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It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving
March 2, 2008 5:45 AM   Subscribe

"I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed." A Belgian writer has admitted that she made up her best-selling memoir and that she did not trek 1,900 miles as a child across Europe with a pack of wolves in search of her deported parents during World War II. More at Slate. Here's an excellent portal about feral children.

Misha Defonseca's book, "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," was translated into 18 languages and made into a feature film in France.

According to Wikipedia: Her real name is Monique de Wael and she is not Jewish; while she still says her parents were taken away by the Nazis, she says that she did not leave her home during the war to find them, as the book depicts. In a statement released through her lawyers to the Brussels newspaper Le Soir Defonseca/de Wael said that the story of "Misha" "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving" and that there were moments when she "found it difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was part of my imagination."

posted by KokuRyu (63 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
A memoir is always and irretrievably a fiction.
posted by nasreddin at 5:51 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


She also claimed she was trapped in the Warsaw ghetto, killed a Nazi soldier and was adopted by a group of wolves.

Why would anyone believe something like this without proof or at least some supporting evidence?
posted by rdr at 5:52 AM on March 2, 2008


that she did not trek 1,900 miles as a child across Europe with a pack of wolves in search of her deported parents during World War II

I can't believe that wasn't true!
posted by kolophon at 5:52 AM on March 2, 2008 [9 favorites]


I'm waiting for Samuel Pepys to come forward admitting he made it all up too.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:53 AM on March 2, 2008


...they were actually badgers
posted by Flashman at 5:58 AM on March 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


All children are feral.

Wolves are not needed.
posted by srboisvert at 6:00 AM on March 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


What I don't understand is why these people don't just market their books as historical fiction or, you know, literature. Why does it have to be a memoir? I'm sure this book would have sold just fine without the added marketing ploy, and the writer wouldn't seem both totally nuts and a complete liar as she surely does now with her 'outing'.

This movie just came out in France, too--right after ANOTHER movie about a child living with wolves. Apparently the tactic of two studios making the same movie at once is not just a Hollywood thing.
posted by nonmerci at 6:02 AM on March 2, 2008


Everything I've been brought up to believe is a lie!
posted by moonbiter at 6:05 AM on March 2, 2008


Defonseca/de Wael said that the story of "Misha" "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving" and that there were moments when she "found it difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was part of my imagination."

Ah. So that would be a long winded way of saying it was all a lie (but don't hate me)?

There's embellishing the truth and telling a good story, and then there's lying.
posted by outlier at 6:05 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm shocked!

What's next? Harry Potter admitting that he does not actually have magical powers, but that pretending to have them was "his reality", "his way to survive"?
posted by sour cream at 6:07 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


A memoir is always and irretrievably a fiction.

Cliché. There *are* ways to be more and less truthful in memoir.
posted by mediareport at 6:15 AM on March 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


If this thread is anything like the James Frey or J.T. Leroy discussions we've had, we're about to get bogged down in a grad student snoozefest over "What is the essential nature of truth, anyway?" when all most of us want to talk about is how awesome it is when bad things happen to rich liars.

I love that Defonseca pulled out that old knee-slapper about how the story isn't "actually reality, but my reality..." Hilarious.

Hurf durf it was a post-modern experiment!
posted by Ian A.T. at 6:29 AM on March 2, 2008 [9 favorites]


What nonmerci said. What makes this so stupid is that this sounds like it'd be a great book if it was just openly stated as a fictional piece. Loads of fiction is written memoir-style from a first-person perspective anyway.

It's so strange the way people seem to find dramatic narrative more compelling when they're told it's "based on a true story." Except especially in movies, the "based on" is an out for half the story being completely untrue: for example, in Catch Me if You Can, did you know Frank Abagnale had siblings, and kept in touch with both parents frequently? In Lean On Me, almost every event was chronologically incorrect, and the last half hour of the movie didn't happen at all. The characters in Glory are all completely fictitious save for Broderick's Robert Shaw, who in real life was married and had a family never suggested in the film.

