Bearing false witness

Paul Tolmé, whose writing usually appears in nature or environment-related publications, has found himself the star – literally and figuratively – of a plagiarism scandal.And it’s all thanks to novelist Cassie Edwards, yes, the selfsame one who is lionized for her “painstaking research” when writing (or is it compiling?) books… most of the titles of which begin with “Savage…”

These books catalogue, as well they might, Native American history and lifestyles, and are gobbled up by aficionados of the historical romance genre. The bloggers on Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books do not call themselves that for nothing.

Apparently, Ms Edwards went above and beyond the copyright fair-use doctrine. She included information from an article by the afore-mentioned Tolmé, in such a non sequitor mode that they looked like an ill-fitting denture on a beaver- or, in this case, black-footed ferrets.

In Shadow Bear, published in 2007, precisely in Chapter 22, a hefty wedge of Tolmé’s 2005 article, previously published in Defenders, an environmental magazine, is sectioned off into a conversation between two lovers in the story.

The upshot is that Tolmé has garnered a wider audience – and, given the genre in which his work appeared, a good number of them are requesting snapshots of him – preferably posed bare-chested and holding one of the said ferrets. This incident has gained him more attention than “….I’ve gotten from anything else I’ve written in my 16 years as a journalist” said Tolmé.

But this is not the only incident where someone expected to be paid for work that was not, strictly speaking, their own – but a cut-and-paste job that wouldn’t even be acceptable for a secondary school project.

The Lonely Planet series of on-the-cheap travel guides that sells more than six million books annually, was recently beset by another scandal

Thomas Kohnstamm, in his book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? recently admitted that he both plagiarized or thoroughly made up some sections of the books in which he collaborated with other writers (he did not even visit Columbia) – because he was not paid enough to cover expenses. He also went against the code of conduct for writers of this series, by accepting free travel and dealing in drugs to make up his shortfall for trips to The Caribbean, Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia. For the latter, he got the details from an intern from the consulate, whom he was dating at the time he wrote his share of the book. Lonely Planet’s publisher Piers Pickard said that the company had reviewed Mr. Kohnstamm’s guidebooks but failed to find any inaccuracies in them.

But that is not the point, at all.

Then we have the so-called memoir Don’t Ever Tell, written by Kathy O’Beirne, who at the time of publication had claimed that “the Devil himself could not have invented a better hell” than her childhood. The devils, however, now appear to have been all in her mind: so much, then, for the time her hand was plunge into boiling fat by her father, or the time she was raped by a priest, or imprisoned and tortured by nuns. In the book she even claimed that she had given birth at 13, and was made to give up her child for adoption.

The book fed, as thousands more do, the reading public’s predilection for shock-horror.

Another publication that fits neatly into this category is A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey. This one talked about substance abuse, and how the then 23-year-old junkie hacked it in a Twelve Steps-oriented treatment centre…

Hailed as “The War and Peace of Addiction” when it was released on April 15, the book was on the best-seller lists until it emerged, in January 29006, that it contained several trumped-up incidents.

Still another pseudo-autobiography was Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, an account of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone schoolhouse. A document found in the Centennial Secondary School, dated March 1993, when he was still in the second form and not, as he claimed, already a child refugee at that age. The school’s records were thought to have been destroyed when rebels occupied the town of Mattru Jong in 1995, yet inexplicably some examination results were preserved.

This book has earned Beah at least a cool $1 million, from over 650,000 copies. He says the “evidence” is ‘ridiculous and ill-motivated’. Beah resides in New York, having been pointed by UNICEF as an advocate for child soldiers. The plot is much more complicated than this, of course.

But explaining it would not have left me room to mention, in passing, yet another spurious memoir.

In “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years”, which has been translated into 18 languages, the author made up a story of how, as a poor Jewish girl, Misha Defonseca, now of Dudley, Massachusetts, trekked across Europe during the Holocaust years, living with wolves.

In this case, it was documents unearthed by a genealogical researcher that spilled the beans. The records showed that Monique De Wael (Defonseca’s real maiden name) was baptized in a Brussels Catholic church, in September 1937. She had been enrolled in a Brussels primary school in 1943-44. The researcher also discovered that Defonseca’s parents, Robert and Josephine De Wael, were members of the Belgian resistance and were arrested and executed by the Nazis.

And that, at least, is a fact.

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