Posts Tagged ‘Misha Defonseca’

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Because you just can’t get enough

April 28, 2008

For those of you who just can’t get enough of literary fraud these days, have we got a treat for you. And by “we”, of course, I mean those of us who aren’t actually in southern California. How’s the weather these days, anyway? I forget to check sometimes. Nothing’s on fire right now? And, hell, if I chuckled at the thought of a midwest earthquake last week, y’all must have had yourselves a good ol’ guffaw.

And, no, I don’t know what’s with the folksy tone, except maybe I’m just trying to see how far you’ll follow me if I don’t ever come to the point. Except that would be unkind. To other people.

Because I said nary a word a couple weeks back when the sad and twisted tale of Misha Defonseca suddenly struck close to home. For those who need reminding, Ms. Defonseca, also known by her real name, Monique De Wael, recently confessed that her acclaimed, widely popular memoir of the Holocaust was, in fact, a fraud.

But, indeed, one of our good friends and SCWC contributor, Michael Thompkins, posted back on April 10 some insights from none other than Sharon Sergeant, the genealogical researcher whose work forced the Defonseca confession:

When our team began releasing evidence to the Belgian press on February 19, we had no idea that Misha Defonseca would actually confess. Her public denials, law suit threats and unwitting statements made by supporters of her iconic status allowed us to counter each claim with additional evidence. It was an usual 10 days as this story played out in Belgium. The US press broke the story on February 29 with Boston Globe, Slate.com and AP articles.

Dr. Serge Aroles, a researcher of fraudulent wolf child stories, consulted with Maxime Steinberg, and first brought the story to the public in Belgium through a Regards magazine newsletter publication of the baptismal certificate and school record images we provided. Journalists interviewed two of Defonseca’s childhood friends who had tried to expose the fraud since 1997, reporting accusations of anti-Semitism and jealousy by the French Laffont publishing house and various journalists. Marc Metdapenningen carried the story through the initial denials, Defonseca’s public confession and the ensuing firestorm in Le Soir, a national newspaper in Belgium. US journalists David Mehegan and Blake Eskin followed the breaking story in Europe, and contributed additional information when they broke the story in the Boston Globe and Slate.

And I suppose I should feel a little bit guilty because Michael even posted his thoughts a week later, and I still took absolutely no notice whatsoever:

You all know the myth of Narcissus and the concept of narcissism: look in the water, see your reflection, and fall in love with your reflection, substituting for the real you, the water and the world. As we develop personalities, a small measure of narcissism is part of the recipe for a healthy personality; a larger hit–too much of a good thing–helps contruct the narcissistic personality. Sandor Ferenczi’s work describes the development of this personality in detail, including the moment when wishing overcomes reason and the individual begins to believe that wanting something to be real makes it real. At this precise moment, the symbolic reflection of the self in the water transforms and generalizes to other symbols that the narcissistic individual identifies with the reflected self, ie, power, success (one’s novel published) sex, and money. Finally, this symbolic unembodied life is substituted for a real self.

Okay, so that’s my bad. You would think that with news like that—an international scandal treading into my sphere of experience, into our SCWC community—I should be lighting flares off in your front yard. But as with anything really cool, there’s always a surreal aspect about it, a pitch and cant, a warp and drift that makes it seem like it’s nothing big.

I wish I could say I was just high, and blame it on that. But, alas, I’m not nearly so lucky.

In the end, I’ve done just about everybody a disservice by slacking this one. After all, as Sergeant noted, “My team would be interested to know if there are psychological case studies, stories in fiction that explore similar patterns, and what writers feel about these events.” And who better for that discussion than, oh, I don’t know, our community of writers?

-bd

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Keeping up with Ms. Jones

April 21, 2008

Ah, the circles of coincidence. Perhaps I should not be so easily impressed. It’s a small world, after all, and given the e’er-proliferating recombinations and regurgitations of information in this, our grand digital age (we ain’t seen nothin’ yet), we might certainly expect to encounter, on a regular basis, nexes of factors that, in some small way, strike us as coincidental.

Like this. Colson Whitehead. Couldn’t tell you a thing about him, just to go by the name. Well, except from what I gleaned from Wikipedia. Turns out I heard of one of his novels, several years ago, and listened to the New York-based writer discuss his debut—The Intuitionist—on the radio.

Tap, tap, tap, your foot might say. Your inner voice might inquire, “And?”

And nothing, actually. I only mention this to add the appearance of substance. After all, I’m only posting a link and a short excerpt otherwise.

