Are we never happy with who we are? Judging from the number of self-improvement books on the market and the growth of the motivational lecture business, one must conclude that a great many people want to be something they're not. Indeed, a few take shortcuts to get there. Reading my Washington Post on Saturday, March 1st, I was fascinated by three examples of high-profile fraud, and I had different reactions to each.
Tim Goeglein was a White House aide responsible for keeping President Bush on good terms with conservative and Christian evangelicals. For more than twenty years, Goeglein has been writing columns for his hometown newspaper, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Nancy Nall, a former columnist for the same paper, got suspicious about a recent Goeglein column, did a Google search, and found that Goeglein had lifted eight paragraphs from an article by somebody else. Further searching by the paper revealed that Goeglein had plagiarized other writers in 20 of his 38 columns in the last eight years. Goeglein resigned from the government. "There are no excuses," he said. Damn right! This is both theft and plain old laziness. Goeglein is 44 years old and working for my country, not a kid copying a term paper from the web. You do your own work.
Meanwhile, the Food Network was firing celebrity chef Robert Irvine, host of "Dinner Impossible." He had claimed to be a graduate of the University of Leeds. Not true. It also turned out that he had not cooked for President Bush, nor had he worked on Princess Diana's wedding cake as he had bragged. Okay, that's resume inflation and I'll bet we all know someone who's done that. It's usually done by someone just starting out -- someone who feels he doesn't yet have the rep to compete with the established pros. It's dishonest and I won't defend it, but ultimately Irvine has to be judged on his recipes. Assuming his recipes are his own, Irvine has to pass the taste test. I'm inclined to give him another chance after he's whipped up a month's worth of tasty meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless somewhere.
The saddest tale of fraud concerned Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years a best-selling book translated into 18 languages and made into a film. That would have been fine if it had been a novel and not sold as Defonseca's life story. For many decades, Defonseca has been telling people that the Nazis captured her parents when she was a child, forcing her to wander the forests of Europe with a pack of wolves. She claimed to have killed a German soldier in self-defense. None of it is true. The author is not even Jewish. Her real name is Monique De Wael and she was four years old when her parents, Belgian resistance fighters, were killed by the Nazis. She now says she was treated poorly by her adoptive family because they regarded her parents as traitors for being part of the resistance. She says that caused her to feel Jewish. This woman is going to get hammered for trying to profit from the legitimate suffering of others. It's as much a case for the shrinks as it is for the fraud detectives. Yes, she made a fortune from a lie -- but a lie that began when she was an orphan girl who felt she needed to fashion a different reality. She should give the book and movie money to a Jewish charity.
One wonders how Monique De Wael could maintain her false story for so long. Her book was published ten years ago. Why did no one in Belgium call her out? Did her publisher and ghost writer do no research? How come it took an American genealogist researching the book's names to out the author?
Here are some better questions for me to ask myself. How do I know that all those people I've interviewed were who they purported to be? Have some of them been lying to me about what they've seen and heard? Do they really not have the expertise they've claimed? In my forty years of interviews, have I helped someone carry out a fraud? Hmmmm. My producers check facts but they can't possibly do an exhaustive investigation of every person I interview and still turn out a daily and a weekend program.
A woman meets a guy who says he's going to be nice and show her a good time. It might take her a year to find out he's a jerk. Now what does she do -- stop meeting guys? We trust people until we learn we can't. We have to trust. Who wants to live in a world where everyone is guilty until proven innocent?