by Tess Gerritsen
Sadly, it’s happened again. Another memoir, another embarrassed publisher. Greg Mortenson, author of the mega-bestselling Three Cups of Tea, about his humanitarian efforts to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been accused of fabricating key elements in his book. He’s also accused of misusing the donations to his charity, the Central Asia Institute, but it’s the book that I want to focus on. Because the writer who dreams up a dodgy memoir is such an old tale, I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised that another one has popped up.
Mortenson in particular has been on my radar for a while because all my close friends have raved about him. “He’s a saint, you must read his book!” they insisted, shoving the book at me. By the time the tenth person said that, I was irritated about the whole thing and never did read the book. Then, while I was in Dubai, I saw that Mortenson was one of the featured authors on the program. I tried to get into the session — held in a huge auditorium — but the place was packed so tight you could scarcely breathe. My brief impression of him, before I fled the overheated room, was that he was an immensely polished speaker who knew exactly how to work an audience. He had legions of adoring fans. I remember saying to my husband: “He reminds me of a fake TV evangelist.”
Maybe it was just the cynic in me. Maybe I was a wee bit jealous of the piles and piles of books he was selling at the festival. But now, a few months later, it turns out I may not have been so far off the mark.
It’s not the first time I got a whiff of uneasiness about a memoir writer. Some years ago, while waiting to go on the air at BBC in London, I was introduced to a writer named Norma Khouri who was scheduled to go on the air right after me. “Norma grew up in Jordan,” her publicist told me. Norma was getting a huge amount of press for her memoir Forbidden Love, about the horrendous honor killing of her best friend in Jordan. Norma was gorgeous, poised, and well-spoken. She also struck me as completely American. “Wow,” I told her. “Your English sounds like you grew up in the US!”
“In my school in Jordan, the teacher who taught us English was from the US,” Norma explained without an instant’s hesitation. “That’s why I sound American.”
It sounded plausible. Sort of. But I couldn’t get over the fact she just seemed so American. I think I even said that to my publicist. “She’s just like a gal from Brooklyn,” I said.
Fast-forward a few months, to the breaking news about memoir writer, Norma Khouri. Who, it turns out, had not grown up in Jordan, but in Chicago. (If you get a chance, watch the superb documentary Forbidden Lie$, about Norma and her astonishing fabrications.) As I’d guessed earlier, she was American, and I had detected that fact within a few sentences of talking to her. Yet for several years she’d managed to fool publishers, critics, journalists, and a gullible reading public. Part of the reason the fraud went on so long is that Norma was passionate about defending herself and skillful at covering up her inconsistencies. For every question, she had a ready answer. I think back to how quickly she responded to my observation that she sounded American, and how willing I was to believe her.
It didn’t occur to me that anyone would lie about such a thing. Or that anyone would be brazen enough to fake a story that any journalist, with just a few phone calls, could easily blast to smithereens. Yet it happens again and again. James Frey. Margaret Selzer. Forrest Carter. Every few years, there’s another fake memoir. And every time the truth is finally revealed, readers are outraged, publishers duck their heads in embarrassment, and everyone asks, “How could this happen?”
It happens because we want to believe uplifting stories of people who rise above their traumatic pasts. It happens because publishers don’t have the resources to check the facts. It happens because the writers are talented enough to create a reality that seems like truth. These writers are such darn good liars that we can’t help but believe them.
And it happens because there’s loads of money involved, money handed over by gullible readers who think they’re buying a thrilling true story of a man’s saintly deeds or a young girl’s survival on the streets. Many of these readers would turn up their literary noses at a mere novel. No made-up stuff for them; they want to be inspired by the truth. They want to enrich their minds with history. They’re above reading something as trivial as fiction.
How ironic that they were reading fiction after all.
Very interesting. I read somewhere that an inspirational memoir can generate a lot of money, not just for the book, but also for speaking engagements, donations, workshops, and the like.
I don't read these sorts of books anymore, because I've become untrusting of the people who write them. Not sure I can say it's because of the exposed frauds, because I don't think my working radar is a sensitive as yours. Certainly, it is a factor. It's more, I think, that I've come to enjoy reality revealed in fiction. It's fun to read a good story, and a good story usually gets me thinking and questioning.
Reality is boring. That's why I read.
If journalists aren't going to fact check politicians, they certainly aren't going to fact check writers.
Here's what struck me about Mortenson when I had a project where he crossed my desk last year – too much sheen and no humility. He talks about how great he is, him, him, him. When you sit on camera looking like the cat who caught the canary you're just an asshole.
