- Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography
We live so completely in the Age of the Autobiographical that not only do we devour memoirs and autobiographies as avidly as novels, we assume that novels are necessarily autobiographical. Endlessly curious about the connection between literary works and the lives of their authors, we have made self-revelation endemic to our culture, so that many who post their lives on social networks see no reason to assume that novelists are not engaging in analogous behavior in their own fiction. We can entertain fiction that is largely inventive, the product of the author’s imagination rather than his or her direct personal experience; but if we learn that what purports to be autobiographical truth-telling is in fact a form of fiction, especially a deception not intended to be detected as such, we are not merely surprised or disappointed but understandably angry, feeling betrayed if not embarrassed for our gullibility. However much we may honor imagination, we appear to desire a transparent correspondence between life and work or, as Susanna Egan puts it, between personal identity and textual identity, the self of experience and the self of writing.
In her brilliant new book Burdens of Proof, Egan, recently retired from teaching English at the University of British Columbia and long one of our most astute and consistently engaging critics of autobiography, has addressed in a fascinating, comprehensive way just what is at stake historically—but especially for contemporary readers—in the prevalent dangers of literary imposture. Ranging from the Bible to the recent scandals of Benjamin Wilkomirski and James Frey, and anatomizing such variants of literary imposture or the appropriation of another’s identity as ghost-writing, plagiarism, ethnic and racial fraud, and the fabrication of experiences to create a false self, Egan analyzes more fully and extensively than anyone else has the nature of literary deception and its reception, especially how impostors rely on cultural values endorsed by readers that make them particularly susceptible to these impostural practices: “Imposture presupposes posture, or the positions we adopt because we are interpellated into them, or because they make sense to us, or because we choose them” (150). Most of us, she argues, tend to believe who others say they are. In the case of Wilkomirski spuriously narrating “his” childhood experiences of horror in Auschwitz, and of other counterfeit victims writing what Egan boldly terms “atrocity porn” (45), we tend to [End Page 372] credit the putative victims of trauma and sufferings, especially of the Holocaust, thus making ourselves vulnerable to duplicitous authors who prey upon our expectations and our sympathetic receptivity
Egan shows the difficulty of unraveling the falsification that obtains in many of the works she discusses, precisely because, as she puts it, “common experiences can become embedded in one another, indistinguishable from one another” (146), existing in what Primo Levi called “the grey zone” between truth and fabrication. For contemporary readers this state of confusion is abetted by a consciousness of post-modern identities that are necessarily speculative, shifting, and unstable, and of selves inevitably multifarious. While Egan does not argue that these forms of ontological and epistemological uncertainty are directly responsible for the plethora of autobiographical impostors in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, she clearly believes that such conditions alert us to their presence and intrigue us about motives, turning us into “The Doubt Police” (28).
One of the most interesting aspects of Egan’s book is her claim that literary fraudulence, especially the taking on of others’ identities, is not simply a recent phenomenon but has a long history. Autobiography as a genre comes to prominence in the eighteenth century, and Eagen enumerates many instances of imposture from that era: false authorial attribution including fictional memoirs, problematic professions of sincerity (what we now call “truthiness” or claims to knowledge and authenticity lacking demonstrable evidence), fallacious travel narratives that purport to be true, the frequent use of first-person narratives that deliberately confuse fiction and non-fiction, and the rise...