In an era when suffering is celebrated and we all must ‘Believe the Victim’, is it any wonder people make up wild stories about wolves and Nazis?
Fake memoirs are once again hitting the headlines. Only last week, Margaret B Jones’ ‘autobiographical’ account of growing up as a mixed-race foster child on the wrong side of the tracks in Los Angeles, Love and Consequences, was celebrated as a work of inspiration. One of America’s leading literary critics, Michiko Kakutani, said it was a ‘humane and deeply affecting memoir’. Now, however, the author has been unveiled as a very white Margaret Seltzer, and her story has been exposed as pure fiction.
At least she did not pretend to be a Holocaust survivor… Last week we witnessed the exposure of yet another Holocaust fantasy. Suddenly, everyone seemed shocked that Misha Defonseca’s memoir about being a young Belgian Jewish girl fleeing the Nazis, who managed to slip in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and to live with wolves, turned out to be a product of her imagination.
Defonseca’s book was not the first bogus best-selling Holocaust memoir. In 1999 Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments was exposed as a work of fantasy. Clearly the threshold of scepticism towards victim memoirs is very low indeed. In a world where fantasies about young Jewish girls hanging out with wolves can be embraced as an inspiring account of survival, and made into a feature film, victim-history really has come into its own. Today, people who ‘feel Jewish’, and who claim to ‘feel’ the pain of concentration camp prisoners, genuinely believe that their feelings give them a mandate to erode the boundary between fantasy and reality. They have joined a growing group of individuals who have reinvented themselves as everything from American prisoners of war in Vietnam to the relatives of people who died in terrorist attacks.
Yet before we condemn Defonseca and other fantasists as simple literary hustlers, it is important to realise that contemporary culture provides a powerful incentive to individuals to manipulate their memory and present themselves as traumatised victims. The assertion of trauma as a result of past suffering has become a way of winning public recognition and attention, and of making a claim on resources. Increasingly, the act of remembering has been turned into a public performance, where individuals ‘confess’ through their memoirs to having experienced alleged acts of abuse. Defonseca’s Holocaust fantasy is the product of a cultural sensibility that encourages us to celebrate the survival of abuse. These Memory Entrepreneurs who flaunt their alleged suffering are continually rewarded with recognition and moral authority.
In the current cultural climate, it is inevitable that abuse memoirs have a tendency to stretch the boundary between fact and fiction. Readers and critics usually feel awkward and inhibited about questioning the veracity of such memoirs. Scepticism is discouraged in an era built upon the therapeutic ethos. ‘Believe the child’, ‘Believe the patient’, ‘Believe the abused’ – today, such invocations are used to sacralise the claims of victims. Usually, it takes family members who have been directly implicated in a fantasy-historical drama to question the authenticity of the stories. The exposure of the fake Wilkomirski was assisted by real members of his family. Numerous confessional accounts of human degradation have been challenged by relatives and acquaintances of the authors. Constance Briscoe’s story of the horrific violence that she suffered growing up in south London has been challenged by some her family members; she faces a libel suit from her own mother. Kathy O’Beirne’s horrific account of a life destroyed by sexual abuse and cruelty has been publicly contested by her family. In the US, James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces, which became the second biggest selling book of 2005, was exposed as a fraud. And David Pelzer’s acclaimed best-seller A Child Called It – a story of extreme starvation, torture and abuse by a monstrous mother – has been disputed by some of his brothers.
Indeed, fairytale Holocaust memoirs seem like respectable factual accounts when compared with some of the bizarre, hysterical memoirs of abuse suffered at the hands of satanic ritual abuse cults. In 1980, Michelle Remembers became a best-seller, and encouraged a significant section of the American media to report and treat seriously the idea that satanic cults were preying on the nation’s children. Michelle Remembers was written by a Canadian psychiatrist and Michelle, the patient whom he later married. The book describes in almost pornographic detail the torture, humiliation and degradation that Michelle suffered as a child at the hands of a satanic cult in Canada. There were no wolves in this story, just satanists. And despite the absence of any forensic evidence, dozens of cases of ritualistic abuse were reported in the American press in the 1980s and 90s. Numerous families were broken up by zealous therapists and social workers happy to assist the comeback of a medieval superstition about satanic abuse.
