Three Cups of Tea (and truth in memoir)

A fight has broken out over whether mountaineer Greg Mortenson made up portions of Three Cups of Tea, his memoir about building schools in Pakistan that he leveraged into major public donations. If this is news to you, catch up here

I really liked Greg Mortenson’s book. I’ve long been thrilled by tales of the Karakorams,* just a personal quirk. And what 2nd-wave feminist wouldn’t get excited about building schools for GIRLS?

So it’s disappointing to read that he may have fabricated major elements of the story, like the incident that drives the book’s plot–his failed K2 assent and near-death experience that sent him stumbling into the village of Korphe in northeastern Pakistan, to be nursed back to health by the villagers. He swore he would return and build schools.

If you’ve read Mortenson’s book, or heard him speak, you know he’s nobody’s first pick for “most likely to succeed at building a charitable institution.” Much of his tale follows the complications that arise when a socially awkward young man, inexperienced at fundraising and public speaking, sets his foot on that path.

It doesn’t surprise me to hear that some of the schools he built may not be functioning as he hoped. I’m not ready to throw Mr. Mortenson under the proverbial bus as a memoirist for events that occurred years after the book was published. (Accusations that the organization he founded has improperly helped him buy and promote his books are matter for the business office, not the truth-in-memoir police.)

Let’s examine that “truth” question. Did Mr. Mortenson condense events in the Fall of 1993–and maybe even 1994–to make that “hero receives the call” episode in his story work as the initiating incident in his inspiring journey? In an interview with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (reported in the New York Times) Mortenson said that while he stood by the information in the book, “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.”

As a memoir writing instructor, I sometimes tell my students that we need to compress events in order to make good dramatic narrative from the disorderly stuff of life. Is this all that Mortenson is guilty of? Or is there more?

The episode in which Mortenson is held hostage by Taliban members for eight days has also been called into question. Others present are saying they were not Taliban, and were not holding Mortenson against his will. Did Mortenson exaggerate an exotic home-stay into the captive-by-Taliban element because he thought his tale needed more drama? Or perhaps to underline his belief that education can help to halt the spread of anti-American, Islamist philosophies?

William Zinsser commented in that New York Times article, “To me, the essence of memoir is absolute truth because I think everybody gains that way.” Zinsser’s opinions hold much more authority than mine on this topic. How much conflation would Zinsser allow in the cause of creating a compelling story? I wish I could ask him.

I also wish I could talk to the man credited as Mortenson’s co-author: David Oliver Relin. I’d ask him whether he advised Mortenson on some of these decisions that have now been called into question. I’ve ghost-written and I’ve book-coached. It’s not easy writing someone else’s memoir. For more on that line of thought, see this post on Hawley Roddick’s blog.

In the meantime, in the question of Mortenson’s truth (or lack of it) lies the central tension captured in the name of this blog–“true stories, well told.”

To tell it true, but also tell it well–that’s the dramatic struggle each of us engages in when we set out to write about our lives.

-Sarah White

*Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: From Ireland to India on a Bicycle was one of my first loves in the memoir genre. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is another great book on the mountain-memoir stack. Love ’em. Recommend ’em.

p.s. Here’s an NPR follow-up to the Mortenson expose, musing on the way our celebrity culture is driving writers from fiction into the murky waters of memoir.

p.p.s. Here’s a rebuttal I really appreciate from Nicholas Kristof in the 4/21/11 New York Times opinion page.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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3 Responses to Three Cups of Tea (and truth in memoir)

  1. Perhaps Mortenson should have called his book a non-fiction novel – a genre that some think began with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.


  2. Great article in the Huffington Post yesterday with this comment:

    “If we plan to then leverage our story to encourage our readers to donate money to our cause then we bear an even heavier responsibility not to mislead them in any way.”


  3. Pingback: “No one can be damaged by someone telling his own life story” | True Stories Well Told

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