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The lies of trauma merchants Hasan Minhaj won over liberals by playing the victim

Hasan Minhaj has been dining out on anecdotes he invented. (Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty)

Hasan Minhaj has been dining out on anecdotes he invented. (Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty)


September 21, 2023   7 mins

My colleagues and I filed into the vice president’s office at the publishing house where I worked, crowding around a television that was turned to ABC. The year was 2005. The mood was giddy, as if we were about to witness a public execution — which, in a way, we were.

James Frey, author of the bestselling memoir A Million Little Pieces, had been exposed as a fraud. Oprah Winfrey, formerly his biggest champion, was about to confront him live on national television. And she was pissed.

“I’ve struggled with the idea of it,” Frey said, in response to a question about the famous and then-allegedly fallacious scene in his book in which he receives a root canal without anaesthesia. Oprah snapped. “No,” she said, icily. “Not the idea of it. The lie of it.”

Frey, whose book was published in 2003, was the most notorious literary fabulist of the moment, but hardly the only one. The Noughties were rife with fabricators. There was Margaret Seltzer, who had lied about being a biracial gang member in South Central Los Angeles. There was J.T. Leroy, a trans sex worker, drug addict, and author of semi-autobiographical novels — who turned out to be the imaginary alter-ego of a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert. There was Herman Rosenblat, whose Holocaust memoir Angel at the Fence was cancelled when it turned out that, though his story of surviving the Buchenwald concentration camp was true, the improbable tale of the little girl who saved his life by throwing apples over the camp’s barbed wire fence, and later became his wife, was not.

All very different narratives, and yet, with a common thread — one that at the time spurred a fiery debate about memoir as a genre, and the proliferation therein of what could only be described as trauma porn.

Memoir offers all the enticing horror of sexual abuse, of graphic violence, of watching a man strapped down and brutalised by a dentist — while offering the upright reader plausible deniability. He consumes these books not because he finds such things titillating but because he cares. Audiences want to read about pain and suffering, abuse and exploitation; you were supposed to feel bad for the people who had written these books, while also feeling good about how bad you felt.

When Oprah angrily told James Frey that he had “betrayed millions of readers”, it was this crucial contract he was accused of violating. Because if these stories weren’t true, then the people who were thrilled by them weren’t empaths, but voyeurs.

Today, the collective horror at Frey’s deception feels like the product of a more innocent time, particularly when compared with the muted response to last week’s unmasking of his contemporary equivalent. Comedian and television personality Hasan Minhaj, an alumnus of The Daily Show, built his career on stories of the persecution he had faced as an Indian, Muslim son of immigrants in a post-9/11 America. But as outlined in a devastating report by New Yorker writer Clare Malone, his most popular material contained key omissions and barefaced lies.

The FBI informant who infiltrated Minhaj’s Muslim community and then reported his mosque to the authorities? Minhaj never met him. The hospitalisation of Minhaj’s daughter after someone mailed him an envelope full of a white mystery powder that could have been anthrax? Never happened. And the high school ex-girlfriend who accepted Minhaj’s invitation to prom, only to jilt him on her doorstep for racist reasons while her new (white) date slipped a corsage on her wrist? She had actually turned down Minhaj several days earlier, and this doorstep moment — upon which Minhaj more or less built his career — was a complete fabrication.

Much like Frey, Minhaj’s popularity centred on his suffering. His work was understood to express the crude, unvarnished and sometimes darkly funny truth of what it is like to be a brown-skinned man in a racist America: white liberal audiences treated him as a sort of mascot for the oppressed, while the culturati lauded him for speaking truth to power. Here, as Slate writer Nitish Pahwa puts it, was “an Indian Muslim, hosting his own show, taking the country to task on his terms, terms that had long been absent from the white man–dominated industries of stand-up comedy and late-night TV”.

