Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Death, Lies, and Self-Publishing

ImageLast spring, a girl dubbed ‘Elisa the Angel’ was in the Finnish news, on television and in the newspapers, and her memorial page became a major Facebook phenomenon. She was a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide after prolonged and particularly egregious bullying, and whose tortured diaries had now been converted into prose in a self-published book, titled Jonakin päivänä kaduttaa (One Day [They] Will Regret It). Virtual candles were lit; anti-bullying associations were founded; everyone was talking about how children are suffering in Finnish schools. The details of the case were shocking: Elisa was tormented by older boys who regularly beat her, even to the point of jumping on her face (!!!). Teachers and schoolmates had all turned a blind eye to Elisa’s suffering, the extent of which was revealed to her parents only after they discovered her diaries. Elisa’s father then met up with a woman called Minttu Vettenterä and asked her to write a book about Elisa’s fate. As it happens, he and Vettenterä had gone to the same high school and he’d been part of a group of boys who bullied her. In an act of particularly cruel poetic justice, the bully’s own daughter had been bullied to death. (Any alarm bells ringing yet?)

I didn’t pay much attention to this anti-bullying narrative until two journalists at a national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, finally realised there was something fishy about the story. Several small inconsistencies added up, and they wrote an intriguing exposé of the Elisa case. It was a vastly entertaining piece of investigative journalism that read like a good detective novel but didn’t shy away from the more serious aspects of the story. I was suddenly fascinated by the phenomenon, and indeed why the phenomenon had become such a phenomenon. I was fascinated by Minttu Vettenterä’s marketing genius and the way she managed to whip up a frenzy of national publicity for her self-published book. Suicidal teens are nothing new in Finland, but something about Elisa’s story had pulled all the right strings and provoked a powerful emotional response.

In hindsight, the inconsistencies in the story were glaring, but people had obviously wanted to believe in it. A lot of work has been done against bullying in Finnish schools, and it has been largely successful, but media coverage of isolated (though horrifying) incidents of school shootings and other violence has obviously left people profoundly worried for our youth. People care; they want to DO something, and Elisa the Angel’s Facebook group offered a channel for them to make their voices heard. That is actually the only positive thing about the whole story: people do care about each other, they want to help, even if their caring is (mis)directed to fraudulent Facebook pages. The fact that they went on believing in Vettenterä as long as they did shows that people still want to believe the best of each other, too. It was certainly hard to believe anyone would lie about such a painful subject.

Vettenterä didn’t give up quite so easily, either. She spun yarns all over the place, telling one version of her truth in an interview, another version on her blog, yet another version to the police, and still another in her Facebook ‘press releases’. At first, she presented herself as a long-suffering martyr who refused to reveal any evidence of the existence of the real Elisa (even to disinterested third parties, such as the police or a lawyer sworn to secrecy) out of concern for the bereaved parents. For several months after the exposé, many people still believed in her, until her ever-changing lies were meticulously exposed thanks to the detective work of amateur sleuths on online discussion boards. The original newspaper article had pointed out that no 15-year-old girl had died in Finland around the time of ‘Elisa’s’ supposed date of death. Vettenterä tried to argue that she had ‘of course’ changed the date to protect the family. It was then pointed out that no teenaged girl called Elisa had died recently, either: to this, Vettenterä tried to argue that she had ‘of course’ changed the names as well. All well and good, except for the fact that the blog kept by ‘Elisa’s parents’ had been started around Elisa’s original date of death – before they had even met Minttu Vettenterä, if the story was to believed – and the girl’s hand-written diaries were dated around that time AND signed as ‘Elisa’! Vettenterä eventually admitted that she had written the parents’ blog herself (a rather embarrassing admission, as Elisa’s father in particular had a tendency to write flowery praise of saintly Vettenterä and her incredible writing). She still insisted, however, that the diaries were genuine – which they simply couldn’t be.

At this point I lost track of the discussions and don’t know if Vettenterä ever admitted to writing the diaries herself, but for a long time it had been clear the whole story was a figment of her imagination. The last time I checked, she was still insisting there had been a real bullied girl who may or may not have committed suicide, who may or may not have kept a diary, and who had parents. The police weren’t terribly interested in the case: they dismissed the complaints of fraud by pointing out the description of the book clearly said FICTION. (In fact, it said ‘fictitious story about real-life people’, and it also said ‘This story is true.’) The ‘real-life people’ who inspired the story might, of course, have been anyone: Phoebe Prince, for instance, or even Vettenterä herself (who says she was badly bullied in school). It’s not illegal to make up stories on television or to the newspapers; apparently, it isn’t even illegal to lie to the police.

