1 April 2010


Melissa Katsoulis. Telling Tales: a History of Literary Hoaxes. Constable, 2009.

A fascinating, sometimes funny, often sad, account of literary hoaxes, both well and little known from the 18th century onwards. They range from the light hearted literary japes such as those of Mark Twain, attacks on perceived ideological or artistic pretension such as the fake poetry of 'Ern Malley' or the Sokal hoax, through classic cons such as the Hitler Diaries and Clifford Irvings 'Howard Hughes' hoax.
There are darker themes, the darkest being perhaps the most pernicious hoax of them all, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

There are a number of constant themes across the centuries. One is the appropriation of exotic historical or cultural backgrounds, whether the romantic pasts dreamed up by such early hoaxers as James Macpherson with his Ossian poetry from a lost Celtic twilight, or Chatterton's medieval Rowly, to those who have appropriated the identities of Native Americans or Australian aboriginals. The most famous of these were Grey Owl, actually an Englishman from Hastings named Belany, and an American woman and a white Australian both of whom took on Aboriginal identities. Perhaps the oddest was the notorious segregationist Asa Carter, who reinvented himself as the folksy Native American Forrest Carter, spouting new age platitudes. As Katsoulis remarks "You couldn't make it up"

The biggest group seems to be generated by the public's need for what Katsoulis calls 'misery memoirs', which range from tales of child abuse both domestic and Satanic, dangerous lives on the streets or in the dingy world of drug addiction. Several of those faking these stories seem to be people living nice comfortable lives who secretly yearn for a much darker and edgier existence.

The most shocking of these are entirely fictional claims to be holocaust survivors. The most notorious was 'Binjamin Wilkomirski' who had a fantastic tale of being dragged from one concentration camp to another as a small child. He turned out to be a Swiss named Bruno Grosjean (not Jewish). He received the support of the serial 'hoaxer' Laurel Rose Willson alias Lauren Stratford alias Laura Grabowski, who claimed under the name Stratford to be the victim of Satanic child abuse, then when exposed became Grabowski, a Holocaust survivor.

Here we getting far beyond the frontiers of anything we could call simple hoaxing, to some sort of unfathomable sickness. Katsoulis suggests that these stories echo real pain in their tellers' lives. For example Grosjean was shunted from one orphanage to another.

Magonia readers will, I think, see that these kind of narratives are simply the tip of an iceberg of fictional lives, the ones with the talent to get into print. Katsoulis assumes that Willson/Stratford was somehow hoaxing the real suffering of Satanic Abuse survivors, but our readers will know that evidence for the existence of Satanic Abuse is non existent and that in some sense all these tales were fictions. In a sense some of these people are taken over by their fictional lives, they become real to them. The literary hoax is simply part of deeper more collective fantasy.

Some of these people seem taken over by these new identities, and merge into the general class of Caraboo Syndrome. It is as if their imaginations have taken over their memories and the line between fiction and reality is blurred away.

Even established authors can create fictitious identities, the oddest perhaps was the adventure writer Norman Hall, who produced a collection of appallingly bad faux naive "poetry" by an alleged 9 to 11 year old farm girl, He claimed to have produced it by a kind of automatic writing. Clearly we are not far here from the sort of stories told by spiritualists.

The stories in this book are often salutary reminders to those who think they can spot a phoney a mile off. Even the most light hearted spoofs fooled people, and when it comes to those who have come to at least half believe their own tales, the chances of detecting them without mountains of legwork are next to impossible. Everybody can be fooled. -- Peter Rogerson

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