Columns > Published on January 10th, 2012

Five Big Fat Literary Fakes

Write what you know. Four words that have the ring of absolute rightness about them. Like motherhood or apple pie, no one wants to disagree with the notion that for writing to be any good, it has to spring from real experience.

Except it doesn’t. Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t have to be a Victorian detective to write about Sherlock Holmes any more than Robert Downey Jr. had to travel back in time to 1880s London and take a breath of soot-filled air to portray him convincingly on screen. Write what you don’t know would probably be better advice. Don’t write about being an accountant in Basildon. Write about waking up one morning and finding your body is covered in scales.

But what if you write what you don’t know and it still turns out clichéd and predicable? For some writers who find themselves in that position, the answer is simple: make it more exciting by pretending it’s all true. The list of literary fakers is long, and if you spend some time studying that list it becomes clear they fall into certain categories (yes they can’t even be original in their fakery). Here are five of the main types of fakes along with some of the most notorious examples.

Big Fat Fakery #1: Invented Journals

Writing fiction in the form of a diary is a perfectly respectable thing to do. From The Diary of Adrian Mole to The Color Purple, authors have let their imaginations rip by inhabiting their characters so completely that they write a journal as their creation. Some, however, unable to come up with a character interesting enough to read about, decide to write the diary of someone famous instead. And sell it to the papers for lots and lots of money.

The Hitler Diaries, purportedly recovered from a plane crash in 1945 and smuggled out of East Germany into the excited hands of Stern magazine in 1983, were to be the publishing coup of the decade. Historians and various journalists, including some who should have known better, like Hugh Trevor Roper, confirmed that the papers were in fact the work of the defunct dictator. In the UK, the Telegraph newspaper canceled stories on such unnecessary subjects as skyrocketing unemployment and the destruction of Britain’s manufacturing base to come up with the funds to buy the manuscript and reveal it to a breathless nation, one entry at a time. Sadly, our opportunity to read Adolf’s innermost thoughts on vegetarianism and Eva Braun’s underwear were thwarted when other experts, who had not been paid for their opinion, pointed out that the diaries were actually the work of notorious forger Konrad Kujau, and brokered as genuine by Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann.

While Hitler is probably the most famous real person to have his journals faked, he is not alone. Other notables subjected to this type of fakery include Mussolini, Davy Crockett  and Howard Hughes. I’m guessing that it’s only a matter of time before someone “discovers” Princess Di’s secret journal in their attic, and when they do, £5 says Hello magazine buys it and calls it The Princess Diaries.

Big Fat Fakery #2: Holocaust Memoirs

As Kate Winslet observes in the series Extras, in a comment later ironically proven true by her Best Actress award for The Reader: if you want to win an Oscar, then starring in a film about the Holocaust is the surest method to snag the coveted statuette. Similarly, authors know that writing about the camps puts them on the fast track to a publishing deal and fawning reviews. Especially if they pretend they were actually there. Even better: actually there and a tiny innocent child.

Bruno Grosjean, born in 1941, was adopted by a couple from the Swiss orphanage where his single mother had placed him and raised in Zurich. By 1995, Grosjean had forged a career as a successful musician and restorer of instruments. In addition, he had also become Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Latvian Jew deported at age 5 to the death camps of Poland. Writing as Wilkomirski, Grosjean’s “memoir” of his time in the camps, Fragments, became an instant best seller. Readers were treated to the account of his father’s brutal murder at the hands of the militia, of dying babies eating their own fingers, of surviving by hiding in human ordure. When real survivors and their relatives pointed out irregularities in Wilkomirski’s account, his literary agency hired the historian Stefan Maechler to research its client’s claims, a move it must have regretted when Maechler concluded that while Grosjean might fervently believe he was actually Wilkomirski, the closest he had ever been to a concentration camp was as a tourist. It would be nice to think that Grosjean is an exception, but in fact he’s only one of several con-men who have made money by inventing a past for themselves as a survivor of the Holocaust. In 1997, Monique De Waal wrote a memoir entitled Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years later exposed as a fake (perhaps the part where she claimed to have lived with a wolf pack might have given her publishers a clue that not everything in the book was true), and earlier, Jerzy Kosinki encouraged the assumption that his 1965 book The Painted Bird, in which he describes a six year old’s journey through occupied Poland, was based on his own experiences. Kosinski avoided all out fakery with slippery wording when the suspicious attempted to corner him, but the truth was that The Painted Bird with all its grotesque descriptions of goat-on-person sex and eyeball removal was entirely the product of Kosinski’s fevered brain.

