If I started a new Ph.D. now, what topic would I choose?
I’d be tempted by the subject of fakes, especially atrocity story fakes, holocaust fakes, misery memoir fakes and so on.
In September 1914 a news article in The Times reproduced a letter, supposedly from the officer son of a London vicar. Here’s a typical extract:
Another girl has just come in, having had both her breasts cut off. Luckily, I caught the Uhlan officer in the act, and with a rifle at 300 yards killed him. And now she is with us, but, poor girl, I am afraid she will die. She is very pretty, and only about 19, and only has her skirt on.
Nicoletta Gullace describes this sort of thing as ‘melding the discourse of pornography with the language of battle’, and she’s not wrong. The origins of letters like this are very hard to trace, but this one was probably concocted by an overheated civilian in Britain, not a soldier in France.
The most celebrated fake was a Scottish girl called Kate Hume, from Dumfries. She was seventeen and sent the local paper a letter supposedly from her sister in Belgium, detailing the vile activities of the Hun. A later letter was from a fictional colleague of her sister, gave details of how Nurse Hume’s breasts had been cut off, and she had been left to bleed to death.
The hoax was discovered and Kate was brought to trial. Her defence lawyer pleaded that: ‘The letters were literary creations only, and in writing them the accused had been a slave to her emotions. What she did was under the influence of emotions only partly normal.’ (You could plead that in defence of an awful lot of the fiction written during the War.)
I’m assuming that the intense emotion stirred her fantasy until she wrote them down, and they seemed to her so intensely convincing that they must be true. Possibly the same is true of Misha Defonseca’s memoir about being a young Belgian Jewish girl who fled the Nazis, managed to slip in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and lived with wolves. Lots of people don’t have a very strong grip on reality.
Frank Furedi has written about similar cases:
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.
Furedi blames ‘the current cultural climate’ and the cult of therapy, which values stories of suffering so much that being abused can seem a precondition of writing a book. But the flurry of atrocity fakes in 1914 suggests that the problem goes deeper than current fashion. It’s been there a long time.