But things are a little more complicated when the fabricator is telling tales on the stage rather than the page. It is understood that for comedians, the question of truth, as in authenticity, is something separate from what is true, as in accurate. Comedians will do anything for a laugh, lying included, and everybody knows this — even if the precise ethical boundaries of untruth are sometimes the subject of debate, including by comedians themselves. An essay from 2017 by screenwriter and stand-up David Misch, which tackles this very question, includes a prescient little frisson:

“I agree that the idea of authenticity in a stand-up’s persona is bullshit, but subject matter is a different matter — specifically, when a comedian moves from personal observations to cultural critiques. Wouldn’t we feel betrayed if we found out that the political routines of 
 Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers (now) didn’t reflect their beliefs? Being Muslim-American is central to Hasan Minaj’s identity as a stand-up — wouldn’t we feel differently about him if it turned out he was Baptist?”

Misch presents this as a rhetorical question, and it is — but only because of the kind of comedian Minhaj is, which is to say, the kind who is not particularly funny. Consider the top YouTube result from his Netflix special, Homecoming King, in which he talks about the harassment his family endured after 9/11. There are ripples of laughter here and there, but it’s only when he stops joking and starts preaching — “I have the audacity of equality!” he says — that the audience explodes like they’re at a tent revival.

Of course, this is as intended. Minhaj isn’t a make-you-laugh-til-your-face-hurts comedian; he’s a Daily Show guy, a pundit with a slightly-better-than-average sense of humour, but one that is smug rather than silly. His audience isn’t there to laugh so much as enjoy the sensation of moral authority with a wink and a titter. And while Minhaj’s material works well enough on television, onstage it translates to something that is less stand-up comedy and more performance memoir.

Here, Minhaj is following in the footsteps of performers such as Hari Kondabolu, John Oliver, Seth Myers, and, of course, Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix special Nanette was more trauma porn that explicitly scolded its audience for showing up expecting to laugh. Critics at the time suggested that Gadsby had broken some final frontier, effectively severing the connection between comedy and jokes. Maybe laughter had had its moment; maybe what we needed from comedians now was some moral instruction in what isn’t funny. Maybe what we needed was to feel bad — and to feel good about how bad we felt.

Under this new contract, drawn up amid the creeping identitarianism of Trump-era art, it is not hard to see why someone like Minhaj might fall into the trap of not just monetising his trauma, but fabricating it. It is what Jay Caspian Kang called “oppression fantasy”, writing that Minhaj’s fakery represents “another example of how oppression stories — in this case fabricated oppression porn — gets leveraged by upwardly mobile immigrants to mostly advance their careers”.

It is also a familiar dynamic to anyone who remembers the memoir hoaxes of 20 years ago; the type of audience who flocks to see Minhaj today is the same one that made James Frey a bestseller. There is nothing that white educated liberals love more than to slum it in a voyeuristic narrative of someone else’s suffering, all while congratulating themselves on being enlightened enough to appreciate it for the art it is. Inject a bit of racial guilt into the mix, and you’ll dine out for the rest of your life courtesy of the New Yorker tote bag class — at least until one of said magazine’s investigative reporters finds out you’re full of shit.

But today’s trauma merchants are ultimately better off than the hoax memoirists. The days in which audiences responded to lies like this with a sense of outrage and betrayal are over; if anything, the anger today is reserved for the person who interrupts a comfortable narrative with a bunch of pesky facts. Consider what happens, inevitably, whenever some bias-stroking outrage is exposed as a fraud — whether it’s Jussie Smollett, or kids identifying as cats, or a guy allegedly shrieking the N-word at a crowded sporting event. Instead of revising our priors, or even being relieved, we look for ways in which being wrong only goes to show how right we were. So, this story wasn’t true? Ah, well: this country is so racist, or sexist, or full of sexually depraved weirdos who want to secretly turn every kid into a trans-cat, that it could have been true, and that’s just as bad.