Big Fat Fakery #3: Bury My Heart at Wounded Faux-Knee

For reasons best known to basket cases who like to pretend to be what they aren’t, claiming Native American ancestry has become the modern equivalent of those deluded old ladies who pretended to be a lost member of the Russian royal family. People spend good money digging up records to prove Great Aunty Gertrude was actually one eighth Apache or - if they don’t want to waste folding green but still want to be cool - just make the claim anyway. 

Yes, what real Native Americans (the ones who actually live on reservations) call "pretendians" are everywhere. Especially in the literary field, where the leader of the pack has to be Nasdijj. Between 2000 and 2004, Nasdijj published not one, but three memoirs of his life as a part-Navajo. Turns out, he was actually Timothy Barrus, a writer of gay sado-masochistic porn. Unmasked by the LA Times as a “Navahoax”, Barrus was last seen ranting sub-Ginsbergian nonsense on YouTube.

But if Barrus was the most prolific, the prize for irony must be awarded to Asa Earl Carter. His story The Education of Little Tree, about being raised by his part Cherokee grandparents, won an ABBY as well as an endorsement from Oprah. Unfortunately, that was before it was revealed that not only was Carter about as Cherokee as your average Korean, but he had once been a paid-up member of the Ku Klux Klan. In other words, if Carter’s grandparents actually had been Cherokee, he would have spent time hunting them down with a pack of bloodhounds, not writing soapy prose about their spiritual qualities.

Big Fat Fake #4: My Drink and Drugs Hell

If you think Oprah can be forgiven for pushing Little Tree on the basis that we’re all allowed to be taken in once, you are so wrong, buddy. Because this is only one of 3 times the big O has endorsed books which have later turned out to be phonies. Along with Herman Rosenblatt’s embellished account of his experiences in Buchenwald – An Angel at the Fence – Oprah most famously driveled over A Billion Little Pieces, the “autobiography” of James Frey, detailing his descent and (guess what) painful crawl out of the Slough of Too Much of a Good Time. Whatever you might think of Frey, whose crimes against the book-buying public include I Am Number Four, at least he had the decency to appear on the programme and apologize. Which is more than can be said for Beatrice Sparks, the author of troubled teen fave Go Ask Alice. For years Sparks pretended that the best seller was the real deal - a diary given to her by a patient when she worked as a psychologist and youth counsellor – but was never able to produce a shred of evidence that “Alice” ever existed apart from in her head. Even the copyright disclaimer in the book’s front cover states it is a work of fiction, but the work is still being sold as a true story. Why? Because of the tempting gloss “reality” adds to what would otherwise be a very average book.

Big Fat Fake #5: Bogus Misery Memoirs

This same logic applies to the final category. Anyone can write a story about being abused as a child. Not just anyone can write a true story about abuse – for that you must actually have suffered, a la Child Called It’s Dave Pelzer or Mommie Dearest’s Christina Crawford.

Unless you just make it all up and pretend it really happened.

At its peak, the misery memoir genre was huge, with books like Pelzer’s staying on the bestseller lists for months at a time. People loved reading about horrible childhoods and other people loved making money by writing them, even if the childhood they committed to print, often in great detail, had never happened.

Alongside the genuine stories of mothers forcing dog dirt down the throats of their offspring or beating them with coat hangers were some complete fabrications. Kathy O’Beirne’s story Don’t Ever Tell described her abuse at the hands of priests and nuns in one of the notorious Magdalene laundries in Ireland. O’Beirne claimed to have been beaten, raped, and to have given birth to a baby, sold by the nuns, while incarcerated in the home for “fallen women”. The book, published while a shocked nation was coming to terms with revelations that the Catholic Church had covered up multiple cases of child sexual abuse by its priests, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Because previous victims of abuse had been routinely disbelieved, no one wanted to question O’Beirne’s story. She might well have escaped detection as a fraud if she hadn’t come to the attention of journalist Hermann Kelly, who was so scandalised by O’Beirne’s bald-faced lies that he wrote a whole book debunking them. Kathy’s Real Story is probably the closest we can come to the opposite of a fake memoir. It’s the truth with knobs on, complete with the documentary evidence that proves O’Beirne’s story isn’t just hokum, it’s hokum that destroyed other people’s lives: the priests accused of rape who had never met O’Beirne, and the father accused of abuse described as a decent caring man by his other children.

Because that’s the problem with literary fakes. As entertaining as their debunking might be, it never hurts to remember that disguising fiction as truth isn’t harmless. In the case of Hitler’s Diaries, a few red faces were the worst result. But in the case of some of the others, O’Beirne in particular, pretending to be a victim did more than cause embarrassment. It made victims of other people too.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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