Razer on hoaxes from Ern Malley to Belle Gibson (the Quinoa Demidenko of our times)

The idea that the powerless, the sick or the generally unfortunate have some kind of cultural head start is a persistent delusion. And it’s one that tends to prove itself lately by means of the most peculiar duplicity.In recent weeks, news that author and entrepreneur Belle Gibson was not as unlucky as she claimed to be has seen her stripped of all legitimacy and power. Which is to say, she’s powerless because she’s no longer seen as powerless.

Gibson, an unscientific but much-admired advocate for “healing”, owed much of her success to cancer. A disease that ruins the lives of many served only to improve hers as she claimed to have several of its most incurable varieties and to have beaten them all with natural secrets available for just $3.79 at the App Store. As it turned out, the oncological medicine on which Gibson had claimed to turn her back in favour of “clean eating” had never offered her a diagnosis in the first place. In a recent interview with an Australian women’s publication, she admitted to lying about her illness.

Our national history is fairly rich in author hoax and it is tempting to compare Belle Gibson and her fabricated cancer to James McAuley and Harold Stewart and their fabricated poet, Ern Malley. It would be even easier to see the young businesswoman as a sort of Quinoa Demidenko. Here, commercial success was largely built on a troubling case of identity mistaken, perhaps, even by the person who claimed it. Just as former author Helen Demidenko, now known as Helen Dale, seemed at times, particularly when posing in Ukrainian folk-dress, absolutely convinced that her forbears had died at the hands of imaginary evil Soviet Jews, Gibson seemed pretty sure about her factitious cancer.

Actually, the women’s publication that tells the Moving Story of how Belle Gibson’s original Moving Story was horseshit speculates that she has Munchhausen syndrome. This, for those of you who do not watch made-for-TV movies, is a disorder that causes its sufferer to lie about having disorders. How soon Belle Gibson will re-emerge to develop a new program of ultra-healthy eating that fixes the problem about lying for the reasons you are engaging in ultra-healthy eating is a matter for the bookies. The rest of us are just left to wonder what this latest author hoax might mean for the culture.

There are, according to media outpourings, a good many people who are hurt by Gibson’s misleading claims. This, of course, is not in doubt. But, the act of giving sham hope to the seriously ill is at least as old as the idea of disease and what Gibson has done is really not much worse than what you might find in the pamphlets at your local wellness centre or on an anti-vax website. In fact, the popular culture is full of bright pseudo-science communicated by idiotic optimists and we must remember that Gibson lied about the fact of her illness and its cure in a climate of dolts lying about “studies” and “energy” and the evils of sugar or a diet lacking in coconut water.

It’s here the response to the Gibson hoax — or Munchhausen’s episode or whatever we might choose to call it — is different to those that greeted Demidenko’s The Hand That Signed the Paper or Ern Malley’s The Darkening Ecliptic.

Despite some fairly courageous critique by Robert Hughes who claimed that they were testament to the power of surrealist poetic technique, the Malley works did great disservice to Australian modernism. Submitted to the journal Angry Penguins by Ern’s surviving sister Ethel — and as much as you might loathe McAuley and Stewart for their conservatism, Ethel remains a pretty funny antecedent to Dame Edna –the collection supposedly written by an ordinary working man of Willy Loman type hurt nothing so much as Australian literary pretensions.

Similarly, Dale made a joke of our better critics. She won the Vogel, the Miles Franklin and the ALS Gold Medal for a work that putatively drew on Ukrainian wartime history and, by extension, her family’s place within it.

If there’s an emerging institution that deserves to pilloried, surely it’s that of “clean eating” and all the pseudo-knowledges of natural health. But, the foolish and expensive practice of cramming one’s pie-hole with exotic seeds in the hope of beating cancer is not something many seem to be questioning. A few eminent doctors have implored us to see this hoax as a part of a dangerous trend that actively steers sick people away from medical treatments proven to help but such warnings are barely heard in the rush to blame Gibson herself.