Or, as Hasan Minhaj might put it, it doesn’t matter if the story is fake when it is “emotionally true” — which is to say, when it feels like something that could have happened. Needless to say, some people object to this, not least the woman who politely declined that prom invitation as a teenager: she and her family have been receiving death threats for years thanks to Minhaj’s fabrications, a fact about which the comedian is decidedly cavalier. Maybe this girl didn’t do what he described, he says, and maybe what he described wasn’t done to him — but it had certainly happened sometime, to someone, somewhere: “There are so many other kids who have had a similar sort of doorstep experience.”

No doubt this is true, and not just of kids like Minhaj; when I was 17, a more popular boy took me out on a date, then dropped me back at my house several hours later with the dire warning that I couldn’t tell anyone that we were seeing each other. He simply couldn’t risk the humiliation of his friends knowing he was interested in someone like me. His reasons for this had nothing to do with race and everything to do with high-school social dynamics; if I were telling this story as part of a stand-up routine, perhaps I would have to find a way to make him an antisemite.

But despite the fact that the prom story is emotionally resonant with many a teenage experience, there is still something weird — even, dare I say, appropriative — about claiming to have been a victim of something that didn’t happen, let alone making a living off it. On this front, Minhaj has less in common with the comedian who embellishes a wacky story for laughs, and more in common with the TikToker who scammed her followers out of thousands of dollars to treat a cancer she didn’t have. Minhaj has been dining out for years on that doorstep moment. He published it as an essay in Vanity Fair. He’s spoken about it countless times with reporters, never presenting it as anything but a first-person experience. And while it has become a fixture of his comedy over the years, when Minhaj first debuted this material, it wasn’t actually in a stand-up routine, but at a storytelling competition called The Moth.

It is an interesting institution, The Moth: a sort of open-mic night for anecdotes, a performance memoir showcase. It has just one rule: the story you tell on its stage has to be true.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

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Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago

There is something of the cargo cult about modern progressive discourse.
It started reasonably enough with the recognition that some people’s voices were rarely heard in the western public sphere. And that these “marginalised voices” were predominantly female or black or gay people who had important things to say about their experience. Over time “marginalised voices have something important to say” has somewhat flipped within progressive discourse to become “something said by a marginalised voice is important”.
And you don’t even have to be really very marginalised. Hasan Minhaj is successful entertainer with a huge platform, from a family of medical professionals, who was educated at a highly regarded public university. As a brown-skinned man from a family of Muslim immigrants, I’m sure he has from time to time experienced prejudice. But in many ways his family encapsulates the American Dream.
But of course he looks to progressives like their idea of a marginalised voice, so what he says must be important, even if its not actually true.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

It’s all starting to remind me why we kept them marginalized in the first place.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

The bigotry is strong in this one!

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago

Yeah, don’t need anyone confirming wokies’ stereotypes about their opponents.

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago

For once I agree with you, though you’re still 99% shithead.

madeleine muir-wyett
madeleine muir-wyett
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Oh so pretending to be a victim to get attention is a thing then?

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
10 months ago

“His audience isn’t there to laugh so much as enjoy the sensation of moral authority with a wink and a titter.”
Spot-on Daily Show evaluation. As reasonably well-produced as it was sophistic.

Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago

“There are so many other kids who have had a similar sort of doorstep experience.”

. . .

when I was 17, a more popular boy took me out on a date, then dropped me back at my house several hours later with the dire warning that I couldn’t tell anyone that we were seeing each other. 

This isn’t really equivalent to the fabricated Minhaj story is it.
Popular teenage boys are often unthinkingly callous because they are high on teenage hormones and solipsism. I was that boy once and guarantee that if asked he would have been amazed that anyone could think he was doing you anything other than a favour. After all wasn’t he, a popular boy, doing you such an incredible honour by dating you at all, that its only reasonable it should be entirely on his terms?
This sort of thing probably does happen a lot and speaks of unthinking teenage entitlement with a dose of misogyny. (Though it would be interesting to compare and contrast with how popular teenage girls treat boys they think unworthy of them.)
Minhaj’s fabrication relies explicitly on allowing the audience to believe that a teenaged girl intentionally catfished him into going to her house, even greeting him at the doorstep, so that she and another white teenager could coordinate his humiliation for racist purposes.
Does that sort of thing really happen a lot? Maybe someone knows better than I do, but I’m sceptical.