All three of those are great movies, but the idea that you're getting a sense of what actually happened "in real life" is ridiculous. Most "based on a true story" movies are about as accurately based on a true story as Titanic was.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:32 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another issue is that having THIS supposed holocaust survivor's story debunked might lead to people wondering whether perhaps other survivors' accounts were fabricated or at least embellished as well.

Was Anne Frank REALLY killed in a concentration camp? Are those pictures from Auschwitz real or just "someone's reality"? Or perhaps part of a ploy to get Germany to pay lots of reparations?

Not good.
posted by sour cream at 6:37 AM on March 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Why does it have to be a memoir? I'm sure this book would have sold just fine without the added marketing ploy

Are you nuts? Very, very few novels sell well these days, whereas memoirs are all the rage. Make your suggestion to any publisher and they'll fall over laughing.

A memoir is always and irretrievably a fiction.

Yes, yes, we all know our postmodernist credo, but seriously: there's a difference between being inherently unsure whether you really bit your sister's ear at age five and claiming to have trekked 1,900 miles as a child across Europe with a pack of wolves in search of your deported parents when you were actually hanging out in Belgium with relatives.
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on March 2, 2008 [19 favorites]


nasreddin: "A memoir is always and irretrievably a fiction."

If I write mine, I might get some minor sequences of events out of order or paraphrase things my Grandmother told me thirty-five years ago but it won't involve me running with packs of wolves in suburban New Jersey.
posted by octothorpe at 6:46 AM on March 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, we enjoy seeing some people talk about their reality, their way of surviving.

This doesn't have to be yet another 'look at this asshole' thread, you know.
posted by blasdelf at 7:23 AM on March 2, 2008


Why would anyone believe something like this without proof or at least some supporting evidence?

Beats me. Why would millions of people believe that dentists routinely do root canal work without anaesthetic -- a la Marathon Man -- on recovering people? In spite of the fact that there's nothing remotely addictive or pleasure-inducing about the various synthetic local anaesthetics used to do with such work?

I think it has something to do with the fact that a good story makes you *want* to suspend your disbelief.

I've just spent a fascinating couple of hours reading the blog of the publisher involved in this case. That make some really fascinating reading. This isn't her first judgement at the hands of one of her authors. Depending on how you count 'em, it may not even be the second. Nevertheless, her life is like a modern day version of Bleak House.

Ignore her triumphalism and scroll down to her book-length account of her trials. Fascinating stuff.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:24 AM on March 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Expect this should give sales a bit of a boost. How's the difficulty with royalties working out?
posted by IndigoJones at 7:25 AM on March 2, 2008


You can tell that I was really fascinated by that blog, can't you?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:26 AM on March 2, 2008


Apparently wolf saliva is *not* antiseptic.
posted by Raoul de Noget at 7:39 AM on March 2, 2008


She had me lost at "the Holocaust actually happened".
posted by phaedon at 7:49 AM on March 2, 2008


This is a sad story. She did, in fact, have a painfully difficult life, a story worth telling.

Thanks for the post KokuRyu.

She was often called "daughter of the traitor" because her father was rumoured to have given up information under torture. She was cared for by relatives.

"Apart from my grandfather, I hated the people who looked after me. They treated me badly … [I] always felt Jewish,"

The publication of the book itself was and still is painful saga.

I wonder what will happen now to the millions she won:
Sullivan & Worcester LLP announced today that Holocaust survivor Misha Defonseca has been awarded a total of $22.5 million in damages, plus more than $487,000 in attorneys' fees

Poignant that her book depicted a sort of childhood fantasy: Close to death and starving she was befriended by a family of wolves, eating and playing with wolf cubs and protected by the wolf cubs mother.

And there are real feral children, whose lives are usually stranger, and sadder, than fiction.
posted by nickyskye at 7:53 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


See also: Jerzy Kosinski, Binjamin Wilkomirski. Norman Finkelstein on "Holocaust Literary Frauds" (excerpted from The Holocaust Industry).
posted by inoculatedcities at 7:54 AM on March 2, 2008


Another issue is that having THIS supposed holocaust survivor's story debunked might lead to people wondering whether perhaps other survivors' accounts were fabricated or at least embellished as well.