I originally meant to write a post about literary frauds in general, from Thomas Chatterton’s fake Mediaeval poet to JT LeRoy who wasn’t actually JT LeRoy. Quite recently, there have been (just to mention a few) James Frey’s memoirs, a fake Holocaust memoir, and Amina Arraf of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, which was also mentioned in the article about ‘Elisa the Angel’ – to say nothing of the numerous cases of ‘Münchausen by Internet’, of people assuming online identities and pretending to have various diseases. Professor Mark Feldman, interviewed by the authors of the Helsingin Sanomat article, compared Elisa’s story to the case of Anthony Godby Johnson, so the phenomenon is hardly new or specifically internet-related: the internet just gives it an amplified voice.

The more I read about these, the more of such cases I found, and each of them would deserve a post of its own. The cases run the whole gamut from semi-valid artistic reasons to pathological confabulation and to calculated marketing strategies. The case of ‘Elisa the Angel’ seems to combine elements of all of these things. It was too meticulously planned to be just an online character-building exercise that got out of hand. The book certainly sold more copies and got more media attention than the average self-published book anywhere in the world, let alone in Finland where audiences are small to begin with, but I get the feeling Vettenterä was less driven by greed and more by a naive desire for literary fame: she appears to have worked non-stop on her literary career for years. As Professor Feldman said of the Anthony Godby Johnson case: ‘The motive was to manipulate [people], to move them.‘ I also think Vettenterä genuinely wanted to be a spokesperson for victims of bullying, and thought the end justified the means.

It is particularly disconcerting that many readers seemed to agree with her. For every online comment disapproving of Vettenterä’s tactics, there were several people shrugging their virtual shoulders and saying, ‘Who cares whether the story was true or not? It was a moving story that highlighted an important issue! The story might as well have been true!’ Well, there is already a perfectly good category for moving fictional stories that highlight important issues. It’s called ‘fiction’.

Novelists make things up for a living, but how much are they allowed to lie – and get away with it? This isn’t about the freedom of expression, about what you’re allowed to write: this is about how you’re allowed to sell your work. in Elisa’s case, there were specfic reasons why lying was in especially poor taste. Among other things, victims of bullying who sympathised with Elisa feel betrayed by the fraud, as do parents whose children have committed suicide. The book’s scaremongering does nobody any good: it creates a violent, starkly black-and-white world where schools are hellish places, young people bloodthirsty monsters, and teachers spineless creatures who know about the systematic torture of an innocent girl but do nothing about it. On top of this, Elisa’s story also harms the credibility of real victims of bullying, and the over-dramatisation belittles them, as real bullying can’t possibly measure up to the unspeakable cruelty that poor ‘Elisa’ went through. Suicidal teens don’t need a martyred role model (let’s remember that teenage suicide is infectious) or an example where the only way out of your misery is an overdose of pills. I find it especially horrendous that Vettenterä’s anti-bullying association had ambitious plans to buy copies of the book and give them to schools so that eventually every schoolchild in Finland would be reminded of Elisa’s sad, sad fate.

But also: truth matters because truth matters. Social media – and, indeed, the traditional media – doesn’t need any more blurring of the boundaries of fact and fiction. We already spend increasing amounts of time in a Wikipedified world where people win online arguments by pulling convincing-sounding statistics out of thin air, where news travels faster than facts get verified, and where every anonymous book reviewer is a potential sockpuppet. There are so many potential new opportunities for writers of fiction on the internet. Let’s not abuse those opportunities: let’s not turn fiction into a sub-category of fraud.

So what of the book itself, amid all this? It opens with the father finding her daughter dead, wrapped in bedclothes as if she were sleeping. She is ‘beautiful as an angel’, her skin like ‘snow’, ‘her lips white as the pages of a newly bought colouring book’. The father gently lifts the cover and white pills and containers roll on the bedsheet. No vomit anywhere, obviously; no sign of any sickness and suffering. The romantically, beautifully tragic dead girl just closed her eyes and fell asleep for all eternity. As fiction, such romanticisation of suicide is tasteless, even harmful. Had Elisa actually been real, this would have been exploitation of the worst kind.

I put the book away in disgust. Not all publicity is good publicity.

15 comments on “Death, Lies, and Self-Publishing

  1. Kate
    October 26, 2012

    This is very good. Beautifully argued and with sound common sense as a foundation. We’re having a larger flurry than usual of lies-peddled-by-the-internet stories right now, so this is such a timely review, to ask why lies are told as truth, in the guise of a Misery Porn true-life memoir.

