6   Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years
                1997
Misha
It was an incredible tale: a young Jewish girl’s parents are deported, she is adopted by an abusive Catholic family who changes her name to Monique de Wael, so she wanders across Europe searching for her parents, is adopted by a pack of wolves, eats offal and worms, and even kills a German officer with her pocketknife. The girl, Misha de Fonesca, has walked a total of over 3,000 kilometres from Belgium to Ukraine and back, sneaking in and out of the Warsaw ghetto, undetected, along the way. The story is unbelievable, it’s triumphant, it’s inspiring, and it’s entirely false. The author is actually named Monique de Wael and is a Belgian, whose Catholic parents were resistance fighters and were taken away by the Nazis when Monique was four. She was raised by a grandfather, and later an uncle, whose family may or may not have mistreated her. She moved to the Massachusetts with her husband in 1988, where she began to tell the local synagogue her incredible tale of her survival as Jewish girl searching for her parents. The story was picked up by a publisher and published to minimal success in the United States before being translated into 18 languages and becoming a European bestseller. The story was questioned from the beginning, but was definitively debunked by two genealogists who tracked down de Wael’s birth certificate and a school registry that showed de Wael at school when she was supposedly wandering about Europe. De Wael acknowledge the fraud in 2008, but qualified her apology by saying “it’s not the true reality, but it is my reality. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”
7
Forbidden Love
2003
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In her acclaimed memoir, Forbidden Love, Norma Khouri tells the story of the honor killing of her best friend, Dalia, in Damman, Jordan, during the early nineties. Khouri told of working in the same salon in as her friend, where Dalia met and fell in love with a British army officer named Michael. Michael is a Roman Catholic, so Dalia cannot let her traditional Muslim family know of her romantic interest in him. Khouri acted as a go-between and helped Dalia keep the romance a secret. When the romance did come to light, Dalia’s enraged father stabbed her multiple times. Khouri, afraid for her life, was smuggled out of Jordan with the help of the dashing young Michael. Sold in over 15 countries, the memoir sold over 200,000 copies in Australia and enthusiastic Australians voted it among their favorite 100 books of all time. The entire story, however, had emerged from Khouri’s imagination. Her real name was, in fact, Norma Majid Khouri Michael Al-Bagain Toliopoulos, and she had spent most of her life in suburban Chicago. She had moved to the United States from Jordan with her family at the age of three, and studied Computer Science after graduating from Catholic High School. She met a Greek-American man, whom she had two children with before marrying in 1993. Records confirm that Norma was in Chicago for the entire timeline of the events that she related in her memoir. In 2000, Norma submitted her manuscript to a literary agent, who sold it to 16 international publishers. Norma Toliopoulos then moved with her family to Australia, and her memoir went on to wild success. The book raised eyebrows in Jordan, and was researched by the Jordanian National Commission for Women who found over 70 exaggerations and serious errors. They submitted their report to Random House Australia, who responded that they were satisfied with the veracity of the story, and that only names and places had been changed to protect the identities of those involved. When confronted with the increasing evidence of the lies contained in her book, Norma would deftly elaborate on her original story or blatantly lie – even flatly denying ever having been to the United States prior to 2003. When the scandal was broken by Australian journalist, Malcolm Knox, Random House pulled the book from the shelf. Norma Toliopoulos, however, stuck to her story and boldly agreed to a documentary that followed her to Jordan. With the camera on her, she did her utmost to try to prove the truth of her memoir. Her story unravels rather quickly, but Norma is a deft liar and is able to make a lot of her obfuscations and excuses sound almost plausible.
