by Judith Rosen -- Publishers Weekly, 1/12/2009
Genealogist is not a typical publishing title, yet forensic genealogy, best known for tracking down heirs, played a key role in unmasking two of 2008's biggest publishing hoaxes: Misha Defonseca's Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust and Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Sharon Sargeant worked on both cases pro bono, largely because when they learned about them—the Defonseca story came from former U.S. publisher Jane Daniels's blog, Rosenblat from Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt's blog—they knew they could bring resolution to the controversy that surrounded each story.
Their research uncovered baptismal and school records proving that Defonseca didn't escape the Holocaust by running with wolves. She didn't need to; her father was a Nazi collaborator. And if Defonseca had denied the evidence, Fitzpatrick and Sargeant were prepared to use DNA, which, along with photographs and archival records, are a forensic genealogist's stock in trade. “I almost feel disappointed that Misha confessed,” wrote Fitzpatrick on her IdentiFinders.com Web site. “I was looking forward to identifying her through DNA.”
Although there is no question that Herman Rosenblat was a concentration camp survivor, his memoir also turned out to be a work of fiction. According to Michigan State University professor Ken Waltzer, figuring out the real Rosenblat story was “truly a team effort. Sharon and Colleen found crucial information about the two families, discovered additional people we could interview and additional evidence that pointed to serious contextual issues in the case. We wedded the methods of forensic genealogy and social history to discover a publishing fraud.”
Why did Fitzpatrick, a former rocket scientist with a Ph.D. in physics, and Sargeant, whose background is also in science and technology, succeed where editors and fact checkers did not? For Fitzpatrick, it's a matter of looking at a book in context. “We were successful because we weren't simply fact checking; we were investigating apparent inconsistencies in each narrative within the larger story of the Holocaust. We take the facts and draw meaningful information. Are the facts consistent? What's the big picture? Michael Crichton writes terrific fiction. Yet what's exciting is the way he incorporates nonfiction into it. Herman's story itself, if all this had come out ahead of time, would have been billed as historical fiction and would have been strengthened.”
Another issue, especially after a book comes out, is getting media attention. “Defonseca's two childhood friends tried to say for 10 years that she was a fraud,” said Sargeant. “It's not just a question of can you prove it. Can you get people to pay attention?” Although there had been murmurings online for years about the veracity of Rosenblat's love story, it took Waltzer's team and Gabriel Sherman's reporting in the New Republic to persuade Berkley to cancel Angel at the Fence and Lerner to recall its fall children's edition, Angel Girl. As another example, Sargeant cites Dawn Bailiff's 2007 memoir, Notes from a Minor Key, which publisher Hampton Roads continues to market as nonfiction, despite a debunking by the Wilmington News Journal early last year.
But can publishers afford a genealogist? Fitzpatrick said that a “sanity check” early on in a project might cost only a few thousand dollars and could provide important information before the book comes out. Although the book projects they've taken on fall under the category of “misery lit,” Fitzpatrick and Sargeant said that other works of nonfiction could benefit from a genealogical review, particularly histories, biographies and autobiographies.
Sargeant and Fitzpatrick are continuing to research the Rosenblat case and anticipate that more information will become public. They are also looking into another international bestseller, not a Holocaust memoir, but declined to discuss it. However, that's not their only brush with publishing. In 2005, Fitzpatrick cofounded Rice Book Press, which has published three of her books: Forensic Genealogy (2005), DNA & Genealogy (2005) and The Dead Horse Investigation: Forensic Photo Analysis for Everyone (2008).
The above was taken from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY for 12 Jan 2009.
Just goes to prove that if you decide to publish it, you'd better be prepared to defend it! It had better be true!
This is true, not just for biographical or memoir works, but for genealogy in general. You'd better have your "ducks all in a row" as far as being able to prove your information is 100% factual.
I once published part of a family tree that a client gave me, insisting it was completely correct and that she'd paid another genealogist to research it, and she could provide sources and proof for all the information. "Just put it in the book." I did, and later found out it was all a fraud. It was all taken from an unpublished, unsourced tree that someone had "tacked" on to some research. I was mortified! I had added my name to that mess!
Today I may use a tree from someone else's research to attempt to start with, as a "sounding board" perhaps. But, unless I can provide proof positive that the information is correct, I do not use it! I will leave out any unproven information!
Make that your habit as well! - cbh