Neale Donald Walsch, the best-selling author of "Conversations with God," responded to accusations of plagiarizing a widely circulated Christmas essay with the explanation that his mind played a trick on him.
"I went into my files, I saw the file and I was absolutely convinced I had written that, but I'm not surprised by that, you know," Walsch said in an interview at his Ashland home Thursday.
"You could walk up to almost any author in the world who's written 22 books and hold up five paragraphs of their own copy, and I'd be surprised if they recognized it ... I've written millions of words and 22 books and I'm not altogether sure that I would be able to recognize copy that I did not write, especially copy that had my son's name sprinkled all throughout and talked about experiences that I've had in my life."
The author of the original story, California freelance writer Candy Chand, said she does not buy Walsch's explanation of memory error.
"He did not apologize when he found out," she said. "He apologized when he figured out a reporter was onto him and said, 'It was my brain that tricked me into plagiarism.' In what world is that a confession?"
Walsch posted the story, originally titled "Christmas Love," on his blog on Beliefnet.com on Dec. 28.
The post described his son Nicholas' elementary school winter pageant from 20 years before, where the children held up letters to spell the song title "Christmas Love." The girl holding the "m" held her sign upside down, transforming the message into "Christ Was Love."
The story really happened to a different Nicholas, Chand's son. She published the article 10 years ago in the spiritual magazine Clarity. In 2003, she copyrighted the story, and it was released as a gift book in 2008.
Because the essay has been widely republished — often unattributed — Chand said she tracks the story around the holidays with a Google alert and lets those who publish it know she is the author. She has seen only a few previous cases of outright plagiarism, mostly in church newsletters.
The story appeared on Walsch's blog under a different title, but the text was nearly verbatim, with only the first paragraph and the final sentence removed.
"My body started to shake; I started to hyperventilate because I realized, 'Oh my God, this is a planned thing,' " Chand said in a phone interview Thursday, describing her initial reaction. "I thought, 'No, this is a mistake, this can't be happening.' I tried to excuse it."
After talking to some of her writing friends and doing some online sleuthing, she determined it had to be intentional and contacted Walsch's Ashland office and Beliefnet on Jan. 2.
"For a man who claims he has conversations with God, who some believe is a prophet, it is mind-boggling he would plagiarize," she said.
It was not until Beliefnet and Walsch learned that a New York Times reporter was working on an article about the incident that the post was removed and Walsch issued an apology, Chand said.
The first installment of the apology was posted on Jan. 6, explaining that Walsch was "truly mystified" about how he could have posted the story as his own. He reasoned he must have received it over the Internet and pasted it into his own files, eventually internalizing the story as his own as he retold it over the years.
A second explanation, which has since been removed, appeared on Jan. 8, citing a study on inadvertent plagiarism that describes a memory phenomena causing people to remember experiences that did not happen to them or the words of another as their own.
Lead researcher David McCabe, a psychology professor at Colorado State University, said inadvertent plagiarism was a possibility in this case.
"Most people think of memory as sort of a video camera or tape recorder, where memory is more reconstructive," he said. "You know that maybe some information comes to mind about an event and then we start filling in the details."
The more similar an event is to a person's real life, the more likely he would be to inadvertently copy or internalize it and forget the real source, McCabe said.
Anderson Smith, a psychology professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who published the research along with McCabe, declined to comment directly on the case.
Inadvertent plagiarism is more likely to occur in older adults, he said, but plagiarized material more than a paragraph long is very unlikely to be copied by accident, he said.
"If there's a long passage, from a paragraph up, then it's almost impossible that that could be inadvertent plagiarism," he said.
Walsch said he did not have enough scientific background to respond to opponents of the theory.
"All I know is what happened to me," he said.
Walsch volunteered to discontinue the blog, an offer Beliefnet accepted and is effective immediately.
Julie French is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 482-3456, ext. 227, or firstname.lastname@example.org.