Indeed, many therapists and social workers continue to insist that it is wrong to question even the most fantastic recollections about past horrors and misdeeds. In today’s culture of victimhood and trauma recollection, even ‘Believe the victims of murderous satanists’ has become something of a mantra.
Double standards and the Truth
The notion that a victim’s version of events should not be questioned conveys the idea that they have some privileged access to the truth. And when people sense that they are held to account by a different standard of evidence to everyone else, they understandably begin to reinterpret their past in line with current values and expectations rather than hard evidence or ‘the truth’. Indeed, in an interview with the New York Times, Margaret Seltzer tries to justify her fictional ‘memoir’ on growing up as a mixed-race poor person in LA on the basis that the story captures what many of her friends have been through, and thus it tells some kind of ‘greater truth’ (1).
These individuals feel encouraged – to paraphrase George Orwell – to bring the ‘past’ up to date, a past that is informed by the values of the present. That is why so many writers who obsess over the past reflect on history through a prism of pain and misfortune. Ours is a world where victims are treated as morally superior, and where cultivating a heightened sense of injury has become the psychological underpinning for winning moral authority. Strictly speaking, fantastical, fake Holocaust memoirs are not simply a dishonest distortion of experience: rather, they express the ‘truth’ of today’s therapeutic cultural script.
The clearest expression of the privileged status awarded to victims today is the widely held view that we have a responsibility to believe what they say. The ‘right to be believed’ is based on the notion that those who are emotionally vulnerable need to have their suffering ‘affirmed’ and ‘validated’. Apparently, any suspicion about their stories is likely to victimise them further, and make them feel even more emotional pain. This believe-all approach is pursued with particular vigour in the area of sex crimes. Advocates for victims of child abuse and rape claim that even attempts by defence lawyers to challenge a victim’s version of events is a form of ‘emotional harassment’. They argue that vulnerable witnesses need special protection from aggressive questioning; they also claim that normal standards of evidence should not apply in sex-crime and rape cases. One American prosecutor, Steve Chaney, told a national symposium on child molestation that he was not really interested in the question ‘was the child abused?’, but rather in the question ‘can the child perform for us in the courtroom?’ Chaney claimed that whereas adult witnesses constantly lie, children tend to tell the truth, and therefore his task is to create an environment where their story can be told (2).
Over the years, this outlook has won widespread support from American politicians, and gradually child witnesses have been removed from the courtroom. Today they are allowed to testify via closed-circuit TV. In some cases, the courts show videotapes of social workers interviewing young infants. In others, parents, therapists and physicians have been allowed to present second-hand testimony about children’s disclosures of abuse. According to Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, writers who have investigated claims of ritual abuse, by the mid-1980s, ‘the right of an accused to face-to-face confrontation with a complaining witness had been decimated for defendants in child sex-abuse cases’. Typically, child witnesses are always referred to as ‘victims’, even before judgement has been passed; even civil liberties groups increasingly find it difficult to uphold the right of a defendant to a vigorous cross-examination of the evidence and of his accusers.
The notion that children’s evidence always reflects the truth has been widely promoted by the child protection industry. Such a cavalier approach to evidence in a court of law is well illustrated by Lucy Berliner, an American feminist social worker who has written widely on child sex abuse. She argues: ‘A legal decision should never be confused with the truth. If we believe what children say we will be right 95-99 per cent of the time. If we want signs and symptoms as proof we will be right 70-80 per cent of the time. If we require medical evidence we will be right 20 per cent of the time and if we have to wait for a witness we will be right one per cent of the time.’