Three Cups of Bullshit. I've never read it and for the same reason you didn't, Tess. Too many people glowing about how wonderful and pure it was. At that point I wanted Charlie Fox of Ellie Hatcher to step in with a few body blows. Now that book I would read.
Give me the writer who discovers the great story about a person other than themselves and it will likely be a great book (hmmm – rethinking that statement as didn't Doris Kearns Goodwin have an issue??).
I'm not a memoir reader, so don't kill me if I'm offending those who appreciate the genre. (Sorry: I've been getting a lot of email lately from people I don't know complaining that I've offended them.) Anyway, I've never really understood what a memoir is supposed to be. It's not a novel. It's not journalism. I always sort of assumed it was sort of a don't ask, don't tell arrangement between writer and reader. This is my perception of my experience, and maybe I'll throw in a few exaggerations if it helps the story along. But then when everyone got all worked up over James Frey, I realized my understanding wasn't the average reader's understanding.
What Mortenson is accused of doing is far worse since his wrongdoing might extend to the misappropriation of funds, but it seems to me that as far as readers are concerned, they should know by now that memoirs are not fact checked and not written under penalty of perjury. How can they NOT read skeptically?
This is why I prefer fiction–both the writing and the reading of it. I'm with JD. Reality is lame. Give me a great story.
What are the thoughts on Lorenzo Carcaterra saying "Sleepers" was "based on a true story." It was a good book, maybe too clean cut an ending. I bet the rapes happened, not so much the revenge.
I've enjoyed some memoirs but most of the time when you do great things, there's someone chomping at the bit to write about it for you.
And books like Million Little Lies, etc would probably have done well as fiction.
Could these books have done as well in the fiction category? I think so. And with no subsequent outrage.
I'm not sure how I feel about all of this. Mortenson came to my kids' school and really inspired them to think beyond their own lives. For that, I thank him. But for the lies — and having to explain to my children (who have entered adolescence and see hypocrisy everywhere anyway)– I'm not grateful.
I don't care if his story is true or not. Doesn't really matter to me. Editors and readers might have been hoodwinked. BUT if he HAS misappropriated funds, then I want him punished to the full extent of the law.
Don't know if it's true, but I read somewhere that memoirs (and all non-fiction, for that matter) are much more lucrative – and easier to get published – than fiction. If I’m recalling correctly, someone was deconstructing the whole James Frey debacle, and said that Frey couldn’t get published as a fiction writer, so he tweaked his fiction into a “memoir”.
I agree with Alafair on the whole “don’t ask don’t tell” vibe of a memoir. It’s one person’s point of view – remember the kerfuffles when “Mommy Dearest” and Bing Crosby’s son’s memoir were published? As Alafair said, we need to read skeptically – but flat out lying is just wrong.
I think that since Carcaterra caveated “Sleepers” with “based on a true story”, he gets a pass. I’m also thinking “based on a true story” should probably be the warning label on all stories that purport to be memoirs.
Boy, I couldn't have said this better myself:
"Many of these readers would turn up their literary noses at a mere novel. No made-up stuff for them; they want to be inspired by the truth. They want to enrich their minds with history. They're above reading something as trivial as fiction."
To me, that's the heart of the matter right there. Publishers know that the mere whiff of fact lends an air of legitimacy to a book that many readers refuse to grant to fiction, so they look the other way to publish "memoirs" they probably know in their heart of hearts are at least partially fabricated.
That's the incredible irony of the James Frey fiasco, IMO. He obviously wrote a very entertaining book that could have, and maybe even should have, become a bestseller as straight fiction — but no one would buy the manuscript until he slapped a "based on a true story" tag on it.
A quick follow-up question:
Does anybody here think Oprah Winfrey would have touched Frey's book with a ten-foot pole had it been published, word for word, as fiction? Would she have found his story as life-affirming and worthy of her stamp of approval had she not believed it to be true?
I don't know about anyone else, but this makes me want to sit down and write the most outrageous, ridiculous and life-affirming memoir anyone has ever written. And all of it lies, of course…
In some strange way, I almost admire these fakers. They found a way to cut through all the b.s. with their own b.s. I mean, let's face it — very little of what we see, hear, read, has anything to do with the truth. From movie stars to politicians, we see little more than lies.
Rob – you go for it. Can I be in it and can you make me busty, wealthy, ridiculously smart and a dear friend who saves pandas and feeds small children?
In memoirs, isn't there a tendency to remember things a little rosier than they really were? Erase a few warts here and there. I don't care if someone didn't remember something exactly and paraphrased.
