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Burdens of Proof

Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography

By Susanna Egan
Subjects Literary Criticism, Biography & Autobiography, Cultural Studies
Series Life Writing Hide Details
Paperback : 9781554583331, 210 pages, April 2011
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554583508, 210 pages, April 2011


Excerpt from Chapter 1, Burdens of Proof by Susanna Egan

From Chapter 1 Doubting Thomas: The Implications of Imposture in Autobiography

This book is about imposture in autobiography, which I define as a serious disconnect between the author as a person alive in the world, pre-text, before any story emerges, and the written life, what I am calling the textual identity. Imposture, in other words, is not fiction and is not even the fictionalizing of stories based on truth. Nor is it small lies such as creep into every personal story because the story sounds better that way. Nor is it lapses or distortions of memory, with which honest autobiographies are replete. Imposture is distinct from all of these because it is a pretense; impostors are frauds, fakes, plagiarists, and phonies. They claim lives they have not lived, experiences they have not had, and identities that belong to other people. They do so for many reasons and often with significant success, often, but not always, causing real damage in the real world. However, though some of the cases I examine anger me, my project is not simply a moral one; rather, it sets out to explore histories of faith and of doubt. What do we believe, and why? (Why, for instance, do we believe that regular autobiography tells the truth, or any kind of truth?) What leads us to doubt, and how do we excavate the truth that is eluding us? The impostor is like the Wizard of Oz, just a little person creating big effects from a secret hiding place. Part of my pleasure with this work has been flinging back the curtain with a triumphant “aha! ” but part has also been working with the knowledge that all autobiography surely performs aspects of identity—which I understand as those partial, temporary, certainly elusive elements of self as one is perceived or as one feels oneself to be. How is imposture so different? Does it adopt the wrong posture? Does it hide the unacceptable secret?

I have always had a soft spot for Doubting Thomas. He was a faithful disciple through difficult times, prepared to die with Jesus if need be (John 11: 16), but he found stories of Jesus¿ resurrection just over the top. His faith could not go that far: he needed proof. For Thomas, proof meant a physical body and physical wounds (John 20: 24-29). Though all the gospels list Thomas as among the twelve, only John's—by far and away the least literal—develops this story of Thomas's doubt. For me, this doubt would have less impact if it appeared among the more grounded biographical narratives of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. (Indeed, who remembers Matthew's throwaway line at 28: 17 that some disciples were doubtful?) The full story of Thomas's doubt appears only in John¿s gospel; and appears, furthermore, at a point when we as readers have given ourselves over to the impact of a story that does not depend on fact for its power. Thomas's call for factual proof is a shock. He doubts at the very point where everyone else is carried away with excitement. Their story is thrilling and astonishing (Jesus has risen from the dead), but Thomas hesitates and asks for proof. So Doubting Thomas is the patron saint of my present work because his story goes to the heart of my concerns: How and why do astonishing stories arise, and with what effects? How, and why, and with what effects, are they called into question?


From Chapter 3 Sensational Identities: Made in the Media

I did not read A Million Little Pieces when it came out or even when it became a bestseller. I was immersed at the time in the reading required for classes and research, so I depended on reviews and discussion for many books that were attracting the attention of friends and neighbours. However, by February 2006, I noticed that we were into week five of the scandal that had followed James Frey's autobiography after it was shown to be a tissue of lies. My desk soon became littered with printouts from the links from the links on the Internet. Family and friends were e-mailing these sites to me on a daily basis, an international Web of our own for gossip and for sharing news. . . . The extent of the scandal was quite astonishing. Colleagues who knew I was interested in imposture began accosting me on the stairs, in the washroom, and at the water cooler wanting to know if I was having fun. (Yes, I would be having fun if I could keep up. ) The Frey scandal opened up for all to see the kinds of issues that had been concerning me for a while. “Do you think, ” Michelle, my massage therapist, asked, “that we should be reading memoir the same way we read fiction? For me, ” she said, “the two are quite different because I believe what I read in memoir. I'm not reading a fictional story, I'm reading about a real person. ” Exactly the kind of question I had been working with. Clearly, I had to do some solid research here—at least as solid as Michelle's—and read the book itself. “What on earth do you want this one for?” asked my friend at special orders in the bookstore, clearly implying that my habits tend to be more salubrious. “Are you buying this one in spite of yourself?” asked the woman at the till, whom I don't know at all. After all the hype, I fell asleep within thirty pages. However, serious research is always a hard slog, and my interest in imposture is more than a little connected to my own fears about being an impostor myself. As I approached retirement I took comfort in a friend's kind reassurances that if I got away with it for just a little while longer, I'd have had "them" fooled.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography by Susanna Egan


1. Doubting Thomas: The Implications of Imposture in Autobiography

2. Faith, Doubt, and Textual Identity

3. Sensational Identities: Made in the Media

4. “The Song My Paddle Sings”: Grey Owl and Ethnic Imposture

5. “Frautobiography,” or, Discourses of Deception

6. In Search of the Subject: The Disappearance of the Jews

In Conclusion: Textual Identities at Work in the World


Works Cited



Autobiographical impostures, once they come to light, appear to us as outrageous, scandalous. They confuse lived and textual identity (the person in the world and the character in the text) and call into question what we believe, what we doubt, and how we receive information. In the process, they tell us a lot about cultural norms and anxieties. Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography examines a broad range of impostures in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and asks about each one: Why this particular imposture? Why here and now?

