Monday, December 29, 2008


In a country where the government has lied to us about issues so major as to draw us into war and recession, where the pharmaceutical industry is almost proud of its ability to deceive and bribe us into taking drugs that may kill us, and where investment firms invent imaginary ways of making obscene profits, it seems strange or ironic -- how else to look at it? -- that the media gets so excited about books that claim to be “true” but evidently are not. The previous recent “deceptions” that have provoked indignation were baffling because the writers had claimed to be much more wicked, poor and suffering than they really were. But this most recent kafuffle is over “Angel at the Fence” by Herman Rosenblat, an innocent-seeming love story about hope and romance that begins in a WWII concentration camp. The publisher, Berkley, is so indignant that they were “deceived” about the reality of this story that they have demanded their advance back: $50,000, which is not much by way of advances but five times my annual income.

Once again, it was thought that Oprah had some magical ability to tell which writers were “authentic” and the thought was proven wrong. What Oprah has is the power to make a writer rich overnight by endorsing him/her on her program. Why would anyone think that a nice lady -- who barely has enough spare time to read because she is so subsumed by the one-woman industry she has become -- has an inside track on who is telling the truth? Do we think that her crew looks everything up in a directory somewhere? Or that she has some sense like the notorious “gaydar” that gives her signals the rest of us fail to pick up?

What’s so evil about telling a mythical love story anyway? In this case the main revealers explain that if all the false holocaust stories are not tracked down and stamped out, the truth of the event will be diminished. They are not the only ones to have this opinion. My uncle, Seth Strachan, was the pilot who flew a planeload of correspondents and editors into Germany right after WWII at the command of General Eisenhower, who said that the world would NOT believe that something so ghastly and inhuman had happened without eye witness acccounts. (Did anyone order the same for the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima?) I read that small groups sprout up to deny the holocaust all the time. But still, doesn’t “unmasking” Mr. Rosenblatt’s love story sort of seem like killing a fly with a sledgehammer? The relentlessness of Dr. Kenneth Waltzer, who is writing his own holocaust book, and the obvious terror of the publisher don’t quite seem justified.

What else is at stake besides “truth,” whatever that is? I mean, having been interviewed by many people for many decades, I have a high degree of skepticism about ANYTHING that gets into print. Everyone sees through a filter, and the filter that seems most unreliable is the “rose-colored glasses” of the spiritually uplifting genre. Haven’t we noticed how many exemplars of the morally upstanding have turned out to be sitting in toilet stalls at airports?

I’ll tell you something unlikely: the friendship that has developed between Tim Barrus and I. For once the NYTimes didn’t drag him out by the scruff of the neck to be Exhibit A, maybe in part because he barks and bites with such energy that it’s just not worth it. As Nasdijj he was excoriated by two watchdog groups almost as powerful as holocaust definers. One is the Native American literature crowd, who were shocked SHOCKED that Tim was NOT Navajo. They evidently thought it was perfectly likely that a man who says he grew up doing migrant labor rather than going to school could write energetic, vivid prose. The other is a part of the Gay community that doesn’t like defectors and is equally horrified that Tim was not “pure” homosexual, having failed to notice his two marriages, daughter and granddaughter.

In short, the real critics are enforcers of a point of view, powerful people who can affect profits. In fact, the chief judge of the NA Lit qualifications of Tim Barrus is James Mackay who is not American and has spent little or no time on the Navajo reservation. He uses political theory to attack certain NA writing, a practice that has its own unreal dimension. And the attacker from the “Gay” side is a porn writer famous for an essay about dumpster-diving.

What could be more American than small identity enclaves resisting the great media wave of uniformity, which produces movies and books so repetitious that unique little groups become bait for screen writers or novelists looking for something new and (hopefully) shocking. No wonder such groups resist being strip-mined. But why are the unmaskers so often self-interested?

Which is worse, going to the polls to elect our leaders without ever really knowing what the truth is? Or reading books about things that never happened? If you look at it in terms of the stakes, there’s just no question. So why are both phenomena treated with such high seriousness by journalists who are equally as vulnerable to deception, wishful thinking, and the blinding power of money, though their vocation is specifically charged with fact finding?

Back in the Sixties my mother-in-law used to scold me for reading novels because they were about things that never happened. “You should read TRUE things,” she said, though she was never known to be a newspaper reader. So I asked her for examples. “Movie magazines,” she said with perfect confidence. I was drilled in high school how to perceive propaganda, lies and exaggerations particularly used by the Red Russians to baffle and deceive us all. I think Korea was in there, too, but now we exempt South Korea. Still, it was useful training.

But one can step away from the whole problem -- at least with books -- by looking for the integrity of the human message that’s in the story. You’ll have to judge for yourself. Does this piece of writing ring true in terms of life as you’ve known it? Or is this an unreliable narrator whose point of view is controlling what we see and know? Like, for instance, say, Ed Abbey. Or Thoreau. Or Annie Dillard and her notorious night-hunting cat. Or Judy Blunt and her sledgehammer-wielding father-in-law. Are we getting to the point where every book must be accompanied by a dissenting point of view that points out omissions and misunderstandings? Why do we expect more regulation of our writers than we do of our political leaders, doctors, and corporations?


Fred said...

So sad that the Rosenblats lied about their story. Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was a great book and now movie, never pretended to be true. The Rosenblats, like Madoff, harming other Jews and it's terrible.

I read a New York Times article about Stan Lee and Neal Adams the comic book artists supporting another TRUE Holocaust love story. There was a beautiful young artist, Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. Dina's art became the reason she and her Mother survived Auschwitz.

Painting the mural for the children caused Dina to be taken in front of Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he decided to make her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber as long as she was doing painting for him.

Dina's story is true because some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. Also, the story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also a fact.

I wish Oprah would do a story about Dina and her art not about the Rosenblats who were pulling the wool over all our eyes.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I have to admit that I am offended by some of these frauds--particularly Wade Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow) and Carlos Casteneda, who received PhD's for fictional "research." (I guess I'm jealous--I had to use actual data.)

The memoirs that are actually fiction, the essays that are inauthentic, the "traditional Appalachian music" played badly by kids from the suburbs--it seems that these appeal more to the money-spending public because they are made by people like them. They allow a visit to alien places, social classes, "wild nature" without the discomfort of really trying to understand something or someone alien.

Hmmm. I guess my point is that fraud requires a willing audience, and Oprah, publishers, and uncritical, thrill-seeking readers are also at fault.

Also, anybody who really pays attention to insects, Tinker Creek, and/or cats knows that Annie Dillard never looked twice at any of those things. It's really sad that book got a Pulitzer. The nature essays she was imitating are much better, and little-noted. (My pet peeve. Sorry.)