from down time - Monday, March 24, 2008
accessed 411 times
Just came across this article that mentions Not Without My Sister.
Oh no, not another psychopathic nun
The greed with which publishers devour childhood-abuse memoirs has led to the genre becoming a natural home for liars and fantasists
Catherine Bennett, The Observer, Sunday March 9 2008
On the face of it, the exposure of Margaret B Jones, the latest contributor to the thriving phoney memoir genre, looks bad for aspiring liars. Penguin USA, which is now pulping her book, Love and Consequences, insists that its editors mind terribly about the truth and worked tirelessly to confirm that the 'humanising' story of a sexually abused, half-native American foster-child raised in a warm-hearted criminal family was authentic and not, as it emerged last week, a work of fiction, by a creative writing student called Margaret Seltzer.
For instance, the publisher appears to have established that the phone number for Margaret B Jones was indeed answered by a person calling herself Margaret. A friend of Margaret's corroborated her story and so did someone else Margaret knew. And perhaps it is too easy to criticise Penguin's employees for not having asked Ms Seltzer, who is white, why she didn't look a bit more, sort of, half-native American. Maybe she wore a balaclava. If it was tact that stopped editors commenting on any perceived dissimilarity from the kind of argot-spouting street person who received a gun for her 13th birthday in the 'hood, then this kind of courtesy is, surely, something of which we see too little these days.
In fact, compared with the publisher of another false memoir, Surviving With Wolves, in which a Belgian pensioner using the name Misha Defonseca depicts herself as a Jewish girl who survived the Shoah courtesy of some hairy friends, you might think that Penguin has little to apologise for. Long before Defonseca (actually Monique De Wael) admitted last week that her bestselling confessions were untrue - 'It is not the true reality, but it's my reality, my way of surviving' - many readers had spotted her for a fake.
Yet more unfairly, while Penguin has recalled Margaret Seltzer's inventions, Defonseca's shameless twaddle remains on sale, along with other survivors' tales of either zero, or uncertain veracity, from Binjamin Wilkomirski's 1996 Fragments: Memories of a Childhood and Helen Demidenko's (really Helen Darville's) The Hand That Signed the Paper, to James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and Kathy O'Beirne's popular Don't Ever Tell, an account of her abuse in Ireland's Magdalene laundries.
O'Beirne's alleged fictions are now the subject of an exposé, Kathy's Real Story, by Hermann Kelly, a journalist who has also offered a £1,000 reward for anyone who can prove the existence of Kathy's illegitimate child, Annie. Certainly, Annie's brief appearance in this dreary nun-fest, when Kathy was 13, is somehow less striking than one feels it ought to be. 'I had no problem picking out my Annie,' O'Beirne assures us, 'despite the fact that there were dozens of babies there.'
But her publisher still proclaims Kathy's to be 'a true tale', and imaginative, yet nervous creative writing students should further remind themselves that what did for Love and Consequences was not America's world- famous fact-checkers, but a phone call from Seltzer's sister, following the author's rash decision to be photographed for the New York Times. Had she only waited, she would have benefited, once the book was out, from a special licence that is still extended to victim memoirs, even when the victims are exposed as manipulative liars.
Each time a 'true tale of a childhood destroyed' is itself destroyed, readers fall into two main camps: indignant customers who have been diddled out of bona fide suffering, and indulgent relativists, who say that the book remains true on a kind of, you know, universal level. Anyone driven to make this kind of stuff up, they argue, must be quite damaged and is therefore a victim of damage, ergo, the book is still a victim memoir, QED.
More extreme champions of victimhood add that to question the abuse is tantamount to continuing the abuse, an argument which, for years, protected the inventors of satanic baby-eaters as their false memories engendered panic and criminal accusations and which still, evidently, rewards the more daring fabulist. The more sensational the abuse, the more heartless appears the critic who casts doubt on it. Better, like Defonseca, to starve with wolves in the snowy wastes than, as Seltzer more modestly attempted, imitate rough types in South-Central LA.
Publishers, presumably, are praying that the swift withdrawal of Seltzer's book will satisfy demands for accuracy which, if allowed to spiral out of control, could do to the misery trade what home information packs have done to the housing market. How can you check every fiddly little thing, particularly when most new survivor memoirs are books about hidden child abuse, a genre invariably signalled by a photograph of a mournful little face against a pale cover, under a handwritten title. Don't Tell Mummy. Tell me why, Mummy. Our Little Secret. Behind Closed Doors
Readers who enjoyed these titles may want to try Punished, Destroyed or Worthless and, if they're tough enough, 'the most shocking true story of abuse ever told', Broken by Shy Keenan. Broken is indeed a triumphant sequence of (mostly corroborated) tortures so repulsive they have the power, quite unusual in mainstream literature, to make the reader gag.
Though it seems only fair to point out that Please, Daddy, No by Stuart Howarth comes close with the bestiality, puppycide and patricide which have impressed connoisseurs ('absolutely fantastic!') of a genre already saturated with psychopathic nuns and rapist stepfathers, fractured skulls and secret abortions.
In this demanding market, consumers are apt to complain if valuable torture space is given over to recovery, as in Constance Briscoe's sequel to Ugly (carelessly entitled Beyond Ugly, rather than, say, Hideous or Disfigured). If a survivor book is to stand out, its abuse should be the vilest imaginable, relentless, related in obscene detail and, ideally, accompanied by some uniquely nasty twist, so as to distinguish it from the competition. Not Without My Sister, for instance, from HarperCollins, has three victims for the price of one: sisters raped by the Children of God's pious paedophiles.
In Cry Silent Tears, the same publisher tempts us with Joe, a mute, 'which meant he was unable to ask for help as his life turned into a living hell. His schizophrenic mother and two of his older brothers spent the following years beating him, raping him and locking him in the cellar at the family home'.
One need hardly add that he survived on scraps and almost froze, both are now routine in this market. And the nature of this book's appeal, other than to fellow victims and child abusers? 'A truly inspirational account,' promises the publisher, 'of how one small boy found the strength to overcome almost impossible odds and become a remarkable man.'
Quite a challenge, then, for their rivals, who must now come up with something just as humanisingly inspirational, yet more freakishly harrowing. Please, Daddy, Not my Hamster? Plainly, the genre that proves there's always someone worse off than yourself is going to find out one day that there isn't. But we like to end with a message of hope. The world is full of creative writing students.