A Million Little Pieces of Memoir Genre Trust

Like most of my readers, I am an admirer of Greg Mortenson and think what he has done  in Afghanistan and Pakistan–building schools (helping girls, especially) and building relationships of trust–is the best way for Americans to interact with the people of Central Asia. A vast improvement over drone strikes and endless war!

Yet the 60 Minutes program last Sunday and many articles in the national media since then have accused Mortenson of two major transgressions–mismanagement of funds and dishonesty in print.

I’ll leave the issues of organizational mismanagement for other bloggers to dissect. The issues relevant to our conversation concern ethics in memoir writing. Alison Flood in the April 22 edition of The Guardian asks whether the whole genre is damaged by all the memoir scandals (a category I have been following here). Her answer: not necessarily (the James Frey controversy actually stimulated book sales, at least initially). However, she surmised that the next heroic tale memoir writer who tries to follow in Mortenson’s footsteps will have a steeper mountain of trust to summit. As more and more memoirists are discredited, the book-buying public may become very suspicious about miraculous epiphanies, heroic escapes, emotionally-charged causes and miserable childhoods.

Nick Carbone wrote in Time magazine, “Looks like Mortenson’s writing has the potential to be shattered into a million little pieces.”

For me, the most damaging charge against Mortenson is not the question of when he entered Korphe (immediately after his K2 climb or a year later) but the fact that he told a story of being captured by Taliban and showed pictures of people who adamantly deny being Taliban. Then there is also the issue of how a memoir subject interacts with his ghost writer–how much truth can be delegated to a story teller with a keen feel for narrative arc–or even narrative edge?

You can read Alex Heard’s excellent exclusive interview with Mortenson here. At one point Heard summarizes what Mortenson says about writing the memoir: So you’re saying you were new to the process, busy, and you were naive about how nonfiction is written. And they were sometimes saying, “Let’s tell it this way, it’s better”?
Yes, definitely. I was also overseas a lot, in Afghanistan—we had been really launching there since 2000. When I was there, David would read the manuscript to me over the phone, and so forth.

A friend who loved Three Cups of Tea and is on Mortenson’s mailing list, received this message from him recently. I publish it in full, giving him the chance to explain his point of view.

Sunday, April 17, 2011
Asalaam-o-Alaikum (Peace Be With You). Greetings from Montana and on behalf of the dear children and communities we serve in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Thank you (Tashakur and Shukuria) for the overwhelming response to the news in recent days, for the outpouring of support, prayers and the confidence that you, our supporters, have showered upon Central Asia Institute, Pennies For Peace and my family. In the midst of these difficult and challenging days, I keep thinking about the Persian proverb, “When it is darkest you can see the stars.” You are all shining lights and we are grateful for your compassion.

Although we would like the world to be linear, orderly and peaceful, the reality is that our world is a dynamic, fluid place, often filled with chaos and confusion. In that space, I thrive and get the courage to help bring change and empower people. I also feel great pride that you have chosen to support those who live in the ‘Last Best Places’, where other organizations or governments offer few or no services.

I welcome and am used to facing criticism, which sometimes even turns into hostility and threats, over the important work we do in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As an introvert and shy person, it is also not easy to have to enter an arena of a media circus at the drop of a heartbeat. But, as those of you who know me and have supported my work over the years will recognize, the story being framed by “60 Minutes” to air in a few hours today – as far as we can tell — paints a distorted picture using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one year’s (2009) IRS 990 financial, and a few points in the book “Three Cups of Tea” that occurred almost 18 years ago. Apparently, the CBS program is to be followed in the near future by a similar negative piece by Jon Krakauer in an unknown magazine, which I only recently heard about last week.

The Board of Directors and I made the very difficult decision to not engage with “60 Minutes” on camera, after they attempted an eleventh hour aggressive approach to reach me, including an ambush in front of children at a book signing at a community service leadership convention in Atlanta. It was clear that the program’s disrespectful approach would not result in a fair, balanced or objective representation of our work, my books or our vital mission. We also turned down a last minute request for an interview with Jon Krakauer.