    Your point about the author’s desire for literary fame is also so important; it is so easy to become briefly well-known or known about using the virality of the internet, and it isn’t earned by the hard work or special talent that such a reputation ought to reward, just by easy access to millions of people online. That’s a dishonest fame, but it ought also to disintegrate quickly, without harm being done. This author seems to have done so much hard work, so much preparation of her dishonest fictions, but it doesn’t sound like this book is likely not to be harmful.

  2. Alan Cleaver
    October 26, 2012

    Fascinating article – many thanks. I’m assuming it’s genuine!

  3. Hilary
    October 26, 2012

    Thank you for writing this piece, Leena – I agree with Kate. This is an important topic right now, with so much evidence of bad money threatening to drive out good on the Internet.

    A particularly powerful and important ending – truth matters because truth matters certainly, in cases like this.

  4. Lisa
    October 26, 2012

    Thought-provoking article, Leena. I wondered why the author hadn’t pitched it as fiction, because surely there would still have been a market? After all, Sally Nicholls wrote beautifully about a young boy dying of cancer, in a book which was clearly marked fiction, even though the book was constructed as a diary. Ditto Mark Haddon writing the diary of a boy with Asberger’s in The Curious Incident. But perhaps the blog was a big part of the story gaining exposure and for that blog to be popular it needed to be deemed ‘real’?

  5. rosyb
    October 26, 2012

    Ah Leena. So glad you’re back with VL. This was fantastic. It’s not just the net, it’s everything:

    “Social media – and, indeed, the traditional media – doesn’t need any more blurring of the boundaries of fact and fiction. We already spend increasing amounts of time in a Wikipedified world where people win online arguments by pulling convincing-sounding statistics out of thin air, where news travels faster than facts get verified, and where every anonymous book reviewer is a potential sockpuppet. There are so many potential new opportunities for writers of fiction on the internet. Let’s not abuse those opportunities: let’s not turn fiction into a sub-category of fraud.”

    The Big Lie as someone I know refers to it all.

    And for this: “But also: truth matters because truth matters” – I could kiss you.

  6. Kate Lace
    October 27, 2012

    I have often wondered about these ‘so-called’ mis-lit memoirs/diaries/autobiogs/biogs and I’m afraid this really thought provoking piece just confirms much of what I have always thought. But what is really worrying is the sheep-like response from the people who want to believe they are true and don’t question for one second any part of the story. Thanks Leena for highlighting the lies behind this ‘true’ story

  7. Jackie
    October 27, 2012

    Excellent post, Leena, not only did you tell us about the book and the controversy, but you laid out a well reasoned argument for why this fraud was dishonorable. Like Lisa, I wonder why the author didn’t just admit it was fiction? There’s some really powerful examples of fiction changing the world for the better, so it can still have a big impact. In fact, writing something that has such an impact would be testament to a writer’s skill, that they could imagine something so strongly.

  8. Phillipa Ashley
    October 28, 2012

    Thank you for highlighting this : I hope I would never and could never resort to tactics like this.

  9. rosyb
    October 28, 2012

    Jackie’s question is interesting. Why do people *want* to believe it is real. There are a lot of films that profess to be based on real life events etc and yet take extraordinary liberties with them for dramatic or thematic effect. This was one of the problems I had with The Social Network. As soon as you find out that he had a steady girlfriend during that time, the central dramatic conceit of the film collapses. Does it matter? Should drama trump real events? I think it does matter because otherwise they could use a fictional character – even a fictional character with a lot of similarities – to make the points they want to make. Or they could do a documentary and have people make the points they want to make. But to make the whole central premise of the film based on something that wasn’t the case makes the rest unravel. There is a power to thinking something is “real”. There is a line somewhere between dramatic effect and good storytelling and reality. But these days there seems to be very little regard for that line.

    I think the issues you have brought up here are just as relevant to presentations of real-life events also.

    I suppose a related example would be the Meredith Kerchner case. I personally think it is horrific how people swarmed in to make the film.Appaling for her family. Appaling in general. It is like drama and media and news have not just blurred but feed off each other and reality and respect has completely gone by the by. Exploitation (in my view) of the worst kind.

    You can have good or bad drama based on real events. I am not sure where I stand on all of this and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot recently. There was a brilliant drama called “Appropriate Adult”. It was superbly done – fine script, fine acting. Based on the Fred West case and his appropriate adult. However, I was just left unsure at the end of the day whether the ends justified the means of this drama. And I was unsure whether superb drama is a justification in an of itself. When I looked into it – there was a lot more controversy and certain facts that had been changed and again that started to undermine it also. There is a real prevalence of this sort of stuff being made at the moment and I’m not sure why except that it is perhaps feeding off notoriety and also the popularity of crime/true crime genres.

