Register Friday | March 23 | 2018

My Life as a Ghost

An autobiographer for hire finally breaks his silence

One late-summer day a few years ago, a man identifying himself as "Dr. Hénault*, the psychoanalyst," called my office to say that he wanted to hire someone to edit a book. His voice was guarded but businesslike. I was then the busy chair of an English department at a Montreal university, and I thought this might be an opportunity for one of our graduate students to make some money. I agreed to see him in my office the next day.

He appeared exactly on time. He was a pale old man whose neck had shrunk quite far from his cinched white collar, whose movements had lost their ease and fluency. He was impatient with pleasantries-he even deliberated my offer of a chair before sitting down-but circumspect about what kind of literary help he wanted. As we spoke, it became clear that he didn't know the difference between a novel, an autobiography and an essay. I tried to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction, but he responded only with agitated waves of his hand and with questions about hourly rates. Then, dismissing everything I had been trying to discuss, he calmly informed me that I would "produce" this book for him and for "the lady who is the author."

With a little practice, it's not hard to tell when literary prospectors like Hénault are serious but naive, or when they're simply mad. I had ghostwritten a few autobiographies for wealthy people at the ends of their careers and doctored self-published novels for others. They liked my work, trusted me and told their friends. As a result, I had become almost accustomed to hearing from strangers who felt the chilly touch of their own mortality and needed a written account of their lives to help fend it off.

This self-proclaimed doctor was odd but certainly not mad, and there was something fascinating about the urgency of his questions, about his self-assurance and, particularly, about his ignorance. Certainly, he wasn't like those would-be authors who called at night and promised, for instance, insight into a religion that would eclipse Islam, Christianity and Judaism if only I could help them write its principles for 10 percent of the inevitable profits. I told Hénault that I would have to think about his proposal, but knew that I would accept it, if for no other reason than to find out what the job was and who the authorial lady was.

At the close of our meeting, Hénault pushed into my hands a manila envelope large enough to hold a pillow. The word "confidential" was written on it in script too thin and wobbly to have the force of a serious warning. After he left, I opened the envelope and pulled out a handwritten letter and a sheaf of dark and speckled photocopies of newspaper stories about a Belgian actress and image consultant named Pauline Blomme. The pictures illustrating the stories showed a middle-aged woman with a small and appealing gap between her two front teeth and an open smile. The handwritten letter was headlined with the words "without prejudice" and, several trembling lines down, enjoined me to say nothing about what I would learn to either CSIS or the RCMP. Below that was a line for my signature, my name already typed-and misspelled-beneath it.

Within the week, I stood at the large oak door of the downtown Montreal apartment shared by Hénault and a significantly older version of the woman I recognized as Pauline Blomme. She introduced herself in an accented and kittenish voice, took my arm and quickly led me away from the doctor into their suffocating living room. She studied me from head to foot; declared, "You'll do"; and launched into a tangle of subjects that included her children ("so complicated and heartbreaking"), her personal vigour ("I walk miles, miles in this beautiful city") and her hopes ("I will have my own beautiful apartment!"). As I listened, I glanced around at a room that was just this side of shabby. The glass front of an antique cabinet was cracked and the chipped display china behind it was mottled. The pillows beside me on the couch were dimpled and shiny. The air in the room was stale from dust and disuse. Pauline, I saw, was probably in her early sixties, but her solid-grey hair was thick, her white blouse crisp and her pants tailored. She smiled often in pleasure and excitement. The sense of intimacy she created by touching my arm and letting her fingers rest there, laughing as though we had already tested each other and discovered much in common, was unsettling.

Hénault reappeared only once in the next two hours-when the doorbell rang-and stood at the open door peeling $100 bills from a shockingly thick wad of money that he then returned to his pocket. "It's the landlord," Pauline whispered to me. "Dr. Hénault deals only in cash."

She then asked if I had seen the confidentiality agreement. When I showed her the signed document, she laughed in her beguiling voice and, folding her small white hands around my wrist, predicted, "We will make so much money!"

