Episode 14: Blundering Your Way to Expertise
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PAUL KIX: Hello and welcome to the After Show for Now That's a Great Story. On Monday, we had on Michele Rigby Assad. One of the things we talked about was how she was able to ultimately know anybody else in her field, and how she use that expertise as a way to help her overcome her presumed liabilities and turn those liabilities to her advantage.
I like that idea of getting to the point of expertise. I want to talk about the way that you get to that point where you know more than anybody else in your field and that's often blundering your way to expertise. That's certainly been the case for me. A couple weeks ago in the podcast I talked about the most anxiety-inducing time in my life. That was when I was trying to put together my book and I was hearing from so many people about how my protagonist Robert was a fraud. I was sort of hearing my own internal monologue about how I was a fraud as well. There was one particular episode within that particularly stressful series of months, and that's what I want to spend a little bit of time talking about.
At the center of the book was this explosion in sabotage that happened in a munition factory outside Bordeaux. It was in a suburb called Saint Medard en Joule and it was this massive munition Factory and the centerpiece of the book was this idea that Robert in 1944 had gone and sabotaged it either just prior or just after D-day and it has been this fiery explosion in everybody in France had known about it. And in fact as the book opened I was reading about how others who knew Robert were talking about how magnificent that explosion was. There was just one problem with this account and that was I couldn't seem to find any record of a sabotage at the facility.
So Robert had written that this sabotage that happened in May or June but there was no record of it happening in May or June and Robert said he remembered working with some resistance groups. This group called Bayard that wasn't even in the area around Bordeaux at that time. So the other scholars who were calling Robert a fraud? Well, those thoughts began to... let's just say that I began to entertain those thoughts too. And that's really what began to give me so much anxiety that that led to all that insomnia. Was this book even worth writing? If Roberto didn't do this, if he was making this up, and this was the centerpiece of the book, what was he I doing writing about it?
And the days passed and the months passed and I still couldn't find anything about it. I began to read extensively on the subject. I began to read frantically on a subject. I bought this book of this of this old British agent is guy who is named by whose real name is Rodger Landis and he went by the code name Aristad. His book (a) did not mention Robert and (b) did not mention a sabotage that would have happened by group bayard or group Charlie. It was really troubling, so months pass and it went from being troubling to being just sort of confusing because other episodes of Robert’s war, I found independent confirmation for it. In fact perhaps the most fabulous story, the one that I thought if you would have been lying about anything that would have been this one: how he escaped from his own execution, I actually found prison records that show that he had; that the that the Germans themselves had written that he had escaped.
And then after this sabotage there was this equally daring mission in April 1945 just before the close of the war and I found evidence to show that -- independent evidence to show that Robert had carried it out just as he had said he had carried it out in the book. And so this was what was so confusing. How was it that this guy had done all these amazing things during the war with all this independent confirmation throughout and yet the centerpiece of the war, this extensive sabotage, and then all of the things that happened in the wake of that sabotage…. I mean this thing, if it was carried out it would have derailed the entire plant, which was no more than a square mile.
It was derailed for days if not weeks if not months. There should have been some sort of records about this so when I finally got to France to research this, I thought I've got to get to the primary documents and what I began to do first was I looked within Bordeaux's government documents. These ended up not being very helpful because the Germans were occupying France at that time and they could choose to either include or exclude any sort of sabotage they would have wanted to so what I realized I needed were resistance records.
I realized that I needed the resistance records that were written just after the war, and I realized I needed Robert’s own war records because Robert’s writing this book fifty years after the fact. What if it's just a matter of Robert not remembering things correctly? What if I could find records that were closer to the date of the events themselves and what if those records turned up something? So I'm looking in the resistance records and it's... Everybody's using pseudonyms so it's tough to get stuff to see anybody with the actual name Robert de la Rouchfouchauld so I'm not necessarily looking for that sort of conformation, but what I am looking for is something in Robert’s own military records that would suggest which military resistance groups he would have worked with and then going to those military resistance groups archives and then looking to see what those records held. And it was this sort of piecing together, looking first through the roughly 400 pages of military document of Robert’s own military records that I began to get a sense for the other resistance groups with which will bear and work some of home some of which were not written about in Robert’s memoir.
