Binjamin Wilkomirski's story was very sad and quite remarkable. In 1995, the Swiss clarinetist published a memoir titled Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, detailing his youth during the Holocaust, including time spent in two concentration camps. The book was met with awe and acclaim. It was called "morally important," "brave," and "profoundly moving." It was decorated with awards.
"Not since Anne Frank's diaries had a child's view of the Holocaust touched so many readers," wrote Elena Lappin in Granta. "Fragments is a slim book, about 150 pages. I had read it as the terrifying stark testimony of a man whose identity had been shattered even before he had a chance to become a child."
Lappin excerpted one of the Wilkomirski's more moving passages: "'I have no mother tongue, nor a father tongue either,' the book begins. 'My language has it roots in the Yiddish of my eldest brother, Mordechai, overlaid with the Babel-babble of an assortment of children's barracks in the Nazis' death camps in Poland. It was a small vocabulary; it reduced itself to the bare essentials required to say and to understand whatever would ensure survival. At some point during this time, speech left me altogether and it was a long time before I found it again.'"
There were sadder yet details—the young Wilkomirski hoarded discarded cheese rinds in his pockets. As an adult, he moved his feet "constantly" during the night, because of memories of rats biting his feet in the camps. He avoided trains.
It all made for a great yarn, but there was a slight problem: Wilkomirski was not Wilkomirski, and had not survived the Holocaust. Binjamin Wilkomirski was Bruno Dosseker, born Bruno Grosjean to a single Swiss woman and then adopted by a wealthy couple in Zurich. If he had been to a Nazi concentration camp, it was only as a tourist. Fragments—a book that had touched so many, had seemed so real—was fake.
Storytelling is crucial to Holocaust remembrance, especially as the number of survivors diminishes. There's a line of thinking that even falsified stories—of which there are too many for the publishing industry, but not very many, considering—are good for the cause because they are at least telling a story that could have happened. Who knows how many Binjamin Wilkomirskis there were whose stories ended prematurely; had Wilkomirski's book been labeled fiction, what would the difference had been? Of course, on the other side of the coin, there are those who say that Wilkomirski besmirches the name of every Holocaust victim and lends credence to any vulgar denialist movement.
The solution might seem simple: Weed out Holocaust-memoir fakers by investigating them before they're published. But it's not, especially in publishing, an industry notoriously loose with facts. Writing is an emotional exercise, and publishing is predicated on trust. Put together, you have a very dangerous, and delicate, agreement. Disaster is almost a foretold conclusion. Every book is a risk.
But trust in a story is an interesting thing. No one wants to doubt the amazing story of a Holocaust survivor like Wilkomirski, who became misty-eyed when recalling his bleak childhood (Lappin's Granta article is a fascinating study of why Wilkomirski may have been driven to invent his story. An abridged version is available here). A survivor, who left the camps with nothing, is not going to have documentation of his or her time there. There may be no one to corroborate his or her accounts. Not all prisoners were tattooed. As Elie Wiesel wrote, "Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know."
On Wednesday, a report published in the Washington Post made it apparent that Rolling Stone's mind-boggling story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia was, in fact, almost a complete work of fiction. It remains to be seen whether the character at the center of the piece, Jackie, misled Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely or the other way around, but whatever happened, it was a tectonic fuck-up for the magazine, and, as a result, for rape survivors.
It has been well-detailed how Erdely hunted for the best "story" to chronicle in her Rolling Stone piece, and how amid all the ho-hum rape stories at the college campuses she visited, the tale of Jackie's gang rape stuck out. "My ears just totally perked up," Erdely told Slate's Hanna Rosin of when she first heard Jackie's story.
Journalistic culture fetishizes "storytelling." This is dangerous. Reporting is already a craven profession, to add a seeming bounty (of public praise, pageviews, awards, future pieces, whatever) for the most alarming "story" pushes journalists in the wrong ways. Any story can be good if it is reported well and truthfully. A story of one rape is horrific enough. And now one fabricated story of a gang rape will affect those true stories, told and untold.
How do you fact-check trust? Or a gut feeling?
You don't, really. I used to be a fact-checker. It is not a fun job. Reporters, depending on where they are career-wise, are either bad or terrible at keeping track of source material; I have seen drafts of articles come in looking like Mad Libs for the fact-checker to fill in with information; I have had prominent reporters send me Wikipedia links as source material. Fact-checking is a dirty, thankless, impossible task. When a draft of a story is finished by a journalist, giving it to a fact-checker (if one is so fortunate) is like throwing bleach on an open wound. But it is essential. There is no process more necessary in reporting; it is the only way to get the story right. Journalism, memoir, non-fiction: All pursue truth, and the writer of the story its messenger.
The fact-checking process is rare in journalism today, absent in far more outlets than it's present; even where it exists it doesn't necessarily take place—Rolling Stone is supposed to have one of the most brutal fact-checking shops in the business. At the New York Times, newsroom reporters are largely responsible for their own facts. At certain prestigious magazines, fact-checking largely falls to untrained "researchers" or "fellows." Even where trained checkers are in place, a reporter can make it impossible for them to do their job. Books, forget it—not fact-checked at all.
Copy editors, essential to the fact-checking process, are fewer in number across the industry; like fact-checkers, they are the embodiment of an old-media attitude when it comes to checking: that there is one unassailable truth, and the story must hew to it. Editors, some more concerned with splashy copy and a gripping lede, can work against accuracy.
At places like Gawker, which employs neither dedicated fact-checkers nor dedicated copy editors, we have a simple, transparent attitude toward fact-checking: we do it as best we can. If someone points out something wrong in a story, we fix it. Having worked in both types of fact-checking arenas, the latter is often a more effective, and realistic, system. It's also impossible for a print publication.
There is a great deal of responsibility in telling complicated, important stories that present a crisis of definitive evidence, as Holocaust stories and sexual assault stories both do. But these stories need to be told, or they risk being denied in their absence. The only way to fact-check such stories is by talking to people. In both the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski and Rolling Stone, people were key to dismantling such fabrications. Humanity is a better resource than any database. (An additional tragedy in such cases is that the truth to the fabricated stories is often more interesting than the too-good [or bad]-to-be-true fabrication. Why even bother making something up?)
In Erdely's case, her agreements with Jackie not to talk to her alleged rapist or her friends undermined the aim of her entire project: to shed light on campus rape. Wilkomirski's fradulent memoir, applauded, awarded and unquestioned, was an embarrassment to the community of Holocaust scholarship. In these attempts to protect and shelter, countless others were left exposed and undefended. Whatever truth these stories were pursuing was lost forever.
It's a shame, really. Listening to the Slate podcast in which Erdely is interviewed about her article, pre-scandal, she speaks with so much care for Jackie. But any responsible journalist, editor or publisher who actually cares about who they are working with will find a way to make sure every single fact is nailed down to the cross before their work goes to print—and will respond quickly, decisively, and transparently if its facts are disputed or called into question. If you are taking on the responsibility of telling difficult and overlooked stories, there is more at stake than a reputation, and more to be won or lost than pride.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]