Monday, June 13, 2011

three cups of lame: wily non-fiction bandits strike again

So, you've probably heard about the recent legal ensnarglements surrounding Greg Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea, the latest of which is a personal injury lawsuit filed by irate readers who claim to have been "damaged" (to the tune of twelve bucks) by the discovery that parts of the book weren't exactly true.

According to the lawsuit,

"Mortenson and CAI committed actual fraud against Plaintiffs by inducing them to donate to CAI and purchase the book that Mortenson and CAI publicly represented to be a true work when in fact Mortenson’s books contained numerous fabrications."

Shocking, yes. But there's more:

“The purpose of these fabrications was to induce unsuspecting individuals to purchase his books and donate to CAI.”

Actual Fraud! Inducement of unsuspecting individuals! You'd think Mortenson had conned their grandma on the subway, not written a freaking book. INTERN isn't saying these readers aren't justified in feeling cheated—especially when you throw the whole charity thing into the mix, which changes everything. But what is it about truth—or the bending of it—that turns perfectly nice readers into a pack of hyenas? Why do we feel such personal affront—such outrage—when authors fail to meet our expectations of truthiness? What's the value of all this truth stuff anyway? And why are we, as a culture, so obsessed with it?


You might remember the James Frey settlement, in which the author of the memoir A Million Little Pieces and his publisher agreed to give angry readers their money back as long as they sent in a mangled piece of the book and some kind of maudlin victim impact statement in which they swore they would never have bought the book if they knew it wasn't 100% true. According to the New York Times:

“hardcover buyers, who are entitled to a $23.95 refund, must submit page 163 (chosen at random, according to the source familiar with the negotiations); paperback buyers (entitled to $14.95) must send in the front cover of the book; those who bought the audio book ($34.95) will have to send in a piece of the packaging, and those who bought the e-book, at $9.95 apiece, must send in some proof of purchase.

People making a claim will also have to submit a sworn statement that they would not have bought the book if they knew that certain facts had been embroidered or changed.”

It's that last sentence interests INTERN. When you buy a memoir, do you buy it because you believe it to be true—is truth just that titillating? Or do you buy it because it sounds like a good story about growing up in the '30s/being a call girl/surviving abuse? INTERN suspects it's some combination of both: the story sounds interesting, and the fact that it's "true" makes it all the more compelling—because we have a yearning to know the details of other people's lives, or because we find inspiration in stories that "actually happened" because they make us feel like anything's possible.

In real life, intimate relationships are characterized by a high level of honesty and truth-sharing. Couples and best friends tell each other secrets and make confessions they wouldn't make to anyone else. For better or for worse, many people experience the same feeling of intimacy when they read a memoir. Not a tempered, I've-never-even-met-this-person kind of intimacy—the same intimacy. Otherwise, why do so many readers react just as strongly to an untruthful memoir as they would to an untruthful friend or lover?

In Greg Mortenson's case, the whole intimacy thing is made even more complicated by the fact many readers of Three Cups of Tea also trusted him enough to donate to his charity, the Central Asia Institute. And yes, when you're asking people to donate to a charity, you owe it to them to use their money how you say you're going to use it. But when it comes to writing a memoir, how much truth you do you owe your readers? Is 95% OK? 90%? Or will only 100% do?

Personally, INTERN would rather read great books than 100% true ones. She also hates—hates, hates, hates—the way that litigation (or the threat thereof) stifles/poisons/kills all sorts of creative endeavors in this country, and would rather read a wonky memoir or two than live in a society that threatens its artists and writers with class action lawsuits if they don't conform to some arbitrary definition of truth. If we need to create a new genre to deal with this problem—sortamemoir, anyone?—INTERN is fine with that.


INTERN wants to know: How much truth do you expect from a memoir? How fake does a memoir have to be for you to feel cheated? Have you read Greg Mortenson's book? (INTERN hasn't). Do you feel cheated by it? Why do people love suing people so much in this country?


  1. I think there's a big difference between fibbing about your past and outright defrauding people. Mortensons charity is shady at best and people donated in good faith. If the charity was legit I would say "suck it up readers" but as it spends more on promoting Mortenson than it does on actual charity work then I think people are justified in being outraged and suing his ass off.

  2. I haven't read Mortenson's book because I'm not a big memoir person. At the same time, I do expect a memoir to be true. All of it.

    Dramatizing conversations? Fine. Making up what you wore that day because you don't remember? Fine. But adding people or events that didn't happen make it *so not a memoir.* The word "memoir" comes from the French for memory, which means if you don't remember it, it doesn't belong in a memoir. That's fiction, folks, a different genre with its own writers working very hard to get published.

  3. If it's a memoir, and packaged as truth, yet turns out to be false, then the writer is a liar. It may not seem like much to some people, but IMO, they aren't entitled to a single dime they made off of something they packaged as truth that isn't.

    Memoir, unless qualified by words that say it may not be accurate (for memory reasons, changing names, opinions, whatever) isn't fiction, and it doesn't fill the same space as a novel.

