth, such as telling a suspect that you, his examiner, understand his decision and probably would have killed the bastard, too. I know how you feel is untrue but effective in winning the murderer’s trust. Getting a confession requires such tact. I wonder whether Rosenblat ever considered that the Nazis lied to get people into boxcars: You’re on your way to a resettlement camp in Poland. No one’s going to hurt you. I’m sure some Nazis justified the forced removal of Jews and their potential resettlement as the better of many evil options—especially for those consciences that had not yet been shut down.
The intention of goodness carries easy justification. What happens is that the horrific story is made palatable to an imagined audience who need to be made happy or who imagine themselves served by the happiness-granting writer like parishioners. Either way, producing the desired affect in your target audience (strange, this idea in the Holocaust context, to target your audience) allows the fabricator’s main goal: the drama becomes more important than the truth.
Since drama and truth are both elements in fiction and nonfiction, it’s best to simplify these terms first. By drama I mean narrative; by truth I mean analysis. The showing and the telling. True, some memoirs do read like novels: enraptured scenes, revelatory dialogue, “real” characters drawn and destined like those in fiction. But in memoir one gets to show and tell. And it is by telling the truth—the struggle to find what the truth is and then to tell it honestly—that distinguishes the memoir from its narrative competitors. Put another way, the reason the memoir exists is to give the writer a vehicle for telling the truth, for unlocking the meaning of personal experience through memory, whether shaped by narrative or analysis.
We know that a drama can be true, factually and emotionally. Othello has his Moor’s history and his Venetian domain as well as his suffering, especially anything that ignites his protean jealousy. It’s obvious that to fabricate a drama that renders the core of Othello’s emotion—the destructiveness of that jealousy in the context of his “factual” life—one needs imagination, a certain coziness with another’s hell, to be convincing. Which, we all grant, Shakespeare has in spades.
Writing a memoir, one is tormented less by the particular truth of a character’s emotion, as in fiction, and more by the emotional truth of one’s own experience. Both “emotional truths” are valid; both fictionist and nonfictionist are after a similar truth—fully fleshing out the authenticity of the emotion. But now the integrity of the memoirist figures in. He must honor the pact: the emotional truth lies only in what he has experienced and how he has remembered his experience, and not in what an audience or a plot or an imagined reality deems necessary, or targets him, to reveal.
This is why agents and editors want a memoir to read like a novel: they care less about its writerly appeal than its readerly function: we want to fall in love with you, your character, is what they say; a character we don’t fall in love with is one we don’t much trust. (By the way, the little-used word readerly means, according to Oxford, accessibility, “not requiring a commentary or interpretation.” Is it this one-dimensionality that is being asked of our literary output the reason why books are becoming less writerly and more readerly?)
Here’s a good place to fault Winfrey and the publishing world as encouraging its audience to write or be the very thing she ends up abhorring. Winfrey’s website features several examples of “The Greatest Love Story We’ve Ever Told,” and the Rosenblat’s story (now true and false) remains a fan favorite. How many thousands of her devotees have read or tuned into these one-hour, on-the-couch dramas and found their memories going all false-memoirish, recalling their own long lost loves, conjuring who knows what intrigue that may have never been. Perhaps they hoped to get on her show or, at least, find a home in her “Live Your Best Life” philosophy. (Winfrey like so much of the women-focused media capitalizes on inadequacy. The constant pressure on women by women that they are not doing all they can to diet, be spiritual, attract love and money, signals that their “best life” is always beyond their grasp. What’s wrong with the “Live Your Own Life” philosophy?) It’s no secret that the media powers want such gritty real-life romances, surviving the debased with dignity intact, as Rosenblat supplied, because of their wide emotional and monetary appeal.
The point of writing a memoir is not to figure out the story’s widest emotional appeal and then write it that way. That’s imposing on the memoir another falsity, in addition to changing the facts, what we might call the fallacy of dramatic necessity. Dramatic necessity seems to be a requirement for much fiction, though not all, certainly not for the great prose fictionist John Updike. A memoir, too, can be written stylistically in many ways—as long as it’s honest about its story and its limitations. But it should not be written with manufactured details that fit a pre-designed dramatic arc or truth.
I loved one critic’s suggestion about how Rosenblat might have handled the apples. Prisoners in the camps had constant food fantasies. Recall Primo Levi, in Survival in Auschwitz, who was bedeviled by such dreams. But the writer Levi integrated survival and fantasy; he showed us how close he came to death by not fighting the food dreams and their daily self-deceptions. No doubt Rosenblat shared such fantasies and might have imagined the girl outside giving him apples. He might have dramatized this in the writing as a dream. And he surely should have told us, as a memoirist, that his memory has, over the years, told him that the one time a person tossed in an apple—a believable once—became in his loneliness a beautiful young girl passing apples in every day.
Memoirists need to remember that much of our reality are the thoughts and feelings that occupy us. What we need do—and I realize this is a huge demand—is distinguish between what happened and what we think happened or wanted to happen or convinced ourselves did happen. The memoirist has to tell his tale from the undeceiving now in which his awareness about the past is as full a part of his story as the past itself is.