The “60 Minutes” program may appear to ask simple questions, but the answers are often complex, not easily encapsulated in 10-second sound bites. Working in isolated areas, in communities that are not on any map, and often in areas of turmoil, religious extremism or natural disasters where education is still relatively rare and ancient codes of conduct and social hierarchies still dominate – all these things demand constant adjustment, accommodation and patience.

We have always maintained that our work is about investing in relationships, respecting elders, and listening over a time span that stretches generations, not in one that lasts just a few minutes on prime time television.

o although I did not do an on-camera interview, CAI’s Board of Directors and I have duly responded to questions provided us late last week by “60 Minutes” with both statements and answers. And as always we pride ourselves to be transparent with our financials and IRS 990 forms.

All of this can be found on our website, www.ikat.org, and more information will be added in coming days.

Because of a medical condition mentioned below, I have spoken with our hometown newspaper, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, about this attack, and the newsroom is closely following developments on this story:

Mortenson under fire from ’60 Minutes’ – Bozeman philanthropist denies allegations (Friday, April 15, 2011)

CAI responds to Mortenson allegations (Sunday, April 17, 2011)

I also recently returned from Afghanistan, and was amazed to see how incredibly well everything is going there, including having five female managers (out of 15 total) and a plan to establish and build over 60 new schools this year. Our Board Chairman, Dr. Abdul Jabbar, also recently returned from an extensive trip to Pakistan. We will combine the news and send you an email and / or printed information within the next month to share the good news.

I would like to take this opportunity to disclose that for the last 18 months, I have been struggling with hypoxia (low oxygen saturation), which made it very difficult to get through a grueling schedule. My physician told me I had to stop and rest, however the urgency of what we do spurred me on. Last Friday (4/15/11), I came home and was diagnosed with a hole in my heart that was shunting blood, causing my low saturations.

Tomorrow, I will have further tests and then a heart surgical procedure this week to fix the hole. After a few weeks my doctor says I will be as good as new. For the first time in eighteen months, I will have tremendous energy, strength and lots of oxygen. At that time, I will come out fighting for what is right and just, and be able to talk to the media. Regardless of what happens, our work must go on. It’s most important to know that education is the only thing one can never take away from an individual; it remains forever.

It is a true blessing to be at home now, with family and friends. In the meantime, I send you my heartfelt thanks for your continued support, and if you have any questions or concerns at all, I urge you to contact our office. Our small committed staff will be responding as quickly as they can to answer your calls, e-mails and requests for more information.

Please feel free to pass on this email to your families, friends and colleagues, and if you feel compelled, please write letters to the editor, or your on-line communities, about your thoughts.

You are in my thoughts and prayers.
Greg Mortenson
Bozeman, MT

Now that you’ve had a chance to hear from both Greg Mortenson and his critics, both loving and skeptical, what do you think? How damaged is the genre itself?

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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, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A Million Little Pieces of Memoir Genre Trust

  1. Clif Hostetler says:

    The following quote by Mary Karr from NPR’s April 19 “All Thinks Considered” hits the nail on the head: “I’m always suspect of a memoir in which someone becomes a hero.”

    The interviewer, Ulaby, continues, “Mary Karr says the memoirs that tend to fall apart under scrutiny reflect their authors’ outsize narcissism. ….”

    I was always a bit turned off by Mortenson’s self-aggrandizement. But so many of my friends thought highly of him that I kept my thoughts to myself. These sorts of revelations push me ever toward being a skeptic of all things.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Clif, thanks so much for this insightful quote from Mary Karr. It goes along with the advice that the “self” described in one’s memoir should be the antagonist of the story and that unless you have gotten to that point, you aren’t ready to write your memoir. Carlos Eire does this beautifully in his book Learning to Die in Miami. Since you are one of the most avid readers I know, you might want to put it on your list! 🙂 Or have you read it already?

  2. My observation is that another recurring memoir theme in this blog is “what is the truth?” For me truth includes light and darkness. Whether in the memoir genre, organization behavior, or individual leaders, damage can only be permanent if we fail to exhibit resilience by learning and adapting. Catastrophic change occurs with blinding speed and catches us by surprise – often leaving us with a complex number of variables to manage.

