Saturday, January 03, 2009

Memoir Fakes

If you’re a writer of memoir, or a writer of any kind for that matter, you probably remember James Frey and A Million Little Pieces. His book was not totally fake, but definitely highly embellished. You probably remember that Oprah took a big hit for promoting the book and making it a bestseller, although she didn’t know he had fictionalized a lot of the story.

Now comes another fake memoir, once again promoted by Oprah. Actually, this book hasn’t been published yet (and now won’t be), although another author wrote a children’s book based on the story as told to Oprah by Herman and Roma Rosenblat. The Rosenblats supposedly met when he was in a concentration camp and she kept him alive by sneaking apples to him.

And once again, people are questioning Oprah Winfrey. The New York Times says:
Certainly, industry observers wondered how editors at Berkley and producers for Ms. Winfrey did not at least question the veracity of Mr. Rosenblat’s story, given some improbable details. In the book, he wrote not only that he reunited with his wife in New York years after she threw apples to him over the fence, but also that he had actually gone on a blind date with her in Israel a few years earlier but did not recognize her when he met her again.

“You’d think somebody would say, ‘Hmm, that’s amazing, let’s just spend an hour or a day seeing how plausible that is,’ ” said Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of the public radio program “Studio 360.”
I think it’s a bit unfair to blame Oprah. First off, Rosenblat wasn’t writing a book when he first appeared on the show, so she wasn’t having him on to promote a book for her club. And secondly, is it the responsibility of media personality to vet each author? Is it her fault that he lied? Is it her fault a publisher signed a book deal with him?

I think the blame should be laid on the perpetrator. In this case, the author. He didn’t just make a mistake in his research. That can happen to any author. He lied. He made up a huge part of his story and only owned up to it when he was caught.

According to the Boston Herald,
Rosenblat maintains that his descriptions of people and events inside the Buchenwald camp in Germany are true. But he now concedes he made up the romantic tale about his future wife sneaking him apples at the fence of the camp. He came clean only after several Holocaust scholars, writing in blogs and in an article in The New Republic, pointed out that it would have been impossible for such a meeting at a fence because of the camp’s layout.
The Rosenblats are now taking a lot of heat for what was done. The book has been cancelled. But others, including Oprah, are also taking the heat. Even the author and the publisher of the children’s book are being hurt. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune notes:
The Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing Group released a children's picture book, "Angel Girl," about the Rosenblats this September through its Carolrhoda Books imprint. About 15,000 of 18,000 copies were sold, said Harry Lerner, founder and chairman of the board. Marketed as a true story, "Angel Girl'' was written by Laurie Friedman, who based it on interviews with the Rosenblats and who reviewed the manuscript with them.
According to the Boston Globe, the publisher has offered a refund to buyers.
The fallout continues from Herman Rosenblat's discredited Holocaust story. Laurie Friedman's "Angel Girl," a children's book inspired by Rosenblat, was pulled yesterday by the Lerner Publishing Group. Lerner Publishing is offering refunds for returned copies of the book.
It isn’t like Herman Rosenblat could have been easily found out as a liar. He had credentials. He was a Holocaust survivor. He had been speaking publicly about his experiences for many years. He had the credentials.

What do you think? How much responsibility and blame should Oprah have? How about the publisher? And the children’s author who wrote a book based on what Rosenblat told her? And what about the readers who buy, read and believe books such as Frey’s A Million Little Pieces? Do we have a responsibility to question memoirs and nonfiction?


  1. I think it is the responsibility of the author to be truthful or to sell the manuscript as fiction.

    Also, Helen, I wanted to let you know that you are the recipient of the Premio Dardos Award. See my blog for details.

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  2. Ms. Ginger, the answer to your questions is fairly simple. If Oprah, the book publishers, the movie producer, and the innumerable blogs who promoted and facilitated this spurious tale had had but half a brain -- and admittedly this is an audacious assumption -- they would have shown the story to three survivors of concentration camps and said, "Here, look at this. What do you think?" And every one of us would have told them instantly that most of the elements of the story were implausible, while some were contrary to verifiable historical facts.

    The Rosenblats' and their facilitators have done irreparable damage to the cause of truth about the Holocaust. And now there is a new publisher who states that apart from the little "Apple Over the Fence" hoax, their story is otherwise heart-warming and credible. Heart-warming? Definitely. But otherwise credible? Definitely NOT. Mr. Rosenblat has described other hair-raising details about his concentration camp experiences which are demonstrably false. His spurious tales diminish the Holocaust and thus diminish me and my fellow-survivors. And more facilitators spring forward to promote them. Tragic!

    Peter Kubicek

  3. "I read it in the newspaper so it must be true" doesn't hold up anymore. Readers must take the same skepticism of Internet material and use it on ALL things they read, whether it be newspapers, television news, books, blogs, or brochures. Readers are not safe from a writer with an agenda. Publishers and television hosts are not the protectors of truth. They are there to entertain us and make money. So, ultimately, the reader is responsible for what he or she believes.