For Rosenblat to have realized or known these things wouldn’t have attracted Roma. He wouldn’t have been duped by her when they met. He wouldn’t have duped himself. He wouldn’t have won the true-love-story contest. He wouldn’t have caught Oprah’s eye. He didn’t figure those things out as he went probably because his culture had already steeped him in the approved and efficacious story of how we find love and of how found love should be rendered.
It’s a fact that literature is defined as imaginative writing. Up against the imaginative, life-writing is somehow less, despite its categories of confession, diary, letter-writing, memoir, autobiography, travel and witness narrative, as well as personal tracts of history and philosophy and essay (the unaffected Michel de Montaigne, the operatic Richard Rodriguez), all of it in play as long as fiction and poetry have. I think that the sum total of what authors have written since authorship, a writer choosing his or her subject and expressive form, was born has been devoted to personal subjects—albeit emotionally exaggerated and stiffly confessional in letter or tale—more than to fiction. Despite life-writing’s centrality, teachers and critics have canonized imaginative literature as literature. Which is to say that imaginative writing has been the written form where we go, at least until recently, to scour meaning, enliven emotion, bare truth.
(An aside: Dennis Dutton in his new book The Art Instinct argues that storytelling, found in every culture, is a heritable human trait: we are coded with the instinctual pleasure and efficacy of telling stories. Why? Storytelling’s gift is to represent those elements of the world, often fearful and unknown, that a person need not experience to be aware of. A ritualized story about the fierceness of a lion during a hunt taught lion fierceness to the young, priming them before meeting the beast in the bush. It is no wonder that bringing lions to life—in words and images, in myth and folklore—rose to the imaginative richness of art once the mind of the artist transferred the value of the lion’s tale from didactic to esthetic.)
So, in writing personally about the Holocaust, let’s examine what this hierarchy, with imaginative work at the top, means. One does not graft imaginative literature onto the Shoah. A genocide’s fact does not yield to fiction. Need I say why? Because its truth, not its shaping or shapeliness for readers, is the story. Herman and Roma fitted their story to the adolescent feel-good love story, boy meets girl. To think that he needed fiction to make real that which was already a most agonizingly real experience in a death camp anyone could have had is preposterous. A death camp wasn’t good enough for his sensibility? Since its truth couldn’t make people happy, so he thought, it needed a love story to turn the trick? The point of remembering the Holocaust is—and continues to be—not to make people happy.
I realize that beating up on Rosenblat is useless. Still, I find the idea that readers need a Holocaust love story to be the most cynical thing one can say about his book. (There’s no room here to go into the “goodness” of Anne Frank transferred, via play and movie and expurgated diary, to some intrinsic “goodness” in her killers.) Indeed, dissemblers like Rosenblat enrage Holocaust survivors and historians as well as Jews in general—any fictionalizing of the event only fuels the deniers. Moreover, the unhappiness depicted in Holocaust Literature is actually the opposite of the redemptive quality of so-called holy books. Holocaust stories are to remain true to their fact, resist the mythologizing urge of ages hence. Religious stories (which intend something more than happiness: obedience) are to be mythologized, transmogrified, made palatable with fiction. Why made with fiction? Because the religious story must be satisfying and believable, because it must escape the messy truths between author and audience that memoir and history cannot escape. Not only does Holocaust writing, despite its being the holiest of subjects, share nothing with “holy” works, its presence in our tradition also undermines the belief that literature’s imaginative reality is superior to all other authorial realities.
Perhaps Holocaust literature has led the authorial trend away from the castled domain of imaginative writing. The nonfiction narrator, as witness and participant, now occupies virtually every subject published. Authors bring personal experience and observation to bear on whatever they touch—from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about one family and, by extension, millions of families transforming their diets and our agriculture, to David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy about one father’s grief over his son’s meth addiction and, by extension . . . you get the point. The memoir and its intimate, probing honesty entwines the usefulness of nonfiction and the richness of narrative, producing a new literature alongside a new idea about literature.
Which, at last, brings me to the label many of us labor under. Nonfiction. As memoirists, as writers memoir-izing nonfiction, we’re ambivalent about the word (forget, for now, it’s further confusing creative tag) not only because the word is defined negatively but also because it’s an apt label: what the non-ness in nonfiction is telling us is to seize the identity of memoir and other narrative forms from fiction. That memoir is not fiction. But it’s too easy to say this. Nonfiction writers can easily succumb in a world of movie-tie-in’s to the culture’s desire for another love story or hero’s journey. It’s a tendency we must resist and reveal in our writing why we are resisting it. This struggle comes with the territory: to seize life-writing back from its fictionalizing sensibility where the culture and the media and Oprah keep steering it.
That memoir is not fiction will have to said over and over again for a generation or more, not because most writers don’t get it but because the culture’s head remains addled by literature’s reign of the imagination. For too long we have believed fiction has the corner on truth. But truth has escaped its corner, and some of us are following it as it scurries into the woods. Which is why I feel some gratitude for Herman Rosenblat and James Frey and Margaret Seltzer and Misha Defonseca whose failures have strengthened the definition of the memoir form in negatively capable ways none of us life-writers and non-fictionists could have ever done.
Since 1999, Thomas Larson has been a contributing writer for the San Diego Reader, where he specializes in narrative nonfiction, profiles, and investigative journalism. He is also a critic and memoir writer, and the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reader and Writing Personal Narrative, Ohio University Press / Swallow Press. www.thomaslarson.com
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