LiteratEye #24: Home-Made Hocus Pocus Masquerades as Wisdom of an Ancient People

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy

Here’s the twenty fourth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog. In this installment, Elvin continues his survey of literary fraud focused on Australia…


LiteratEye #24: Home-Made Hocus Pocus Masquerades as Wisdom of an Ancient People
By W.J. Elvin III
July 31, 2009

aborigines-425“Jangga Meenya Bomunggur.”

In other words, “The smell of the white man is killing us.”

That’s from the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation’s mission statement, a very powerful statement and well worth checking out.

The Dumbartung group is an arts advocacy organization in Australia.

One thing the indigenous people find stinky about the white man, or in this case, woman, is exploitation through false claims of association and knowledge.

There have been several cases of authors making false claims of that sort. One in particular provoked Aborigine delegations to track down the perpetrator, Marlo Morgan.

They tried to confront Morgan, author of Mutant Message Down Under, in the United States and Japan.

Morgan made millions from Mutant. In it, she claimed she was kidnapped by a mysterious band of Aborigines, forced to go on desert walkabout, and ultimately initiated into realms of secret knowledge.

Academics and journalists — and anyone else who could get past their need for a wisdom-of-the-noble-savage fix – declared the book a total fabrication.

But Morgan, who had by then hit the big time with interviews and appearances of the Oprah sort, stuck to her story: “Everything that I say happened did happen.”

Much has been written showing the book is a concoction. I won’t go into those details, but you can check out some examples at the Creative Spirits web site.

What I wanted to get into is the question that seems often to occur to the general reader: What’s the big deal? Why all the fuss? Who cares if it’s true or false?

For answers I am indebted to Cath Ellis, who has tried to drive home to potential readers the only reality of Mutant.

And that is: Stripped of the window dressing, Mutant is “simply a mushy set of very general ‘self-help’ principles that have been made up by a middle-aged white woman from Missouri” who hit the jackpot by claiming the work presents true indigenous wisdom.

Dr. Ellis was a lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Wollongong when she wrote an essay, “Marlo Morgan and the Fabrication of Indigenous Wisdom.” Ellis is now head of Humanities at the University of Huddersfield in northern England.

“I agree that there is a considerable ‘so what’ response from readers,” Ellis said in reply to my question, “particularly those in North America where it sold most widely and in non-Australian parts of the world.”

Further: “It has been widely translated and is in many cases one of the very, very few books ‘on’ indigenous Australian culture in many non-English languages. So the fact that it’s completely made up is deeply problematic, as its impact is disproportionate to its veracity.”

When she was teaching in Australia, Ellis noted, Mutant was the only book about — or purporting to be about — the country that many of her American study-abroad students had read.

She has seen the book in museum shops around the world, displayed as non-fiction. A further problem is that many reviewers continued to treat the work as factual. And some academics made it required reading in cultural studies.

Ellis said the book isn’t well known in Australia, where its factual errors would have alerted the most casual reader to its fantasy nature. “It’s so bad as to be amusing to Australian readers.”

As she’d made clear in the essay I read prior to getting in touch, what interests Ellis most about the phenomenon is “why so many people who read it want it to be true so badly that they don’t care that it’s fabricated.”

The answer?

In a very thoughtful response to my questions, Ellis said readers can find delusional comfort in the bland and non-challenging “wisdom” offered “without having to confront the fact that your comfortable, western, capitalist life has been possible only at very serious cost to indigenous people’s lives and cultures.”

That seems worth repeating, but I won’t.

Apparently the latest publisher insisted on a fiction tag for Mutant, though it remains rife with indications that it is a true story. Indications like this: The fiction tag was there, the book claimed, to “protect the small band of Aboriginals from legal involvement.”

Of course, there is no such small band of “Aboriginals.”

It took some work to acquire a paper copy of Ellis’ essay, appearing in a special issue of “Who’s Who – Hoaxes, Imposture and Identity Crises in Australian Literature,” the Australian Literary Studies journal published by the University of Queensland Press. Half a dozen emails and a $30 investment put it in my hands.

But you get the benefit of my learning process. I subsequently found a free on-line copy of it on BNET.

Well, have we learned anything? Let’s see.

You’ve got this zillion-dollar new age-y self-help publishing industry that feeds on the emptiness and anxiety of modern readers who crave nourishment, anything that sounds like authentic “how to live” guidance.

And that industry will, under the right conditions, pitch a million or two your way merely for imaginative scavenging of a beaten-down people’s culture and heritage.

What’s the big deal? Well, suppose this story ended by saying that the book actually countered some of the modern world’s greed and indifference, it genuinely sparked readers to greater compassion, and, instead of getting tossed aside for the next guru’s poppycock manifesto, it changed us a little bit for the better … might be the Dumbartung bunch would re-assess us. Might be they would say, you guys still stink, but not quite so much as yesterday.

image: moonbattery.com


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


Check out previous LiteratEye episodes on The Art of the Prank.


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


Check out previous LiteratEye episodes on The Art of the Prank.