R S Foster
R S Foster
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

…it has quite possibly never happened at all…but tens of millions of people now not only believe it has, but may well believe it has happened a lot. It has probably made a genuine problem around race in the USA much worse…

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
10 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

It’s a little like the “razor blade in the apple” Halloween story. Never happened. But now the story is meth laced candy. Never happened either.

But the horror underlying it strikes deep in our hearts. Some S.O.B. Is out there trying to make addicts out of our kids.

It really is hard to get past, isn’t it?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago

No one believes the humours stories related by comedians are literally true and that the comedian’s actual mother-in-law behaved in the manner described. But the author is right to point out that this fabulist is not actually a comedian so his lies do matter because he is in fact a woke propagandist.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

I don’t think lies are necessarily repulsive. It’s the faux victimhood. Comedians almost have to exaggerate, but pretending to be a victim is gross and icky, maybe because it diminishes the suffering of real victims.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

He was also victimising the girl he lied about

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
10 months ago

If we are going to insist on having such a thing as a “hate crime,” then it follows that a hate crime is committed when, as with the fake prom story here, you identify a young woman by her race and then falsely accuse her of having committed a truly cruel and racist act. She and her family have suffered real consequences for his lies, and another bit of racial tension, ugliness, and misunderstanding has been seeded into society.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
9 months ago
Reply to  Sheryl Rhodes

Yeah, but accusations, no matter how toxic or dishonest, can only go one way in the Victim Olympics. You must surely know the rules?

Elizabeth Higgins
Elizabeth Higgins
10 months ago

Oppression appropriation, otherwise known as the Jussie Smolett syndrome. Not enough bigotry going on, so make it up, get innocent people in trouble (or endanger them) with your lies, and claim your prize of victimhood.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

I’ve long suffered from the trauma of not having any trauma to suffer from.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

That probably means you can’t empathize.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

Comedians used to fill arenas because they made people roar with laughter. Now they fill revival tents like the phony preachers they imitate, and the credulous hoard shout their version of amen.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
10 months ago

“only because of the kind of comedian Minhaj is, which is to say, the kind who is not particularly funny. ”
Pretty much all left wing comedy really.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Not necessarily so. For me it’s hard to find comics who are naturally funny and don’t rely on jokes. I really belly laughed at Howie Mandell’s most recent stand -up because he engaged with the audience and played off them. It was all impro and off the cuff. He does that so well. James Cordon is another one who’s naturally funny and does great skits. It’s satire that I don’t find funny. I think “Oh that was funny and clever” but it doesn’t make me laugh. I tried Minhaj but gave up after five minutes.

R S Foster
R S Foster
10 months ago

…the problem with “claiming to be a victim of something that didn’t happen” in this context…is that every “BIPOC” who does it, and in consequence gets rich and famous…encourages another ten, or twenty or thirty others to do the same in the hope of the same outcome…
…or even, in the High School example, just to dump some perfectly innocent girl in the “mean girl” mire amongst her more “woke” peers…for the rest of her time in that school, that town…or maybe in college, or right through her life…
…essentially people who do this are massively amplifying the problems of racism that do certainly exist…and actually making them worse, quite possibly exponentially…to the cost of us all, and of any hope of decent society…

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Indeed, it is a gravy train, particularly in the US.

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

That’s the whole point of this crap, to keep us divided and at each other’s throats while the bastards who are exploiting all of us get ever richer and more powerful. While our enemies in the Chinese/Russian axis are gleefully rubbing their hands.

