[ilds] Truth and the ILDS

Lois Rees loisrees at yahoo.com
Sun Mar 9 07:43:01 PDT 2008


 March 9, 2008
 Op-Ed Contributor
  Stolen Suffering   By DANIEL MENDELSOHN
           ON a March day four years ago, a very old lady, striking, snowy-haired, unsmiling, was looking at me with disgust. A Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust, she’d been telling me how she and her young son had managed to keep a step ahead of the people who were hunting them down, and at the end of this stupefying tale of survival I’d looked up at her and said, “What an amazing story!” It was at that point that she flapped her spotted hand at me in disdain. “‘Amazing story,’” she mimicked me, tartly. She fetched a heavy sigh. “If you didn’t have an amazing story, you didn’t survive.” 
 She was referring to literal survival, of course — survival at its meanest, most animal level, the mere continuance of the organism. At a time when Jews throughout Europe were being rounded up like livestock or hunted down like game, survival indeed depended on feats of endurance or daring so extreme, on accidents or luck so improbable, that they can seem too far-fetched to be true. 
 A Jewish couple who hid in the attic of a Nazi officers’ club, forced to listen as the soldiers below joked and drank after a day’s slaughter; two young brothers who hid in a forest, strapping the hooves of deer to their feet whenever they ventured into the snow to confuse those who were trying to find them; a youth who, the day before the Germans entered his Polish hometown, left home and just kept walking east, until he reached ... China. 
 I heard these stories firsthand five years ago, while researching a book about relatives of mine who didn’t survive. But still they keep coming. Last Monday, I heard about an orphaned Jewish girl who trekked 2,000 miles from Belgium to Ukraine, surviving the Warsaw ghetto, murdering a German officer, and — most “amazing” of all — taking refuge in forests where she was protected by kindly wolves.
 The problem is that this story is a lie: recounted in a 1997 international bestseller by Misha Levy Defonseca, it was exposed last week as a total fabrication — no trekking, no Warsaw, no murder, no wolves. (No Jews, either: the author, whose real name is Monique De Wael, is Roman Catholic.) To be sure, phony memoirs aren’t news: in 1998 the acclaimed child-survivor memoir “Fragments” was proved a fake, and more recently James Frey’s credibility infamously exploded into a million little pieces. But the trickle now seems to be a flood. Just days after the revelations about Ms. De Wael’s book yet another popular first-person account of extreme suffering turned out to be a fraud. (This one, “Love and Consequences,” purports to be the autobiography of a young half-white, half-American Indian woman who was raised by a black foster mother in the gang-infested streets of Los Angeles.) This trend sheds alarming light on a cultural moment in which the meanings of suffering,
 identity and “reality” itself seem to have become dangerously slippery.
 Each of the new books commits a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. Ms. De Wael was a Christian Belgian who was raised by close relatives after her parents, Resistance members, were taken away; Margaret Seltzer, the author of “Love and Consequences,” grew up in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood and attended an Episcopal day school. 
 In each case, then, a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit — a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too. Ms. Seltzer has talked about being “torn,” about wanting somehow to ventriloquize her subjects, to “put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” Ms. De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: “I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.” (“Felt Jewish” is repellent: real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)
 While these statements want to suggest a somehow admirable desire to “empathize” with the oppressed subjects, this sentimental gesture both mirrors and exploits a widespread, quite pernicious cultural confusion about identity and suffering. We have so often been invited, in the past decade and a half, to “feel the pain” of others that we rarely pause to wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing.
 Empathy and pity are strong and necessary emotions that deepen our sense of connection to others; but they depend on a kind of metaphorical imagination of what others are going through. The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken. 
 Similarly — to return to the world of the Holocaust — a museum that offers ticket holders the chance to go inside a cattle car, presumably in order to convey what it was like to be in one, can ultimately encourage not true sympathy or understanding, but a slick “identification” that devalues the real suffering of the real people who had to endure that particular horror. (When you leave the cattle car, you go to the cafeteria to have your chicken salad; when they left it, they went into a gas chamber. Can you really say you “know what it was like”?) 
 In an era obsessed with “identity,” it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred. As, indeed, Ms. De Wael has so clearly blurred it, for reasons that she has suggested were pitiably psychological. “The story is mine,” she announced. “It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.” 
 “My reality,” as opposed to “actual reality,” is, of course, one sign of psychosis, and given her real suffering during the war, you’re tempted to sympathize — until you read that her decision to write her memoir came at a time when her husband was out of work, or (we real Jews call this chutzpah) that she successfully sued the publisher for more than $20 million for professional malfeasance. Or until you learn about her galling manipulations of the people who believed her. (Slate reported that she got one rabbi to light a memorial candle “for animals.”)
 “My reality” raises even more far-reaching and dire questions about the state of our culture, one in which the very concept of “reality” seems to be in danger. Think of “reality” entertainments, which so unnervingly parallel the faux-memoirists’ appropriation of others’ authentic emotional experience: in them, real people are forced to endure painful or humiliating or extreme situations, their real emotional reactions becoming the source of the viewers’ idle gratification. Think of the Internet: an unimaginably powerful tool for education but also a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it “published,” and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic identities, reality and fantasy. 
 That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true. Perhaps the most dismaying response to the James Frey scandal was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, “redemptive” experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel — er, memoir.
 But then, we all like a good story. The cruelty of the fraudulent ones is that they will inevitably make us distrustful of the true ones — a result unbearable to think about when the Holocaust itself is increasingly dismissed by deniers as just another “amazing story.” Early on in my research for my book, another very old woman suddenly grew tired being interviewed. “Stories, stories,” she sighed wearily at the end of our time together. “There isn’t enough paper in the world to write the stories we can tell you.” She, of course, was talking about the true stories. How tragic if, because of the false ones, those amazing tales are never read — or believed. 
   Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” is a professor of humanities at Bard College.

