In 2015 Belle Gibson, author of The Whole Pantry cookbook and app, was exposed as having based her work – and the social media accounts whose extraordinary followings directly led to publishing opportunities – on a lie. The journalists behind the discovery, Beau Donnelly and Nick Toscano, have since published an unravelling of their investigation, The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con (Scribe Publications, 2017). In it, they detail how Gibson came to craft her story of abandoning medical treatment for terminal brain cancer in lieu of natural therapies.
Donnelly and Toscano present the reader with salacious details of Gibson’s ‘cancer con’ including a number of the questions that were dodged or ignored to get Gibson to the point of being a celebrated name in the wellness industry, the darling of Apple (The Whole Pantry app was ‘heavily promoted by Apple as a centrepiece app on the new Apple Watch’) and the signatory to a significant book deal by publishing giant Penguin.
The Woman Who Fooled the World provides a direct record of the deception that took place in a meeting between Gibson and Julie Gibbs, the head of Penguin’s cookbook division, as part of her media training for the upcoming The Whole Pantry release.
‘Do you think you’re dying?’ Julie asked.
The publisher later admitted that it had not fact-checked Belle Gibson’s book, ‘in which she lies about her medical status…including to have cured herself of terminal brain cancer with a healthy lifestyle.’
Earlier this year, NewSouth Publishing released Clinton Walker’s Deadly Woman Blues: Black Women & Australian Music, billed as a ‘chronologically ordered biographical encyclopedia cataloguing the overlooked histories and achievements of black women in Australian music’. Walker had previously published the critically acclaimed Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music in 2000, and had thus built a reputation for sensitivity in this area. But it soon became apparent that, to quote Joan Didion, ‘writers are always selling somebody out’.
To quote Joan Didion, ‘writers are always selling somebody out’.
As Aaron Core and Marcia Langton write for The Conversation, alarm bells were first raised regarding Deadly Woman Blues when Nardi Simpson, a member of the band Stiff Gins, learned that the book ‘included commentary on her life and music without her prior knowledge or consent’. The publisher continued to defend the book through its release and promotion, however ‘ultimately relented and announced it would withdraw the book from circulation…on grounds of multiple inaccuracies and damaging repetitional distortions’.
Walker’s introduction to the book frames his fast-and-loose approach: ‘Deadly Woman Blues isn’t oral history like Buried Country, it’s graphic history. Not investigative but impressionistic. Based not on interviews but images.’
Walker’s introduction, according to Corn and Langton, provides ‘an ill-conceived attempt to absolve himself of any need to have interviewed or consulted with the artists about whom he writes’. The significant lack of citations, references and bibliography in Deadly Woman Blues do nothing to benefit Walker’s commentary. The publisher later commented that this ‘was indeed a missed opportunity,’ and that they ‘recognise it is important that these women musicians have opportunities to tell their own stories, in their own words, on their own terms’.
In 1993, Australia was rocked by one of its greatest literary scandals. The Vogel Award, self-described as ‘one of Australia’s richest and most prestigious award[s] for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five’, was won by Helen Demidenko for her novel The Hand that Signed the Paper. The book centres on a Ukrainian family, members of whom participate in the Holocaust, justifying their actions against the ‘Jewish Bolsheviks’ who were supposedly responsible for repression in Ukraine. In line with the Vogel Award’s prize structure, Allen & Unwin published the book which went on to win several prizes, including the Miles Franklin – a rare achievement for a debut novelist.
Understandably the book was already drawing criticism through claims of anti-Semitism, but the controversy over the novel was only just beginning. As Jeff Sparrow wrote for the Guardian in 2015, ‘The book’s publicity stressed Demidenko’s Ukrainian ancestry, supposedly the source for her controversial material. In interviews, the novelist spoke at length about her family and their connection to the Holocaust.’ Demidenko publicly stated that she ‘depended very heavily on my dad’s memories of what the famine was like’. But as Sparrow writes:
None of that was true. Demidenko was, in fact, born Helen Darville, the daughter of English parents – and the revelations about her extraordinary deception embarrassed the book’s supporters, many of whom had relied on claims about ‘authenticity’ in their defences of it.
Guy Rundle wrote at the time of the scandal breaking that Darville/Demidenko’s public conduct was ‘perhaps the most shameful literary deception of recent times, a shameful use of the tragedy of lived history for self-advancement’.
While these three cases differ in form and motivation, each involves a publisher excusing or ignoring work that directly harms the marginalised. Whether through unchecked and harmful advice (Gibson) or misrepresentations of history (Walker and Demidenko), each of these publications ‘speak over’ the voices of the subject.
The role of the publisher’s misconduct plays to more than just a lack of fact-checking, it encompasses the stature of the publishing house. It is not a matter of excusing small publishers over large, or fiction over non-fiction. NewSouth Publishing, with its ties to UNSW, lends prestige and an assumption of peer review to Walker’s book; Gibson’s publication by a large international press, and Demidenko’s by a successful local publisher linked to an esteemed prize, also add weight to their titles. But for the subjects of any book, no matter who puts the words to the page, there is still a personal and painful cost. There is no economic scale for deception.
