Saturday, March 01, 2008

Another Writer Hoax

Another writer hoax surfaced yesterday.

Yet again, a writer used the excuse that a miserable life made it difficult for her to determine fact from fantasy (Remember Laura Albert? If not, go here).

And yet again, a writer took bits of truth and sensationalized them to create a more dramatic--and salable--story (Remember James Frey? If not, go here).

Unfortunately, this time the fraud was perpetrated by a woman who claimed to be a Jewish Holocaust survivor. I find this hoax even more reprehensible than previous ones because it
is insulting to the true Holocaust survivors who have already suffered mightily. It will also give more fodder to those revisionists who insist the Holocaust itself is one giant fairy tale.

This time, the writer is a seventy-one-year-old Belgian woman who calls herself Misha Defonseca. The book she wrote, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was published in 1997 and became a bestseller in Europe.

In her "memoir," Defonseca claimed her Jewish parents were seized by Nazis when she was only six years old. She said she escaped into the forest where she was adopted by a pack of wolves. For the next four years, she wandered Europe on foot, seeking her deported parents. She was even forced to kill a German soldier in self-defense.

Numerous questions had been raised about the book's accuracy, but Defonseca brushed them off, saying her childish memory might be flawed. The French version of her book was turned into a film, Survivre avec les loups (Surviving With Wolves), released on November 21 of last year in Belgium.

Now the truth has come out. Defonseca admits her real name is Monique de Wael; she was Catholic, not Jewish; and that her parents were resistance fighters executed by the Germans when she was four. She was raised by her grandfather and uncle.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Defonseca released a statement through her attorneys, saying "she was poorly treated by her adopted family, called a 'daughter of a traitor' because of her parents' role in the resistance, which she said led her to 'feel Jewish.' She said there were moments when she 'found it difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was part of my imagination'."

I actually found the backstory by which the fraud was perpetrated and later uncovered more interesting than Defonseca herself.

Defonseca and her husband Maurice moved from France to Massachusetts twenty years ago. She began telling wild stories of her childhood adventures dodging the Nazis to her new friends and acquaintances. She was so convincing that she started getting invitations to talk at synagogues.

Jane Daniel, a small local publisher operating out of her home's basement, heard Defonseca's tales and convinced her to write a memoir. Because the would-be author wanted to write in her native French, Daniel convinced her own next-door neighbor and best friend, a retired French professor named Vera Lee, to help. Defonseca told her story, and Lee put it on paper.

According to the Boston Globe, "The book had excited intense interest at first. The Walt Disney Co. signed an option for a movie, and Oprah Winfrey's program filmed Defonseca frolicking with wolves at Ipswich's Wolf Hollow." Both Disney and Oprah backed away after the book was published in 1997 and both Defonseca and Lee sued Daniel for breach of contract.

The jury found for the co-authors, giving Defonseca $7.5 million in damages and giving Lee another $3.3 million. The judge, Elizabeth Fahey, tripled those damages to $9.9 million for Lee and $22.4 million for Defonseca. The rights to the book went to Defonseca.

You can follow much of the story on Daniel's own blog called BESTSELLER! here. Daniel has decided to write a book detailing "the True Story of the Largest Judgement (sic) Against A Publisher in History --- A Shocking Look Inside the Wildcat World of Independent Publishing."

I'm going to ignore debating the wisdom of posting a book you are intending to market on your blog. I have to admit that I'm more than a little skeptical of Daniel's account. Her posts slide over the details of how and why both Defonseca AND her best friend came to sue her.

Daniel swings back-and-forth between describing herself as an innocent victim of the legal system and posting very sophisticated letters to lawyers and Defonseca making demands of her own. On the one hand, she appears to be a savvy promoter of books while, on the other, she seems to claim not to understand how she came to be slammed with that $32.4 million judgment.

Suffice it to say that, once she was saddled with that 2002 judgment, it became Daniel's goal to prove that Defonseca's book was a fabrication. Apparently, Daniel believes she can get the judgment overturned if she can prove that she was defrauded by Defonseca from the get-go.

The Boston Globe says:

Last year she [Daniel] began telling her doleful tale on her blog, hoping someone might have information on Misha's origins. Waltham-based genealogical researcher Sharon Sergeant noticed the blog, was intrigued by the challenge, and contacted Daniel.

It was Sergeant's efforts that uncovered the truth, forcing Defonseca to confess her fraud.

You can read the entire Boston Globe story here.

I agree there's a book in this story--just not a book about living with wolves of the four-legged variety.


Bookfraud said...

it's amazing how much vitriol comes out when a book is found out to be a hoax -- and deservedly so. for it's not just a wounded public feeling betrayed. we depend upon truth tellers to writer our history, and sometimes legend becomes fact. "the protocols of the elders of zion" was a fraud, but lots of people believe it. and you're right, this just gives fuel to the holocaust deniers.

Stephen Parrish said...

She said she escaped into the forest where she was adopted by a pack of wolves.

Being raised by wolves is no more possible than being raised by hedgehogs or anteaters. How are people so easily duped?

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: I usually walk my next-door neighbor dog in the afternoon. Yesterday Penny's owner joined us. I told her the Defonseca story as we walked. She said almost exactly what you said.

I think that many people anthropomorphize their pets. Wolves are, of course, only one step away from our beloved dogs.

The legend of Romulus and Remus founding Rome is nearly 3,000 years old. Like the earlier tale of Moses, who was placed in a basket in the Nile, the twins were supposedly placed in a basket in the Tiber River. They were found and nursed by a wolf.

And don't forget Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli from The Jungle Book.

People believe what they want to believe.