    My hope is that Greg Mortenson and his team will be able to “re-author” themselves and their organization, embracing the vision and values that gave them the courage to begin, discovering what they don’t know and why they don’t know what they should, and embracing the darkness and the light. My hope for memoir is that it will grow and flourish as we learn from the experiences of those around us.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Wise comments as usual, Kathleen. Mortenson and his organization have been given a giant learning opportunity. How they respond will be a test of their capacity for growth, learning, and maybe even restitution and forgiveness. What seems jarring from the descriptions of Mortenson is that so many people describe him as a humble man. Does his introversion cover a mountain of narcissism? Time will tell more if not all.

      As for the genre, I continue to wonder what it is about our culture today that demands memoir rather than the novel, then punishes those who use the same novelistic techniques readers love–if they later can’t be externally verified. Frey, for example wrote his Million Little Pieces book as a novel. Had it rejected. Then evidently resubmitted it as a memoir and was accepted. I’m sure that description “compresses” the truth, as Mortenson might say. But behind all these controversies are agents and editors and publishers under pressure from the market. Buyers are the ultimate determiners of a book’s fate, but the publishing industry still serves as the gate keeper for what they think the public will buy. Note that Mortenson’s ghost writer above, and possibly others, pushed for conformity to an exciting narrative drama.

      I love your idea that the genre and all memoir writers can learn from these stories also. Indeed, that’s why I started this blog! Who would have guessed three years ago how exciting the road to learning would become?

  3. It seems to me that scandals like this will make the genre better or at least will give writers a better understanding of what readers expect and what not to do. The quote you included from the Heard interview says exactly where Mortenson set himself up to fail: “So you’re saying you were new to the process, busy, and you were naive about how nonfiction is written. And they were sometimes saying, “Let’s tell it this way, it’s better”? Yes, definitely. I was also overseas a lot, in Afghanistan—we had been really launching there since 2000. When I was there, David would read the manuscript to me over the phone, and so forth.”
    Mortenson didn’t pay enough attention to his own manuscript! And isn’t the devil in the details? Plus I wasn’t aware that memoirs could be ghost written. That seems a misnomer right there.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Welcome, Annette. I so agree with you that these scandals have potential to strengthen the memoir, especially the definition of what it is and should be in order to be published. But they may also increase the skepticism of the buying public. Hard to know what will happen in the long run.

      On your last point–many memoirs are ghost written. The rich and famous almost always find someone else who shapes their rambling notes and conversations into a narrative arc. Sarah Palin, George Bush, John McCain, and many other famous people have collaborated with writers to a greater or lesser extent.

      • Shirley, I would contend that the autobiographical books by celebrities like Clinton or Palin etc. are rarely memoirs, at least not literary memoirs, which a book like Three Cups of Tea purports to be. Their goal is rarely self-examination or an interpretation of what happened, but rather setting the record straight. It irks me when they have the blatant title “memoir” as Rumsfeld’s new book does. A book that thick can hardly be a memoir, and its goal is definitely “here’s my side of the story,” rather than “I’m trying to figure out my story and its meaning” which is what a good memoir will do. In an odd way I think they are being subtitled “memoir” because that’s catchier.

  4. GutsyWriter says:

    As you know it’s almost impossible to sell a memoir to a (large) publisher today, unless you’re well-known. I’ve discovered how I need to classify my memoir as a family/travel, or travel/adventure, manuscript. I watched the 60-minutes interview. Did not know Greg as a “person” before, but they succeeded in making him seem “suspicious” as far as accounting for all his profits. This was the purpose and they did a good job. Not good for him though.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Yes. That is clearly the message potential memoir writers get at every conference I’ve attended. The counsel you have gotten to reclassify, however, is the first I have heard of that advice. The target keeps moving. Keep us informed as your adventures with publishing continue! We want to know how the story ends.

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Here’s a Christian Science Monitor piece worth reading. It asks whether the publishing industry is to blame for these memoir scandals: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2011/0420/Three-Cups-of-Tea-Is-the-publishing-industry-to-blame-for-fabricated-memoirs

    Would love your thoughts. I have suspected all along that the economics of publishing have influenced, if not produced, some of the most outrageous ethical lapses.

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