  4. I agree with you Jane.

    And thank you for the award! I will go to your blog to check it out.

  5. Mr. Kubicek.

    Thank you for stopping by and giving us your expert opinion. This was the first I've heard of the story. I don't watch Oprah and hadn't heard about this until I started looking into the story. If I had heard it, I don't know that I could have refuted it since I only know what I've read in history books or at the Holocaust Museum. So I, for one, really appreciate hearing from you.

    I'm sure having someone lie about events of the Holocaust, especially another survivor, is very painful. This is one man who for whatever reason took a wrong turn. In my mind, it doesn't diminish what actually happened during this time and to the people who survived and did not survive this horrific period in history.

    I'm glad there were others, like yourself, who did know the truth and spoke up.

  6. Cher,

    It's the writer who is responsible for the veracity of what is written and the reader's responsibility for what is read and believed or not believed? I agree with that.

    I read mostly fiction. It seems to me that it used to be that nonfiction could be trusted, for the most part. Now, it seems you have to take every biography, memoir, political book, diet plan, etc., with a grain of salt. Trust no one and you'll never be duped, I guess.

  7. Can't blame Oprah, I don't. The author is the liar. I mean, she has enough to do without doing research on the veracity of the memoir. Maybe she has staff that could do that, and perhaps that SHOULD be done.

    I took particular interest to this post, because just when MY memoirs, "I Romanced the Stone," was going out for submissions, I sent a note to Oprah (well, to her multi-leveled staff of gatekeepers, that is, lol), and the very next day I was watching Oprah and she had Frey on her show and she CRUCIFIED HIM on public TV for being a liar and a deceit!!

    Well, my story is NOT a lie, NONE of it, it is the truth in every experience and detail. But bad timing. I got an email back from the Oprah staff informing me that she was not currently, due to the recent "million pieces" fiasco, reviewing or recommending any books related to the crack cocaine abuse topic.


  8. What a bummer, Marvin. I'm impressed that you even heard back from her people, though.

    I'm hoping between the Frey fiasco and now this guy, which, I believe, she had on twice, she doesn't quit promoting books all together.

  9. I agree that authors should call fiction fiction, instead of naming it non-fiction. Of course, they always think they can get away with it.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. Morgan, I bet some of them do. The few that have been discovered may only be a fraction of the misleading books. I hope not, though.

  11. Even the truest memoir can be criticized for the "Rashomon factor", seeing an event filtered through your own history and feelings. Even if I had lived the most fascinating life since Moses, I would be hesitant to write about it. One of my relatives would no doubt call Oprah just to say, "It didn't happen that way."

    I'll stick to fiction, thanks, and let my family try to figure out who I based my characters on!

  12. That's so true, Gayle. We each see things and experience events from our own perspective. It's doesn't even have to be something that happened years ago in our childhood. I just had family come visit for the holidays and I bet if we each wrote about it, the individual recounts and stories would be different. And we would argue over who was right.

  13. Excoriating Oprah is a double-edged sword: On the one hand she promotes reading, books, literature, and publishing. On the other hand, she's not a journalist or arts critic, she's an entertainer with a brilliant and profitable gift of sales, marketing and self-promotion. She sees a hot topic and promotes it.

    And sales and marketing is the problem here. The fault rests with the publishers and the control of sales and marketing. Holocaust = hot topic. Put it to press.

    If the publishers hadn't relinquished control to sales and marketing, and instead had an inquisitive editor put some hard questions to the manuscript, this mess may have been prevented. The same with Frey and other memoirists who've embellished their manuscripts with fictions.

    Of course, memoirs by their very nature waver on the borders of fact and fiction, simply because of the nature of memory itself. But writers like Frey who intentionally fictionalize their truth are simply mercenary.

  14. Todd - so it all comes down to money. Everyone's out for it, from the writer to the publisher, to the promoter. And probably even the reader. This reminds me of the paparazzi. I contend that if the public didn't buy celebrity magazines and watch celebrity "news" shows, celebrity reality shows, and celebrity award shows, the paparazzi would dwindle. The same could be said for over-hyped books. If we the public started demanding more vetting & quit buying based on hype or celebrity status of the author, we'd perhaps have less of this kind of thing happening.

  15. I would like to tell Gayle Carline something about the Rashomon effect.

    When there is a hit-and-run car accident witnessed by six witnesses, they generally cannot agree on the make or even the color of the car. That's the Rashomon effect. But when a seventh witness comes forward and says the accident was caused by a two-horned devil riding an elephant spewing flames from his trunk, that's not Rashomon, that's fabulism, a fabrication; in plain English, a lie.

    Herman and Roma Rosenblat knew the difference between fact and fiction; they just decided that spectacular fiction would bring them fame and fortune. And, for a good many years, it worked.

    Peter Kubicek

  16. It would seem after Frye that Oprah's writers and producers would be a little more cautious. Do I blame her? Of course. If I spread a lie without vetting it and it caused others harm, wouldn't I be blamed? Suppose this as gone as far as the Frye thing and not only the publisher got hurt but also readers. There could have been millions of them because any book promoted on Oprah is golden. She should now get out of promoting books as she's actually not very good at it. Who in the world would read Anna Kareninna.

