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.
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?