Pants on fire. Never. Good. Thing. (Can Cameron movie option survive implosion of Pellegrino's Hiroshima book?)

Baby Jesus and I cry a little every time this happens. A little over a year ago, I had this to say about a bogus Holocaust memoir that made a fool out of Oprah and editors at Berkley. Now, apparently the story told by an elderly WWII vet who claimed to have witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima turns out to be fake, and the mushroom cloud is rising over a book that received a starred review from PW, was lauded by the NYT as "sober and authoritative," and optioned by James Cameron for the big screen.

Last Train From Hiroshima, out from Henry Holt in January, is Charles Pellegrino's deep dive into the personal stories behind this pivotal moment in history, including gut-wrenching stories from survivors and eyewitness accounts from those who flew the mission. From the article that appeared in the NYT Saturday:
Mr. Fuoco, who died in 2008 at age 84 and lived in Westbury, N.Y., never flew on the bombing run, and he never substituted for James R. Corliss, the plane’s regular flight engineer, Mr. Corliss’s family says. They, along with angry ranks of scientists, historians and veterans, are denouncing the book and calling Mr. Fuoco an impostor.

Facing a national outcry and the Corliss family’s evidence, the author, Charles Pellegrino, now concedes that he was probably duped. In an interview on Friday, he said he would rewrite sections of the book for paperback and foreign editions.

“I’m stunned,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “I liked and admired the guy. He had loads and loads of papers, and photographs of everything.”

The public record has to be repaired, he added. “You can’t have wrong history going out,” he said. “It’s got to be corrected.”
But that's a lot easier said than done. I can't speculate on strain to Pellegrino's relationship with Cameron (he served as sci advisor on Cameron's current smash Avatar), but they seem to go back quite a way, and frankly, Cameron must know that when you do interview-based research, you never know if that great story you're being told is platinum mine or tar pit.

As a memoir guru, I lecture my clients within an inch of their lives about the importance of telling the truth and the futility of thinking one can get away with lying. All oral history is subjective and, to a certain extent, malleable, but I think everybody's mama taught them the blatant difference between being on an airplane over Hiroshima and not being on an airplane over Hiroshima. Obviously, we have to work hard to back everything up with vigilant research, but I'm not sure what an author can do to protect him/herself from someone who'd go so far as to fake documentation.

Meanwhile, I hate the doubt cast on all oral histories every time this happens. At best, I guess it's another cautionary tale.

Comments

All I can say is "ouch." A lot of folks have surely ended up with egg on their faces, and a lot of co-writers' legal reviews have just gotten that much tougher.

I'm thinking a man who collects scrapbooks' worth of documentation has spent so many years revising his own history, he'd long since convinced himself he was telling the truth. It's a slippery slope that begins with a little exaggeration, then a lie to make the story better, and before these people know if, they really do "remembers" the story they've made up.

Not that it isn't wrong....
Pamala Knight said…
I'm always confused when things like this happen because to me, it's so obvious that when a story is compelling but 'made up' then it's page-turning fiction. I would still want to read THAT story, no matter if I knew parts of it had been fabricated.

Thanks for sharing.
Sigh. When I teach creative non fiction, I draw a line on the board the first day that goes from FICTION to TRUTH. We talk about how memoir almost never makes it all the way to "truth," because people are constantly revising their own histories and remaking themselves in their own image. BUT I try to push them to realize that they should make every effort to be as close to the truth as possible.

The problem here is that it's a SOURCE and not the author who has done the lying, and that's problematic for anyone. It's one reason why, much as I love journalism and interviewing people, I like to stick with "fiction."

I had enough of a taste for this when researching my own novel, which is about pathological lying. In order to make it as believable and credible as possible (a book about lying--credible, ha!), I interviewed people who had brushes with the disorder I'm writing about, and found my way into a big can of worms. I ended up having to delete some people from the bibliography of my dissertation because I didn't even want the association, but it was hard.
Oh and no matter what anyone says, I still love James Frey's books about writing. . .
Mylène said…
"I think everybody's mama taught them the blatant difference between being on an airplane over Hiroshima and not being on an airplane over Hiroshima." Amen, Joni. And by the way, publishing world, editors, researchers, authors et. el.: my undergraduate journalism professor, a mentor during my early years of writing newspaper stories for the Dallas Morning News and other outlets, taught me that one source is not good enough, two is acceptable and three is solid ground--and that there are solid reasons for this kind of thoroughness. Factual standards in our media culture may have eroded since the days we all sat with typewriters in front of us (well, those of us who can even remember doing this), but as individuals we needn't succumb--or be so plain dumb. One hour's worth of phone calls would have sufficed to expose Frey as a fraud, and the same for Pellegrino's book and sources. Phone calls THAT USED TO BE REQUIRED, because, you know, human beings, bless us all, are not always trustworthy. I wanted to shout at Joni's post: Do your homework, people. Every time. Every single time. You wouldn't have gotten a passing grade from Steve Kenny at Richland Community College.
Suzan Harden said…
Amen, Joni.

A few months ago, I did a comparison in my magazine column of the different POVs of the individuals involved in the Prof. Henry Gates case. In a way, it's kind of scary how our egos paint a picture that's not quite, um, realistic out of a need to be right or perfect.

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