And don’t think name-dropping counts for anything significant. It’s not like I ever met Colson Whitehead. Hell, it’s not like I ever read Colson Whitehead, else I wouldn’t have had to look him up to figure out why the name was familiar. Oh, right. And what to call him. He’s not what we might call a regular at New York Magazine; “Flava of the Month” is the first article bearing his name to grace the pages of the periodical in four years:

As we return to the city, I ask her why she thinks people respond so strongly to her book. “Most people live comfortable lives, and that makes them uncomfortable.” She notices my expression and says, “That’s like a Zen koan, right, homey? Think about the times you’ve said, ‘My life is so boring—why can’t I have olfactory hallucinations or a flesh-eating disease?’ How many times have you thought, ‘Where are the killer bees, and will I be trapped alone in a desperate fight for survival when they come?’ ” I shake my head and smile: She has my number.

“There’s no shame in being average, you jive turkey,” Margaret says. “The only shame is in doing nothing about it.”

Average. That’s one thing Margaret most definitely is not. I broach this subject with her friend Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, which describes how she hid out in the forests of Europe to escape the Nazis and was taken in by a gang of wolves. Whenever Misha makes it out to the States for a visit, she and Margaret go shopping for Levi’s, which are difficult to come by in her native country. She resells them to aspiring hipsters in her village at a dreadful markup.

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Modern Problems, or, The Week in Fabrication

March 4, 2008

The Simply Embarrassing

Motoko Rich, “Author Admits Acclaimed Memoir Is Fantasy“. New York Times, 3 March 2008.

In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.

Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin Group USA that published “Love and Consequences,” is recalling all copies of the book and has canceled Ms. Seltzer’s book tour, which was scheduled to start on Monday in Eugene, Ore., where she currently lives ….

…. Ms. Seltzer’s story started unraveling last Thursday after she was profiled in the House & Home section of The New York Times. The article appeared alongside a photograph of Ms. Seltzer and her 8-year-old daughter, Rya. Ms. Seltzer’s older sister, Cyndi Hoffman, saw the article and called Riverhead to tell editors that Ms. Seltzer’s story was untrue ….

…. Sarah McGrath, the editor at Riverhead who worked with Ms. Seltzer for three years on the book, said she was stunned to discover that the author had lied.

“It’s very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and we felt such sympathy for her and she would talk about how she didn’t have any money or any heat and we completely bought into that and thought we were doing something good by bringing her story to light,” Ms. McGrath said.

“There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one,” she said.

No, there is no punch line coming. No condemnation, no hammer and nails. No wondering what Christmas dinner must be like. In truth, this phenomenon escapes my comprehension, and for the simplest and most obvious reasons. How do people not expect to get caught?

It strikes me that there is, in that context, a story in there somewhere. And it can only be a tragedy.

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The Spectacularly Embarrassing

Lindesay Irvine, “Nazi flight memoir was fiction, author confesses. GuardianUnlimited, 3 March 2008.

Misha Defonseca, whose bestselling account of a childhood flight from the Nazis was made into a feature film and translated into 18 languages, has admitted that her memoir is a work of fiction. Surviving with Wolves, her story of a 1,900 mile trek across Europe, living with a pack of wolves and shooting a German soldier in self defence, is now said to bear little resemblance to any real course of events in the author’s life.

Defonseca, a Belgian writer who now lives in Massachusetts, was contacted by her own lawyers in the wake of research published in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir questioning her story. The 71-year-old author, conceded that she was not Jewish and confessed that she had fabricated the story.

“Yes, my name is Monique De Wael, but I have wanted to forget it since I was four years old,” she said in a statement from her lawyers obtained by Associated Press. “My parents were arrested and I was taken in by my grandfather, Ernest De Wael, and my uncle, Maurice De Wael. I was called ‘daughter of a traitor’ because my father was suspected of having talked under torture in the prison of Saint-Gilles. Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish.”

Perhaps the one thing Ms. Seltzer had going for her amid collapsing literary ambitions this week is that her fall from grace will be overshadowed by an episode of legendary notoriety. While Love and Consequences crumbled shortly before its publication, Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years hit the shelves in 1997 and, more recently, was the subject of a legal dispute with Defonseca and her ghostwriter accusing Mount Ivy Press of various wrongdoing that resulted in a $32.4 million judgment against the publisher. According to a background summary released by Sullivan & Worcester LLP in the wake of the decision, “Without money, facing the loss of her home, she maintained her courage and dignity and refused to allow Mt. Ivy to take that, which undisputedly was hers: her story.”

The irony is nearly toxic.

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Reflections

Over at GuardianUnlimited, Claire Armistead blogs a few words on “making up memoirs“.

-bd