Forging a Life

March 11, 2008 | 20 comments
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Although she had immigrated to Boston, the story of Misha Defonseca didn’t get nearly as much press last week in the U.S. as it did in Europe, when she joined a long line of self-confessed fakes (see here and here). The memoir of this Belgian woman, published in 18 languages and the basis of a recent French movie, provided a gripping (fake) story of a little Jewish girl (actually Christian) whose parents were killed by the Nazis (true, but they were Belgian resistance). From ages 7 to 11, this little girl, without adult protection, supposedly walked from Belgium to the Ukraine in search of her parents, was defended and fed by packs of wolves, killed a Nazi rapist in self defense, and triumphantly survived a number of other dramatic adventures. In the words of Seinfeld’s Elaine, “Fake, fake, fake, fake.” She was exposed by a genealogist doing what genealogists do, searching ordinary records for documentary confirmation: the genealogist discovered Misha’s birth record and school records, and the testimony of old schoolmates, and Misha’s story crumbled.

Which got me to wondering …

The history of Mormonism has been plagued by fakes and forgeries – accusations that the Book of Mormon was forged from the Spaulding Manuscript, fears of alterations to the missing 116 pages, the Kinderhook Plates, false revelations, forged documents of all kinds, alteration and destruction of genuine records, Mark Hofmann – but so far as I know, we’ve never been “honored” by someone falsely claiming to be one of us, who produced a sympathetic but untrue memoir.

Could someone fake a Mormon memoir, and if so, what form would that take?

We have never experienced a period of such utter turmoil as the war years of the 1940s where entire communities and their records were destroyed (or at least where it was plausible for records to have been destroyed, so that due diligence in confirming a story was overlooked), but we do have serious gaps in our history that might provide an opening.

Could someone, for instance, fake the memoir of a real person who lived in, say, Alabama or Indiana in the 1840s, who claimed to have been visited by a traveling missionary, converted and baptized, then lived faithfully but in isolation for a lengthy period? (For the sake of this exercise, let’s pretend that there are no forensic difficulties of suitably aged paper and ink, but only the internal narrative claims themselves – say we have a typescript that was fortuitously at an editor’s office when the “original” burned in a house fire so that the original is not available for examination.)

Is there any opening in our experience for the faked Mormon memoir of a living person? We do have the example of exaggerated stories from Mormons’ pasts that have been debunked, and reports of near-death experiences that cannot be objectively documented or disproved – what else might we face?

And assuming such a forgery were possible, what might be the motivation, in a Mormon context?

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20 Responses to Forging a Life

  1. Ann on March 11, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    If such a forgery were possible, the motivation would be money. That’s not exactly a Mormon context; more of a universal motivator.

  2. East Coast on March 11, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    A faked historical memoir? Isn’t that what Mark Hofmann was all about?

    A faked contemporary memoir? I can’t imagine how money would create a motivation. The only money I can imagine would be connected to fake memoirs would be reparations for something or the other and the instances currently would be the one you mentioned (the Holocaust) and fake 9/11 accounts. Actually, now that I’m thinking about this, I remember a post by Wilfried about a (Finnish/Swedish?) sailor who accepted the hospitality of members of the church in Belgium under false pretenses.

    I do have a personal concern related to the authentication of documents right now. I am trying to track down my great-great-great grandpa’s pioneer diary. It was in my grandpa’s possession, but disappeared sometime during the past 15 years while grandpa suffered with undiagnosed (and finally diagnosed) Alzheimers. Luckily, we have a carefully-prepared typescript, but it has some obvious errors. I would love to publish the diary, but I have a hang-up over not having access to the original document.

    My plea to all of you: if you have an original document like this, please put it in a major archive or at very least allow copies to be made of the original.

    Oh, and if anyone just happens to have a copy of the original diary (not the typescript) of a Danish convert to the church named Ove C Oveson who faithfully recorded his mission in Denmark and eventually settled in St Johns, AZ, please let me know…. (Under the category of it can’t hurt to ask!)

  3. Janet on March 11, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    While faking a textual memoir is hefty business, I imagine we have plenty of fake oral traditions passed along as familial truth. I say that with a bit of reticence, since the academy’s practice of further disenfranchising those usually already disenfranchised communities which rely largely on oral tradition for history bugs the holy heck out me. Still, the fact that you can haul a text around and try to pinpoint/verify the details makes it easier to scrutinize than a tale which is expected to change slightly with each telling and which exists only in memory and the moments of speech. My own family has a oral memoir involving the 3 Nephites, but if someone had kept meticulous records of wheres, whens, whose (and thus possible witnesses, journals, blah blah blah) it would be easier to see if the tales are historically as well as metaphorically true.

