Book Criticized for Factual Errors
Friday, October 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
NEW YORK (AP) â€” A well-publicized memoir about the horrifying experiences of a Korean-American adoptee includes several errors and misrepresentations that have raised doubts about the book's accuracy. It also renews questions about the fact-checking process.
Doubleday, the publisher of Elizabeth Kim's ``Ten Thousand Sorrows,'' has expressed strong concern.
``We are very surprised by these allegations. We will take them seriously and look into them,'' said Doubleday spokeswoman Suzanne Herz, responding to questions from The Associated Press.
Kim's memoir, for which the author received a six-figure advance, was published last spring with great anticipation. Earlier this year, when the AP talked to publishers for a story on the proliferation of Asian-American authors, Doubleday highlighted ``Ten Thousand Sorrows.'' About 50,000 copies are in print.
According to the book, Kim was conceived shortly after the 1953 armistice of the Korean War, the child of a Korean woman and an American soldier. Kim's father abandoned his family before she was born and her mother, disgraced by the affair, was later murdered by Kim's uncle and grandfather in an ``honor killing.''
Kim then spent a brief time in a Christian orphanage in Seoul, where cribs were stacked like animal cages, before being adopted by a fundamentalist Christian couple in California. They disparaged her heritage, inundated her with theology, severely disciplined her and forced her at age 17 to marry a man who brutalized her and openly had affairs. The marriage lasted five years, with Kim and their young daughter fleeing in the middle of the night.
The book includes a blurb from ``Memoirs of a Geisha'' novelist Arthur Golden, who called it ``a frank and simple chronicle.'' Several critics also were impressed and the book was recommended on adoption Web sites.
But some members of the adoption and academic communities questioned the accuracy of the memoir, which contains few names, dates or locations. This fall, Hope College, in Holland, Mich., dropped ``Ten Thousand Sorrows'' from a freshman seminar.
``The title of my course is `Untold Stories,' and it invites students to examine issues of race and ethnicity through the memoir,'' said Carla Vissers, who teaches the course.
``I'm not qualified to judge the authenticity of the Kim book, but as long as there are questions, I feel I should err on the side of caution. The last thing I want to present is an inaccurate view of Korean life and culture.''
The first controversy to surface from ``Ten Thousand Sorrows'' involved Kim's labeling her mother's death an ``honor killing,'' which exists mostly in Muslim countries. It's an ancient practice sanctioned by culture rather than religion, rooted in a complex code that allows a man to kill a female relative for suspected immorality.
But several experts on Korea said they had never heard of ``honor killings'' there, leading Doubleday in September to promise the words would be withdrawn from upcoming paperback editions.
Kim admitted she was ``careless'' in using the term, which as of early last week remained in the book's description on Doubleday's Web site.
The author also admits that she was careless in writing that the Korean War divided Korea, when it was separated in 1945, five years before the war. ``Yeah, maybe that was a bad bit of writing,'' she said.
Kim's memoir strongly suggests she was between 5 1/2 and 6 when adopted, but the author said in an interview with the AP that she was probably a year and a half younger, making some events in the book more unlikely and her memories or Korea less reliable.
For example, in one passage she writes about being with her mother in the fields, stretching their ``aching backs, hands on hips, shoulders shrugging and releasing, fingers flexing.'' If that were so, she would have been farming rice at age 3.
Kim admitted in the interview that she ``probably didn't'' have an aching back or perform physically demanding work. ``I just remember going through those moves, trying to emulate my mother,'' she said.
Elsewhere in the book, she describes herself as a virtual recluse during her marriage. ``Once Leigh (her daughter) and I were home together, it was almost as if the world contained the two of us,'' she writes. Her husband was usually away and permitted no friends to visit.
The marriage ended when she fled with her daughter on a moonlit desert night with ``no money, no clothes.'' Only after she left him, she writes, was she able to start a career, working for a small local newspaper.
Kim now says she began her career while still married.
``Everything in those last few months happened very quickly and close together,'' Kim said, ``and it's hard to remember an exact timeline.''
The author said that Doubleday, a division of Random House, never checked her facts; many memoirs are published that way. Although it's the most subjective of genres, publishers trust writers to tell their own stories.
``Publishers do not set out to fact check, due to the large volume and diversity of the books we publish,'' Doubleday's Herz said. ``In the process of an editorial and legal review, some facts are reviewed, but we do rely on our authors for the principal research.''
Libel is often the greater concern. Frank McCourt recalled meeting with Scribner lawyers on legal issues before the publication of ``Angela's Ashes,'' but said that he was only asked about specific facts when the book was excerpted in The New Yorker and The New York Times.
``They fact check you out of existence,'' he said. ``In `Angela's Ashes' I have a scene where I'm talking about the (James) Cagney movie `Public Enemy.' I was remembering the end of the movie when he's killed and his body falls through the front door of his house, with his mother standing there.
``And this woman from The New Yorker tracks me down in Belfast. She calls me to say that his mother wasn't there, it was his brother.''
One of the most questionable memoirs in recent years was ``Fragments of a Childhood 1939-1948,'' a Holocaust memoir by Binjamin Wilkomirski published in the mid-1990s.
The author claimed to be a Latvian Jew who at age 3 or 4 saw his father beaten to death while imprisoned in a concentration camp in Poland. He said he recovered details of his childhood during therapy, after being adopted by a Swiss couple.
``Fragments'' was published in more than a dozen languages and won several awards. But subsequent research indicated Wilkomirski was really a Swiss citizen named Bruno Doessekker who cannot claim Jewish identity. In 1999, the German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag withdrew the hardcover version of ``Fragments'' from bookstores. Last summer, the Culture Administration in Zurich issued a statement saying that recent research had made clear that ``Fragments'' was a ``freely invented autobiography.''
Still, the book remains on sale through Amazon.com, which in its review does not mention the controversy and praises the author as ``a courageously honest man.''
Other genres have been affected. Last year, St. Martins withdrew ``Fortunate Son,'' James Howard Hatfield's biography of presidential candidate George W. Bush, when it was revealed the author had a criminal past.
Around the same time, Atlantic Monthly Press canceled distribution and destroyed 7,500 copies of the biography ``I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones,'' after author James Mackay was found to have been accused of plagiarism in Scotland.
Kim's book offers a brief disclaimer advising readers that ``names and identifying characteristics'' of some individuals had been changed to protect their identity. She told the AP that she needed to alter details fearing for her privacy and her safety.
``I didn't want people from my past knowing who I was,'' she said, citing specifically her ex-husband.
But Kim, a longtime journalist who most recently worked as an editor for the Marin Independent Journal, has hardly kept her identity, or whereabouts, a secret.
A childhood picture appears on the book's cover and a current photo on the inside jacket. She has made several public appearances and she was interviewed recently at home by the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper included a photo and reported that Kim lived in San Rafael, a suburban community in the Bay area. Her phone number, under her ex-husband's last name, turned up in a computer search.
``Certainly, if somebody really wanted to find me they could,'' she said.
On the Net: http://www.randomhouse.com/doubleday.