The thought of making a great deal of money was tantalizing because I have never been good at it. I have published a successful collection of stories that earned a total of $650, and written everything from reviews to grant applications for free. Some "literary" writers ghost on the side, occasionally demanding an "as told to" on the cover, but not often, because it diminishes their status in the literary world. What's more important to them is the hourly rate that can be as much as $200. As a ghostwriter, I always felt sheepish discussing money and sometimes worked by the job rather than the hour-an act of pure folly for a ghost who cares about the finished product.

The work wasn't just about money though. It was also a privileged and occasionally thrilling exercise in intimacy with people of great accomplishment who, frequently, weren't at all reflective about what they'd accomplished. Often, it was only in reading the memoir or autobiography I had written that they seemed capable of thinking about their lives. In the course of discovering themselves as characters in their own story, they would tell me family secrets and horrors, speak of the backroom collusions of business and government and the ways that the hard-won wealth of one generation distorts the values of those who inherit it. I also experienced slices of life that I couldn't possibly have set out to collect on my own: the smells inside a Jamaican rendering plant, the experience of asking for medical treatment at a hospital on an Apache Indian reservation, the sensation of having your feet washed in a pre-war Amsterdam shoe store, the backstage chatter at a Paris strip joint.

The process of ghosting Pauline Blomme's book began with a long and rambling interview. We sat opposite each other, tea by her side, water by mine, she talking, while I discreetly positioned my Sony recorder between us. Pauline told me about her wartime childhood in Ghent, where her family resisted the German occupation by sheltering Jews and carrying messages for the Resistance. After the war, as a beautiful girl from a successful family, she suffered malicious rumours concocted by the local boys whose attention she had rejected. Because of this and the deprivation in post-war Belgium, she fled to France, where she became a model. This led to a brief career in cinema, with roles that were small but, she insisted, celebrated. One of these roles caught the attention of a Saudi prince, and she was surprised to receive a call from his office inviting her to dinner. She became the prince's mistress, enjoyed his largesse, and, in the late fifties, travelled with the European jet set until the death of her father awakened nostalgia for a more settled life. Giving in to vague but overwhelming family pressures for middle-class respectability, she married a German civil engineer who took her to Toronto, where she discovered both his violent side and his appetite for other men. After divorcing him and fleeing to Montreal, Pauline married a Dutch merchant seaman, Geert de Jong, who had jumped ship in Halifax.

In time, Geert purchased a large house in the wealthy Anglo preserve of upper Westmount for Pauline and their three children. Then, one day, he disappeared suddenly with the children, leaving no clue to their destination and no provision for her. Pauline, at a loss to understand this inexplicable turn of events, fell on hard times. Her family in Ghent refused to communicate with her because, she said, "Any woman who had lost two husbands and her children must be useless." Through a business partner, Pauline eventually discovered that her husband and children were in Corfu, of all places, but her attempts to contact them failed. Pauline met Hénault-who had by this time given up psychoanalysis for business; they became lovers and went into business together. Today, she said, they could no longer bear each other's company, though they were still business partners in the import-export trade. The only thing they had ever had in common-she, glamorous and voluble; he, silent and as self-contained as a crab-was the hope of making a great deal of money.

Throughout these first interviews, I thought I'd been hearing the stories that were to be the subject of her memoir (as I'd begun to think of it). I had also started to believe in the narrative taking shape in my imagination. The low countries of the Rhine and the Frisian coast had become visible and real to me through pictures in magazines and Webcam sites displaying time-lapse views of the streets of Tervuren and Brussels. I could imagine the black gums and wet, burnt-rubber breath of the Alsatian dog with which a German soldier had intimidated Pauline and her family. However, by the beginning of the fall, I admitted to myself that I had no idea what sort of book I was supposed to be writing, and if I would ever be paid.

