Monday, April 14, 2008

Revisiting Misha

Back on March 1, I wrote about another writer hoax here. Wednesday's Publishers Weekly had more on the story.

Before I get to the latest, let me recap my original post. In late February, Misha Defonseca, a seventy-one-year-old Belgian woman, admitted that her 1997 book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was a fabrication.

In her "memoir," Defonseca claimed she'd escaped into a forest at age six to avoid the Nazis who'd seized her Jewish parents. Defonseca described living with wolves as she crossed Europe over the next four years. The book became a best-seller in Europe and was turned into a French film, Survivre avec les loups (Surviving With Wolves), which was released last November.

In my post I explained that the book came about after Defonseca and her husband moved to Massachusetts and Jane Daniel, a publisher who operated out of her house, heard the improbable tale and decided it would make a great book. Daniel roped in her own next-door neighbor, a retired French professor named Vera Lee, to work with Defonseca who preferred to dictate the story in French.

According to the Boston Globe:

The book was published - with a glowing blurb from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, author of the Holocaust memoir "Night" - with Lee's name on the copyright page, not on the cover. Lee sued Daniel in 1998, claiming her rights as coauthor had been violated. Defonseca also sued, alleging that Daniel had broken her promise to publicize the book and had hidden profits in offshore corporate accounts.

As I explained in my first post, that 2001 jury found for the plaintiffs, giving Defonseca $7.5 million in damages and giving Lee another $3.3 million. The judge trebled those damages to $9.9 million for Lee and $22.4 million for Defonseca. The rights to the book went to Defonseca.

Since the judgment, Daniel [told The Boston Globe] she has lost most of her assets, spent a night in jail on a judge's order, and is about to lose her house, a bed-and-breakfast inn overlooking Gloucester Harbor.

Although admitting that she neglected to adequately fact-check the book she'd published, following the court judgment, Daniel embarked on a one-woman crusade to prove Defonseca was a fraud. In August of last year, she established a blog here dedicated to tracking down information about her former author client.

Sharon Sergeant, a genealogist, saw the blog and began researching the meager facts Daniel had on Defonseca's past. With the help of Belgian journalist Marc Metdapenningen of Le Soir newspaper, Sergeant turned up the information that proved Defonseca was lying. Defonseca was not Jewish. Her real name was Monique De Wael and she'd been baptized Catholic. Her parents were resistance fighters executed by the Nazis. She was raised by her grandfather and uncle.

When confronted with the facts two months ago, Defonseca admitted the truth, which brings us up-to-date.

Last Wednesday's Publishers Weekly reported that Jane Daniel is now seeking to overturn the court's judgment on the basis that the book was a fraud:

According to yesterday's filing [on Tuesday] in Massachusetts Superior Court, the jury was poisoned against Daniel because of their sympathy for Defonseca's sufferings during the Holocaust . . . The filing also notes that Daniel had no way to defend herself in 2001, because the technology wasn't adequate to enable her to verify who Defonseca really was. The complaint states: "It was only with the advancement of the Internet, and the corresponding availability of worldwide networking and information access that the truth regarding Defonseca's true identity, and the corresponding magnitude of the hoax perpetrated by her in her memoir came to light."

Daniel named as plaintiffs Defonseca, Vera Lee and the law firm that represented them in their lawsuit against her and her small publishing company, Mt. Ivy Press.

One of my secret indulgences is the Judge Judy television program. I listen to the show every weekday afternoon. One of her favorite maxims is: "He who comes into equity [court] must come with clean hands."

A previous court has already found that Daniel did not have clean hands. It will be interesting to see whether Defonseca's earlier misdeed (the hoax) cancels out the malfeasance conviction [dirty hands] of Daniel.

Stay tuned . . .

No comments: