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Books Distilled » Thoughts on Literature » How Much Does Truth Matter in Memoir?

How Much Does Truth Matter in Memoir?

You may have read that CBS has uncovered a controversy surrounding Greg Mortenson’s bestselling memoir, Three Cups of Tea.

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!


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15 Responses to "How Much Does Truth Matter in Memoir?"

  1. Phil Lemos says:

    Great blog Brooke. Looking forward to more

    1. Brooke says:

      Thanks, Phil! Appreciate the encouragement.

  2. Mark L Berry says:

    Good summary, but I think it’s important to point out Krakauer’s relationship with Mortenson. Not only did both publish acclaimed extreme-climbing memoirs, but Krakauer was a generous donator to Mortenson’s cause to the tune of $30 million (I think). Morteson is raising charity money from his published writing and that’s a bigger “rub” than just raising book sale revenue. If his foundation is based on false published claims, there may be legal issues for him far above literary credibility problems.

    1. Brooke says:

      Mark, great point! I read that Krakauer donated less–around $75,000, but still a nice chunk of change. Very true about the legal issues, also.

  3. Rich says:

    I am still mad about this… if it’s true. Modern Western historiography does not allow for much embellishing. Were you kidnapped by the Taliban or not? I would call this perjury if in a court of law, no? The modern audience expects a modern book to use modern norms unless otherwise stated. That’s why Oprah felt betrayed.

    And when I give my money to an organization, it better be trustworthy. My family witnessed first-hand the misappropriation of Red Cross funds, so now we give elsewhere. If schools are empty, where is the money going? I have still yet to find a more faithful, competent, and effective organization than The Salvation Army. (plug)

    So excited about this blog, Brooke!

  4. Abigail says:

    Brooke, are you sure you aren’t our long-lost sister? Guernsey Literary is one of our all-time favorite books and we were all just sitting around last night, discussing Greg Mortenson, whom we have all admired and to whom we have donated money. I KNOW I’m going to love this blog! Great job so far :)

    1. Brooke says:

      Abigail, Too funny! You’ll have to send me your sister’s name so I can connect with her on Goodreads and we can chat!

  5. Mary Alice Tinari says:

    Three cups of Tea was the only book I ever read that made me write a check the minute I was finished, I was so convinced of his message. I, too, feel manipulated. I hope that this does not ruin the good work that has been done in the schools and the education of women and girls. I am so disappointed.

  6. Ioanna says:

    Brooke, great post! The question of truth in memoir is a loaded one. I think the touchstone lies in a few different matters, but maybe mostly, on author intent and subject matter. This was a politically and socially-charged book, in both intent and subject matter, and that raises the stakes quite a bit in terms of the importance of facts. I actually wouldn’t even call this a “memoir” because in memoir, memory is itself a subject of the work, and when I read Three Cups of Tea, I wasn’t really interested in the workings of memory; I was interested in the story as, what Rich says above, a part of “Modern Western historiography.” This was supposed to be literary JOURNALISM, and more journalism, to me, than literary. Keep it up the great work here, Brooke!

  7. Brooke says:

    There’s a great article in the NY Times today–Nicholas Kristof offers a pretty good synopsis of the controversy and a middle-of-the-road response.

  8. Sarah Burkey says:

    Hey Brooke! Congrats on the blog launch! Looking good so far.
    My mom loved “Three Cups of Tea” and feels completely betrayed by Mortenson.
    As far as what counts as “creative nonfiction,” of course I would agree that outright lies don’t count. I think 3CoT even stretched the boundaries of what could be considered historical fiction. Even in historical fiction, I think we the readers expect the basic premises to be factual though plenty of details and dialogue would be invented for entertainment value.
    The words “memoir” and “memory” are paronyms; when I hear “memoir,” I imagine an author reading through his journal and rewriting it with prettier words. You can’t remember something that didn’t happen.

  9. Lisa says:

    Brooke, the NY Times article sheds light on temperament & intention (disorganization vs. dishonesty) and is a cautionary tale on passion & advocacy vs. competency, sustainability & the minefields of PR. Thanks for sharing & jump-starting this conversation on literary journalism vs. historical fiction and all the grey area in between.

    Ever listen to Harry Nilsson’s “The Point”? During Oblio’s adventure into the “pointless forest,” the philosophical Rock Man points out that “People hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see.” In the end, Truth or Fiction, everyone’s got their own spin on things and will interpret accordingly.

    1. Brooke says:

      Lisa, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I’ll have to check out that video.

  10. Tina says:

    I saw the 60 Minutes report and interviews as well as reading Mortenson’s follow-up “defense.” This will certainly open up the government (IRS) investigations, as well as those that start with the word fraud.

    Having said that, I wonder how many actual schools there really are!

    Thx again!

  11. An fascinating dialogue is value comment. I believe that you need to write more on this topic, it won’t be a taboo subject however usually individuals are not sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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