March 4, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The Terror of the Real

Like Sarah, I’ve been following the recent spate of fake memoirs with some fascination. The growing genre of fake Holocaust memoirs seems to me particularly interesting, mainly because it’s so dangerous: one reason that it’s difficult to question such memoirs, as Blake Eskin points out in his essay in Slate, is that it puts one in uncomfortable proximity with those who question the validity of any account of the Holocaust. Eskin points out that Misha Defonesca’s “memoir” included numerous details that strained credibility: “She walks from Belgium to Ukraine, sneaks into and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and stabs to death a Nazi rapist who attacks her–all between ages 7 and 11.” And that’s leaving aside her account of having been saved and protected by wolves during her four-year journey across Nazi-occupied Europe. Yet many historians are reluctant to cast doubt on even the most unlikely accounts by those who claim to have survived those terrible events for fear of insensitivity toward the victims of the very real atrocities that took place during that period. And since the crimes for which we have detailed historical documentation are so much beyond human comprehension, it can seem as if almost any story might be possible. When the first questions began to appear about Defonesca’s story, French-Jewish filmmaker V??ra Belmont, whose recent film Survivre Avec les Loups is based on the book, defended its veracity by making exactly these arguments: “That is exactly like the people who deny the existence of concentration camps. This is a true story. Everything that happened during the Holocaust is unbelievable and impossible to grasp.” But that’s precisely why it’s so crucial to maintain the boundary between memoir and fiction on this subject: there are those who would deny the reality of these events for political reasons, and these controversies only add to their credibility, but even more importantly, we need a clear historical record if we are to face our own capacity for cruelty.

For her part, Defonesca has released a statement arguing that while the story she narrates in her book never happened, it’s still somehow true: “???The story of Misha,’ she said, ???is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving.’” (I’m quoting Eskin here.) One strange aspect of this whole story is that she was a victim of Nazi atrocities, the Catholic daughter of two members of the Belgian resistance who were executed for their activities. So why claim to be a Jew? And why elaborate your real suffering during the war into such a surreal narrative? While I haven’t read Misha: A M??moire of the Holocaust Years, my response to it and Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood 1939-1948 is that both books sound an awful lot like Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird. That’s another book that has been the subject of controversy, originally published as a novel but based on stories that its author had “passed off” as accounts of his childhood experiences in war-time Poland. Kosinski has been accused of plagiarism, fraud, forgery, and a variety of other literary sins, but what strikes me as interesting in the comparison between these accounts of childhood horrors endured is how the publishers involved treated them. In 1965, Kosinski’s story was published as a work of fiction, even though Dorothy de Santillana, his editor at Houghton Mifflin, is reported to have said “It is my understanding that, fictional as the material may sound, it is straight autobiography.” Kosinski even coined a name for this kind of fictionalized memoir, “auto-fiction.” But the important point here is that while both author and publisher might have suggested that the book was autobiographical for their own reasons, it was published as fiction. In recent years, publishers have found it in their commercial interest to publish fiction as autobiography.

Why do we see so many writers apparently possessed by the same compulsion to imagine horrifying narratives of childhood suffering and publish them as autobiography? One might argue that it reflects an underlying psychological instability in each case that drives these talented writers to imagine a heroic identity as both victim and survivor. At least one critic has suggested that Kosinski’s compulsion to invent details of his own life reflected a borderline personality disorder based partly on his denial of his own Jewishness, an irony considering that The Painted Bird turns on a young Polish boy being mistaken for a Jew. Defonesca’s invention of Misha’s story reflects, she argues, “my reality, my way of surviving” the traumas she suffered as an orphan in occupied Belgium. To imagine a greater horror is somehow to make real the horrors that each suffered, a psychological phenomenon that hints at a therapeutic role for the imagination in conceiving metaphor as memory.

But then, one might also argue that the word “writer” is simply a nice way of saying “liar.” Traditionally, fiction is the place where we transform lived human experience into metaphoric narrative, while autobiography demands that we use metaphor to depict the real. It’s not that feral children don’t exist, but stories of children raised by wolves inspire the poetic imagination as a metaphor through which to see the even more terrifying banality of the lives we all endure. So what’s happened to fiction to make it a less attractive commodity to publishers than even the most suspect memoir? Why can’t we acknowledge our acts of imagination for what they are? I don’t have an answer, but I have a theory: publishers find it hard to sell a fiction, which is, let’s face it, just another story, but they find it easy to sell what we might call “the remarkable real.” That’s the story that surrounds the story, giving it weight, substance, and glamour: the author didn’t simply make this up, she lived it. Now it’s something novel: “Former stripper wins Oscar!” “My life as a gang member!” “I was raised by wolves!” In an age when books are reduced to so many hooks dangled in the water, these offer live, squirming bait.

But here’s the problem: at the risk of repeating myself, writers lie. It’s in their nature to do so, since lying is the caress that the imagination gives to truth. I’m sure there are memoirs that resist the temptations of imagination. (Some examples, Dr. S?) Certainly there are many memoirs by Holocaust survivors that give us an unembellished account of the horrors their authors witnessed. But there’s a difference between being a witness and a writer: a witness didn’t ask to be present at these scenes of horror, but having survived them, she comes before us to tell what she saw. Writers, by contrast, are the feral children of history: raised by wolves (if only in the Freudian sense, where wolves can embody the action of the unconscious on lived experience), they feed on history to produce what Defonesca calls “my reality,” a narrative that has the feel of truth because it’s the product of the imagination.

I still think the most profound reaction to the Holocaust was Hannah Arendt’s perception, when faced with one of the men who executed it, of the banality of evil. We don’t need the monsters of our imagination when we have the dull, efficient men who sit in their offices making our worst fears real. In these terms, the imagination is a refuge, a way to comfort ourselves by taking control of lived experience and making it surrender to our impulse to shape it through stories. It’s the most human of impulses, a psychological mechanism that Bruno Bettelheim explored in children’s stories that exploit horror to allow the mind to control it. In effect, we lie to live. But in the end, we may be lying only to ourselves. Our acts of imagination do nothing to change the real horrors that history presents to us, and they may deceive us about our capacity to handle those horrors, like the young soldiers who believe that they will survive combat because the heroes of the stories they’ve read always make it home. The tearful confessions that follow so many of these fictional memoirs suggest this self-deception and hint at the cruel truth: the wolves who sheltered us can turn without warning and devour us.

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