Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Cups of Tease? Greg Mortenson and the Fiction of Nonfiction

"It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie."

That's Jon Krakauer, noted author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, talking to Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes Sunday. The lie he's referring to is Greg Mortenson's inspirational bestseller, Three Cups of Tea. Since the 60 Minutes expose on Sunday, more and more people have come forward calling Mortenson's story into question. It's rocking the publishing world, the political world, and the non-profit world.

The book, which is required reading for the military in Afghanistan, has sold over 4 million copies. In fact, at the University of San Francisco, where I teach, we asked all incoming students to read the book just a few years ago. Mortenson spoke on campus; I ran a discussion group on the book for new students. The entire project was a huge success.

But, there is mounting evidence that much of Mortenson's story is, at the very least exaggerated, and at worst, entirely fabricated.

It's a stunning turn of events. And, it's hard to know what to make of the allegations.
Three Cups of Tea is a smart, detailed narrative of Mortenson's troubled life until he was saved by a village in Pakistan after a failed attempt to summit K2--one of the world's most notorious mountains. The best pages of the book recount his time in Korphe, Pakistan in 1993, when local citizens nursed him back to health after he got lost trying to hike down the mountain. To repay them, he promised to build a school for girls. Tea goes on to chronicle Mortenson's subsequent capture by the Taliban and his rather anti-climactic release. He also describes other projects, arguing that building schools and educating girls is the best way to defeat the Taliban and terrorism.
Mortenson claims this photograph shows him with his Taliban captors, but CBS found three men from the picture who say they are not affiliated with the Taliban.
Mortenson claims this photograph shows him with his Taliban captors, but CBS found three men from the picture who say they are not affiliated with the Taliban.

But, according to 60 Minutes, Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute have been under investigation by CBS since last fall, and a number of items are raising red flags. For example, Krakauer asserts Mortenson never wound up in Korphe, in fact never heard of Korphe until a year after his K2 fiasco. And even more damning, men Mortenson claims were his Taliban kidnappers have come forward to clear their names. They were never part of the Taliban. This morning on CNN, one of the foreign correspondents supported that assertion, noting that the Taliban was not in that area of Pakistan in 1993. Could it be that Mortenson was never 1) rescued by Pakistanis and 2) never taken prisoner by the Taliban? It sure looks that way. Even odder, 60 Minutes notes that some of the schools Mortenson says his foundation built are either empty or were constructed by others.

Moretenson has not responded to CNN or CBS, but I did find a statement he maid to his local newspaper, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: "'I stand by the story of Three Cups of Tea', Mortenson said in a written statement, but added, 'The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.'" To his credit, it is worth mentioning that comments on the website are heavily in favor of Mortenson; in fact one of the people leaving comments claims to have known Mortenson in Pakistan and that the CBS story is the fabricated yarn.

Of course, those questions raise even more questions: What aspects of the story are true? Why are folks only now coming forward? If the allegations turn out to be true, will they undermine important work being done to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

If true, this will be disastrous for Mortenson, but as someone interested in the matrix of ethics and writing, it's great stuff. It stands as potentially another example of the dramatically fabricated memoir. In 2008, I wrote about Love and Consequences, the invented autobiography of by Margaret B. Jones. That came on the heels of James Frey's public excoriation when it was revealed that the juiciest parts of his A Million Little Pieces were all fiction and no fact.

I teach a class on ethics and writing at USF, and I remain very interested in the increasingly big and increasingly hazy region that distinguishes "fact" and "aesthetics." I'm all for compression, for streamlining, for engaging in what I call "re-creative memory" when it comes to remembering dialogue or clothes or weather. But, what if entire portions of a story--the most memorable parts--are more than creative memories? What if they are inventions? What does this do to the act and the ethics of writing?

UPDATE: Mortenson responds to Krakauer and 60 Minutes in an interview with Outside Magazine. Many thanks to the readers who sent me this link!

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