Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Flights of Fancy?

I don’t know if you saw the story about the publisher Bloomsbury having to pull all the copies of the book Rock Me Gently that's done the rounds in the last few weeks (I mean, how would I?), but it certainly caught my eye. Telling the story of author Judith Kelly’s time at a convent school as a child in 1950s Bexhill, the book charts the extreme acts of sadism she experienced at the hands of the nuns charged with her care and won praise in literacy fields for bringing the theme of abuse to wider attention. Sadly though, this has been undermined by accusations that passages of the book have been plagiarised from other works, and ones which are quite hard to refute at that.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at an extract from Graham Greene’s classic Brighton Rock, one of a number of the works Kelly is alleged to have plundered.

‘…“But you believe, don’t you,” Rose implored him, “You think it’s true?”
“Of course it’s true,” the Boy said. “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits…”
“And Heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety….’

And now Kelly’s.

‘…“But you believe, don’t you?” I implored her. “You think it’s true.”
“Of course it’s true. What else could there be?” she went on scornfully. “Because it’s the only thing that fits...”
“And Heaven too,” I said with anxiety…’


In defence of Kelly, Bloomsbury’s head honchos have announced that this plagiarism has come about inadvertently, a result of Kelly’s sub-conscious accessing her apparent photographic memory for books she had read whilst writing her own piece. Having seen some of the other alleged plagiarised passages, I’m actually inclined to eschew Occam's Razor and believe this: the similarities are so blatant (and in some cases, the lifted prose rather unspectacular) I fail to see how someone could or would purposely do this. But what is, I feel, a more pertinent aspect of this episode is the shadow of doubt it casts over her childhood memories of abuse and, by association, those of others. If she can’t differentiate between books she’s read in recent years and her childhood memories, can she reliably differentiate between any of the books, stories or films she’s undoubtedly been exposed to over her lifetime and that which has actually happened to her? How do we know she isn’t confusing her own experiences with those of, say, a film character she felt affinity for?*

Well, reassuringly (depending on your standpoint) cognitive psychology offers little in the way to suggest that highly implausible events are easily falsely planted in someone’s childhood memories. Whilst it may be fairly easy for some to be mistakenly convinced that they once had, say, a favourite red hat as a child, making them believe they suffered for years at the hands of cruel guardians is quite another thing. And, to the best of my knowledge, there are no nuns called Miss Hannigan in Kelly’s book. In spite of this though, with the fashion for the dismissive explanation of false memory syndrome prevailing in some circles, Kelly’s book has regrettably provided decent ammunition for the naysayers.

*Edit: Judith Kelly has subsequently contacted me, informing me that she kept a diary during her time at the convent, which she still possesses. Furthermore, the claim that the similarities were a result of photographic memory is a claim Kelly herself has never made. Rather, they arose as a result of Kelly's attempts to familiarise with the turns of phrase employed by her favourite authors via a process of emulation as she first set out to to tell her story. With the passing of time, she was unable to spot all the pieces she had taken from other authors. So much for the photographic memory theory!


Curly said...

That's funny, I wrote exactly the same post about 8 months ago.

y-vonne said...

and you read too? What are you Nietze's Everyman????? Is there no limit to what you can not do???