    I think it takes more than a superb drama to justify it. There is only one drama I have seen where I thought the issues and arguments and handling and point of it was so exceptional that it did justify being done and that was Peter Morgan’s Longford. But that was a slightly sideways veer away from the central horrors. And the issues it explored were hugely important. Appropriate Adult was brilliantly written and acted but it didn’t have that central core of exploring something so important in the wider universal sense. In my view.

  10. Eve Harvey
    October 28, 2012

    What a brilliant piece. And sadly this phenomenon is not isolated. In the past few weeks there have been two of these sorts of things uncovered…

    It seems to be a growing trend with really troubling consequences. How soon before we all stop believing in anything and become horribly hard hearted about everything. Sad times😦

  11. Rosyb
    October 28, 2012

    Eve, just read about the first of those. Words fail me a bit.

    I remember seeing a programme about comics in the 80s and they were trying to get one for girls and they launched Tammy and the writers said that they learnt that the more and more pain and misery and appaling mistreatment and misfortune they put the characters in their stories through the more the comic sold and became hugely popular. It seemed almost like a precursor of “mislit” which, again, has a predominantly female audience.

    What I find amazing, like Leena said, is that a lot of fans of the scammers say things like it doesn’t matter if the person turned out to be real as long as they spread their uplifting messages.


    And when you read some of this stuff it’s full of homilies and wise words a bit like the most sentimental of American films. A bit like a sentimental “weepy”. And perhaps this is it – it’s a safe form of emotion. BUt there is still a distance, a safe barrier – real or unreal because this is the internet – it’s someone – out there, over whereever and it’s very sanitised. There isn’t the anger and ugliness and unsentimental or alienating parts that go along with real situations like that. There isn’t the mess – emotional or physical. It’s all about suffering angels and nobly thinking of others and delivering your homilies…and people seem to lap that up.

  12. Moira
    October 28, 2012

    This is simply superb Leena … Deeply depressing, but superb.

  13. leila rasheed
    October 28, 2012

    It reminds me of those SPCK books from the late C19/ early C20 – all those pious childhood deathbed scenes. Fascinating article, thanks.

  14. Leena
    October 28, 2012

    Wow – thank you for all the great comments, everyone! Happy to have sparked discussion🙂

    Lisa and Jackie: I think the author’s biggest problem was that the book simply wasn’t that good. It certainly wasn’t to my taste. If I remember correctly, she originally sent it to Finnish publishers so the self-publishing phenomenon was plan B. (Well, being turned down by publishers doesn’t prove the book is bad, but…) And all the publicity this story got was dependent on it being a true story. For example, the TV coverage was in current affairs shows. I don’t think the book was discussed or reviewed anywhere as a book; it was all about the ‘true story’.

    Rosy: so much food for thought there! The awful Meredith Kerchner case – and Eve’s links – made me think of what I mentioned in passing, the way often the truth just isn’t enough. The facts can’t compare to imagined horrors and the media has to spin speculation just to get people’s attention. I find that horrendous. There was a real horrible case of abuse in Finland recently – an 8-year-old girl was killed by her father and his new girlfriend. They’d treated her horribly for a long time, she was beaten as a punishment for things she hadn’t even done, and they bound her to bed every night. She died from suffocation when they’d bound her and taped her mouth and nose. The prosecutor understandably spoke of the ‘torture’ the girl had gone through before her death, and I was amazed how much of the online commentary was speculation about how exactly they’d tortured her and whether there had been any sexual abuse. Weren’t the horrible facts of the case torture enough?!

    I know where I stand on the imaginary and/or exaggerated kind of ‘misery porn’, but I can’t decide where I stand on true stories of misery (that are actually true). On the one hand, I can see they’re so easily exploitative, sentimental, desensitising. But on the other hand, I see increasing amounts of people (at least on online discussion boards, comment sections etc. which probably warps perception quite a bit) who seem to think it’s best not to concern themselves with other people’s suffering at all because it’s all social porn. For instance, I’ve seen many people call this misery porn:

    I don’t think that’s misery porn. I see it as a powerful reminder of terrible things that happenes, but also of survival.

  15. Pingback: Alt-pub on Vulpes Libris – a round-up. | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on October 26, 2012 by in Uncategorized.



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