A real-life horror story
Mark Jacobson’s “The Lampshade” is a horrifying book.
The subject of this journalistic inquiry is a lampshade, supposedly made by Nazis from human skin. It had been foisted upon Jacobson by a friend after it turned up at a rummage sale in post-Katrina New Orleans. The book chronicles Jacobson’s journey to find out the object’s true origins.
(Listen here to an excerpt of Jacobson discussing how he feels about the lampshade.)
It is terribly creepy. But it’s also deeply fascinating. The Brooklyn author turns detective, interviewing New Orleans toughs, forensic experts, historians, Nazi black marketeers and even David Duke, former leader of the KKK.
We spoke with Jacobson, who turns out to be a very genial guy, about what it was like to immerse himself in this world.
How did you deal with this dark and horrifying subject matter?
I could just say it’s my job, but that would be avoiding the question. [Laughs] The way this thing came to my door, I don’t want to use the word fate, but it does seem like it was kind of pointed toward me, in a way. If Dave Dominici [the seller at the rummage sale] hadn’t found this thing and hadn’t come upon my friend, this guy Skip, who I had known all these years, I don’t think anybody else would have necessarily picked this thing out and had this nutty idea about what it might have been, except for Dave. And also, only Skip being Skip would be the person that would actually buy the thing for $35, because that’s just the kind of person he is. And then I would be the only person that I could think of that he would send it to who would actually feel it was their responsibility to do something about it. So in a way, when I say it’s my job, that’s part of the answer, but there’s also this karmic debt, in a way, that I felt. I couldn’t get out of it. People say it’s fascinating but kind of horrifying, but they keep reading it. That’s the way it was to write it, horrifying and fascinating but somehow you have to continue doing it because there’s all this freight that comes along with the object.
Do you think your journalism experience helped you get through such difficult subject matter?
I’ve been a journalist for a long time — longer than I might care to think about. You get a sense of what’s interesting and what isn’t. And also … I feel like, if I’m interested in it, I have to believe that other people might be interested in it or you might as well quit.
It’s interesting that the book is as much a New Orleans story as it is about the object itself.
This is the wrong term, but it’s something like this magical realism kind of thing. Like, if a thing comes from some place and it winds up in another place in a time of duress, maybe it’s worth looking at why. It’s not that hard to find the answer why, in a place like New Orleans. New Orleans is not a real place, it’s a surreal place. Strange things happen there, and it’s really a small place. Everybody considers themselves as part of a theater piece. I felt that the idea of skin and race … this thing was a product of racial thinking and then it winds up in this place where race is a dominant factor. It just made sense to me.
Some people’s reactions to you and the lampshade were quite hostile. Were you expecting that?
The lady at the [United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Diane Saltzman], you mean? [Saltzman refused to believe that the lampshade was real or that any lampshades were made by Nazis from human skin.] … This lampshade idea was like a huge deal for us [growing up]. And then all the sudden to find out it’s been written out of the narrative. And she was so adamant about it. Even though I sent her the DNA report, she kept insisting that it was a myth. ... It goes back to the idea that I think when you’re in a concentration camp, you’re kind of in hell. And once you’re already in hell, anything is possible. So if they’re killing people and then somebody tells you, “They’re ripping people’s skin off and making lampshades out of it,” why wouldn’t you believe it? A lot of these stories about the lampshade and the soap, and this kind of stuff, nobody was doubting this stuff when I was growing up, in 1957. It’s since then been, not exactly discredited, but proved to be not really as prevalent as people claimed they were. But it doesn’t matter in a lot of ways, because these are such emotional issues and once it sort of gets stuck in your heart and your head, it’s hard to get rid of them.
You must have expected some emotional resistance.
Totally. There’s just emotional resistance to contemplating the fact that [it existed]. I didn’t believe it either. I don’t even know if I believe it now. Who wants to believe something like that? The creepy part is that nobody I talked to really wanted it not to be real. On the other hand, it’s horrifying to think that it would be real. … We’re living in a 20th century world, continuing into this current century, it’s a world of all these horrible, horrible stories. To me, this thing kind of became an icon of badness. But on the other hand, I felt this strong feeling that if I got over that idea of what it was, what people thought it was and probably the process by which it was created, once I had it for long enough I began to realize that, “Well, I’m not afraid of it, and I don’t hate it. This exists, but the fact that it exists makes it almost kind of a neutral object.” … I didn’t feel that way when I first heard about it. I thought, “Ugh!” I wouldn’t say I got used to it, but I became accustomed to it. Not accustomed to the process, that people were doing these things, but the idea that it was in existence and at least for this period of time, I was its custodian of a sort. I’m desperate to get rid of it, of course.
I wouldn’t want to be in a room with it.
A lot of people didn’t want to look at it. A lot of people were desperate to look at it. There are people that are into these morbid things. I’m not one of them. [Laughs] … There’s this art gallery by where I live, called the Morbid Anatomy Gallery, where they just show all these messed-up fetuses, and stuff like that. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to look at that. But nobody’s sent me one of those, and I probably wouldn’t want it. This one, I couldn’t get out of it. [Laughs] I couldn’t avoid it. It was becoming like a speeding bullet toward me, and it literally had my name on it, because my name was on the package it came in. I couldn’t really tell them, “No such person here.” And then there’s also the process of the journalistic thing. Once you begin doing this stuff, part of it becomes a story just like any other one.
Have you showed the book to anyone you’ve interviewed?
Some people have read it. Dave the gangster, he’s read the parts that have him in it. He seems to be fine with it. Although he did make me make one change that I thought was kind of amusing. I said that he had gotten a few years off his [jail] sentence because he had cooperated with the cops, outing the art dealers that had bought the statues from him. And he said, “You can’t have that in there. It’s going to make me look like a rat!” And I said, “All this other stuff, Dave, makes you look kind of bad.” He said, “Nah, that’s OK. But I can’t have that.” … A lot of people have read it. David Duke has not read it. Maybe I’ll send him a copy, since he’s such a big friend of mine. [Laughs]