No "might" to it. I don't want to look, but I bet Ernst Zuendel, the various paramecium at Stormfront, and so on and so forth are all over this. Anything to discredit the "HoloHoax", which, you know, didn't happen wink wink, but we wish it did wink wink. These people have been trying to claim Anne Frank's diary, as in your example, is a hoax perpetrated by the world Jewish conspiracy for decades now. Their "smoking gun" is that it was "written in ball point ink" which didn't exist at the time. The truth, of course, is that there existed writing added later by someone else in ball point ink, the diary itself was of course not written in ball point, but that doesn't stop them from saying it. Check out nizkor.org for more examples of their despicable tactics.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:09 AM on March 2, 2008


Oh come on--who among us has not made up a story about trekking 1,900 miles as a child across Europe with a pack of wolves in search of their deported parents? You're going to tell me you still use "Nice shoes" to hit on women?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:11 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why does it have to be a memoir? I'm sure this book would have sold just fine without the added marketing ploy

Are you nuts? Very, very few novels sell well these days, whereas memoirs are all the rage. Make your suggestion to any publisher and they'll fall over laughing.

posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on March 2 [5 favorites +] [!]



No, I'm not nuts, and I just don't really agree with your point. This is a pretty specific kind of story on an era in history that is eaten up by a lot of people. It also doubles as a children's story. Yeah, the memoir definitely gives it a special something but for the kind of story we're talking about here I don't think it was the be-all end-all.
posted by nonmerci at 8:21 AM on March 2, 2008


"Eaten up" comes across as negative, which was definitely not intended. I just mean it's an era that many find fascinating and as a result literature about it sells well.
posted by nonmerci at 8:25 AM on March 2, 2008


No, I'm not nuts, and I just don't really agree with your point.

I once pitched a novel to a publisher. They weren't interested. However, they were prepared to offer me a substantial advance if I was prepared to write it as a memoir.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:31 AM on March 2, 2008


I once pitched a novel to a publisher. They weren't interested. However, they were prepared to offer me a substantial advance if I was prepared to write it as a memoir.

Tell us more?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:38 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, there was this pack of wolves, see...
posted by mediareport at 8:52 AM on March 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


she did not trek 1,900 miles as a child across Europe with a pack of wolves in search of her deported parents during World War II

You know, I can read something like this and realize how silly and untrue it sounds, but think of someone like Whitley Strieber, a man who got a New York Times #1 bestseller by adding "A True Story" to the cover of his hokey alien-abduction novel. People still believe it, too.

What I don't understand is why these people don't just market their books as historical fiction or, you know, literature. Why does it have to be a memoir? I'm sure this book would have sold just fine without the added marketing ploy...

See "A Million Little Pieces". His work of fiction was actually rejected by his own publisher until he slapped the word "A Memoir" on it. People don't want novels anymore. They want "True Stories". Me? I'm waiting for Lucas to finally go completely insane and make "Star Wars: Based on a True Story".
posted by Avenger at 8:53 AM on March 2, 2008


I can't believe wolf packs were in ready supply in heavily-populated mainland Europe, even in the 1940s. You'd think that might have tipped a few people off that this might not be 100% accurate.
posted by fshgrl at 9:03 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


de Wael said that the story of "Misha" "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving" and that there were moments when she "found it difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was part of my imagination."

So this is a real-life analogue to The Life of Pi? That's actually quite interesting.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:04 AM on March 2, 2008


In light of this shocking development, must we now turn a skeptical eye toward being abducted by Sasquatch for procreational purposes?
posted by Tube at 9:17 AM on March 2, 2008


The Feral Children listing on one of the linked sites is engrossing (and voluminous).

Meet The Syrian Gazelle Boy.
posted by merlinmann at 9:47 AM on March 2, 2008


She made $22 million!

Other literary frauds from the MeFi archives.
posted by stbalbach at 9:49 AM on March 2, 2008


Wikipedia's Literary hoaxes also has tons more. We need a good magazine article discussing this trend, is it the same old story, or are we seeing something new with all these high-profile hoaxes?
posted by stbalbach at 9:52 AM on March 2, 2008


As a side note, this whole exposure came out of a lawsuit between her publisher and her over royalties. Know who not to piss off!
posted by jscott at 9:57 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Remember shame? I remember shame.
posted by tommasz at 10:15 AM on March 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


but it won't involve me running with packs of wolves in suburban New Jersey.

