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Readers love a true story, especially if it’s a good one, because good true stories allow in that extra bit of fantasy to our everyday realities. Amidst true stories that are often, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction, the fiction sometimes overwhelms the truth and shrinks our penchant for fantasy. Whether stories that impose more fiction than fact anger, sadden, hurt, or humor us, they often trump the ruse that readers were led to believe, as they devolve into scandal and highlight a culture so enamored with stories in the first place. Susanna Egan plants her flag in this dizzying landscape of imposture in autobiography, and asks what we, as readers, can learn from the love, betrayal, and occasional acceptance of phony lives on paper. In her third book on the subject of autobiography, Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography, Egan explores histories of faith and doubt in autobiography while focusing on acts of imposture that question our cultural tolerance for literary masquerade.
What Egan finds, and what is perhaps most interesting, is that the many stories of imposture she cites all lie on a moral spectrum that is not just culturally specific, but subject-specific as well. She acknowledges the role of culture in autobiographical imposture, but perhaps ignores the diverse readership involved. Nonetheless, Burdens of Proof takes the reader on a journey of imposture that ranges from biblical texts to the infamous televised collapse of James Frey’s Million Little Pieces. Within this range, Egan argues that autobiographical imposture is both historical and political, and creates a basis of understanding for faith and doubt in specific communities.
Egan situates her analysis in the genre of the study of autobiography, rather than the study of imposture on a broader scale. While relatively recent works such as The American Counterfeit by Mary McAleer Balkin, Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture by Tina Chen, or Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identity by Laura Browder focus on acts of imposture that bleed more profusely into lived impersonation, Egan’s strict autobiographical approach questions textual identity and the moral code associated with it in particular cultures. In short, she is more interested in the Wizard’s effect on Oz than in the Wizard himself. Consequently, the texts discussed are scattered upon the moral spectrum she institutes to ground the analysis, yet focused with a Canadian eye on Western acts of impersonation.
Egan begins with acts of imposture in the Bible, and briefly traces the variable concept of textual identity in autobiography through the eighteenth century. With the authority of print laying a foundation of faith in [End Page 822] autobiographical texts, Egan then delves into a modern network of mass media and sensational identities to analyze James Frey and instances of Muslim imposture in the West (these stories are, interestingly, not placed in the following chapter on ethnic imposture). The case of Grey Owl, a veritable lifetime of ethnic imposture, seems to enact the range of the moral scale of autobiographical imposture in Egan’s argument—Canadian folk hero, perhaps? Loveable phony? Grey Owl gets a pass.
The book ends with troubling cases of Holocaust imposture that ground the political aspects of Egan’s argument. The final chapter clarifies what is at stake when autobiographical imposture disrupts our sense of empathy and moral vigilance. On the one hand, instances of imposture in the context of Holocaust survivors remind us of the critical role of autobiography when reconstructing “difficult knowledge.” On the other hand, as Egan so poignantly explains, imposture in these contexts goes beyond holding a hand mirror to current culture or rounding out horrific histories; it hurts the victims of such atrocities. Here, imposture is not simply taboo, but dangerous.
It is in these areas of autobiography where Egan’s expertise in the field is apparent—discussing how imposture serves as a political weapon, and ultimately revealing the context from which it arises and grows within the culture. The reader...