Let me say a word or two about this new literary form, the faux history. Here’s the evolution. I fell enthralled with the study of history in college. What enthralled me? It really wasn’t the story. In those days, I paid particular attention to British imperialism, and Jewish history, and American migration. Nor was it the personality of the instructor, and I sat in classrooms led by remarkable minds. It was the journey to find some truth. That was the foundation.
To build on that foundation, I felt challenged by the historical method. There was both science and humanities involved. There was hard data collection and circumstantial evidence and interpretation. I studied the form. I rooted through source material. A question perplexed me. How were histories written?
I remember a particular historian called me out. I had just written a thesis on Jewish Germany, comparing East German Jews to West German Jews since the Holocaust. This event occurred shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The narrative then described a lost people, hidden under the weight of death camps. I found the narrative false. I found vibrant, learned communities, living in the now. I called for a new history. The historian made a suggestion. “Why don’t you write the history you call for?” he said.
I have never forgotten his words. They might be the most influential words ever spoken to me. I still think of those words during my writing process. I took his words to graduate school. I had an idea I wanted to pursue. I wanted to study the fantasy life of prisoners. Specifically, I wanted to focus on the death camps in Poland during World War II. I wanted to understand where the prisoners went in their heads when they fantasized. The narrative holds that they fantasized about food. They were starving, and food became the total preoccupation.
I believed then, and I’m sure of it now, that much got shunted in that narrative. I think the prisoners, and I’m talking specifically about Jewish prisoners, created a vivid fantasy life. What might they fantasize about? Revenge comes to mind. Stabbing an SS officer, or a kapo, or a fellow prisoner who had just stolen a prized commodity, like a spoon or a toothbrush. But revenge is only the half of it. I think prisoners fantasized about privacy, and speaking to separated loved ones, and sex. I think sex became a preoccupation.
I couldn’t write this thesis. It wasn’t possible from an institutional perspective. The study of the Holocaust, in the 1990s, couldn’t branch out in size and scope and imagination. A conservative nature kept the study small, with tentacles going nowhere. To talk about sex-as-fantasy would have been a kind of heresy. The thinking then: How dare we bother survivors with those types of questions. How dare we intrude upon their inner space.
Now, such a study might be possible from an institutional perspective, but the demographics no longer line up. In the 1990s, there were tens of thousands of camp survivors around as potential source material. They were in their 70s. Now, they’re in their 90s. There aren’t tens of thousands remaining.
I floundered around the history halls of a prestigious graduate program for a time. But, in truth, something happened to me there. History became boring. History became ego. The scholars in the program were far different than the scholars of college. Writing history, and publishing it, turned them into megalomaniacs. It pained me. To the question “How were histories written?” I asked a second question. What did the search for truth have to do with power?
I dropped out of graduate school. I needed to move away from the ego of scholarship. I began to write fiction. I wanted to turn my thesis idea into a novel. It went nowhere. Why? The story idea might have been fine but the execution was terrible. I couldn’t write. I didn’t understand anything about the art form, the flow of story, the usage of words. I simply got in the way of the story all the time. Maybe I still do. I don’t know.
In my early 30s, I wrote a book called What the Psychic Saw. That wasn’t the original title. I wrote the story under a provisional title, The Century of Electricity. Using the 20th century as setting and character, I followed the evolution of electricity. What began at an event at the world’s fair on the morning of September 6, 1901 snaked through the killing center of Auschwitz and over to the Manhattan project at Alamogordo. A significant gerrymandering took place with the Alger Hiss case and that turned the century toward the cold war, and class warfare, and race-related eruptions occurring in places like Watts and South Central, Los Angeles. The century’s evolution of electricity ended on September 11, 2001 in New York City with the bombing of the World Trade Center.
The publishing house changed the name of the work. I don’t know why I went along with the name change. The publisher was, essentially, self-publishing. I guess I didn’t see it for what it was. I fell in line with the name change because I had my sights on the bigger picture. What the Psychic Saw was my first foray into historical fiction. But, really, it set the stage of what was to come, the faux history.
I wasn’t entirely happy with the form in Psychic. I still had that perplexing question in mind. How were histories written? Writing historical fiction didn’t satisfy that journey to find some truth. I wanted to maintain the shape of a thoroughly researched history. I wanted source material, and documented reportage, and eyewitness testimony, and footnotes. I wanted story to follow from a foundation of fact.