Doug Mccaully
Doug Mccaully
10 months ago

Not just liberals being won over by playing the victim. If you end up in court because you arguably broke the law, you’re a victim of a witch hunt.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
10 months ago

Early manifestations of this type of behavior were statements made by people suffering from [Republican President’s name here] Derangement Symptom. Some may recall Stephen Glass who fabricated stories about G.W. Bush that were  “even if not true, they could have been true.”  Ditto for Dan Rather. It has reached its apotheosis in stories fabricated about Trump.
The inverse of this is the “even if it is true we will never report it”, perhaps to be named “Marginalized People Adulation Syndrome”, practiced by the same outfits.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
10 months ago

Excellent piece, Kat. I have a few people in my circle who, as you put it, seek to feel good about feeling bad. For me, I now notice how I seek to feel good about having these people identified and called out. I guess we all are prey to different versions of the same thing.

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago
Reply to  Rick Lawrence

For Christ’s sake, can the guilt already. Nothing wrong with enjoying vile cretins getting their just due.

Filipa Antonia Barata de Araujo
Filipa Antonia Barata de Araujo
10 months ago

In an ultra individualistic, only individual truths matter. That’s why, relating to a recent argument I had on twitter, there are people pretending the reporting system worked perfectly in the previous regime.

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago

Severing comedy from jokes. Like hip hop severing music from melody and harmony.

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago

Ruthlessly, fearlessly incisive, not one punch pulled. We need more like you to put the mealy mouthed, shitweasel professional victim class and their toadying apologists in their place. Kat baby, you’re the greatest.

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago

BTW what the hell is ‘Awaitng for approval’? For a supposedly intellectual forum, that’s some crappy use of the English language. FFS.

Steve Hay
Steve Hay
10 months ago

The reality of the situation is we always have had and always will have. Precious people who badly need to have the piss taken out of them.
The difference is these days they get all shitty and round up an internet Lynch mob. To threaten the personal safety of the comedian, his family and even his dog.
The answer is to say f‱‱k it and go back on stage and thank them in the nastiest way for the free publicity. You know where this is heading. Have them looking for a rock to hide under.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
10 months ago

We need to beware equally the victim-blamers and the victim-claimers. We need to educate ourselves to scrutinize and critique ‘research’, often specially commissioned and/or biassed, that underlies such claims.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
9 months ago

Yeah, but it’s HIS truth. Insisting on historical accuracy is just another form of patriarchal oppression, violating this person’s Way of Knowing by forcing an oppressive, colonialist
paradigm of linear time and past events on their Story.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

I find it fascinating that white GenZ’iers here in the UK, who have turned the movie “Saltburn” into generational canon, fail so bad at understanding the true allegory of that movie and the role that they actually play in it (*hint: they’re not Oliver….). They’ve been played so bad, and have yet to discover it.

Jane Davis
Jane Davis
10 months ago

Nanette is more subtle than that. It is partly about Gadsby confronting her own autistic masking and ‘making light of things stoicism’ as a comedic genre. So she goes and does precisely the opposite. Bits of it are funny, imo.
Call out a faker by all means but a lot of high value comedians like Richard Pryor and Billy Connolly have always mined pain and trauma for material . If you can’t handle that, you go watch someone who does light entertainment jokes.
British Jews urgently need to start talking more about their experiences of antisemitism – see Jews In Their Own Words, which had its funny moments.
I think the audience for misery memoir can be suspect at times but, let’s face it, speaking out openly about real incidents of racism isn’t easy
This chancer has done his own community a disservice and they won’t thank him for it.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago

I’d suggest that the folks who credulously swallow every fantasy of the likes of Donald Trump may not wish to get so upset about some jokes a comedian once told.

Paul Beardsell
Paul Beardsell
10 months ago

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Do you only dislike lies from the side you don’t support?

starkbreath
starkbreath
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul Beardsell

It’s only wrong when ‘they’ do it. Typical hypocritical far-left garbage, wrapped in melodramatic outrage, note the condescending tone.

Last edited 10 months ago by starkbreath
Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
9 months ago

Can’t beat Whataboutery, eh!