Sarah Burton. Impostors: Six Kinds of Liar. Viking, 2000.
Sarah Burton examines the careers of a variety of impostors; those who have created fictitious identities and lives for themselves, or have appropriated the identities of other people, usually, but not always, dead. They include Franziska Schankowska, a Polish peasant girl, who turned herself into Anna Andersen, alias Princess Anastasia of Russia, Arthur Orton who took on the identity of Roger Tichbome, Archie Delaney who began Grey Owl, the American Indian, Mary Baker Wilcocks who became Princess Caraboo, and Ferdinand Waldo Demara who took on a whole plethora of roles: monk, priest, high school teacher, naval surgeon, psychologist and prison warder.
A special subset are the women who became male impersonators, in order to enter all-male preserves. Excluding the latter as special cases, there are many underlying similarities. The lives created are often dramatic ones, the stuff of romance. Henri Grin, for example, made his assumed identity, the 'white man whom the aboriginals made a god', a popular literary motif of his time. Mary Baker constructed a whole new language and invented a way of life and narrative which suited the Georgian taste for the exotic. Sarah Burton suggests that one common characteristic is a prodigious memory; another seems to be status inconsistency, many were actually extremely intelligent people, trapped by background and class into low grade occupations and dead-end lives.
Burton points out that many of them had actually done well in their assumed lives, and given the right background and chances in life they could have excelled. She also argues that few have done real harm and some have done positive good. It is hard not to think of Demara, for example, as an archetypal trickster figure, at one level an amoral crook, yet at another bringing light and hope into dark and shattered lives, whether as an inspirational school teacher, or a prison guard bringing real care for the first time to some of the most desperate offenders.
Where is book falters is in trying to grasp the motivations of these people. She recognises that money is often not the main force behind their actions. Are they indeed calculated deceivers, or are they swept up in their fantasies?
As Magonia readers may recall, I have argued that these sorts of narratives might represent ia component or aspect of fantasy proneness, which I have called Caraboo syndrome. Baker seems to have had a background in telling wild tales, and when confronted with her real identity constructed another great adventure story involving her life among the lowlife of London which would have done justice to Feilding or Defoe. Demara talked of his compulsions to take on new roles. Grin's story showed great imaginative flair. Might they not, at least while telling these stories, have believed them? This imposture might then represent one facet of a more general pseudologia fantastica, the overwhelming impulse to create dramatic situations for oneself and to become a sort of living novel.
A number of other interesting points might be made, for example comparing Baker's adventures and glossolalia, with those of 'Helene Smith' and her Martian adventures and language, or to ask what is the relationship between this 'imposture' and the much-touted 'multiple personalities', or for that matter reincarnation, alien identity or 'vampire identity' narratives.
We may also wonder if any of these people showed the second major component of full blown fantasy proneness, phantathesia, the production of internal imagery of hallucinatory intensity (as portrayed by the TV character Ally McBeal for example). Helene Smith certainly did. If others did, and therefore in some sense actually 'lived' and experienced these lives, 'rather than laboriously and consciously made them up, it would explain their power, and the convincing authenticity of their narratives which sweep up those they encounter.
The significance of all of this to the sorts of things we are examining in Magonia is, I hope, pretty obvious. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 72, October 2000.