  17. When Gayle spoke about the "Rashomon factor," I believe, she was using it to show that memoirs, in general, are inherently fictionalized to some degree since a memoir depends heavily on a person's memory and filter of the past.

    You're right, the Rosenblats did not write a memoir or book of nonfiction. They knew they had lied about what happened. In their case, there was no Rashomon factor.

  18. I think the difference between Oprah and Fry or Rosenblat is that those two authors knew they had lied in their books. Oprah did not know they had lied.

    I personally do not want Oprah to get out of the book promotion business. I do wish she would choose books that appeal to the masses, like a romance or a mystery or some popular genre. But she chooses books that she likes to read, and that's her privilege -- it is her show.

  19. Now that we have disposed of the Rashomon factor I must take issue with Helen's yesterday's comment that "memoirs... are inherently fictionalized..." etc.

    Everyone's memory is fragmentary. We remember events that made an impression on us. When I wrote my modest memoir of my childhood during the Holocaust (1000:1 ODDS, published in 2006) I was well aware of this fact and made it plain in my writing. It was a painful and emotionally draining process, written with the image of my two daughters in front of me, but I was always conscious of the fact that what I write must reflect the truth. When describing events, there is after all such a thing as research, there is fact-checking. Of the few hundred people who read my book (OK, it was not a best-seller) many sent me comments and questions, but nobody ever accused me of fictionalizing anything.

    That's what motivated me to debunk the Rosenblat hoax: the testimony we leave behind must be the absolute truth. We are a dying breed: in a couple of decades we'll be extinct. No matter what we say about the Holocaust, it will remain an unsolvable mystery. The WHY cannot be answered: all we can do is to get as close to the answer as possible. For that we need unassailable facts and not fiction.

    Peter Kubicek

  20. Mr. Kubicek.

    I really think we are on the same wavelength. You wrote: "Everyone's memory is fragmentary. We remember events that made an impression on us."

    I agree with that. Memoirs are told from the viewpoint of the teller. It is their truth, their story. Someone else living that same story might tell a slightly different story because it would be from their viewpoint.

    This is not to say either person is lying.

    Which brings us back to the original post on the Rosenblats, who were not writing a memoir, as we define memoir. They lied. They lied deliberately. They fictionalized important parts of their story, which takes it out of the memoir realm.

    I've not read your book, but from what you say, it sounds as though it was a truthful memoir. The Rosenblats book, from what I've read, was a fictionalized tale based on events in his life. But not a memoir.

  21. No reason to blame Oprah. In fact, I feel sorry that she keeps getting suckered in. It's also true that some people fabricate elaborate childhood memories that they believe to be real. In our brains, the difference between a memory and a fantasy is almost indecipherable.

  22. Yes, Helen, in speaking of Rashomon, I wasn't including the fictionalized lives of Frey and the Rosenblats. In their own ways, they each cheapened events that need to live on as cautionary tales to the rest of us (drug abuse, Holocaust, etc). But I think L.J. has a point about some fantasies becoming so real to some people, they believe they really happened.

    Years ago, my ex-late-father-in-law used to tell exciting stories of his time in the Army during WWII. He fought everywhere, in the most dire of circumstances. Here's the thing: he was NEVER overseas. He spent the entire war filing papers in Virginia. I once asked my ex why the family didn't point this out to him. "We tried," he said. "But he just says, 'yea, I know' and goes on with his story." Was my F-I-L in denial, guilty that he couldn't pick up a gun and fight? Or was he just a pathelogical liar? Good thing he never wrote a book - he'd be crucified.

  23. Well, Ms. Ginger, I think we are getting closer to convergence in our views. Whenever someone recounts something to you, it is that person's subjective truth (unless it is an outright lie.) But the story must be trustworthy. You know the expression, "the gospel truth." Well, even the Gospels are memoirs, written long after the fact. That's why they sometimes diverge, but they are in agreement on the basic facts. Would you call the Gospels "inherently fictionalized?" (Your words -- not mine.)

    Peter Kubicek

  24. Did it all start with "Go Ask Alice?" A good number of "memoirs" have been questioned through the years. IMO the author should verify the basic facts of their memoir or call it "fiction based on the truth." Maybe publishers will be having authors sign a legal document stating the basic facts of their stories are true, that will facilitate them suing for fraud. This is a sensitive subject for me as I bent over backwards trying to ensure my mother's memoir was historically and factually true prior to publishing - just as the Frey fraud came out.

    I've been meaning to blog about this myself and will link to your blog if I do...just found you thru twitter.

  25. Hi Linda. Thanks for stopping by.

    I'm actually a bit surprised publishers don't have that kind of clause in contracts already.

    Do you feel like the Frey scandal hurt sales of the memoir of your mother? I know publishers were really hesitant to take on memoirs for a while after that, but were readers?


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