In the ’40s, the Ern Malley affair provoked a great crisis of faith in modernism and the working man’s entitlement to write. In the ’90s, the Demidenko palaver was an ongoing, front-page soap opera that caused many to question mot just the literary establishment but the many multicultural voices it could no longer find an excuse to ignore. Demidenko and Malley proved that there were things factitious beyond themselves. Belle Gibson’s lie is now confined to her own person and not to the abundantly stupid culture that allowed it to be told and believed.

People of modest talent and drive took comfort in the fantasies of prejudice that Demidenko and Malley provided. We were able to laugh at the idea that working class men or migrant women, however imaginary, were given an easy time of it because of their identities. Such prejudice blinds us to the fact that it is almost always those with lives of dull privilege who win all the biggest prizes. In literature and elsewhere.

That the underprivileged have, somehow, great privilege is a chimera with enduring appeal for many and leads Andrew Bolt, for example, to regularly propose that there is some great advantage to being an Aboriginal Australian. In what must be remembered as a moment even lower in Australian intellectual life than that of The Hand That Signed the Paper, Pauline Hanson used her maiden speech to question “the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia” . At around the time of the Demidenko hoax, a number of white artists and authors had pretended to be Aboriginal Australians in order to gain market share. It can’t be that bad to be Aboriginal, Hanson said to press at the time, because it’s something people pretend to be for personal gain.

The “facts” of The Hand That Signed the Paper and The Darkening Ecliptic were, of course, as groundless as the authors’ surnames and their family trees. Helen Demidenko claims in the book that bore her name that the very worst crimes of the Soviet Union were almost uniformly enacted by Jews are as false as Hanson’s or Bolt’s. Being an Aboriginal Australian confers no more cultural or social advantage than being the daughter of an illiterate Ukrainian taxi-driver as per Demidenko. Not being these things yet succeeding by the claim that you are is no proof of the Quadrant-style belief that we reward the underprivileged.

It is proof only that we love to see the already dominant order of things reaffirmed. Which might help us understand why everyone is angry with Belle Gibson and nobody much can be bothered destroying the natural health bullshit that formed her and her commercial success.

35 responses to “Razer on hoaxes from Ern Malley to Belle Gibson (the Quinoa Demidenko of our times)

  1. Yes Helen that’s right. My hrNdmothers maiden name was Hofferman reduced to Hoff when they got out of Germany in 35 I think. Not sure on that but on growing up was always encouraged to study the history of the Jews but to suggest the Putin would lie about early Russian history. Well spank my arse & call me Charlie.I guess we both learnt something.
    PS Can I blame apple for my typos
    Cheers. M

  2. Enjoyed the history lesson RE the Jewish involvement in the Russian revolution. Derrida was a slog but enjoy the discourse. Freacking I pad. Technology has its down side

    1. Maurice. the history that claims that Jews/Judaism is the driving force behind Soviet-era genocide is absolute twaddle. The book referenced is not a history lesson but a lesson in how not to write history.

  3. cRazer,

    there are so many straw people arguments about natural food here!

    You conflate perfectly reasonable reservations about the amount of sugar in the modern diet, trendy super-food health kicks with absolutely no evidence base and pseudo-cures for cancers. It seems to be more because of your perceptions of the sort of people that you think fall for these things as much as the things themselves.

    Goji berries – tick. Absolutely no evidence for their health benefits. The snobbilly mispronounced keen-wah, pricing poor locals out of traditional (or any other) sustenance so hipsters can feel smug – tick. Coconut water …. where do I even start?

    But sugar? The World Health Organisation’s peer-reviewed recommendations for daily sugar intake are way below average western consumption – and the ones they wanted to recommend before sustained and highly-resourced food industry intervention are far lower still.

    Just because trendies, hipsters and health freaks are into something, isn’t evidence enough to discount it.

  4. Marvellous how a bloody I pad keeps putting up typos. I meant to say ” keep em coming. Another good piece Helen” freaking technology putting words into my speach

  5. Great article – skewered the pretentious wellness set perfectly. The chattering comments even add to the fun. Nothing like a good dollop of that big German word to get them all chattering.

