If you had plans to pick up Belgian writer Misha Defonseca’s book, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years,” be aware that it’s a harrowing tale of how, as a Jewish child, she lived with a pack of wolves in the woods during the Holocaust. The book, which has been made into a feature film in France …
… is also something else: a complete crock.
The author has since acknowledged that her story wasn’t autobiographical, and that she didn’t trek 1,900 miles across Europe with a pack of wolves in search of her deported parents during World War II.
In fact, this phony Holocaust survivor isn’t even Jewish! Defonseca said her parents were arrested by the Nazis for their role in the resistance movement, and shabby treatment by her adopted family made her “feel Jewish.” Oy vey!
Defonseca’s story brings to mind another writer, the late Jerzy Kosinski, who caused a sensation in the 1960s with his book “The Painted Bird,” about a young Jewish boy separated from his parents during the Second World II, who wanders the Polish countryside, where he witnesses — and experiences — brutal treatment by the medieval-minded Polish peasants.
Then came Eliot Weinberger, an American writer and translator, who charged that Kosinski wasn’t the book’s author, since Kosinski wasn’t even fluent in English at the time it was written. Another author, M. A. Orthofer, later charged, “Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake –possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want.”
Then in June 1982, an article in The Village Voice by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosinski of plagiarism. They charged that his books, including “Painted Bird,” had ripped off Polish stories that were unfamiliar to English readers. But at least Kosinski actually was Jewish. Still, the controversies are believed to have contributed to Kosinski’s eventual suicide in May 1991.
Another beauty in the fake memoirs category was James Frey, whose book “A Million Little Pieces” did so well it made the Oprah Book Club. Too bad poor Oprah had egg on her face when Frey had to admit that his saga of drug abuse was a whole lot of hooey. Oprah even had him on her show, to diss him for abusing her readers.
The question that arises from all this is — why? Why go to such great lengths to create a fake memoir, when all it takes is a relative or friend who knows you well — and knows the memoir is all baloney –to tip off the media? How can the risks not be sky high these days, especially when you begin that book tour and end up on TV, bringing on the weepies as you describe the agonizes you’ve endured?
Money, I guess, is one reason. Maybe if James Frey had written a genuine memoir, it would have been dull and pedantic. On the other hand, Defonseca sounds like she had a fairly interesting childhood. Why not just stick with the real thing? Why the wolves? Was she reading “Tarzan” when she started the book?
I think the problem isn’t so much with these dimwit authors, but rather with our culture. We may be operating under the assumption that an ordinary life just isn’t very interesting, so if our lives are boring, we need to jazz it up with juicer details.
I actually disagree with that notion. I think an interesting writer can take an ordinary life and make it seem funny, touching, nostalgic and dramatic. But that may be the problem: maybe Frey and Defonseca simply weren’t talented enough to make us care about what they really experienced.
In this era of reality shows, there’s no question that audiences love the real thing as much as the scripted dramas — if not more so. In fact, with the shutdown in production of dramas and sitcoms in 2008 because of the Hollywood writer’s strike, new episodes of reality TV were for a while all we were getting: sensible nannies, wife swapping, big weight losses, you’re fired, etc.
We’re all eager for a glimpse into other people’s lives; the question is how sexy we want those lives to be. Do we really want to see self-destructive drug addicts on “Intervention”? Or the most revolting serial killers on “Notorious”? Or college kids who’ll do anything for money (“Jackass,” “Girls/Guys Gone Wild?”) I guess so.
While contemplating these issues, I thought about what it might be like to write my own memoirs. I don’t think I’ve had what could be considered a dull life; in fact, some of it — especially the chapters I’d call ’The Death” and “The Trial” — have been quite harrowing for me. (If you know me, I suspect you know what I’m referring to; if you don’t know me, you don’t need to know. I’m too young for memoirs anyway.) The problem, though, is my childhood was a wee bit too dramatic to me. It may not be to millions of others who experienced something entirely different.
And then there’s the challenge of my adulthood, which, to be quite honest, has been enormously rewarding, happy, and fulfilling… but not always exciting by reality show standards. Not dramatic. Not full of challenges and hardships and pain and suffering and all the stuff we save for the likes of “The Jenny Jones Show.”
So am I better off to have had a stress-free and enjoyable time in my forties, even though my memoirs would suck like month-old pudding? I’d have to say yes. Now, it’s possible I could still write an interesting and humorous memoir anyway, except that it wouldn’t be about torture, suffering, misery and pain …
… Unless …
Okay. Here goes:
My name is Michael Freeman. If you don’t know me, it’s because I’ve spent most of my life … locked in a basement.
Yes, a basement.
The ones raising me — they were not my parents. They had stolen me when I was just a baby. My real parents had left me in a car for just two crummy seconds while they ran into the 7-11 for smokes — and that was when the strangers snatched me, and off I went on this horrifying journey into Deep South hell!
They were illiterate hillbillies. They beat me daily. One day my father put a framed painting against my face, and nailed it into my head. It hurt. Stings, even, to this day. He said he couldn’t stand to see my ugly face anymore, so he wanted a Norman Rockwell painting there instead. Who was I to argue?
So let’s start at the beginning.
Chapter One: The rat in the basement who chewed my toes off, then became my best friend, and, in later years, fiancée.
(Have I got you hooked yet?)
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