     Copyright 2008  The New York Times Company  

James Gifford <odos.fanourios at gmail.com> wrote: Hey Bill,

I recall Richard Pine telling me about a paper you gave in Avignon on 
Durrell's appeal to friends like Patrick Kinross for info on 
Constantinople (a city with which he was unfamiliar), 'as it were.'  I 
know Richard added to this in his most recent edition of /The Mindscape/ 
(p. 320) where he notes that Old D. marked 129 pages in his copy of 
George Young's 1926 book /Constantinople/.  I wonder what's to be found 
in there.

And of course there's his grilling of Austen Harrison for architectural 
accuracy when plotting 'Placebo'.  Richard has also commented to me on 
LD having a notebook with jottings headed 'Might come in usefuls'?  I've 
not seen that, but I trust Richard's memory -- have you been through that?

And lest anyone think I try to cover things up, it's worth noting that 
LD took the title for /Monsieur; or The Prince of Darkness/ from Serge 
Hutin's /Les Gnostiques/.  That's actually one of the reasons I find it 
so interesting...  I saw that by going through the ms., the book, the 
proofs, and the marginalia in LD's library (I read things online too...).

As for Wikipedia, I hear that Stephen Colbert has saved the Elephants, 
or at least Wikipedia tells me so...  And exactly what is the "thing in 
itself" of a Wikipedia entry?  There's so much wikitruth out there that 
I don't know what to do.  Yet, I like these entries:

   -- and --

However, I suspect the citations are problematic.

I wonder too about the "thing in itself" for Fitzgerald's famously 
problematic "This Side of Paradise."  How do we read the story 
Fitzgerald didn't write and that exists by a printer's error?  Better 
still, what is that story?  I can hold the book, but it's certainly not 
Fitzgerald's.  Is it a fetish?  Why then Ile fit you...


william godshalk wrote:
> I was thinking of Kant. And, yes, I many times do not check 
> citations, and when I do, I often find that they are wrong for one 
> reason or another.
> Bill
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