    1. I don’t see what Gesellschaftsgeschichte or Vergangenheitsbewältigung
      have to do with any of this.

      Your chattering comments are fun too!

  6. I don’t understand how you reached your conclusion that we love to see the dominant order of things reaffirmed from the premises of the argument. But critical appraisal of articles was never my strong point.
    But no matter, I’d never heard of the Ern Malley affair and find it interesting.
    As for Belle Gibson, she has to live with the possibility that her meddling may have convinced people not to have chemotherapy who subsequently died earlier or possibly unnecessarily. This makes her a bit of an arsehole I reckon, and makes her more malicious than many other types of fraudsters.

  7. She did it for riches and limelight. Apart from the lies about cancer, in order to shift more product she said that part of the profits would be given to charity and none ever was. In that light she is different to the others; simply a money-seeking fraud who was able to reach a lot of dupes by using the internets.

  8. Gibson is no “entrepreneur” !

    ALL that she is is a grovelling and gormless scam artist whose shonky business os based on the age-old principle of flogging fake ‘cures’ and empty hope to the desperate and vulnerable..

    1. I don’t think “entrepreneur” comes with a value judgement. That’s what she was. It’s a job description. I don’t think “entrepreneur ” should be read as “good person”.

      1. Helens a great writer but it’s this I pad.might wack it against a brick half a dozen times & ask it who wins now Apple?

  9. I agree with Ambrose and Fantomas. The analogy between Belle Gibson and Ern Malley is a non sequitur. The whole point of the Malley hoax was for it to be revealed, to expose the targets to ridicule. The Demidenko and Gibson frauds were meant to remain secret, to make a buck.

    The point about quacks being as old as illness is well made though.

  10. The Helen D furore has always troubled me for conflating the author with the work. I like to think the judges of the Miles F or any award are concerned with the literary merit of the work as published, so it shouldn’t matter whether she was Demidenko or Dale, Ukrainian or Anglo, male or female, straight or gay, etc etc (unless of course it’s a condition of the award). I’d also like to think it shouldn’t matter to the general reader but obviously it does when her Ukrainianness is a major promotion angle. Writing in the first person as the putative niece of a fictional war crimes suspect doesn’t really give greater authority to your story but sure helps sell the book. Being a putative multiple cancer sufferer doesn’t make you a therapeutic authority but it sure helps sell quackery, and exploiting the desperately ill is rightly denigrated.

    Readers of The Hand… were buying a story with a historical point of view, not a miracle cure for terminal illness. If anyone felt cheated that prizes went to someone “of dull privilege” not a working-class migrant then perhaps literary awards should be judged by blind tasting and only open to unpublished works in anonymous packaging.

  11. Tempting as it might be to see Belle Gibson as the latest great Aussie Author fraud, there is a big difference. The only risk with Ern Malley and Demidenko was the reputations of pretentious literary wanker types. With Belle Gibson the stakes were higher with sick and desperate folks with little power over the cancer killing their bodies were suckered into believing the hype.

  12. I really do love your writing Ms Razer. Erudite and entertaining, not to mention the moments of audible pin dropping honesty.
    I felt concerned enough over your tone regarding the ‘natural health bullshit’ to swallow my pride and write to ask whether I should be taking it as tongue in cheek? I apologise for my dull mind, left school at 14 and all that.
    I honestly thought that it was self evident that eating a diverse diet of unprocessed, natural, fresh foods would be ‘good’ for our bodies, whether we are sick or not?

    1. Of course, everyday dietary science tells us this stuff. Which is quite different to being told this stuff in quasi-mystical terms with the added urging to leave behind “conventional” medicine in favour of nonsense.
      A critique of the wellness industry is not a critique of scientific theory. That some of the recommendations from each institution happen to coincide is not the issue. The naive cynicism of science is the problem.
      Why is a critique of the poison well of wellness, which contains a lot of unhealthy recommendations alongside those that happen to be healthy, always read as “eat McDonald’s”? FFS. Was no one taught to argue at school?