When I mentioned my concerns to Pauline, she made a tiny, distressed "oh," left me on her living-room couch, and sought out Hénault in a distant corner of their apartment. When she returned, she sat in her usual place, pushed her teacup away and, without hesitation, began a new kind of story that was tantalizing in its details but half-hidden by generalizations. She told me how easy it was to ship huge quantities of cocaine and heroin to any port in the world by ordering cement from a factory in Ukraine that would lay the drug down in a bottom layer of each shipping container. She then skipped to first-world overproduction of clothing, which produced fantastic dumping opportunities in West Africa, then onto the breakup of the Soviet Union, the impoverishment of its officer corps and military matériel. The common feature of all these opportunities, as she put it, was that buyers and sellers didn't know how to connect. That's why traders like her and Hénault were important-and how they became rich.

When Pauline had been quiet for a moment, Hénault walked into the room and said, "Now. It's time. To discuss this deal." He sank into a pillow beside me while Pauline sat at prim attention and told me the tale to which everything so far had been the prologue.

In the nineties, word had circulated among international traders that Pauline was acting as the agent for the owner of $50 million worth of a metal whose uses, she darkly hinted, were proscribed almost worldwide. She had flown to Switzerland to meet with former members of the Stasi, the KGB and other security services, all of whom wanted badly to make a deal involving yet other unseen powers. (I was told of how a commodity might pass through many hands on the international market before it reached an "end user"-each flip of the commodity upping its price and making another trader rich.) In a series of meetings in a hotel on Lake Constance, traders were deceived, teased, compromised and, finally, murdered in their jostling for the metal or the right to sell the metal. Pauline, in the thick of this mayhem, irritated the potential buyers with her inability to close the deal. In the end, she was spirited out of the country by a sympathetic ex-KGB agent, and she had lain low in Canada until it was safe for her to re-emerge. The book she and Hénault imagined was to be the full flower of that re-emergence, and the story would make us all rich.

Hénault then announced that he had been analyzing bestseller lists and had determined a money-making formula based on a book's paper weight, binding, cover, number of pages, copies sold, and printing and binding costs. He and Pauline wanted me to write a 281-page book recounting her experiences in Switzerland. That book, when successful, would be converted into a movie script. A business contact of theirs would then raise money to produce a Hollywood film about Pauline's life and adventures. They seemed to believe that writing a book and making a film were as simple as checking a bill of lading.

I worked for Pauline and Hénault a few more months, motivated by tantalizing but always confusing glimpses of their world. Countries and businesses, as they saw them, were variants of Oz-run by fake wizards who knew which levers to pull to produce the appearance of magic and authority. I researched the illegal disposing of military supplies from the Soviet Union (even finding a Russian PT boat for sale on eBay) and the countless ways of shipping large quantities of contraband. I thought of the book as a biographical novel, but Pauline did not want to be a recognizable character and even insisted the book be published under a pen name. (Mine or hers? I wondered.) Yet she objected when the main character in the book, re-christened Adélie du Pré, slept with a Russian trader, insisting that she-Pauline-was too moral to do such a thing. Hénault did not comment on matters of form or content, but I assumed he weighed the manuscript pages and tallied up the words.

Three chapters in, I faced some unpleasant facts. The story Pauline wanted was outside genre; it was outside narrative of any sort. Its 281 pages were supposed to transcribe events, reveal Pauline as she thought of herself, invent parts of her that were consistent with this idealized self, disguise her entirely and be sexed up enough to sell to film producers. I realized, also, that I would never be paid. The oft-delayed money lay at the end of a hopeful cascade of deals with third parties in Beijing, New York and Quebec City. By this time, I had learned that traders never spend their own money. Traders trade; money is a by-product. When I quit, my clients were angry and distraught and demanded all of my research material. When I refused, thinking that I might one day make use of it, they left vaguely threatening phone messages, then lapsed into silence.

A year later, I dragged the ghost's sheet over my head once again to work with a man who'd made his fortune on legal ventures. The job began with the evaluation of his manuscript, a 200-page list of events whose importance was suggested by the use of hundreds of exclamation marks. As usual, my client, the nominal author of the book, felt that a process of "correcting the English" would make it publishable. Instead, I wrote a few pages that transformed incident into dramatized scene. After reading it, my amazed client told me that I knew his mind better than he did, and that he wanted the entire book "edited" like that. Then came the reinvention of his life: interviews, followed by research and, when necessary, plausible invention of detail and dialogue. One day, while I was looking at a group photograph of the man's sales staff in the company archives, a name caught my attention, and I found I couldn't stop thinking about it. Then it came to me. It was Pauline Blomme's second husband, Geert de Jong.

