The memoir and its sequel, Stones into Schools, describe Mortenson’s encounter with a Pakistani village that cared for him after he was injured climbing K2, his promise to return and build them a school, and the subsequent founding of the nonprofit organization Central Asia Institute, which raises money to build schools and pay for education, especially for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
CBS broadcast a report on 60 Minutes alleging that Mortenson’s central account of the reason he was inspired to build a school in Korphe—that he was nursed back to health there after failing to climb K2—was false. They also allege that they visited 30 of CAI’s schools and found nearly half of them to be empty; that there are serious issues of transparency and questionable expenses in CAI’s financial audit; that Mortenson was never kidnapped by the Taliban, and a host of other incongruencies in his books.
This story recalls the huge blow-up several years ago over James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, when Smoking Gun revealed that most of the story was fabricated. Frey later admitted that he had begun the book as a novel and it was not well received by publishers, so he billed it as a memoir. He claimed that he still stood “by the book as being the essential truth of my life.” You might recall Oprah denouncing him when he reappeared on her show, telling him, “I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” I enjoyed reading A Million Little Pieces when it first came out, but discovering that virtually none of the events described happened made me feel cheated as a reader.
However, Mortenson has much more at stake than Frey: an international reputation based on his work. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. His organization raises millions of dollars to build schools. You’d think, with that much time, energy, passion and, yes, money invested, he’d also be invested in telling the truth of his story. He has done amazing things: no one will dispute that. So why the lies? Don’t we buy memoirs to be inspired by true events, more than to be entertained?
How much do the facts matter in creative nonfiction? Mortenson faces plenty of moral consequences from his actions, but what about the literary consequences? I understand that an author may have to alter timelines slightly or shift stories around to increase their impact. However, a blatant disregard for truth, which in Mortenson’s case seems to be well proven in Jon Krakauer’s recently published ebook Three Cups of Deceit, betrays the reader. The contract between an author and a reader necessitates that we be entertained, perhaps instructed, but not manipulated. As a reader who was inspired by Mortenson’s stories, I feel manipulated.
I suppose the bottom line for me is that I understand that a story might shade the truth slightly in memoir. To some extent, we all see and remember the world through our own lens, and my memory of an event will surely read differently than anyone else’s memory of the same event. But outright lies violate a memoir writer’s contract with the reader to tell the truth in an engaging way.
What do you think? How crucial do you think the facts should be in creative nonfiction? Leave a note in the comments with your thoughts!