    Interesting question, Ardis. BTW, I’m *finally* returning to SLC after over a month’s absence, so I’ll see you this weekend if you’re arround. Yay!

  4. bfwebster on March 11, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    Actually, we have lots of faked (or heavily doctored/slanted) Mormon memoirs. Most are available via Evangelical Christian bookstores and other outlets. We usually call it “anti-Mormon” literature, and it started with John C. Bennett and Philastus Hurlbut, but it continues to the present day. ..bruce..

  5. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    One of the main motivations of a fake is just to see if you can pull it off. Also to have people consider your fiction in a way they wouldn’t if it were known to be fiction. That was more or less the drive behind Banner of Heaven, for instance.

  6. Bill MacKinnon on March 11, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Ardis,
    You’ve asked a real toughie: Can we think of a non-Mormon who chose to pose as a Mormon and then wrote an autobiographical account of his/her experiences in Mormonism? The closest that I can come to such a rare (and perhaps non-existent) set of circumstances depends upon how you come out on the matter of whether two notorious mid-19th- century rogues were indeed Mormons or whether the nature of their plots/schemes were such when they became “members” that they, in effect, invalidated their membership. I refer to the incredible Walter Murray Gibson (to whom B.Y. gave a blank check [commission] to negotiate with foreign governments on behalf of the LDS Church and who later became Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Hawaii while creating such confusion/havoc as to require the travel of an apostolic delegation from Salt Lake City to remove him) and John C. Bennett (who rose to be assistant president of the church and major general of the Nauvoo Legion), a scoundrel who needs no further introduction. So were Gibson and Bennett truly Mormons or were they bogus from the get-go because of the motives and plots in their hearts from the beginning of their connections to the LDS Church? If their membership was tainted/invalidated, I think they qualify for your prize on a technical basis. But it’s not the same thing as though Sir Richard Burton had arrived in Salt Lake City in the 1860s pen-in-hand and pretending to be a Mormon (as he had earlier arrived in Mecca pretending to be a Muslim).

  7. Christian on March 11, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    In 1988, a mission companion of mine left the field when his friend came to pick him up at our apartment. He told me that he was a “U of U student doing a research project on mormonism.” I actually wondered if it was true for a bit since he did take copious notes in his journal, more than any other companion that I’d seen, and wanted more pictures of me and other missionaries than of himself. But from a chat with his angry Dad, I gathered that he was just another Daddy-made-me-be-a-missionary, raised in the church but without a real testimony. I wonder what happened to him.

  8. Visorstuff on March 11, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Fictionally, yes – see Mormonville by our own emeritus blogger Greg Call’s brother Jeff.

  9. theotherone on March 11, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Martha Beck comes to mind. However, you did say a sympathetic memoir, in addition to one that\’s untrue.

    I think we are in some ways open to this. A possibility was written here a while back. In the case of Mormonism, there\’s really nothing socially (read:economically) expedient, even now, about publishing something making us look like victims or elevated in humility or anything like that, such as was the case in your example, where the Holocaust is both well known and universally accepted as a tragedy.

    I could see something like this coming out of someone pretending to be a descendant of a MMM survivor who alleged to have joined the church, for example. I might be, quite sadly, proven wrong some time in the future, but such a piece probably wouldn\’t be well-trafficked among any audience, including the general public and the average LDS-popular literature reader.

  10. theotherone on March 11, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Durn, forgot to end the italics tag.

    [ED: We have your back, theotherone; it's fixed, and thanks for your comment.]

  11. Ray on March 11, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    19th Century anti-Mormon propaganda is full of unsympathetic claims (the woman who was held captive in the SLC temple and escaped by jumping out a window into the Great Salt Lake), but I can’t think of a single sympathetic claim – unless you count serial welfare frauds who cycle from building to building trying to get assistance from bishops. I know the stories they tell portray themselves as believers in need of sympathy.

  12. Ardis Parshall on March 11, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    These are all fun ideas for me to consider — thanks. We note examples, or the possibilities of examples, of fraudulent documents, of members who are either insufficiently converted or deliberately fraudulent, Banner of Heaven (how could I not think of that?), and fraudulent or re-imagined former Mormon memoirs.

    Our history may be too short, or we may be such inveterate record keepers, that I haven’t been able to imagine a situation where a living person could palm off a Mormon memoir in the way Misha faked her Jewish life story — there are positive church memberships, for instance, and returned missionaries very familiar with the time and place where any forgery could be set.

    Still, if anyone does come up with an idea of where and when a faked Mormon memoir could possibly be set, in the way Misha’s was set against the background of the Holocaust, I’d love to hear of it.