Susanna Egan’s historical survey of texts from early Christendom to the nineteenth century provides an understanding of the author in relation to the text and shows how plagiarism and other false claims have not always been regarded as the frauds we consider them today. She then explores the role of the media in the creation of much contemporary imposture, examining in particular the cases of Jumana Hanna, Norma Khouri, and James Frey. The book also addresses ethnic imposture, deliberate fictions, plagiarism, and ghostwriting, all of which raise moral, legal, historical, and cultural issues. Egan concludes the volume with an examination of how historiography and law failed to support the identities of European Jews during World War II, creating sufficient instability in Jewish identity and doubt about Jewish wartime experience that the impostor could step in. This textual erasure of the Jews of Europe and the refashioning of their experiences in fraudulent texts are examples of imposture as an outcrop of extreme identity crisis.

The first to examine these issues in North America and Europe, Burdens of Proof will be of interest to scholars of life writing and cultural studies. /p


``Egan writes eloquently of the faith that we necessarily invest in our reading, and of the doubt that potentially cripples our understanding of life writing. Her obviously well-researched study, laden with secondary resources and theoretical references, is an astute and concise insight into the literal nature of truth. ... An unusually lively reading. ... Her book fills a gap left by other life writing research which has been oddly reluctant to devote an entire study to this fascinating sub-genre. Burdens of Proof is essential reading for those studying life writing. ''

- Adam Quinlivan, Literature in North Queensland, Volume 39, 2012

``In this compelling study of the representation and reception of fraudulent identities, Susanna Egan offers a subtle and intelligent reading of the ways in which histories of faith and doubt inform autobiographical practices. Tracing the problematics of ascription, plagiarism, ghosting, invention, or theft in different historical and political climates and across a variety of material cultures, Burdens of Proof provocatively asks readers to extend autobiography's claims to self and truth to themselves. Egan's enthusiasm for her topic is contagious and, as usual, masterfully complemented with an acute understanding of the workings of autobiography as well as its very real impact on our lives. ''

- Nancy Pedri, Memorial University of Newfoundland

``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 gleans a clearer understanding of how imposture works to both create and destroy stereotypes, cultural blind spots, and our collective desires. The reader often sympathizes with the phony and the duped, as Egan taps into the common desire to test our identities, to play with our own stories. Whether she is discussing Andreas Karavais, the whimsical, albeit imaginary, Greek poet, or the unfortunate timeliness of Jumana Hanna and Norma Khouri's (real name Norma Toliopolous) stories of Muslim women needing Western rescue, the cultural acceptance and perpetuation of the dubious need to satisfy common desires and assuage common fears is well noted. ... What kinds of cultures accept and celebrate what kinds of stories? And who gets to tell them? Through this lens, as Egan shows, a complex world of faith, doubt, and identity unravels. ''

- Meghan Rosatelli, Biography, 34.4, Fall 2011

``Why do we still believe in autobiography in this post-hoax era? Why do readers, en masse, continue to succumb to hoaxes, believing in fraudulent texts and authors? The hoax has fascinated many life-writing scholars in recent years with the publication of a plethora of articles, book chapters, and journal issues on autobiographical hoaxes, particularly in relation to legal, ethical, and moral standards. Susanna Egan's Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography is, however, the first full-lenghth exploration on this subject. ... Egans covers a lot of ground; however, her chosen foci are explored with great attention—offering a depth of discussion that is impressive for a single book. ... Egan's arguments here are topical and consistently persuasive. The strength of this book lies in Egan's expansive knowledge of life-writing scholarship. As one of the pioneers of contemporary life-writing theory, Egan seamlessly integrates the theories of her life-writing peers with her own hypotheses to produce sophisticated and thoughtful inquiries. ... Burdens of Proof is an intriguing study which will be of interest to scholars and students of life-writing and contemporary literary studies in particular. As always, Egan's prose is what academic writing should be: sophisticiated and challenging whilst clear and accessible. Egan writes about what is both topical and intellectually exigent. She reminds us of the continuing relevance of autobiography to our everyday lives and cultures. ''

- Kate Douglas, Canadian Literature, 214, Autumn 2012

``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. ... Egan does not regard herself as someone who takes pleasure in exposing impostors; that is scarcely her task in this finely tuned book. Rather she reveals how the very equivocal nature of autobiography—the way textual and personal identity can become confused or can split apart from each other—opens up a space impostors readily occupy, utlizing the problematics of the genre to trade upon our trust and perhaps more insiduously believing in the chimerical truth of what they report even as they harbor secrets they must work to protect and defend. ... For so carefully and elegantly setting out the terms and implications of all literary imposture, we are in Susanna Egan's debt. Knowing the value and necessity of truthful and authoritative personal stories, she has written a book of rare intelligence and moral perspicacity. ''

- Roger J. Porter, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies