“If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” goes the old journalists’ adage. But when it comes to what writers recall in memoir and first-person reporting, it doesn’t always happen.
Ira Glass, host of the public radio program “This American Life,” apologized last week for having aired an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which Daisey fabricated what he experienced on a reporting trip to China: There were no armed guards at a factory producing Apple products, for instance; the interpreter with him remembered no poisoned workers shaking uncontrollably.
I’m the coauthor of a new book with a Bosnian concentration camp survivor, Esad Boskailo. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbs fought Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and then Croats turned on Bosnian Muslims in a conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in 1993 that some 15,000 Bosnians were held in camps and prisons. I spent three years talking with Boskailo, a respected psychiatrist in Phoenix, about the year he spent in the Croat-run camps in the 1990s. When I was done, my agent ordered me to fact-check the work, and I resisted.
I had checked the dates and names in Esad’s account, and his memory matched reality. But when it came to the core of the story, I trusted my instincts to tell me whether his highly personal account was true. I did not want to further traumatize him by asking for proof of atrocities that had already been well documented.
But then, I remembered, New York publishers and Oprah Winfrey had thought Herman Rosenblat was telling the truth in his Holocaust memoir. And many believed Misha Defonseca when she wrote in her purported Holocaust memoir that that she was a Jewish girl who lived among wolves.
So I went to Bosnia to fact-check horror.
What I discovered was how willing survivors are to substantiate their stories. They wanted Esad and me to get the details right. Exaggerated accounts, phony love stories, even misspelled names, they felt, would make it far less likely that anyone would take their accounts seriously. The real story was bad enough.
I’ve covered human rights stories in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Journalists may tell themselves that survivors always find it healing to bare their souls. But people have had flashbacks after being interviewed about their traumas. Still, seven survivors who had been with Esad during his year in the camps agreed to answer my questions, though some had not discussed their confinement in more than a decade.
“How long will this take?” a dentist and childhood friend of Esad asked me, compelling me to speed up my questioning when I had hoped for a more leisurely interview. It wasn’t territory he wanted to go over again, but he did it. Had a guard shot a prisoner for stealing bread? I asked. Had a mentally ill Bosnian man been trained to kill his fellow prisoners? Had the prisoners been locked in silos without bathrooms? Yes, yes and yes.
There were some lighter moments. A literature professor recalled teaching Omar Khayyam and Baudelaire to prisoners who would not have been caught dead reciting poems before the war. I spoke to all the men about the families, the work, the political activism that had helped them survive and go on after their imprisonment.
But mostly, the interviews were a catalog of betrayals by captors they once called friends.
Contradictions in accounts were surprisingly rare. One man remembered prisoners suffering shrapnel wounds after guards shot into a hangar. Esad had recalled that the men were hit by bullets, which he later removed from their bodies. I went with shrapnel. Esad didn’t remember all the men who were with him in each camp, and some he had forgotten completely. Those blanks were filled in, if not perfectly, with much greater accuracy.
More striking were the details Esad had omitted or forgotten. Specifics were added: men so thirsty they drank their own urine; the way bugs crawled on the skin of prisoners who had not bathed in months.
In the end, these were not issues of competing narratives and subjective truth. What the process “fixed” were the particulars that ground true stories and allow them to pass muster with those who know the truth. The firsthand accounts were bolstered by those of local and international journalists and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had documented the dates of Esad’s confinement. And each survivor agreed to give his name and address to potential publishers.
The effects of such depravation were corroborated again and again. A close friend of Esad from the camps told me he could find no meaning afterward.
“They take away your soul,” he said.
Yet, he was willing to take me through those dark nights, the hunger, the sweating, the despair. If I was going to write about the first concentration camps in Europe since World War II, he seemed to say, the least I could do was get it right.
Julia Lieblich is an assistant professor of specialized journalism at Loyola University. A former religion writer for the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune, her new book with Boskailo is “Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror.”