Monday, April 18, 2011

Refresh Your Memory

It's happened again. Another best selling memoir exposed as a fraud? We don't know all the details yet, but according to reputable sources like "60 Minutes" and writer John Krakauer, the blockbuster Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortensen may be full of lies. If not complete falsehoods, then some very questionable facts. Did Mortensen's chain of events happen as detailed in his two books? Are the schools he claims to have built all up and running? Was he really captured by the Taliban and detained in a cell or are the "captors" he's pictured with in the book just friends. And then there is the money? 23 million in contributions that include $100,000. from President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize money. Troubling. Very troubling. As Krakauer writes in a recently published essay called "Three Cups of Deceit,"

The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audac- ity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Morten- son has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. T hree Cups of T ea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Morten- son, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. “Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM.”

Those who know Mortensen well, know that he's a bit quirky. They know too that when memoir is written, sometimes events are compacted in time. Dialogue is spiced up a bit, and longer, detailed scenes are gutted in favor of action. Action...just the action ma'am.
What bothers this writer more than anything about this scandal is the book tour. Allegedly, Mortensen is picking up $30,000. speaking fees, globe trotting on private jets, and avoiding questions of the media about his integrity. Thus far, we can't pass judgment on all of this until it sorts itself out and a public accounting of the money and facts occurs. But it does beg a few important questions for writers in general and writers of memoir in particular. Are we being asked to forgo accuracy for action? Is our audience so fickle or so dependent on sensationalism that we must knowingly tweak the substance of our personal stories in order to gain favor with a mass audience?
In my recently completed memoir, I constantly grappled with these issues. I found myself responding to constructive criticism with ethical replies. My inner memoirist was screaming, but that's not what happened. But that's what you want to happen, or If I wanted to say that, I'd have written a novel. It is the job of the memoir writer to find the action and the sensational within the truth. Our stories, as they actually happen, have the power to captivate even the toughest audiences. It's our job, our ultimate challenge to tell them in ways that do just that.
It ain't easy. But it's oh so necessary. Otherwise we end up fabrication. We end up prostituting ourselves to a popular culture that often sacrifices the deepest personal or political for the glitter of overt violence. A publication industry that sometimes panders to the quick buck with no regard for ethics or substance. This explains why Snookie of Jersey Shore, in my view the most inane TV offering of the century, gets a book deal.
Bleak as all this looks, there is another side. I recently received an email from an old friend. In fact, a very special old friend. After 40 years, I found myself talking to one of the VISTA Volunteers I served with in 1970. He'd heard I'd written a memoir of that year through some of the folks I'd contacted and decided he wanted to read it. His note to me mentioned that he'd been up all night reading it from Preface through all 12 chapters and the Afterword. He'd found it compelling and well written. (Thanks Boo) and mentioned that it brought up all sorts of issues and recollections. GOAL!
I realized early on that it would take more time, money, and inclination for me to sell it to a publisher. My goal was for many of my former students to read it, so I put it online. (Readers of this blog will find it connected here) Now I may not be doing too many speaking appearances, or soliciting funds or appear on the most popular top selling lists, but I can say that my memoir is accurate, it occurred...all of it... the beauty and the hatred, the racism and the wonder, the violence, fear, horrible alienation and brutally authentic music of the oppressed..all of it happened.

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