Are you sure? Because that would be pretty cool. Like The Sopranos meets Call of the Wild.
posted by Sparx at 10:23 AM on March 2, 2008


As a former feral child - raised by a pack of dingoes - I feel hurt & betrayed by Misha's deceptions, but accept her gracious apology.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:46 PM on March 2, 2008


Now, Aharon Appelfeld really did spend several years living in the woods as a young kid during WWII. Most of his books, which are fabulous, by the way, are fiction, though.

This woman, this woman is vile.
posted by OmieWise at 12:49 PM on March 2, 2008


This is a natural result of the state of the memoir business, which has become nothing more than a battle of one-upmanship, where horrible experiences are used to stand in for actual writing ability (You got molested while being burned with a crack pipe? well my childhood was WAY worse!)

I'm at the point where I take any memoir involving claims of molestation or abuse by priests with a HUGE grain of salt. yes I know these things really happen. But they're also cliches of the genre at this point. Fiction authors can't get away with writing cliches. That's why these alleged memoirists have to fall back on "well it really happened!" - because they're not good writers.

people want to believe in justice- that those who have horrible experiences are innately able to tell a good story about these experiences- that suffering somehow makes you a good writer.

No. being a good writer makes you a good writer. A talented writer who has never been above sea level will write a more compelling, better, more believable story about walking on the moon than an astronaut who lacks literary ability. A lot of people find this fact unpleasant or disconcerting, but it is assuredly a fact.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:23 PM on March 2, 2008


oh and ps I'm still waiting for a full confession from Augustin Burroughs re: his "memoir" "Running with Scissors," which fails the believability test early and often.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:34 PM on March 2, 2008


I'm still waiting for a full confession from Aron Ralston re: his "memoir" "Between a Rock and Hard Place"

I'm betting that he didn't actually get pinnned beneath that boulder out in the wilderness, but simply cut off his arm in his own basement in order to boost sales.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:02 PM on March 2, 2008


I actually thought this was debunked years ago.

I'm quite interested in the question of this, The Painted Bird, and to a lesser extent Wilkomski's story, as literary responses to the Holocaust. Not just in the mundane sense, but in the way that they approach it as a dissociative convergence or singularity. This is touched on in the Finkelstein article; I'm sure some doctoral Comp. Lit. student has done it up well.

One reason for this, I suppose, is that when I was in college and intending to write fiction, one of my first long-form concepts was a journalist blinded by an atomic explosion during a limited Indo-Pakistani nuclear exchange, and forced to navigate the horrific aftermath with only his other senses. Fortunately, I did not complete this mannered concept, and it helped me abandon fiction altogether. I may have been an OK writer, but I'm no Kosinski....
posted by dhartung at 2:12 PM on March 2, 2008


I wonder if this will hurt my chances of publishing my memoir about being killed and eaten by a pack of wild dogs—twice—in rural northern Michigan. Do you think I should change the setting?
posted by goatdog at 2:30 PM on March 2, 2008


As a former feral child - raised by a pack of dingoes - I feel hurt & betrayed by Misha's deceptions, but accept her gracious apology.

Ubu, I read the interview with those dingoes, and frankly you don't come off too well. And I should warn you that they've got lawyers waiting in the wings in case you try to capitalize on your experience with a "memoir."

Dingo lawyers.
posted by languagehat at 2:46 PM on March 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


I wonder if this will hurt my chances of publishing my memoir about being killed and eaten by a pack of wild dogs—twice—in rural northern Michigan. Do you think I should change the setting?

Oh yeah? You think you had it bad? I was drawn and quartered, eaten by four separate wolfpacks, digested, passed as stool, then used as a prop in a scat video in eastern Duesseldorf.

Top that.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:58 PM on March 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dingo lawyers in a kangaroo court? Doesn't sound favourable.