Actually, I don't really care about Mortenson, I just won't read his book or give to his causes. I find it more annoying that there is an essence of self-greatness and importance but that can be with anyone and not just authors of memoirs (or which I personally know none). There are plenty of people who give and sacrifice every day making little knicks at big improvements and get no credit compared to those who head out on self-promo tours and then raid the coffers.
Sorry… will get off my soap box once I've eaten.
Rae, I think "Based on a True Story" should be applied to most history books as well.
Thanks for the marvelous, meaty post.
When I worked as a PI, my boss had a saying: Memory makes liars of us all. (This gained particular caché when we were working recovered memory cases.)
A corollary: Nothing is as unreliable as an eyewitness.
I’m sure I’m not alone in having had the experience of meeting up with an old friend I’ve not seen in a while, only to discover, when recounting old events, that I and my friend have distinctly different, perhaps even irreconcilable recollections of what happened. We perceive and remember largely what we expect, which often translates into: We see what we want to see. Sadly, we’re by nature deceived. It’s wired into the meat.
Despite this—or perhaps because of it—people turn to non-fiction in almost talismanic ways. Memoirs, biographies, history, news—they’re the rabbit’s foot we rub to escape the uneasy frisson of recognizing that the lanscape of the mind is constantly shifting. People want the skinny, the real dope, the lowdown, the authentic story—even if they wouldn’t recognize it if it bit off their butts. Exhibit A: Reality TV.
And yet what a wonderful thing to be inspired by somebody. I feel for Pari’s kids. What to tell them: Just because it’s uplifting doesn’t make it true, but downer’s aren’t intrinsically true either. (Kid: Mom? Shut up now. Please.)
How many of us would recoil from Jesus if he were working the talk show circuit these days? How many would think Francis of Assisi a hopeless fawn hugger? Or Theresa of Avila a repressed neurotic mess?
I was inspired by my math professors, who were wicked smart but also incredibly humble. I feel the same for many writers I admire. Humility shuns the self-promotional preening that seems to suck so many people in.
I have to admit, this is one of the reasons I hate promoting my books. I feel a bit like a phony, shilling something people may not want. If they want it, they’ll seek it out, I tell myself.
Which, as many here can attest, is a shortcut to oblivion.
P.S. Right-wingers love this story, just as they chortle at news of Al Gore buying beachfront property. Nothing warms the cockles of a rugged individualist’s heart like the sanctimonious do-gooder getting exposed as a fraud. It’s the same reason left-wingers love hearing about homophobic senators from Idaho getting caught soliciting sex in airport restrooms (“I just have a wide stance”). We all thrill in the exposure of the other side’s hypocrisy, usually right before we walk smack into our own.
NOPE! I don't think she would've.
You hit it. My kids would say exactly that.
I real Shelly Winters memoir where she wrote about forgetting to cook the turkey and chasing a de-feathered turkey down the street when it escaped. I've looked askance at anything purporting to be "true" ever since (and maybe before).
How many of us would recoil from Jesus if he were working the talk show circuit these days? How many would think Francis of Assisi a hopeless fawn hugger? Or Theresa of Avila a repressed neurotic mess?
speaks volumes of the fiction written in the name of God, Jesus and the saints of the world.
I love your thought provoking blog. I actually returned A Million Little Pieces and got my money back.
"speaks volumes of the fiction written in the name of God, Jesus and the saints of the world."
Perhaps I should have added: I wonder if Oprah would have Augustine on her show to promote his CONFESSIONS?.
And yet, if we wait for perfect people to change the world, we'll be waiting a very long time.
What we resent is the hucksterism, the self-promotional glad-handing, the millions falling all over themselves to praise the false Messiah. It's a kind of belief in magic.
And yet, as Sylvia so rightly noted, there are people everywhere every single day doing what they can to make a difference, and doing it far from the limelight. Exhibiting the major courage of minor acts.
Another thought: From what I've read so far — and admittedly I've not read much — the so-called fabrications in Mortenson's memoir seem more like the conflating of events and persons that routinely happens when one is condensing for dramatic effect. Three things get rolled into one, for example. Are these really so material as to invalidate his message?
Or is this opportunism on the part of those opposed to his message, an attempt to bring the entire edifice down on the basis of a few minor cracks in the plaster? When all else fails, ad hominem attacks work wonders. (There is a political element to all this that we haven't discussed much, the fact that some folks just don't want to hear a message that involves reaching out to Muslim communities with anything other than weaponry.)
