Like millions of others, I was both astonished and horrified to hear of the lack of truthfulness in some aspects of Greg Mortenson’s bestselling memoir, Three Cups of Tea. I became even more disappointed as Mortenson tried to explain away the untruths in his narrative, using explanations that might satisfy an unknowing public — but not writers, especially those who honor the truth-alone-be-told credo of the memoir genre.
The impact of Mortenson’s loose interpretation of events in his life in the 1990s, followed by the way he exaggerated the number of schools his Central Asian Foundation set up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has embarrassed the publishing industry yet again. However, it has also caused serious credibility and security concerns for all Americans who wish to do good works in that war-torn region. Mortenson’s influence extended all the way to the Pentagon, which saw him as a shining example of how to forge relationships and alliances with the local mountain tribes that are essential for U.S. success in the region. The ranking general, Gen. David Petraeus, was so impressed by Three Cups of Tea and Mortenson’s work that he recommended and bought copies of the book for his staff and others — and trusted Mortenson as a de facto advisor.
I’m sure Gen. Petraeus, like everyone else, is stepping back and taking another look right now.
The saddest part of Mortenson’s fabricated sections of Three Cups of Tea? They never needed to be written for this story to be great. He didn’t need to say he became lost and was rescued by villagers after attempting to summit K2. He didn’t need to say he was kidnapped by the Taliban (apparently, Taliban were among his tour guides). He didn’t need to exaggerate threefold the number of girls schools his institute started and ran. His work was amazing and his story inspirational without these glaring untruths. This man has done amazing work in a very, very difficult part of the world – and he and his staff have given educational hope to girls in a region where they would otherwise not have a chance to be educated.
Unfortunately, I believe Mortenson fell into a trap that befalls many memoirists today — dealing with an ever-shrinking publishing market that seeks out the most sensational books … or books by the famous and their massive platforms of popularity. Maybe he — or his editor — thought the lead-in story to the formation of the schools wasn’t sensational enough. What prompted him to write the rescue piece? Or the kidnapping section? Or exaggerate the school count — as 60 Minutes so sadly revealed last weekend?
We may never know. However, I know from my own experience that trying to sell memoirs can elicit a range of responses from editors that covers all 360 degrees of the spectrum. In a recent memoir project in which I was involved, I saw the following responses from big-house editors to the sample chapters submitted:
“The narrative isn’t strong enough.”
“The narrative doesn’t move fast enough.”
“The narrative is too strong.”
“This subject is too emotional for me to edit.”
Book writers are under more pressure than ever to deliver books that jump off the shelves. Even the greatest writing doesn’t see print, in some cases. This is magnified for memoirists, who are (ostensibly) writing true stories of events that caused major changes in their lives, and relying on their story crafting skills and memories to bring the experience onto the page. The writing is, by definition, highly personal, highly charged and guaranteed to elicit emotional response in the reader. During the course of writing such books, many authors wring themselves out, relive events and sometimes suffer in ways their readers cannot fathom. Just think about, say, a memoir about a personal tragedy: Not only does the author experience and try to recover from the tragedy, but in writing the memoir, he or she must go back to that tragedy and relive it again. Sometimes, the pain is overwhelming.
Which leads to my point: memoirs are true stories. Just as we found out when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was exposed for its largely fictitious nature in 2006, readers are strongly affected by these types of books. And they suffer when they learn the work that may have changed their lives was not all true. As, I imagine, a lot of Three Cups of Tea fans are experiencing right now.
This, to me, is a transgression that falls on the shoulders of both the author and the publisher. Yes, the publisher’s claim that it must rely on the author’s reliability to tell the truth is correct. However, there are times when the large publisher’s zeal to make big profit and produce a bestseller must be tempered by at least a cursory fact-checking mission for books whose stories either touch the edge of believability, focus on emotional or controversial material, or involve lesser-known locales.
An easy way to do this? Require memoirists to send in copies of their research material when submitting the manuscript, just as they do topical non-fiction writers.
But I have a greater solution, and it comes down to the writers: If you’re writing a memoir, TELL THE TRUTH. DON’T LIE. DON’T FABRICATE. NO MATTER HOW TEMPTING. If you choose to fabricate or embellish certain events or circumstances to create an even more compelling story, then do what Jack Kerouac and his publishers did a half century ago with On The Road, The Dharma Bums and his other narrative works — call them autobiographical novels.
Hopefully, the Three Cups of Tea dust-up will do two things in the publishing industry: Create a greater insistence on truthful writing on the part of memoirists; and not affect the 95% of memoirists who relive their experiences, word by honest word, to put their stories on paper.