Although she had immigrated to Boston, the story of Misha Defonseca didnâ€™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 Seinfeldâ€™s Elaine, â€œFake, fake, fake, fake.â€ She was exposed by a genealogist doing what genealogists do, searching ordinary records for documentary confirmation: the genealogist discovered Mishaâ€™s birth record and school records, and the testimony of old schoolmates, and Mishaâ€™s story crumbled.
Which got me to wondering â€¦
The history of Mormonism has been plagued by fakes and forgeries â€“ 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 â€“ but so far as I know, weâ€™ve never been â€œhonoredâ€ 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, letâ€™s pretend that there are no forensic difficulties of suitably aged paper and ink, but only the internal narrative claims themselves â€“ say we have a typescript that was fortuitously at an editorâ€™s office when the â€œoriginalâ€ 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 Mormonsâ€™ pasts that have been debunked, and reports of near-death experiences that cannot be objectively documented or disproved â€“ what else might we face?
And assuming such a forgery were possible, what might be the motivation, in a Mormon context?