      1. PHILIPE! I realise how clumsy and insensitive my previous comment was with the added “what do they teach in school these days?”. Upon a more careful reading of your comment, I see that you were compelled to leave your higher education quite early.
        Anyhow. They probably wouldn’t have taught you how to argue as agreement and acceptance rather than argument seem now to be more valued schools.
        My point is: just because an anti-scientist happens to hold an opinion that coincides with science (eat greens, avoid sugar etc), their anti-science is not excused.

  13. I think lots of people are bothered about the natural health rubbish. Isn’t the issue that others were affected by her position, and that she profited? I don’t see any anomalies. If anything, at least literature and poetry can be art in themselves. Gibson peddled false hope.

  14. The problem here is that people were believing the coconut water bulldust and not getting proper medical help. How many people have died because did not get, or delayed getting, professional advice? Dodgy authors are not in the same league…

  15. It’s totally unfair to lump the Ern Malley hoax in with the others. Surely they produced hoax poetry to show up the pretentiousness of their times, not for financial gain or to provide false non-fiction credentials for their fictions? There’s a big difference between being the emperor with no clothes and being the little boy who points it out.

    1. Agree that Belle Gibson’s actions don’t really come into the category of hoax. They were cruel and selfish and perhaps illegal.
      I must admit to a personal involvement in this issue. My wife died of breast cancer ten years ago on December 1.
      We considered some natural remedies such as green tea but were guided by Pauline’s oncologist who gave her the best treatment available but to no avail.
      Sometime after Pip’s death I reluctantly accompanied a friend to a natural remedies expo. somewhere where a spruiker let us into his secret that there WAS a cure for cancer but it was being supressed by the medical industry for their profit. It took all of my self control to avoid getting to my feet and shouting BULLSHIT!
      So Belle has profited from other cancer sufferers and possibly also from those who thought that they were donating to cancer charities.
      I am also less than impressed with the magazine that published her latest story. I know that they claim that no one was paid but they certainly profited from increased sales due to public curiosity. Belle also must have got some satisfaction from the publicity, otherwise she would never have agreed.
      If criminal charges cannot be laid I think that the best punishment for this person is to simply ignore her. Narcissists can’t bear not being he centre of attention, even if negative.

    2. The Ern Malley hoax blew up in the hoaxers faces. It is now almost conventional wisdom that the Ern Malley poems were in fact the hoaxers best work, far better than their conventional poetry. So they didn’t show up the pretentiousness of their time at all, they showed up the anaemic derivative nature of the accepted culture.

      1. Helen, you *did* establish the differences. But you give Mr Chapel the benefit of the doubt that, because he got as far as the comments section, he must have actually read the whole piece. And, that if he did read it all, he paused for thought long enough to digest and comprehend it.

        It is clearly no coincidence that the first and fastest two comments on the article make exactly the same basic error, within two minutes of each other.

        Seriously, folks, if you are so desperate to be the first to comment, just bash out “Woot! First!” Then you can go back and actually *read* the article.

  16. “Our national history is fairly rich in author hoax and it is tempting to compare Belle Gibson and her fabricated cancer to James McAuley and Harold Stewart and their fabricated poet, Ern Malley.”

    Is it? I’ve got to say, I think that’s a decidedly unreasonable correlation to have drawn. I doubt anybody else has considered doing that. Literally. The Ern Malley scandal was designed to send up modernist writing–the idea being that it was essentially vacuous and abstract to the point of meaninglessness and absurdity. It worked.

    Gibson is just like any other buck standard grifter if you ask me. No different than a guy pretending to be blind shaking a tin for spare change in the subway.

    1. Agree, Literary hoaxes which cause some upset to the literati cannot in any way be compared to a fraud that exploits people who are seriously ill or even dying. That people are vulnerable to these wares, is perhaps more a result of desperation than culture, although even reputable groups were sucked it, That defies explanation.


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