Say It Ain’t So, Greg! Three Cups of Tea Comes Under Memoir Scrutiny

I loved the book Three Cups of Tea. You likely did also if you read it. This morning The New York Times carried an investigative story that questions the veracity of the central narrative about stumbling upon Korphe, a village in Afghanistan, after failing to reach the peak of the mountain K2.

Here’s the story:

‘Three Cups of Tea’ Author Defends Book

By JULIE BOSMAN and STEPHANIE STROM

“While the publishing industry waited to see whether it faced the embarrassment of yet another partly fabricated memoir, Greg Mortenson, the co-author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” a book popular with the Pentagon for its inspirational lessons on Afghanistan and Pakistan, forcefully countered a CBS News report on Sunday that questioned the facts of his book and the management of his charitable organization.

The report could puncture a hole in the uplifting narrative of “Three Cups of Tea,” which has fed a charity run by Mr. Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute. The institute has built schools, mostly for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The report has also revived a chronic concern in the publishing industry over the accuracy of nonfiction memoirs, which are typically only lightly fact-checked by publishers, if at all.

Viking, the imprint of Penguin Group USA that published “Three Cups of Tea,” declined to comment on the book or answer questions about how it was vetted.

The CBS News report questioned, in particular, a central anecdote of the book that was as dramatic as it was inspirational: in 1993, Mr. Mortenson was retreating after failing to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, when, lost and dehydrated, he stumbled across the small village of Korphe in northeast Pakistan. After the villagers there nursed him back to health, he vowed to return and build a school.”

Read the whole story here.

I agree with author William Zinsser, as I have stated elsewhere on this blog, that factual truthtelling is important in memoir. But I still admire Mortenson’s book and his mission. This kind of compression of events seems less offensive than James Frey’s over-dramatization of his addictions, perhaps because it serves nobler ends. However, the 60 Minutes charges of misusing funds for personal gain hurt the most. Do you buy Mortenson’s explanation?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Memoir Controversies, Memoir in the News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Say It Ain’t So, Greg! Three Cups of Tea Comes Under Memoir Scrutiny

  1. Jerry Waxler says:

    First of course, I’m disappointed. It was one of the most uplifting books I have ever read. It inspired harmony at an intersection of culture that desperately needs that harmony. So I’m sorry to hear his truth value discredited, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of using “story” to promote the cause of justice, individual empowerment, the rights of girls, the humanization of the “other,” the danger of dehumanization, to name a few.

    As for the truth value of memoirs in general, just when the Frey mess was fading into the past, this will stir up the hornets, who are deeply suspicious of the truth of anyone’s story. The reason “truth of memoirs” creates so much passion is that it threatens to undermine the sand on which we stand. My belief is that developing a trust for one’s own life story is central to a life well lived. It is far less important to worry about the media flap about whose story is true or false.

    Discrediting memoirs is big news, but all the hard work that memoir writers do to make sense of their lives every day is much more quieter and more noble.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

    • shirleyhs says:

      I quite agree that the scandals in memoir publishing should not prevent ordinary people like us from writing our stories. We do it for our own sakes and for family and friends. The temptation comes, I guess, when publishing, and its potential to make one’s name, reputation, and wealth, enters the picture. Who is responsible to check the facts? If slightly different facts make a better story, and if such stories sell well, the temptation will be there to shade the truth. Sometimes the authors even convince themselves of the facts after they have written them down.

  2. I loved Three Cups of Tea, but have not read the sequel. I totally support Mortenson’s concepts, and I’m disappointed that his integrity has been called into question, because that could overshadow the validity of the work. I hope that the foundation can be thrown open to more scrutiny and leadership, with Mortenson stepping aside and sound accounting methods implemented. As I see things, that’s the only way for the foundation to even survive. I’d like to see it thrive.

    Regarding Zinsser’s comment about absolute truth … William Zinsser is my hero, and as much as I respect him, I have no idea what “absolute truth” he refers to. Facts can be validated, but Truth? I don’t think so. Wars are fought in defense of Truth. When we define absolute Truth, we’ll have world peace!

    • shirleyhs says:

      I love both your points, Sharon. I too think the idea of building schools for girls is such an inspiring alternative to the other ways America is perceived in Afghanistan and throughout the region. Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize winner has said that our response to 9-11 should have been to build schools all over Afghanistan. I still think she is right! You can hear her at this location: http://www.prx.org/pieces/14631

      And Zinsser should not have used the phrase “absolute truth” in this postmodern age, although he probably did so knowingly, maybe even to tweak some of his friends. Let’s tone it down to “a sincere and rigorous attempt to be truthful,” do we then agree that all memoirists should follow this practice?

      At the very least, all people marketed as memoirists telling true stories need to identify if they have used collapsed time frames, merged characters, and other fictional devices.

  3. doradueck says:

    Hi Shirley, I heard about this story and was saddened too, and hoping there’s still some way through it for him. I also listened to the wonderful TED talk by Doris Kearn Godwin you posted, whose book on the Fitzgeralds and Kennedys I enjoyed, and now these stories about Lincoln and Johnson. But she too lost some of her reputation over charges about a number of her books I believe — in this case, plagiarism — which I think she acknowledged. I’m not sure what the lesson is, but certainly the main one is that we all have to keep alert to working with the utmost integrity.

  4. shirleyhs says:

    You’re right, Dora. I think the plagiarism charges against Goodwin are a little less serious than the ones against Mortenson, at least as the 60 Minutes interview portrays him (his claim to have been kidnapped by the Taliban appears to have been an out-and-out lie). Goodwin defended herself in this Time article in 2002: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,197614,00.html

    I can sympathize with the scope of her work and the difficulty of applying the strict “quotes around more than three consecutive words” rule to thousands of notes. I also think that historians without Pulitzers and bestselling books can be jealous, so I give a little leeway to her. Martin Luther King, Jr. also broke these rules, evidently.

    But with you I am in complete agreement. Integrity is so important. And the more the author asks people to join in a cause, constructed by a story that has made him or her rich, the more the burden of proof is on the author to tell the truth.

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Be sure to read Nicholas Kristof’s op ed piece in the Times today. He does a great job of refocusing the story on the courage and accomplishments of Mortenson without defending either his exaggerations or fictionalizations or his management of a huge organization.

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