    One reason memoir needs to be held to a superior standard of truth is that the people who end up with popular ones are often asked to speak in public. If I want to meet a fictional character, I'll go to Disney World and look for someone with a costume and a fake mouse head. If I'll going to see someone in person, it's because I believe they aren't lying about the things that got them into the spotlight.

    Real heroes and real inspirational stories all take a hit when something like this happens. The public becomes more cynical and they view all new stories through a darker, cracked lens.

    You're not talking about one person out $20, you're talking millions out $20/piece, which adds up to a lot. Imagine a grocery store where one guy eats three grapes from the bin. Now imagine everyone in the city does the same. The grocery store loses big from what seems like a small theft. Only when "true stories" turn out to be lies, it's society that loses.

    If you want to write fiction, write a novel. Memoir is personal journalism, not a venue for "creative" writing. If you found out that one of the biggest papers in the world was knowlingly printing false news, I doubt you'd be as entertained.

  4. Perhaps I have a lower bar, or perhaps it's just because the memoirs I've read tend to be of entertainers (actors and writers mostly), but I EXPECT some embellishment in a memoir. I usually expect it to be of the "making oneself look smarter than one is" variety, but I don't expect 100% honesty and unblemished fact. If I wanted that, I'd read a biography. (NOT an autobiography, which is closer to what a memoir originally was, an actual written-by someone/group other than the person the book is about _biography_.) And even then, depending on the writer, I might not devote all my belief into the non-fiction being accurate.

    I'm only of those people who firmly believes in the gray and other colors of the spectrum.

    That said, if you say you're donating to a charity any portion of the funds you make from a book, you DAMN well better. And there are RULES about charities. If more than X percent (depending on state/locality) is used on "administrative funding", it's not a legitimate charity. It's often something else entirely, like a tax defrauding construct. That's where I think people ought to be able to use the legal system to go after writers/publishers, because it really is horrid.

  5. Aren't memoirs only one person's point of view? In the Burroghs/Robison family three people have written memoirs, some with conflicting versions of events. Who are we to decide one is more true than another?

    Memories aren't factual. As soon as we start telling someone a story from our life we put our own perspective on it. "Truth" in memoir is subjective.

    That said, Mortensen may be proof that good intentions don't always bring success. Why do we believe that one guy can do what dozens of others can't? Because we want to believe it. Probably so does Mortensen.

  6. Taking a photograph of a guide and saying "This is a Taliban soldier who captured me!" isn't embellishment. (It is however, one of the many "faction" smudges that have been reported concerning this "memoir".

  7. Funny, people get up an arms over the truthiness of a memoir, but propaganda touted as news is barely worth an eye blink. Marvelous culture we have here. It's sorta of like the Middle Ages.

    I think the only people allowed to sue over "damages" accrued from a memoir's questionable truthfulness are those who have never, in their lives, lied to a lover, refused to use their turn signal while switching lanes, and always lived up to every promise they ever made.

  8. I love reading memoirs, but it doesn't bother me too much if they're not 100% true. In fact, several of the writers I've read will include disclaimers in their books about how they may have strayed from the truth here and there. I would feel cheated if the majority of the book was untrue; in that case, they should have marketed it as a novel instead. But like you, I'm more willing to look past all of that if the story is really good.

  9. For me, it’s about suspension of disbelief.

    When I know I’m reading fiction, I am willing to suspend my disbelief and still enjoy the story as metaphorical truth.

    A memoir is presented as fact. I judge it by the harsher criteria of reality. One lie breaks the spell and the entire work becomes tainted.

  10. I just blogged about this last night after the Gay Girl in Damascus scandal. If it's memoir, I will settle for nothing less than 100% truth. I have had to read a number of memoirs, and some of them are God awful. Their lives don't merit a book- yet, at least. ESPECIALLY if you are trying to service a larger point, make sure you are writing the truth. Sometimes you'll miss something or inaccurately remember something, but that's different from "compressing" things.

    And Martin Rose, I am in a constant state of criticizing the news- it isn't either or.

  11. Mortenson's book is full of flowery prose that is distracting at best and laughable at worst. His similes are ridiculous. But the story that he tells is an important one, and it makes me very sad to find out that it's not entirely true and that his charity seems to be more of a fraud than a real organization.

    If the memoir weren't entirely true, but the organization was legitimate and building schools and doing good, then it would be forgivable.

  12. i think a memoir is, even in the best and most well-meaning of circumstances, going to be partially fiction through the fuzziness of memory if nothing else.

    when i read a memoir i know i'm reading one person's account of what happened -- and a subjectively edited version of those events as well. however, falsifying or embellishing those events, even for dramatic impact/to make a better story, simply isn't allowable. there's a clear difference between selective memory and lying.

    the one incident that was outed as being so embellished as to be almost an out-and-out lie concerned mortenson being kidnapped and held in solitary during the time when his wife was giving birth to their first child, back in the states. back in the late seventies i was a friend of tara bishop (that wife back in the states) and i was livid that mortenson would be so egotistical and stupid as to place himself in a situation that would endanger his life as his first child we being born AND for leaving my former friend to have her first child alone. now i'm not sure which makes me angrier, the lie or the truth.

    that mortenson's overarching cause, to build schools for the children of the region (especially the girls), is a good one. that he failed to believe in the justness of the cause and its ability to convince contributors on the strengths of its merits alone is both sad and speaks to mortenson's lack of belief in what he was truly doing or his insecurities or... well, i'm not sure it really matters at this point.