And is his misappropriation of funds validated reliably? Is it material, or just the kind of sloppiness one routinely finds in arts and charitable organizations?
Perhaps I should have read your link, Tess, before my last post.
Laura Miller seems to make a point similar to mine. And her summation in the final paragraph brings it home:
"If Mortenson spun an uplifting tale about the kindness of Pakistani village folk because it made for a better story, the media is now doing the same in how it chooses to cover his wrongdoing. Yet another mismanaged charity is not an especially buzz-worthy subject. But we LOVE to read about lying authors and negligent publishers and all the other ne'er-do-wells who are dragging our literary culture to hell in a hand basket. (Never mind the recent revelations that John Steinbeck made up big chunks of his beloved memoir "Travels with Charley" — it was ever thus.) Lying makes for a fun story full of opportunities for righteous indignation, but cheating at a once-esteemed charity is just a bummer. And the best story always wins."
And yet, from the evidence raised so far, the "cheating" amounts to lack of transparency and accountability, which perhaps makes some of the charity's efforts less effective than they might be — which is hardly Bernie Madoff territory.
So maybe we shouldn't get our knickers in too much of a twist over this. Maybe we're just as big a bunch of suckers for falling for the debunking as we were falling for the original story.
But I'm seriously bummed Travels with Charley wasn't 100% true. (I blame the poodle.)
To borrow a phrase from the Animatrix, 'There is some fiction in your truth, and some truth in your fiction.'
It isn't hard to see why so many Americans were taken in by Mortensen's narrative. Afghanistan, for the longest time, has produced nothing but bad news and tragic outcomes. People desperately needed something, anything, to convince them that there would be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Mortersen saw that longing and filled it. The hero worship was a natural extension of that.
Back after thinking this all over, and again some.
Hi Murderati Fan- Back when "scripture" was being scripted, it was the accepted way to write stories – as though they were truth, in order to give meaning if not inspiration. This included the writing of prophecy, of things that happened in the past – as if they were going to happen in the future. This practice was not considered deceitful, rather it was understood to illuminate.
Hi David- Aside from the fact I think I love you – and Charlie Fox (à la Sylvia's comment) – I think the point is good, "… the so-called fabrications in Mortenson's memoir seem more like the conflating of events and persons that routinely happens when one is condensing for dramatic effect." Having been on the receiving end of disbelief, myself, on occasion, I hope that people who really care would actually check my credentials. Oh, and I knew Shelley Winters (she hosted my 21st birthdy party*) and I am quite certain that the chicken story was in there for laughs.
*If anyone here would like to check my credentials, I will provide them with my actual name, any pseudonyms, references, photos, and BBC videos. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Rob, excellent point about history/biographies. Although I believe most historians try to get it right, their work is necessarily filtered through their own experience and/or bias. It's always interesting to read about history and the people who make it from more than one perspective.
Joining the discussion a little late (as usual with the time difference!). Great post, Tess!
I guess I agree with David and others…a memoir is always going to be somewhat subjective and no two people will recall the same event in the same way. And if you bring emotions into the mix (e.g. hurt, anger, fear, etc.) and/or physical issues such as sleep-deprivation or injury, the interpretations diverge even more.
I'm not a huge fan of memoirs, but I wonder about the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. I always assumed a memoir didn't have the same level of journalistic or fact-checking detail but was really someone's story turned into a good read. Perhaps the difference between being "based on a true story" and "a true story". But maybe this definition is wrong, or perhaps it's another example of my subjective interpretation. And in the cases of memoirs, fact versus fiction can all be in the interpretation.
You make me blush.
That said, I'm sure others on this blog — Alafair and Cornelia and Louise and Allison Davis most specifically, all of whom know me too well — would assure you that any fondness trained my direction is wildly misplaced. (And Zoë I think would gladly offer you the perfect weapon for tidily doing me in.)
But I'm still flattered.
Aaaah… David. Stop now, before my little bubble bursts! Ahahahahahahaha!
Thanks for all the great comments! Rob, can I appear in your "memoir"? (What happens in Vegas doesn't necessarily have to stay in Vegas.)
Memoirs are based on memory, and I'm a prime example of how unreliable memory is. For years, i talked about a murder from my childhood. When I was invited to write an article about the incident, I dug into the newspaper archives and discovered that I'd completely mis-remembered what had happened. My article turned into an analysis of just how wrong I'd been.
So I'm willing to give Mortensen the benefit of the doubt about the events he remembers. But there are plenty of blatant examples of sheer fraud when it comes to memoirs, such as Norma Khouri's.