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.
Last 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.