    -- Tom

  13. haven't read his book, or heard about the controversy, but I can understand how if a charity is involved and he defrauded people convincing them to donate to that, it has become a big problem...
    But in reference to just the lack of "truth" in memoir... No memoir is 100% accurate. They can't be. Our memories aren't accurate. And beyond that, if they were 100% accurate, you'd have to include inane conversations like "well..." "so..." "you..." "er yeah..." which is how we communicate with our friends half the time when we are actually saying something else.
    And plus, the events of your life are not a neat plotline. They are a jumbled mess. To impose a neat plotline upon them, you HAVE to change some things. Reorder them, make them more streamlined, cut them altogether, etc.
    Half of my memoir class was about how much creative leeway it's okay to take when it comes to writing memoir (I mean, you cannot remember the exact conversation, word-for-word, you had 20 years ago, that you're now re-creating. But you might remember the important content, or the setting, etc).
    I do think that completely lying like Frey did in Million Little Pieces goes beyond small tweaks and changes. I mean... he just made up a whole different life for himself. and pretended it actually happened. I can see how that is annoying.
    But if, for example, someone writes a story about how their mom helped them nurse a bird back to health and release it to illustrate their mother's nurturing side, when in real life their mom just bought them a hamster and fed it whenever they forgot to and it was half-dying, I think that's okay...

  14. I couldn't care less how truthful a memoir is. It's not like I tried to verify everything I read in The Glass Castle. For me, reading is about escapism. Here I am now, entertain me.

  15. I have no problem with a memoir including some fictional elements. The point, for me, is the truth of the emotion and point of view, not of the events.

    But from what I've seen, the recent fascination regarding memoir comes from people glomming onto the fact that it's real, and that "realness" creates interest in a story that wouldn't be there otherwise, even if the way the story is told (the writing) is otherwise poor.

  16. I have read Mortenson's book and actually own it. I bought it shortly after coming back to the US from working for an organization a little similar to his. At the time, I thought the writing was overwrought but that it had some good bits of truth about what aid work is often like and how little outsiders often understand about what a community really needs.

    Many people are saying this example of memoir-fabrication is serious because the book is used to promote and (in theory) fund Mortenson's nonprofit. I agree. That's why I think a lawsuit claiming damages for readers completely misses the greater point. This story isn't really about lying in a memoir. Or rather, it is, and that sucks, but we're really dealing with a case of a highly successful and well-regarded NGO turning out to be an ineffective black hole of funds. The moral of this story, if there is one, is that international aid organizations need to be held to a basic level of oversight and accountability. We can be upset about his false memoir as well, but it shouldn't distract from the more serious problem at hand. I think in a lot of the news coverage, it has.

    On a different note, I'm not sure comparisons to memoir and journalism are really accurate. Journalism requires the writer to remove their personal perspective and bias as much as possible (again, in theory). Memoir relies completely on the author's perspective; it's why we read it, and it's why memoirs are a separate genre from histories and biographies.

  17. Oops: that should say "comparisons of memoir to journalism." Whee.

  18. Andrew: re: "the recent fascination regarding memoir comes from people glomming onto the fact that it's real, and that "realness" creates interest in a story that wouldn't be there otherwise"

    This is what INTERN finds so fascinating! If you took the same book and labeled it "fiction," it might sell way less copies than if it was called a memoir. Why is this? It's like truth is this special sauce that makes something more inherently tantalizing.

  19. Mary L, et al: You're completely right about the NGO thing—there's no question that there are some supremely shady dealings going on as far as that is concerned, and it's sad that people's donations weren't used effectively.

    insofar as the book was a promotional tool for the NGO, its falseness is more offensive than it would have been if it was "just" a memoir.

  20. Deb -- I don't question anyone's criticism of either news or memoirs. I question why I hear about more lawsuits regarding one than the other . . .

  21. Martin Rose, I want to see someone take on Fox News bad. But for what it's worth, it looks like Rather paid a big price for his inaccuracy.

  22. The character assassination of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute perpetrated by Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes, was based on misinformation, paid informants, and the manipulation and distortion of facts.

    For responses to these allegations go to:

  23. I am less concerned about the untruths in his book than I am about the fact that his charity seems to be terribly mismanaged and most of their donations seem to go to promoting his book rather than helping people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  24. Have you read Greg Mortenson's book? (INTERN hasn't). Do you feel cheated by it?

    Yeah, and yeah, a bit. Mostly because I had no desire to read it, and read it (as a teacher) as part of a cross-curricular summer activity with our incoming freshmen. I gave up a whole summer to lengthy academic discussions of that damn book, and while it was great to have some online interactions with the kids I would end up teaching next year, I kinda want that summer back. Now to find out the book was largely BS anyway . . . *headasplode*