Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Whole Truth

by Kathy Miller Haines

It’s happened again, another “memoir” cancelled because it was proven largely untrue. This time the offender is Herman Rosenblatt. His book Angel at the Fence told of his imprisonment at Buchenwald and how a young girl used to throw him apples over the concentration camp’s fence. Many years later they met and married. In fact long before he had a publishing deal, Rosenblatt’s tale was touted on Oprah as one of the “greatest love stories ever told.”

Multiple appearances on the show led to an eventual book deal with Penguin. It wasn’t the publisher’s in-house fact checkers who realized something was amiss with his story, but Holocaust scholar Kenneth Waltzer who realized that the layout of the camp would’ve made such repeated encounters impossible, not to mention that the plentiful supply of apples the girl had access to (an apple a day for seven months) couldn’t have existed during a time of heavy German rationing that followed a particularly harsh winter.

While Waltzer’s explanation for why the story rang false makes the fraud seem obvious in retrospect, it’s not hard to imagine why editors overlooked the problems with Rosenblatt’s book. If a story is artfully told, or if enough of it feels true, we are quick to ignore those little inconsistencies that might otherwise draw our notice. And if the story is about one of our sacred cows, we are even more loathe to question its veracity. After all, why would anyone lie about the Holocaust? Especially someone who really did experience it first hand?

Because that’s what makes Rosenblatt’s deception particularly difficult to swallow: he really is a Buchenwald survivor who was imprisoned during the years he claimed. And rather than telling that no doubt extraordinary tale, he felt like he had to puff up his story and make it a little bit more interesting. In fact, the whole saga apparently began when a newspaper solicited readers for Valentine Day tales of how they met. You can almost picture Herman trying to make his story as high concept as possible in hopes of winning the prize. Not only does he set it in the Holocaust, he puts apples in the plot so the story isn’t just tragic, it’s biblical.

As a fiction writer, I’m always fascinated by these tales of memoir deception. Perhaps it’s the publishing market that’s caused it – after all, non-fiction gets bigger money. Or maybe the public really wants bigger, more outlandish stories before they plunk down their hard-earned dollars. But my own appetite for memoir has waned over the years. And I find that nine times out of ten, I learn more insights about the human condition by picking up a really well-written novel than I do by looking for those covers that promise me a true story.

So what do you think drives these kinds of deceptions? Has the publishing business created this monster, or something else?


Joyce Tremel said...

I've never cared much for memoirs. Even people who have the best intentions would embellish the facts to make themselves look more exciting. I've often wondered why these people don't write fiction if they're going to make things up anyway.

Annette said...

I wonder if Oprah is going to start avoiding memoirs like the plague.

I haven't read a memoir in years. All this nonesense is doing nothing to encourage me to reconsider.

Anonymous said...

I was shocked just to hear that someone actually did not question the beginning of the Mr. Fryes book. That was so far fetched.

It seems a disservice to publish these. It would be a shame to not have people reading memoirs if they start to become questionable. Like Annette, I wonder about the reaction Oprah will have. She reaches a large audience.

Anonymous said...

I also prefer fiction to memoires.

Still, when I'm telling a tale from my life, it's hard not to embellish it, just a little. And it does get a little bigger with each retelling . . .

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Anonymous said...

Heh. You should meet my inlaws. I always tell people that anything the Haines's tell them is usually the truth +15%. They don't change the vital facts, but if there were two bucks in the field that day, odds are good they'll be four by the time they you the story.

By why don't people write fiction instead? Is it the disparity in advances? The knowledge that you'll get more of a marketing push if it's true? Or is it the "if you read this in novel you'd never believe it" syndrome?

Dana King said...

A wise man--not a writer--once told me "never let the truth get in the way of a good story." That's why I write fiction, so I can do that with a clear conscience. Memoirs are already tainted relative to biographies because the story is told "as I remember it," which removes some of the onus to be factual when discussing something about which reasonable minds could differ. Making stuff up is just the next step. The sad thing is, such memoirs would be even bettr as fiction, because the author could change other things to make the story come out better, or to add detail and complexity.

I think part of the problem is the current non-fiction-oriented perspective of the publishing industry, but a lot of it is laziness on the part of the writer who takes a life that may be interesting (at least to him) and only makes up enough stuff to make it compelling (he hopes).


good post. but there is something you as a writer might want to know about exactly how this hoax was uncovered and publicized. Believe it or not, I was the person behind the entire media take down. Read the true backstory here: it's funny and interesting and the entire saga was a sad sad thing, yes.


if u have any questions later about how i got involved and why, ask me offline at danbloom AT gmail

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what drives these kind of deceptions, except to speculate that everyone likes attention and that means starvation for it in some people.
I didn't know the details of the memoir, or how the fraud was discovered. If it's Oprah, I tend not to pay attention. So thanks for the info, and I have to admit that if I knew about the apple throwing, I'd have become instantly suspicious. Contrary to Hollywood's desire to have us believe that the Germans couldn't hit the broad side of the barn at 2 feet, there is no way she could have stood outside of any concentration camp more than twice without getting her head blown off.