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April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review March 12, 2008 / 5 Adar II 5768

Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?

By Anne Applebaum

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http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Thanks to chance and circumstance — because people left them, sent them, or lent them — a trio of autobiographies landed on my desk last weekend: Valerie Plame's Fair Game: My Life As a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, George Tenet's At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, and Peter Gay's My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin. Though Plame and Tenet were published in 2007, and Gay in 1998, I hadn't read any of them before.


Motivation to pick them up was, however, provided by Margaret B. Jones and Misha Defonseca. For those who missed their stories, Jones, a half-Indian drug-dealing gang member who grew up in foster homes, according to her well-received memoir, last week turned out to be Margaret Seltzer, an all-white suburbanite who grew up with her family. Defonseca, a Jew who survived the Holocaust by living with wolves, according to her acclaimed autobiography, is in fact Monique De Wael, a Catholic who spent the war in Brussels. The two revelations — coming in the wake of JT Leroy, James Frey, Binjamin Wilkomirski, and other hoaxes — inspired much criticism of the publishing industry (why do they fall for it? why don't they fact-check?) and some excellent parodies.


But maybe these extreme examples should inspire some other questions, too. How "true," for example, are real autobiographies, written by real people, describing real events? Coincidentally, I was first taught to ask this question by Gay, now an emeritus professor of history, during a seminar on autobiography that he taught some 20-odd years ago. As I recall it, we were debating Rousseau's Confessions when Gay pointed out some element of the story that could not possibly have been true. He then invited us to think about why, in that case, Rousseau had changed it. For unconscious emotional reasons? Or consciously, in order to shape his reputation?


Reading Gay's own idiosyncratic autobiography, it's evident that he had such historical uses and abuses of autobiography in mind while he was writing it. During his account of growing up in, and emigration from, 1930s Berlin, he frequently questions both his recollections and his motives for recording them. He confesses to prejudices — most notably a hatred for the Nazi regime — that might color his account of his pre-Nazi early childhood. He admits to important gaps in his memory.


By contrast, Tenet's and Plame's books show no such hesitations, no such uncertainties, and certainly admit to no prejudice. Tenet does concede that "no such undertaking is completely objective," but he calls his book "as honest and as unvarnished as I could make it." Plame doesn't even go that far, offering instead, by way of introduction, a rollicking account of her CIA recruitment (and, bizarrely, a very large number of irrelevant childhood photographs).


But I have no intention of picking on Tenet and Plame, much though they might deserve it, just because I stumbled on their books last weekend. After all, what struck me about their memoirs was not their uniqueness, but their very similarity to other books in the "political memoir" genre, recent examples of which include the autobiographies of both Clintons; Leadership, by Rudy Giuliani; No Retreat, No Surrender, by Tom DeLay; and The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama (but not his first, quirky, pre-fame book, Dreams From My Father), just to name an arbitrary few.


Beyond "setting the record straight," none of these books was ever intended to have deeper literary or historical significance. They don't do careful self-analysis, but neither do they add much to the bigger picture. They don't necessarily lie, but they are intended to shape public perceptions of the author, which is why many read like extended versions of those candidate-life-story films one sees nowadays at political conventions. Some — I'm thinking here of Bill Clinton's hefty memoir — seem designed to decorate coffee tables, not to be read at all.


So, why don't the publishers who produce them come in for more criticism? And why aren't authors more often parodied? ("He achieved peace in Northern Ireland, fixed the American health-care crisis, and singlehandedly dismantled the New York City trash collection mafia — all the while remaining a perfect husband and father and never accepting a single penny from lobbyists ") Or maybe the publishing industry shouldn't get all the blame. We've all gotten used to the idea that life stories can be "sold," that lives that contain accidents, deviations, and inexplicable moments of uncertainty — as all lives do — can be crafted, shaped, and presented to the public by marketing specialists — and yet still remain "true." No wonder we're so easily taken in, nowadays, by fraudsters, hucksters, fake drug dealers, and children who claim to have been raised by wolves.

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APPLEBAUM'S LATEST
Gulag: A History  

Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.

Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.


Previously:

03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness




© 2008, Anne Applebaum

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