Earlier this week, 60 Minutes presented an extended expose accusing Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, of falsifying main anecdotes in his a memoir as well as mismanaging funds of the nonprofit, Central Asia Institute (CAI), he founded build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Journalist Jon Krakauer has also written a digital expose — “Three Cups of Deceit” — exposing the problems in the book and with CAI.
While I haven’t read either of Mortenson’s books, I’ve been following the discussions about this scandal because issues of truth in nonfiction are interesting to me. One particular article by Laura Miller in Salon — Why “Three Cups of Tea’s” lies don’t really matter — rubbed me the wrong way. While I agree with her central argument about the importance of the financial side of this story, Miller is too quick to dismiss the serious issues of Mortenson potentially fabricating parts of his story and discredits other hard-working and honest nonfiction writers in the process.
Miller’s central argument about the Mortenson scandal is this:
It’s unfortunate that the Mortenson affair is being presented as a publishing scandal rather than a philanthropic one, because the case against the author (the lying) is less compelling than the case against the nonprofit director (the cheating).
Certainly, the financial mismanagement of Mortenson’s charity, CAI, is a huge issue. The fact that money that is supposed to be going to schools might be being used to fund an author’s travel and speaking tours is a serious problem, and one that should be fully investigated. However, that doesn’t mean the potential lies in Mortenson’s story should be ignored, or that they don’t warrant a discussion about issues of truth in memoir.
Miller really loses me when she shifts to an analysis of Three Cups of Tea and a misguided argument about truthfulness in nonfiction. She says (emphasis mine):
Three Cups of Tea belongs to that category of inspirational nonfiction in which feel-good parables take precedence over strict truthfulness. Its object is to present a reassuring picture of the world as a place where all people are fundamentally the same underneath their cultural differences, where ordinary, well-meaning Americans can “make a difference” in the lives of poor Central Asians and fend off terrorism at the same time. Heartwarming anecdotes come with the territory and as with the happily-ever-after endings of romantic comedies, everyone tacitly agrees not to examine them too closely.
As someone who works for a living as a journalist and as an avid lover of nonfiction, I find this assertion insulting to the many nonfiction writers that write “inspirational nonfiction” while still maintaining important values of accuracy and honesty while weaving a good story.
There is a technique in some modern narrative nonfiction to compress events or even characters for the sake of narrative clarity. However, in almost every book that I’ve picked up that uses that technique, the author makes a clear disclaimer about what has been changed or altered for the sake of narrative.
For example, in the introduction to The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, notes that she changed the names and identifying details of many characters for their protection. She also explains, “I have worked hard to ensure the accuracy of the dates and times attached to their histories, but I admit that their precision may be slippery given just how much Afghanistan has seen in the past three decades and the years that have passed since this story began.”
In the acknowledgments of her memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto talks about changing names, omitting details, adjusting timelines, and even creating a composite character. She justifies the changes to the truth by noting, “Ultimately, this memoir is best read as a reflection of who I believe myself to be as I write these words.”
I never felt betrayed reading either one of these books because the authors were forthright about the narrative license they took with the story. There’s a sense of good faith and trust in nonfiction admissions like this, and I respect authors who are honest with the liberties they’ve taken with facts in order to make a more structured story that adheres to the spirit of what has happened to the people in them.
Although I haven’t read Three Cups of Tea, I suspect the same type of honesty has not happened. Already, Mortenson has thrown his co-writer under the bus, telling Outside Online that he was pushed aside during the writing process. Mortenson says:
It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything. …
What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. … So, rather than me going two or three times to one place, he would synthesize it into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.
From what I’ve read from journalists working to put together a narrative story, this seems like a relatively believable scenario for how events in a book could not quite align with reality. However, if this is the case — events were compressed or omitted for narrative clarity — there should have been a disclaimer in the book noting there were some changes it. Without it, critics of Mortensen have every right to question the truth of the book, regardless of whether this is “inspirational nonfiction” or not.
I don’t know what type of “tacit agreement” Miller is referring to when she charges that readers ignore factual accuracy in “inspirational nonfiction” so it doesn’t matter if writers do as well. It’s certainly not an agreement I have signed onto as an avid reader of nonfiction, and one I hope others will not either.
Accuracy, an attempt to tell a story within the framework of the facts at hand, is one of the paramount qualities of good nonfiction, regardless of what the theme or message of the book happens to be. We can be equally inspired by nonfiction that reveres the facts as we can be by fiction that eschews real life for a universe of the author’s imagination.
What is not inspirational is nonfiction that plays fast and loose with what has actually happened. It’s laziness to the supreme. Not only has the author been too lazy to research a true story enough to tell it accurately and well, he/she has also not been brave enough to write fiction from what is in his/her heart. Both of those types of writing take more effort than nonfiction filled with lies and distortions, and I don’t want to waste my time as a reader with writing that is lazy.
That’s why I find these charges so frustrating, and why I refuse to accept “feel-good parables” that “take precedence over strict truthfulness.” I won’t dismiss the inaccuracies in Three Cups of Tea, and neither should other readers — doing so takes away the power of nonfiction and dismisses the skill it takes to write it well.
That said, I’m curious what you all think. Has the story of lies in Three Cups of Tea overshadowed a more important story about financial mismanagement? Are the articles about this issue being a major publishing scandal missing the point? How do you view truth in nonfiction — is alteration of the facts permissible if the story is “inspirational,” if the author admits and explains why, or never at all?