Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Greg Mortenson Fact vs. Fiction Fiasco: Investigation or Sensationalism?

Have you heard all of the hullabaloo over the Greg Mortenson fact vs. fiction fiasco about his memoir Three Cups of Tea? If you haven't, check out last Sunday's "60 Minutes" expose and weigh in on the debate.

"Some of the most touching and harrowing tales [such as being kidnapped by the Taliban for 8 days] in Mortenson's books appear to have been greatly exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth," the show accused.

Greg Mortenson with Sitara “Star” schoolchildren. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
"It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie," said Jon Krakauer, journalist and author of the books Into The Wild and Into Thin Air.

Krakauer followed up a day later with his 75-page "Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way" (with proceeds benefiting America Himalaya Foundation's Stop Girl Trafficking Project).

I believe writers should have some wiggle room for omissions and compressions (of time and characters) to make a narrative arc work. Memoirs are, after all, a type of creative nonfiction. Even some exaggeration for dramatic effect can work if done with transparency (check out how Bill Bryson does it). But fabricated insertions?

Ironically, last week my MFA thesis adviser, Marisa Handler, asked (if my memory serves me correctly), "Have you ever found that the act of writing erodes the memory itself?" Yes, I answered. An emphatic yes.

The retrieval process, especially when a story is spun, is not always as clean as some would have it. But there's a difference between the inefficacy of memory and an outright lie.

I've blogged before about Memoir and Memory:
The line between fantasy and truth in autobiographical writing is hardly a new topic. In a 2006 expose of James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces, the Smoking Gun proved Frey included "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details" and Oprah, having endorsed the book and feeling duped, put him under the microscope on her show. 
In fact, according to Bob Minzesheimer at The Montreal Gazette:
Krakauer writes that “ ‘Three Cups of Tea’ has much in common with ‘A Million Little Pieces'... But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them.”
(He's referring to an alleged misappropriation of funds--up to $60 million, including Krakauer's previous $75,000 donation--at Mortenson's school-building charity, the Central Asia Institute.)

I've also blogged about Pam Houston, who freely admits she sometimes blurs the boundaries: "I was James Frey's 101 teacher, so it's my fault," she joked. The difference is that she openly acknowledges that she straddles the line.

Perhaps most interesting in this saga is the reaction of those who feel duped: Mortenson's readers and charity contributors who count on him as their hero. Their responses vary from speculation to skepticism to accusations of media sensationalism and sabotage, as this comment following a post at The Spokesman-Review attests:
"Is it really so awful that he and his co-writer made the K2 story a better read by changing the time period it happened in? And is it real proof that some men from Waziristan are claiming Mortenson wasn’t really kidnapped? Are some of the schools empty because they’re sham buildings or because school wasn’t in session or because village elders didn’t keep their word that they would have girls there? Isn’t it pretty feasible that this could happen when Mortenson’s not there in person?     
Well, it is awful if one of those supposed Taliban kidnappers actually runs a think tank out of Pakistan, according to Global Fund for Women Vice President of Programs, Shalini Nataraj, who was interviewed on KQED-FM's "Forum" Wednesday. 

Debra J. Saunders wrote in today's SF Chronicle article, "the '60 Minutes' story makes his fans [whom she calls outraged and perplexed] look gullible." She cites a KQED caller who asked: "How are we supposed to know a book is a phony?"

Saunders' reply:

Hmmmm. If the cash-giving girls-school-loving Taliban tale doesn't ring a bell, if the constant reminders of Mortenson's greatness - and modesty - don't do the trick, maybe there is another warning sign... Nataraj warned about any memoir that hails "the white savior who's going to come in and save the local people."
 "We believe in local solutions to local problems," Nataraj told Forum's Michael Krasny about giving communities control over their own lives through women-based initiatives that have supported the success of numerous underground schools for girls. "I really believe what Mortenson could have done with his millions is perhaps train a cadre of thousands of women teachers who would have been resources to communities well after he had left."

A final word? I give it to Isobel Coleman, posting on Council on Foreign Relations:
"While the allegations against him are serious, they do not diminish the importance of working to get girls in school. Nor do they invalidate his message of how critical it is to engage local communities to do just that... Three Cups of Tea, read by millions of people around the world, has arguably done more to bring attention to the promise of girls’ education in that part of the world than any other book. Let’s hope that message survives."
Dear Reader:
What do you think? Have you read Mortenson's memoirs or heard him tell his tale? What is your reaction to all the press?


jennifer said...

Whoa... um, funny I was just about to pick this book up, like the last person on Earth to read it, inspired by a bunch of kids locally who are trying to raise 50K for the project by collecting pennies. Darn, too late, I am jaded!

Nicole, wow, your writing is really dynamic in this piece. Most of what I have read in the past of yours was much more descriptive and evocative, rather than straight shooting and informative, like this one. Impressive!!!

rosaria said...

It's actually a sad story all around. Too bad that such a wonderful cause is now forever marred by the fabrications and the unethical use of donations. Either the fabrications or the misappropriation would have surfaced eventually.

jdawords said...

A good topic for discussion. I was surprised and disappointed by the 60 Minutes report. His refusal to address the issue was perhaps the most distressing element.

I read the book. Its mission and his work is no less important, but the embellishments seem unnecessary at best, and oddly calculated at worst.

I don't see this as a memory debate. As Krakauer says, why say 11 when it was actually 3? What's the point of that exaggeration?

Using funds for promotion is one thing; using money contributed for this serious cause for an elevated lifestyle is wrong. Evil, even.

Nicole R. Zimmerman said...

Thanks for all the responses everyone. Jennifer--I loved hearing from an unknown reader who knows my writing style well enough to comment on it. Thanks for the kudos. It took more time than I'd like to admit to write this one up--mainly due to all the sites to read, excerpt and link to. JDA--I see what you mean about it not really being about memory. Reconstructing dialogue or something is entirely different from saying you were kidnapped when you weren't, etc. Still, I wanted to address that issue since it's such a contentious topic of late with the genre of memoir coming under fire. I'm curious to see how this all pans out for Mortenson. I hope he hasn't sabotaged all his good efforts and intentions.

Susan said...

Ms. Zimmerman,

Thank you for your informative and concisely written blog.

Ultimately, there is something to be said about "local solutions to local problems."
I live in India, and I see how the funds of some of these "foreign funded" NPO's operate, often lining the pockets of the local trustees on this side of the charity coin. Someone once whispered to me that to be head of one of these organizations in a "3rd world" region was "socially accepted welfare,"
As for the children who collected Pennies for this cause, giving with all of their hearts, and for the children who missed out on an education due to Mr. Mortensen's financial mismanagement--I'm sorry for this.
The grassroots organizations here in India, such as the local women's or men's collectives that meet weekly to improve their incomes (by making crafts, collecting trash, farm or dairy products) are empowering themselves and their families with dignity, resources, and success. It teaches people independence and resourcefulness rather than the sloth idolization of a white God to save them. Mortensen's operation would have reached the people if he had not taken the wrong path. Training villagers and teachers how to run and maintain schools.
I read his book 3 Cups...three years ago, and found some of his tales difficult to believe in a cultural context or just sensational (the kidnapping, or the village Elder nursing him back to health. for example.)

Kind regards.

Nicole R. Zimmerman said...


Thank you for sharing your comments and perspective on grassroots movements in India!

People can read Mortenson's responses to the media accusations in the "Bozeman Daily Chronicle" dated April 20, 2011, or on his blog:

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