Naomi Wolf’s New Book a Complete Misunderstanding
An author's greatest nightmare unfolded on live radio.
Naomi Wolf is living an author’s greatest nightmare. And doing it as well as possible.
When she went on BBC radio on Thursday, Wolf, the author of Vagina and the forthcoming Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, probably expected to discuss the historical revelations she’d uncovered her book. But during the interview, broadcaster Matthew Sweet read to Wolf the definition of “death recorded,” a 19th-century English legal term. “Death recorded” means that a convict was pardoned for his crimes rather than given the death sentence.
Wolf thought the term meant execution.
There’s a shocking silence on-air after Sweet says he doesn’t think Wolf is right about the executions Outrages delves into. Sweet looks at the case of Thomas Silver, who, Wolf wrote in her book, “was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for unnatural offense, guilty, death recorded.” Silver, as Sweet points out, was not executed.
“What is your understanding of what ‘death recorded’ means?” Wolf asked him on-air, mere moments after he had already explained to her how Old Bailey, London’s main criminal court up until 1913, defined it. Sweet pulled up his own research — news reports and prison records — showing the date that Thomas Silver was discharged.
Death recorded, he says, “was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.” And then the blow: “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”
Before Sweet delivered the punch, Wolf was audibly ready to speak about the “several dozen” similar executions she noted in her book, many of which rely on her completely wrong understanding of the term “death recorded.” But there is no historical evidence that shows anyone was ever executed for sodomy during the Victorian era, Sweet said on Twitter. Which means … much of the premise of Wolf’s entire book is just false.
Wolf cited on Twitter historical findings from a peer-reviewed article written by A.D. Harvey, a historian who’s been labeled a hoaxer. (He deceived the public into thinking that Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky met once and created several online personas and an entire fake community of academics.)—-Yelena Dzhanova, The Intelligencer, “Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong“
Wow. That’s simply mortifying. It is, I suppose, a peril of being the sort of author that Wolf represents: a talented writer who lights on a topic of interest and then cranks out a book, rather than an expert in a subject that writes within their field.
Her publisher is standing by her in the most bizarre way possible:
The book hits U.S. stands on June 18, according to the Amazon listing. A Houghton Mifflin Harcourt spokesperson offered this statement: “While HMH employs professional editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking. Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book Outrages still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.”
The entire premise of the book is wrong. Now, it remains true that homosexuals have been treated horribly over a span of centuries, including by the medical community and the legal system. But it’s not true that we were until recently executing people for it in the West.
For her part, though, Wolf is handling it with grace:
To her absolute credit, Wolf is taking this on the chin. On Twitter, Wolf and Sweet appear cordial. There’s a tweet from Sweet that indicates Wolf is going to look into her research and make necessary corrections. And a thread in which Wolf thanks Sweet for correcting her and promises to review “all of the sodomy convictions on Twitter in real time so people can see for themselves what the sentences were and what became of each of these people.”
I’m not sure what else she can do at this point. But it’s far better than doubling down on an embarrassing error.
UPDATE (10:12): It gets worse. It turns out that the book derives from her 2015 Oxford doctoral dissertation. So it’s not just Wolf and her HMH editors that have failed here but her Oxford advisors.