I'll have to negotiate for them to drop the suit, otherwise I'll do a tell-all interview about how we divvied up Azaria Chamberlain's body for dinner that night.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:32 PM on March 2, 2008


Whatever she may have actually suffered, I don't have the slightest sympathy for this woman. I sometimes think people like this do far more damage in the world than the outright bullies. They sow seeds of doubt and distrust in those whose natural first impulse is to be kind and credulous to others who claim to be suffering. They make it harder for victims to be believed. There is something deeply sickening about someone presenting herself as a victim who herself victimizes others with cruel lies.

I don't have much sympathy for those who so calculatedly play on other people's kindest and most trusting impulses for their own benefit. I am sure the first ones who saw through her charade were horrified, and not just at the magnitude of the lies she told. People often deeply resent hearing that they've been fooled this way and often turn on the innocent to defend the fictions they trusted. Whatever this woman suffered, she has extracted her revenge -- not against her victimizers, but a lot of innocent bystanders.

I agree with OmieWise: This woman, this woman is vile.
posted by melissa may at 4:52 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ms Daniel's blog here, and unsympathetic commentary here.

Also, another teaser and the official site for the movie. On this last one I get an error message when hitting the Book link. Let us know if you have better luck.

Still trying to figure how a book that sold maybe 50,000 copies and that after the trial was worth 32 mil, or even 3.3 mil. Perhaps when I finish the blog.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:45 PM on March 2, 2008


(Blog makes for interesting reading on the court case.)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:00 PM on March 2, 2008


Tell us more?

"It was a dark and stormy night..."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:25 PM on March 2, 2008


A talented writer who has never been above sea level will write a more compelling, better, more believable story about walking on the moon than an astronaut who lacks literary ability.

A great example of this is Edmund Hillary's book about climbing Mount Everest. Now, granted, the man was a wonderful mountaineer and --I'm sure -- a wonderful human being. But the dude could not write. Even four or five years after reading this one, I still marvel at how painfully dull it was.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:32 PM on March 2, 2008


Some would disagree with your assessment, jason's_planet.

From the Customer Reviews section of Hillary's Amazon page:

Written shortly after the historic 1953 climb, the adventure is detailed with modest nonchalance in a prose style of intense clarity and directness. I physically shuddered during portions of the narrative, and wept not a few times also.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:21 PM on March 2, 2008


Most "based on a true story" movies are about as accurately based on a true story as Titanic was.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:32 AM on March 2


You mean the boat didn't actually sink? Awesome. That would have been terrible in real life.

Also, wouldn't you be embarrassed to admit you believed this story, even for a second?

It's like there is an entire segment of the population with no bullshit detector gene. Which would explain most things wrong with politics today.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:31 PM on March 2, 2008


You mean the boat didn't actually sink? Awesome. That would have been terrible in real life.

That's not what jason's_planet meant. The truth of the matter is that the captain deliberately sailed into an iceberg on the orders of MI5, because they wanted to blame a German u-boat, thus giving England a pretext for invading Germany in order to steal their industrial resources.

However, due to the dedicated activities of a bunch of mimeograph pamphleteers & amateur morse-code telegraphers, the holes in the u-boat story were eventually exposed, forcing the government to admit that it was an iceberg that sank the Titanic after all.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:06 PM on March 2, 2008


but it won't involve me running with packs of wolves in suburban New Jersey.

I´m damn sure mine will, and I grew up in Scotland.
posted by eponymouse at 2:14 AM on March 3, 2008


In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.
Another memoirist got outed as a fake.
posted by jtron at 9:11 PM on March 3, 2008


FWIW, Australia awarded one of it's biggest literary prizes to a similar bullshit artist. TRIVIA: Not only BS, but plagiarism. She pinched bits from author Thomas Keneally. His books include Schindler's Ark which was made into Schindler's List.

Recently, there was best selling former African child soldier being outed by a couple (who live a few hundred kilometres south of Perth).

And let's not forget this steaming pile of poo. Not a memoir, but surely worthy of a mention. The documentary exposing him is a laff. The author KNOWS it's bullshit and he doesn’t care. Ka-ching! Neither does his publisher. Ka-ching!! If you get my drift.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:07 PM on March 3, 2008


SomethingAwful's take on the issue.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:00 AM on March 5, 2008


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