Guest Byline from Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick , Forensic Genealogist
Story line: Child orphaned during Holocaust. Alone, must depend on fate to survive while millions perish. Unexpected savior appears. There is hope. Child survives war implausibly. Setting is foreign country decimated by Holocaust. Child relocates to new country.
Child grows up. Child writes autobiography– redefining the word “incredible”. Doubts arise about authenticity of story. Yet book becomes bestseller based on public emotion. Skeptics are squashed.
Forensic genealogists move in, discover evidence believed inaccessible, disproving story. Child is busted. Much adverse publicity followed by much face-saving in press. Movie producer is hung out to dry. Publisher claims no knowledge of fraud, withdraws publication, moves on to next project that may include a second book glorifying lame excuses for child’s deceiving millions of readers. The phrase “to make a lot of money” is never mentioned.
Does this scenario describe
- Misha Defonseca’s Surviving with Wolves
- Herman Rosenblat’s “Apple story”
- Both of the above?
There is no law against publishing a book as nonfiction when there are suspicions that it is a fabrication. It may even be desirable to do so. Marketing a story as autobiographical can be more lucrative than marketing it as fiction. Public controversy over the truth only boosts sales.
Both Misha’s and Herman’s stories would have made good reading as fiction, but the job of big publishing houses is not truth-in-marketing. Their job is to make money. And once a work of non-fiction is exposed as a fraud, there is usually no requirement to return the money to the unsuspecting public. Embarrassment is often enough to cease publication of the work and move on to the next project. In the present cases, the publishers maintained their innocence, claiming they were taken in by the con as much as the public, and did the best job they could with the difficult task of fact-checking a Holocaust story when documentation was so hard to come by. Yet if forensic genealogists could find evidence conclusively debunking the stories,then why couldn’t multi-million dollar publishing houses?
A fraudulent autobiography can be lucrative for its author too. After James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was exposed in 2006 as fake, he was invited by Oprah to appear on her show to explain himself– displacing countless other authors more worthy of airtime. Late in 2007, James Frey received a seven-figure advance from a publisher for his next three books.
As I remarked to my colleague, “We’re in the wrong business. The real money is in creating the frauds, not debunking them. Since we are experts at how literary frauds are constructed, why don’t we create our own?”
Are there others Holocaust frauds there? Probably. For the last year, I have been investigating Mark Kurzem’s The Mascot, an international bestseller about his father Alex, an orphan who survived the Holocaust thanks to circumstances that give yet a new meaning to the word “incredible”. The savior offers hope of a happy ending, only this time the story takes place in Belarus, Latvia, and Australia. The same indications of literary fraud are evident, including continual adjustment of the “true” story apparently for the sake of embellishment and to evade questions by skeptics. Not surprisingly, the subject of the story was experiencing financial difficulties around the time the book was conceived. Of course the movie rights have been sold, even as true Holocaust survivors voice concern about the lack of authenticity of both the story and the storyteller.
Without the support of publishers, the autobiographical fraud industry would wither. While there is so much money in publishing falsehood, there is little incentive to tell the truth. If you still want to enjoy a good story, please don’t believe everything you read in the paper, nor the paperback. If a story seems too “incredible” to be true, it usually is. For those of you who wish to take a stronger stand against literary fraud, I offer further advice. Don’t buy the book, and I wouldn’t wait for the movie either.
-Colleen Fitzpatrick, www.identifinders.com
Boy, this one is close to my psychologist turned author heart. I can hardly wait for the comments to roll in. -Michael