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The Darville’s in the Details

Having met Helen Darville when she was still pretending to be Helen Demidenko, I’ve had an ongoing curiosity with her story.

And the fact I took a reasonably instantaneous dislike to her persona — supposed or otherwise (‘needy’ was the sense I got) — added to the fact I have never read her book, puts me in absolutely no authoritative position whatsoever to comment on this piece of Australian literary history. And yet, here are a few thoughts. ;)

A brief history: Helen Demidenko appeared on the Australian literary scene in about 1993 claiming to have written an honest account of the Holocaust as gleaned from her Croatian uncle. This, she asserted more than once, justified any anti-semitism found in the text. Jews, the claim went, really were racist & she had just the uncle to prove it.

‘What will your uncle be doing now that the book’s a success,’ she was once asked.
‘He’ll be downing the vodka, no doubt,’ she replied.

(Though, I’m paraphrasing there, please be aware that I am not claiming that conversation is an _exact_ representation.)

Some time after The Hand that Signed the Paper won “the Vogel award, the ASAL (Association for the Study of Australian Literature) Gold Medal and the Miles Franklin Award between 1993 and 1995“, it was revealed that Helen Demidenko was the simple daughter of English parents, not an ounce of Croatian blood in her body. Oh, and her name was Helen Darville.

So what are we left with?

1. An embarrassed publishing industry who took her at her word, little realising how the earnest-seeming Demidenko was playing on their good faith. Repercussions for the rest of us still exist. “[S]hortlisted authors in the Vogel award now have to sign a statutory declaration saying this is their own work“, for example.

Quote: Soon after the Demidenko story broke, Abbey says, “a beautiful young Ukrainian woman came to us with a story based on her family’s history”. Her manuscript was rejected on literary grounds, Abbey says, but “I still feel that the damage was significant. Commissioning editors did begin to look at manuscripts differently.”

2. Accusations that became increasingly muddy as the Demidenko sky rocket crashed & burned. Accusations of anti-semitism & plagiarism, with the latter largely substantiated in at least several unrelated articles she wrote, if not the original novel in question.

3. The uneasy word ‘faction’, which was coined for the Demidenko book, meaning ‘stories of fact, written with the narrative techniques of fiction’, & which has largely been dropped from the vocabulary as quickly as Darville herself was dropped from the literary world (I remember seeing one editor interviewed on the Sunday programme several years later, saying, “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole.”)

4. An ongoing absence, as far as we can tell, of Helen Darville, author of not only The Hand That Rocked the Cradle, but the fictional Demidenko persona. I remember one Darville supporter saying they utterly expected Darville would bounce back. Talent, they told me, would win out, in the end.

(Talent, I would wager, has never been enough.)

5. Copies of a book that claim to have been written by one Helen Demidenko, later editions (because *naturally* the contention sent it into reprints) claiming to be the product of someone called Helen Darville-Demidenko. Probably collector’s items for anyone who’s interested. I’m not sure they ever printed any with the simple ‘Helen Darville’ attribution. All three names are famous now, of course.

To summarise: Helen Darville may or may not have written a very good book. I can’t say. Despite the brouhaha surrounding the text, I find myself uninterested in reading it. The accusations of plagiarism & racism leave me cold.

Normally I might say the only real judgement must rest with reading the text itself, but in this case, how could I ever feel assurance that the phrases I was reading belonged to the name(s) on the front of the work, rather than to some other, unidentified source?

She may or may not have acted out of naivity in taking on an assumed name & history. It may or may not have been a cold-blooded promotional tool. It may or may not have been an example of an author becoming almost psychotically wrapped up in the story she’d created.

It may or may not have been an extreme example of a machiavellian disregard for the faith and interest of others.

Certainly, at the time, fresh from a degree in Psychology, I found myself wanting to know _how_ someone could so blithely lie and lie, and, when exposed, react with rage at her discoverers. (Now, I understand a little more about offence and defence, and the way shame twists itself into something that makes its recipient feel more powerful. Though, of course, I am speculating.)

Demidenko (when Demidenko existed) was entertaining, sure. Loud and tall and with that trademark long, white hair, she was a figure to behold. The volume of her voice while she read from her award-winning (plagiarised? racist?) text drowned out all the other speakers in the grounds of the NSW Writers’ Centre Spring Writing Weekend back in the early nineties.

I remember her mother being in that audience, smiling along with the tales of the Croatian relatives — none of whom were real. I remember her father’s apparent embarrassment when he was called to account in a phone call post-fall. I remember a reporter quoting Darville’s highschool principal as saying, “I was wondering when you’d get around to calling us.”

As secrets go, it was sloppy. I wonder how long she expected it to go undiscovered.

“I thought my talent would transcend my outspokenness. I was wrong.”
— Mickey Rourke

I remember Darville’s long white hair suffering the wrath of truth. When the media went into overdrive with the story of her falsity, she cut her hair & let it return to its real but somewhat less impressive blonde.

I remember seeing Darville in the media years & years later, fiercely talking about her future & her new book (which she was researching in Rome) & demonstrating absolutely no remorse whatsoever.

Writers have committed murder, been thrown in jail, lied, cheated, and plagiarised, and still bounced back sooner or later. I wonder if Darville will.

But I have to admit, I don’t actually wonder too much.