For the subjects of any book, no matter who puts the words to the page, there is still a personal and painful cost. There is no economic scale for deception.
Unreliable narrators have dogged literature for as long as the art form has existed. In fiction, they exist in characters such as Nick Caraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, or both Nick and Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In traditional forms of non-fiction, one needs to think only of the revisionist Australian history textbooks used in our classrooms – retellings of other people’s histories are rife. Corn and Langton write of NewSouth Publishing’s failings:
At best, Deadly Woman Blues is a lazy, under-researched effort that models how not to approach the task of publishing other people’s stories. Amateurish and unethical in its denial of their voices and agency, it has placed at risk the reputations, privacy and integrity of the very artists it sought to celebrate causing them preventable harm and distorting the public record.
In a small population with a diminishing market for books, publishers are undoubtedly lured by high social media statistics, a track record of sales and a compelling, easy-to-sell story. We don’t know Belle Gibson’s intentions, and like the truth behind Helen Demidenko’s alias, it may take time to unravel her true motive. But each of these cases demonstrates the need to tighten the responsibility of the publisher to fact-check, to question, to not ignore the doubts and uncertainties.
Equally important, though, is the need to question how these discoveries are reported. In the cases of Walker and Darville/Demidenko, real and present racism and revisionism are at play.
Darville (known today by her married name Dale) wrote her own account of her literary hoax in 2006 which was republished in Quadrant – an outlet whose interest in the story, as Jeff Sparrow writes, ‘reflected Dale’s growing prominence in conservative circles’. Dale, by 2015 an advisor to Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, had apparently ‘intended the hoax as a blow to the left’:
Australian literature was, she argues, ‘burdened with a level of ideological conformity that would do East Germany proud’. She was appalled by the ‘ridiculous pretension and self-importance’ of the intellectual world [… which] ‘made me determined to humiliate a group I considered spineless, and my invented persona became more and more over the top’.
In Deadly Woman Blues, Walker attributes the wrong place of birth to musician Deborah Cheetham. Cheetham’s removal from her mother shortly after is known to have inspired the plot of her 2010 opera, Pecan Summer, and is aggressively damaging in its factual error. As Cheetham explained on ABC TV’s The Drum: ‘As a member of the Stolen Generations, to have the place of my birth stated with such careless inaccuracy was not only insulting to me, but to my mother and my grandmother’s experience.’
Each of these cases demonstrates the responsibility of the publisher to fact-check, to question, to not ignore the doubts and uncertainties.
Each of these hoaxes have been brought to light by different means – Walker’s the only where the direct subjects have done so and have therefore had slightly more control over its messaging. But in the cases of Gibson and Darville, both required investigative journalism that highlight the scandal first, and the impact on the maligned subject second. In the aftermath of the Gibson revelations coming to light, many were quick to blame the age of social media, created to share the raw moments of our personal lives just as much as the polished depictions of how we wish to be seen.
The Woman Who Fooled The World features interviews with many who surrounded Gibson during her success, but Gibson herself is only quoted indirectly, through other media. Of course it stands to reason that Gibson chose not to speak to the journalists who brought her dishonesty to light – but a question remains hanging over the book, and therefore over Gibson: did she ever truly believe she was going to die – and therefore, did she knowingly carry out a falsehood motivated by greed? Or have the authors of The Woman Who Fooled the World missed an opportunity to explore illness anxiety and factitious behaviours?
Donnelly and Toscano fail to adequately question why Gibson would create her persona, and the motivations behind it. To publish a ‘how-to guide’ through detailing the steps of Belle Gibson’s ‘con’ is arguably just as dangerous because it only continues the cycle of deceit. It almost becomes the miracle cure, an act that seems too good to be true: if it worked for someone else, who is to say it won’t work for me?
While Donnelly and Toscano did strong and important work in unearthing the truth about Gibson’s falsified claims of cancer and of healing herself in spite of traditional medicine, Gibson remains at the centre of the story. This is particularly true in the first half of the book, despite some input from those around Gibson who began to question how someone supposedly so sick could maintain her slick Instagrammable image, with perfect skin and hair. Later in the book Donnelly and Toscano widen the lens of their investigation to include voices of those who followed Gibson’s advice and withdrew from traditional treatments to observe The Whole Pantry’s program, severely endangering their health and shortening their lifespans. The effect of Gibson’s actions, however, comes second to her ability to pull them off.
In each of these hoaxes, it is the marginalised who are targeted and undermined, by those who hold sinister socially constructivist convictions. Just as many see immunotherapy and experimental cancer cures, ‘by blurring the line between cure and comfort – and between hope and hopelessness – they have disrupted the fragile equilibrium that we doctors have long taken for granted.’ We need to be careful, however, that in the reporting of hoaxes and cons that we are just as judicious and considered as we expect others to be.