Christmas Essay Was Not His, Author Admits

New York Times/January 9, 2009

Neale Donald Walsch, author of the best-selling series "Conversations With God," recently posted a personal Christmas essay on the spiritual Web site about his son's kindergarten winter pageant.

During a dress rehearsal, he wrote, a group of children spelled out the title of a song, "Christmas Love," with each child holding up a letter. One girl held the "m" upside down, so that it appeared as a "w," and it looked as if the group was spelling "Christ Was Love." It was a heartwarming Christmas story from a writer known for his spiritual teachings.

Except it never happened - to him.

Mr. Walsch's story was nearly identical to an essay by a writer named Candy Chand, which was originally published 10 years ago in Clarity, a spiritual magazine, and has been circulating on the Web ever since. Mr. Walsch now says he made a mistake in believing the story was something that had actually come from his personal experience.

Ms. Chand said she originally wrote the piece about her son, Nicholas, and his kindergarten winter pageant and published it in Clarity in 1999. In his Dec. 28 blog posting, Mr. Walsch, who also has a son named Nicholas, said it happened at his son's pageant 20 years ago.

Ms. Chand's essay was reprinted, with her clearly identified as the author, in "Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul" in 2000, as well as on , a Web site for inspirational stories. In 2003 Ms. Chand copyrighted the story with the United States Copyright Office. Last June Gibbs Smith, a small independent publisher, released the story, "Christmas Love," as an illustrated gift book. The story has also been passed around through e-mail and on blogs, sometimes without attribution.

Except for a different first paragraph in which Mr. Walsch wrote that he could "vividly remember" the incident, his Dec. 28 Beliefnet post followed, virtually verbatim, Ms. Chand's previously published writing, even down to prosaic details like "The morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down."

On Saturday Ms. Chand contacted Elizabeth Sams, Beliefnet's executive vice president of content and community, and on Tuesday morning Mr. Walsch's post was taken down. "This blog chain has been taken down while Beliefnet investigates the ownership of the previously published material," a brief statement on the Web site said.

In a statement posted Tuesday afternoon on his blog on Beliefnet, which is owned by the News Corporation, Mr. Walsch said he had made a "serious error" and apologized to Ms. Chand and his readers.

"All I can say now - because I am truly mystified and taken aback by this - is that someone must have sent it to me over the Internet ten years or so ago," Mr. Walsch wrote. "Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of 'stories to tell that have a message I want to share.' I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized ... and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Walsch, 65, who said he regularly gave 10 to 20 speeches a year, said he had been retelling the anecdote in public as his own for years. "I am chagrined and astonished that my mind could play such a trick on me," he said.

Mr. Walsch - whose first book in the series "Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue," published in 1996 by Putnam, a unit of Penguin Group USA, spent 139 weeks on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list - added that he would never deliberately copy another writer's words without attributing them. "It's not like I'm trying to find an audience or trying to impress anybody with my writing," he said.

Ms. Chand said in a telephone interview that she did not believe Mr. Walsch's explanation. "If he knew this was wrong, he should have known it was wrong before he got caught," she said. "Quite frankly, I'm not buying it."

Ms. Chand said that she had seen others take credit for writing the story twice in church newsletters, but that this was the first time she had seen a professional appropriate her words.

"I have strong issue with anyone who would appear to plagiarize my work and pretend it is his own," she said. "That takes away from the truth of the material, it takes away from the miracle that occurred, because people begin to question what they can believe anymore.

"As a professional writer, when someone appears to plagiarize, they damage the industry, they damage other writers' credibility and they hurt the reader because they never know what to believe anymore."

In a statement, Beliefnet said Mr. Walsch had withdrawn from the site's blogging roster. "As a faith-based Web portal, Beliefnet will continue to hold ourselves and our writers to the highest standards of trust," the statement read.

Ms. Chand said she was concerned that people would now think she had copied Mr. Walsch's story. "How many people have heard him telling people that it's his own?" she said. "There goes my credibility again."

Speaking of Mr. Walsch, she asked: "Has the man who writes best-selling books about his 'Conversations With God' also heard God's commandments? 'Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie, and thou shalt not covet another author's property'?"

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 9, 2009

An article on Wednesday about the admission by the author Neale Donald Walsch that a personal Christmas essay he recently posted on the Web site was actually written by another author, Candy Chand, who published it 10 years ago, misspelled the given name of a executive whom Ms. Chand contacted. The executive is Elizabeth Sams, not Elisabeth.

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