From this viewpoint, the demand for proof detracts from the transcendental ‘truth’ of abuse. From a therapeutic perspective, even manifest examples of false accusation are seen to contain some intrinsic truths. Thus according to one account, false accusations in child sexual abuse are rare, but ‘when they occur it is nearly always a cry for help’. Apparently, it is ‘clear that the children who make false allegations require help and support and as such these allegations should not be ignored’ (3). Such sympathy is rarely extended to the accused – and since allegations, even when they are false, ‘should not be ignored’, those on the receiving end of the accusation can never be fully absolved of suspicion.
For victim activists, the obligation to ‘believe the victim’ is a moral imperative. They argue that victims have a right to be believed. Crusaders against satanic abuse try to disarm sceptics by insisting that the worst thing that can happen to victims of sadistic ritual abuse is not to be believed. Patrick Casement, author of Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse, has sought to guilt-trip sceptics: ‘It may be that some accounts which are reputed to be of “satanic” abuse are delusional, and the narrators may indeed be psychotic in some cases. But we must still face the awful fact that if some of these accounts are true, if we do not have the courage to see the truth that may be there… we may tacitly be allowing these practices to continue under the cover of secrecy, supported also by the almost universal refusal to believe that they could exist.’ (4)
From this standpoint, those who refuse to believe accusations of satanic abuse are themselves complicit in the act of victimisation. During the outbreak of the satanic ritual abuse panic in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, zealous witch-hunters claimed that an ‘insidious and dangerous’ disease was sweeping the country: that is, incredulity about the existence of ritual abuse. According to one account, ‘this contagion takes the comforting form of sceptical and rational inquiry, and its message is comforting, too: it is designed to protect “innocent family life” against a new urban myth of the satanic abuse of children.’ (5)
The therapeutic moment
As I have argued elsewhere, the promiscuous transformation of memory into a public performance is associated with the ascendancy of ‘Therapy Culture’ (6). Today’s therapeutic orientation underpins the quest for status through the public recollection of past misdeeds. It represents a search for meaning, an attempt to make sense of one’s life by treating the past as the key determinant of contemporary experience. Increasingly, personal meaning is achieved through engaging with the rights and wrongs of the past. And in the process, history becomes customised as an instrument of individual therapy.
People are continually encouraged to seek some meaning to their existence by drawing upon past events. In a fatalistic fashion, we are increasingly advised to interpret all of our current problems as the inevitable outcomes of past events. History is used as a form of therapy. Sadly, for some people what really matters is not what they accomplish today, but what happened to them a long time ago. The construction of identity through the therapeutic management of history is talked about as a brave effort to correct past wrongs and to express oneself in a new, dramatic fashion. Jurgen Habermas, a leading German social theorist, says these struggles represent demands for the ‘recognition of lifeforms and traditions which have been marginalised’ (7).
However, this interpretation tends to read history backwards, and overlooks the distinct features of today’s sacralisation of memory claims. It is not past wrongs themselves that fuel today’s use and abuse of history and therapy, but rather the diminishing capacity of contemporary institutions – both formal and informal – to confer and affirm people’s identity in the here and now.
The idea that past injustices have been hidden from history, that they are marginalised events waiting to be discovered and acknowledged, is based on an anachronistic conceptualisation of people’s problems. Social problems are not constructed through an archaeological excavation of the past. On the contrary, the attempt to ‘excavate the past’ is itself motivated by the a priori perception of a problem that somehow needs to be validated by history. The sociologically naive idea that those who hitherto lacked a voice have now discovered a new and brave willingness to ‘confront the past’ is a form of collective self-flattery. In truth, the act of remembering is an attempt to engage with the present through the idiom of the past. ‘Any act of remembering is interpretative, driven by the concerns or ideas of the present’, writes the psychiatrist Derek Summerfield. He adds: ‘What a war survivor remembers will not represent a single, definitive narrative, will skip between victim and protagonist modes, will be shaped by the context in which the telling takes place and the purpose to which it is to be put.’ (8) In a similar manner, concern with historical injustices is powerfully underpinned by the self-consciousness and cultural values of contemporary society. Society’s intense sensitivity towards the history of individuals, and of communities, is informed by the idea that the afflictions of the past directly shape contemporary identity.