So now I felt like I was getting somewhere. And as I was digging through the archives of one of these resistance group’s records, I noticed a hierarchy. And that hierarchy was all of the other resistance groups with which certain resistance groups worked. Meaning that there was this whole network of resistance groups that were teaming up and aligning with one another and sort of like working with one group one day and then working with another group another. Even from the records you can tell that this was a very fluid situation on the ground. And one of the resistance groups with which Robert worked, one of them that Robert was a leader in, according to his own military records, well, it turned out, that that resistance group partnered with another resistance group called group George. All right, so I have all this information but I'm not yet seen anything that showing a sabotage carried out by any of these resistance groups that worked with one another at the Sanmidar Munitions factory in the summer of 1944. So I actually write the first draft of the book that acknowledges that I'm not sure what this. Robert says this happened but this is the one episode of the book that I cannot find independent confirmation for, and if anything caused me the anxiety and insomnia of that entire reporting experience, it was this fact. I just could not make sense of why it was that I couldn't find something that should have been so very obvious.
So as I'm doing this I'm of course meeting with lots of other scholars and lots of other researchers and one of the researchers who is interested in Robert’s life, she she ultimately sends me this document that she had found from the Imperial War Museum in London. And it was a document of the British agents who oversaw the French Resistance fighters in France and Southern France around Bordeaux in 1944. And she said I have some good news for you Paul. It appears as though he go to page I forget it was like 66 or whatever of this report you will see a paragraph that mentions that there was a sabotage at the munitions factory. And I went and there it was, and that's when I saw the name: Group George.
And the researcher couldn't make any sense of what that meant. She had spent herself probably more than a year looking independently into Robert and a few other resistance groups. But she didn't see the connection that I saw. She didn't know that Group George was actually connected to Bayard and Charlie and all of these other groups and that there had been, again, this fluid movement between the members of these groups and carrying out these attacks.
And for me this document was there was a eureka sort of moment. This document from the Imperial War Museum showed that it happened in July, and once I was able to once that I went back to Robert’s military records and I saw the sabotages that he was carrying out in that summer and some of them were with group George.
Now these French military documents are written in such a way that the language is terse and hey don't want a full explanation but suffice to say that looking at the documents the Imperial War Museum, looking at the documents from the group George records, looking at Robert’s personal War records, what I was able to do was triangulate and see that ,oh my goodness all of these events lined up at the same time and this was what Robert was talking about. He had it right insofar as there was an attack on the Sanmidar munitions factory. It did not happen in May or June. It happened in July and it did not happen with the group that Robert was immediately aligned with they are. But the group that that was Bayard sister organization or brother organization in this sense: group George. And once I was able to piece all of that together the sense of relief and joy, and I mean, I felt like I just drank 20 cups of coffee.
So I go on, I have my I have my document, I rewrite that portion of the book because at that point I'm getting near my deadline. And then one day I'm researching and I pick up the old book that I had on Roger Landis, the British agent who was a major operator in Bordeaux in 1944. And in the back organizing the notes were all of the sabotages that various resistance groups with which Rodger was aligned, all these attacks at these groups of carried out. There all listed there. And group George, sure enough, showed that in July it carried out of sabotage on a munitions factory outside Bordeaux. Which means that the entire year-and-a-half that I had spent worrying about any sort of confirmation for this episode -- and I had traveled across the world to try to find it and met countless people -- the confirmation that I needed the entire time was on a bookshelf in my library ten feet from where I did the majority of my research. That is how you blunder your way to expertise. I'll be back Monday with another episode. Have a good weekend, everybody.