8
A Million Little Pieces
2003
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James Frey wants us to believe that he is a tough but sensitive bad-boy writer with a drug problem. The truth is, he’s a sensitive but boyish bad writer with a truth problem. The memoir purports to tell the true story of his drug and alcohol problems, his rehab, prison stints, and his personal triumph over his addictions. The book was released in 2003 to mixed reviews before being picked up as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. The book soared to the top of the bestsellers list, with a public entranced with Frey’s incredible account of his personal conquest of his addictions. The Smoking Gun, a website that routinely publishes mug shots and legal documents, after having much difficulty finding a booking photo for Frey, began a deeper investigation into the claims he made in his memoir. Months later, the Smoking Gun published their results, exposing a litany of lies and embellishments by Frey relating to his claims of criminal activity. After being exposed, Frey issued a half-hearted author’s note that admitted that large portions of the book had been fabricated: that he had never been involved in the train accident that killed a schoolmate (although he knew her), that he served a few hours in prison rather than three months, and that he had embellished his account of his arrests. Although his claim that a root canal procedure had been done without anesthesia is clearly false, Frey claims that he wrote it from memory and that he has records that “seem to support it.” Conveniently, he also claims that other patients at the treatment facility had their names and identifying characteristics changed to protect their anonymity. Frey, ever the conscientious writer, cannot reveal their identities. His apology comes off as flat and forced, especially with these lines: “This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic.” Manipulating the truth has nothing to do with your point of view and everything to do with being a pathological liar. Some have tried to defend Frey by referring to his triumph over addiction as the important message and claiming that “minor” lies shouldn’t matter.
9
Love and Consequences
2008
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If there were a literary version of blackface, this would be it. Author Margaret B. Jones wrote this memoir based on her life as a gang member in south-central L.A.. Claiming to look dark “like a Mexican” and to be half-native and half-white, Jones writes the entire memoir laced in her own unique version of ebonics. The book’s jacket clearly depicts a white woman, but it seems the publisher never questioned this minor inconsistency. Jones claimed to have been taken from her parents at the age of six and placed in a black foster home in L.A.’s toughest neighborhood because this is, after all, social services’ standard practice for all half-white half-native foster children. She wrote of her membership in the Bloods and her life’s struggles, with all of the knowledge and experience of an outsider who owns several rap albums and has watched Boyz In the Hood at least twice. She even makes the incredibly ludicrous claim that the first white baby she ever saw was her own child (conceived with the first white man she had ever slept with). The memoir received critical praise, with the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and O Magazine loudly endorsing it. The book was poised to sell millions, when Jones was recognized, by her sister, as one Margaret “Peggy” Seltzer. Seltzer, it turns out, is an entirely Caucasian suburbanite whose affectation of ebonics is made all the more clownish by her private school education. Seltzer had managed to sell the story to the publisher by parading a series of people posing as her foster siblings, using the published accounts of her experiences from the book of an author she had duped, and presenting other fake evidence consisting of photos and letters. Seltzer defended her book by saying she was giving “a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” Margaret Seltzer, the voice of the ghetto.
10
Angel At the Fence
2009 (cancelled)
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Full title: “Angel At the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived”. Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust Survivor, wrote his memoir recounting his time at Schlieben camp, Buchenwald. In his book, Rosenblat claimed that a girl had passed him food through the fence of the concentration camp. One day in 1945 he had told her that he would not be able to take her apple the next day because he was scheduled to be gassed to death. Against all odds, he survived and this same girl was the one he met on a blind date in 1957 and who later became his wife. Wow, Oprah enthused, this “is the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on air.” The problem? The entire central premise of the book was a complete fabrication. As Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar and activist against anti-Semitism pointed out, Buchenwald had no gas chambers and, even if it did, there is no way the author would have had his impending gassing announced to him. She further argued for the importance of pursuing historical truth, especially in the face of Holocaust deniers, who love exploiting inconsistencies. Furthermore, researchers found that Rosenblat’s wife was, in fact, hidden over three hundred kilometers away during the war. Not only that, but there would have been absolutely no way for a civilian to approach the fence and pass food to a prisoner, as the only accessible point was immediately beside the SS Barracks. Rosenblat initially defended his memoir before admitting that it had been embellished and that he had never met his wife at Schlieben. The book’s publisher, Berkley Books, withdrew it from publication, but not before the film rights were bought by Atlantic Overseas Pictures for $25 million. The movie, which was set to star Richard Dreyfuss, appears to have been cancelled. Still, its producer, Harry Saloman, defended it by claiming that Rosenblat’s story has been censored by an overzealous publishing industry and that “Rosenblat’s story of survival, and its message of love and hope will not be silenced.”