People’s relationship with their past is mediated through contemporary culture, and when they talk about history they use the vocabulary of this culture. Today, especially in Anglo-American societies, the public performance of remembering is looked upon as a civic duty, and ‘acknowledging’ the past has become a widely practised public ritual. People are continually told to confront their past as a way of reflecting on their present-day emotions and identity. This pressure to come to terms with the past is fuelled by popular culture, for example through ‘real life’ TV shows such as Oprah, Jerry Springer, Dr Phil, Trisha and so on. It also driven by public bodies, international institutions and non-governmental organisations. Many of these institutions believe that conflict itself arises from trauma-induced psychological and social dysfunctionalism, and coming to terms with past is promoted as a form of healing: hence the institutionalisation of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and elsewhere. Here, the process of engaging with historical injustices is a clear attempt to reframe identity through recognising the individual as part of a victimised group. The faking of a Holocaust memoir is only an extreme version of this tendency to find meaning and construct identity through treating history as a form of therapy.
The transformation of history into therapy is also inspired by today’s unimaginative sensibility, which flattens out differences between historical periods. It is bad history because it judges every unpleasant episode and act of cruelty by the standards of contemporary society. From this perspective, there is no existential distance between the present and the past. Once an act of cruelty has occurred, the trauma will exist until the end of time apparently. That is why second- and third-generation ‘survivors’ feel more traumatised by the Holocaust than their ancestors who actually experienced the full horrors of the death camps. Through the therapeutic manipulation of memory, the trauma is lived and relived, guaranteeing the individual the status of a morally interesting victim-for-life.
History-as-therapy increasingly distracts people from living in the present. Nothing they do can repair the damage inflicted on their people generations ago. At best, their performance of hurt will be recognised and commemorated. Instead of getting on with life, the put-upon historical victim is encouraged to live and relive past experience, over and over. But history can never be reversed, and identities based on the experience of victimisation and injustice produce people who live their lives through an intense sense of injury. They also believe they have a right to treat the past as a drawing-board on which they can write and rewrite their own biographies – and what they tend to come up with are fake memoirs and bad history. But they cannot be held entirely responsible for their imaginative rewriting of their personal histories; in one sense, they are merely bearing witness to a culture that finds it difficult to give meaning to the idea of truth, and to provide a future-oriented ethos that might inspire people to look forwards instead of backwards.
Frank Furedi criticised the obsessions of second-generation Holocaust ‘survivors’ and looked at what is new about the ‘new’ anti-Semitism. Brendan O’Neill showed how the UK government uses the Holocaust for cheap moral posturing. Guy Rundle argued that we should let the death camps die. Or read more at spiked issues The Holocaust.
(1) Gang memoir, Turning Page, is pure fiction, New York Times, 4 March 2008
(2) Cited in Nathan, D. & Snedeker, M (1995) Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, New York : Basic Books, pp.200-201
(3) Anthony, G. & Watkeys, J. (1991) ‘False allegations in child sexual abuse : the pattern of referral in an area where reporting is not mandatory’, Children and Society, vol.5 , p.120
(4) Patrick Casement ‘ The Wish Not To Know’ in V. Sinason (ed) (1994) Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse, Routledge ; London, p.24
(5) Judith Dawson ‘Vortex of Evil’, New Statesman, 5 October 1990
(6) See Frank Furedi Therapy Culture; Cultivating Vulnerability In An Anxious Age, Routledge 2004
(7) Jurgen Habermas, ‘Struggles for Recognition in Constitutional States’, European Journal of Philosophy, (1993 vol.1, no.2) p.129
(8) Derek Summerfield ‘Childhood, War, Refugeedom and “Trauma”: Three Core Questions for Mental Health Professionals’, Transcultural Psychiatry, September 2000, p.429
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