I began the faux history form in a work entitled, The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise. The story began in Tehran 1979. When a group of Iranian college students stormed the American embassy and took hostages, it set the stage for world politics of the most damaging kind. The question became: Did the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan negotiate a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after the presidential election of 1980, thereby assuring themselves of victory over President Carter?
There were works that looked into this history. But to study those works revealed a sad truth: there was so much misinformation and disinformation regarding the October Surprise, as it’s known, that the facts of the case didn’t form a coherent, researchable story.
For historians rooted to the historical method, this conclusion closes the door on the case. Without facts, what is history? I proceeded anyway, though I veered into a different lane. This is where the faux history gathers speed. Imagination kicks in. Fabrication accelerates. Invention replaces reality. But unlike earlier forms of historical fabrication – historical fiction or alternative history – the faux history maintains the shape of a thoroughly researched history. The faux historian fleshes out the players involved, fleshes out the records, fleshes out the truths. The faux historian presents primary source material, cites experts, annotates, builds conclusions based on facts. Like a genuine history, the flow of facts dictates the story line.
Facts, of course, can be easily manipulated. In French, faux means false. When are the facts false? When do facts fictionalize? These questions lie at the heart of the faux history.
My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, takes on all of this evolution. Let’s go back over thirty years to my thesis on Jewish Germany since the Holocaust. Let’s go back to the historian calling me out with those words, “Why don’t you write the history you call for?” Let’s go back, too, to my presumed doctoral dissertation on the fantasy life of camp prisoners. With these foundational moorings echoing in my head, I decided to write a history. I just did it in a different form. I wrote a critical biography on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. I challenged his narrative, much as I wanted to challenge the narrative of food as the total form of fantasy. My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered. I found an excessively ambitious man with a strong narcissism streak. I found a man moored to self-achievement and self-promotion. I found a man who promoted a wide sanctimony. I found a man who could not relinquish control.
The drive to control wasn’t unusual in camp survivors. They had all control ripped away during their imprisonment. But in Wiesel’s case, control issues flooded his psyche. There were control issues in his transmitting of the Holocaust. There were control issues in how he framed the survivors. There were control issues in his writing career, and his advocacy work. There were control issues in Wiesel the museum builder, and Wiesel the world politics player.
My biography on Wiesel did not get published. One major publisher seemed close to taking it on, but turned away. The editor told me it would be “fraught for a publisher.” What he meant specifically, I cannot say. But as Wiesel had positioned himself as the emissary for the “traumatized generation,” as he so artfully named the survivors, as he had positioned himself as the face of the Holocaust and a far wider Man of Conscience, and as those titles still held sway, maybe taking on my project would have been too damaging for the publisher’s reputation.
Left with a large and unpublished manuscript, I decided to build Wiesel’s story into a wider fiction. I turned to the form I had begun with the October Surprise: the faux history. I imagined the publication of that biography. I imagined the results. I imagined the “fraught” that would have come my way. Death threats. The story then spins in an unexpected direction. The author goes into hiding. He chooses to hide in plain sight. He travels to Jerusalem. There, he discovers a lost manuscript. That manuscript, originally published in the immediate aftermath of the Book of Mark, would have significant consequences on the writings of the Gospels. It would call into question the motivations of the evangelist named Mark. It would expose the legend behind Jesus Christ. But that manuscript would also shine a light on its own author. Who really was Josephus and how did he stoke his own legend at the expense of the man?
Satan’s Synagogue then unearths large histories, and smaller ones, too. Its aim – to find some truth in the incredible complexity that is history – follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust, from Mark to Jesus to Josephus, from Josephus to Emperor Franz Joseph to Josepher. Along the way, the author chronicles a bicycle ride made through the Galilee and Old Phoenicia, known as “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s Loop through the Lesser Levant.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Documents found during the research for Satan’s Synagogue reveal new information on the Silk Road, or that network of trade routes that connected Ancient Rome to China. My next faux history will unveil a previously unreported route, all the way up into the northern region of the Eurasian Steppe, known to the Romans as the “suprasternal notch.” That book project will also trace a bicycle ride, made from Xi’an (an ancient capital in China) to Istanbul, and a second Tour de Josephus, this one focusing on Rome, and more criticism on Wiesel, and more interpretation of Josephus, and more on the backstory behind the writings of the Gospels. But there’s even more. A former CIA agent, living in one of the towns on the “notch,” presented mind-blowing evidence to me regarding the October Surprise history. That documentation will be included, too. If you think Satan’s Synagogue covered a tremendous amount of ground, wait until you read the sequel.