The next time I met with my employer, I asked him about Geert. Uncharacteristically, his face hardened with anger, and he told me about the very large sum of money Geert, whom he had respected as an aggressive salesman, had stolen from him before running away to a Greek island. "I had my people find Geert," he said. "I thought about making something happen to him ..." My client was clearly a tough man but not a violent one. "And his wife, that Pauline Blomme," he added with disgust, "was only interested in the dollar. She was even worse than Geert."

In the autobiography I eventually produced, the story of Geert de Jong's larceny earned only a glance, but it was there. The book launch was held at an estate on a well-landscaped mountainside in Quebec's Eastern Townships. While I was casually walking around the grounds, hanging out with the caterer's staff, a tall, baggy-cheeked man wearing a jacket with incongruous white piping on the lapels approached me and asked if I had edited the book that was being launched. He expressed interest in the book, but I knew that I was being cruised and waited for his pitch. He soon told me that he had sold his chain of drapery stores, was working on his autobiography and could use an editor. He was leaving Canada the next day, but, if I e-mailed him, we could talk about conducting interviews at his flat in Knightsbridge or his house in the Bahamas. I found him self-infatuated and appallingly boring, but I still slipped his business card into my pocket. His vanity could make the job a lucrative one.

At the end of the party, I received a complimentary copy of the expensively (and privately) printed book. Later, I placed it on a lower and partially hidden shelf in my office beside other ghosted works-the story of a young German man who had ridden a horse across the United States, the achievements of a woman who had raised countless millions of dollars for Israel, a novel about an eighteenth-century ghost. Their shiny and uncreased bindings stood out in the generally shabby landscape of my embrittled fiction paperbacks.

Some months later, I had to don my only suit to attend a ceremony at the university. I ducked out the moment it was over to find a quick lunch in a nearby warren of food courts. Suddenly Pauline Blomme appeared in front of me. Before I could even say hello, she made what seemed like an embarrassed admission: "I saw a distinguished man in a beautiful suit and thought I should follow him. And I did," she said. "Then I realized I knew him!"

I had never thought of myself as looking distinguished and was taking a moment to digest that odd bit of flattery when it occurred to me that I held a piece of information that would have meaning for Pauline-the reason for the sudden disappearance of her husband and children. I led her away from the lunchtime pedestrian traffic and told her that Geert de Jong had not fled because of her, but to avoid prosecution, or worse. Pauline listened to the story twice, her expression shifting from incomprehension to gratitude and, briefly, tears. We talked for a moment more, and she asked to borrow my copy of the ghosted autobiography for a day to photocopy the part about Geert. She would show this to the remaining members of her family in Belgium and to her children, with whom she had somehow reconnected. "Now they will understand my life," she said.

When Pauline visited my office to borrow the book, she was again giddy with the crazed optimism of a gambler. She was about to make a deal involving the resale of an abandoned shipment of German baby bottles in China. She was going to move from Hénault's apartment and concentrate on developing her new line of cosmetics. Her elder son was planning to visit her and they would travel to Belgium together. Happiness, as always for Pauline, was hinged on contingencies that she saw as certainties. At no time did she mention the orphaned chapters I had written for her or our strained parting.

As Pauline gathered her things to leave, she looked around my corner office with her usual undisguised appraisal. I saw her glance at the institutional furniture, the view of nearby apartment buildings through dirty windows and the few small knick-knacks-gifts from students-I had on display. "And what about you?" she asked, her child's voice suddenly husky with greediness and camaraderie. "Are you working on any good deals?"

Although I didn't tell her, I had just received an exploratory e-mail from the fabric-store magnate. Pauline took the book from me and slipped it into her large cloth purse. She offered new expressions of gratitude, hoped that we would see each other more often and promised that she would return the book the next day. A while after that, I stopped waiting for the return of the book, deleted the message from the wealthy businessman in Knightsbridge and gave up the life of the ghost.