  13. Ray on March 12, 2008 at 12:04 am

    Ardis, the more I think about it, the more I think the welfare frauds just might be our equivalent. They just are “local”, obscure examples rather than “global”, famous examples. Perhaps that’s instructive in its own right.

  14. Mark Hansen on March 12, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    What about Paul H Dunn and his baseball/war stories?

    MRKH

  15. Ardis Parshall on March 12, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Exaggerating or even fabricating details of an otherwise documentable life aren’t quite what I’m looking for.

    I suppose it was a dumb post, or at best unclear. I’m fascinated that someone who was not a member of a particular group would/could fabricate an entire memoir, insinuating herself into the events of the group as if she were one of them, and do it so well that she could get away with it as long as Misha Defonseca did (although there were apparently people who challenged her story almost from the beginning; still, she fooled most of the people for a significant period of time).

    I’m only musing about whether or how someone who was not a Mormon could recast his or her life so thoroughly as to appear to be one of us, at least for a while. Are there openings in our history or our world view for a stranger to do that?

  16. Mark M on March 12, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    How about the Steed family, as in “The Work and the Glory”? (just kidding)

  17. Ray on March 12, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Sorry for my density on this one, Ardis, but isn’t “fabricating details of an otherwise documentable life” precisely what Misha Defonseca did? Her lie was discovered precisely because she *had* a documented life. Without that documentation, there would be only doubt. Aren’t you really talking about grandness of scale and extent of success more than nature of deception?

    I think there are openings in almost any group’s history or world view for such an attempt. I can’t imagine someone wanting to do so within Mormonism in the 19th Century and early 20th Century – or even until very recently. After all, who wants to create a fake life to join a marginalized and persecuted “cult”? As to the possibility of it happening now . . .

    Given the past missionary practices in some countries that didn’t exactly follow protocol, and the occurrence of natural disasters in third-world countries that literally wiped out entire villages, I could see someone claiming to have been baptized and “lost” – with no documentary proof. As long as they could answer the baptismal interview questions intelligently and “live a good Mormon life”, it might be very difficult for the local membership to see any problem.

    The only motivation I can imagine for this, however, is financial. This could be access to the church’s assistance programs for members – now including the PEF, which might be a viable motivation in an area of abject poverty to fake membership and apply to serve as a missionary. That would be even more understandable if the Church Missionary Fund paid for the mission. However, an attempt like that would presuppose a level of understanding of the Church that is hard to imagine in an adolescent – someone young enough to serve a mission and receive assistance from the PEF. It also assumes someone would fake a cover story when they simply could pretend to believe, be baptized and receive the same benefits.

    So . . . I just don’t see it happening like Misha’s example.

  18. Ardis Parshall on March 12, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Ray, without minimizing the seriousness of lying, I see Elder Dunn’s embroideries as relatively minor details added to a generally true story: he really was a Mormon, he really did serve in the military, he really was a ball player. Nothing about Misha’s published life was true, but that wasn’t discovered for years. She was convincing enough that despite some people’s doubts, nobody was so thoroughly unconvinced that they went about seeking evidence for a very long time.

    And the fact that Misha was not Jewish is intriguing — as you say, “who wants to create a fake life to join a marginalized and persecuted “cult”? ”

    If someone claimed to be a Mormon with marvelous mission experiences, for instance, or miraculous priesthood healings while stationed in Iraq or posted at some obscure international post without a Mormon presence, I wonder whether it would be possible to be so convincing that we would accept the story for any length of time.

    I don’t think it is possible. I wondered, though, whether any else was so diabolically clever that they had an idea of how it might be done. That’s all. Nothing more serious than that.

  19. Jonovitch on March 17, 2008 at 2:08 am

    Ardis, in the former East Germany, there were stories of spies in the wards there who would go to church, participate, and be active enough (play the part) to even get temple recommends for the then-new Freiberg Temple. Some of the members say they new who these spies were, because after the Berlin Wall fell (“nach der Wende”) they just disappeared and never showed up again. They were out of work, as it were.

    Now I don’t know of any documentation to confirm these stories, but it’s a matter of fact that the Church was very closely watched by the government, and I don’t think anyone would put it past the communists in charge to go as far as placing authentic-looking spies in wards across the region, even to the point of “infiltrating” the temple. While there was no direct financial reward for such spies for living their lives as supposed Mormons, other than appeasing the party and staying employed, a memoir of such a person’s life as a pseudo-Mormon, East-German spy would be a fascinating read if you ask me.

    Maybe I should get started on mine… ;)

    Jon

  20. Randolph Finder on March 17, 2008 at 6:46 am

    While the modern PEF might be more difficult, could we find someone who joined the the church in Europe just do use the Perpetual Emigration Fund to get the United States?