Wednesday, April 20, 2011

3 Cups of Tea or Was It Coffee

So right now, there is a kerfuffle over Greg Mortensen's memoirs, the most famous being Three Cups of TeaJon Krakauer and CBS News show 60 Minutes did some investigating into his charity's records and the school they allegedly build.  Based on their report, it seems like something in the milk isn't clean.  Mortensen did everything to avoid talking to 60 Minutes but they ambushed him at a book signing.  LOL!!!  He has admitted to his local newspaper that the events in the book were compressed.  Now he has previously scheduled heart surgery so he's unavailable. ** Extreme SideEye**  Honestly, he might truly have a heart condition and need surgery, but it looks kind of suspect.

With memoirs, I realize that recollections of the same event vary from person to person.  Thus, I usually take memoirs and autobiographies with a grain of salt.  I'm willing to allow for issues of memory as long as the lapses aren't outrageous.  Don't write a "memoir" about growing up in Marakesh if you grew up in Rhode Island! Don't compress time and blame it on cultural definitions of words.

Why do authors feel the need to embellish or create whole new life stories?  For all the disputes about accuracy, Mortenson has a great story that didn't really need embellishment.  Maybe authors and/or agents/publishing houses/ book people feel that the book won't succeed if marketed as a novel and would generate more profit being sold as a memoir.  Scandalous novels are a dime a dozen, but scandalous or extraordinary life stories not so much.  Maybe an author realizes half way through their memoir that they are really boring and the fiction flows.  James Frey, Margaret B. Jones (nom de plume of Margaret Seltzer), Herman Rosenblat and the list goes on. 

Are the authors taking the chance that no one will call them out or do research about their stories? Let's be honest, most of the people in Three Cups of Tea wouldn't likely be in the reading audience or able to dispute any inconsistencies regarding their representation.  Some of these "stories" could have been great novels; the authors don't lack creativity and were able to get published. Maybe the authors didn't expect to be best-sellers?

 The part that gets my goat is he claims to have been kidnapped and one of the alleged kidnappers is disputing the accusations.  To me, that changes the whole situation.  It's veering into Jolly Earnest Westerner and his thrilling, exotic adventures with the Brown People.   I've  read both books, but was "meh" about them. The whole story is starting to turn my stomach.
As far as the alleged misappropriation of funds, most charities spend their donations on overhead.  Not on book promotion, but I'm sure the excuse will be that promoting the book promotes the charity, yada yada.  Having relatives and acquaintances that have been missionaries or employees of charities, working in a foreign field can be really challenging.  You toe the line between supporting the community and encouraging self-sufficiency.  Sometimes, it is more efficient to fund existing services and clinics than to create new services or clinics just to have it as your brand.

What's your opinion?  "Fact" or "Fictionalized Fact"


  1. My book group read Stones Into Schools, so we've been emailing quite fervently about this latest dust-up. I talk about the issue of "truth" vs. "story" when it comes to memoir with my students too: Our most heated and memorable discussions often spring from this topic. Frey comes up every year, and now I imagine that Mortenson will too. I'ts disconcerting that he decided to fabricate pieces of his story, but more upsetting to me is the issue of funds and the possible misuse of those funds. I'll be interested to hear how that angle of the 60 Minutes exposes plays out.
    FYI, though: I've worked for quite a few non-profits, and they spent most of their $$ on programs aligned with their missions, not "overhead". But that's just my personal experience.
    p.s. Happy to support a new blogista: I'm a follower! Come visit me at

  2. Laurie, thanks for stopping by and reading! I was scared it was too long, lol. I'll definitely pass by your blog.

    Yeah, it will be interesting to see where the paper trail leads, especially since the Montana AG will probably be looking into the issue.

    You're right about "overhead" maybe slush fund or reserve fund is a better way of putting it. But many donations to charities are not spent on what one think it is unless the donor specifies the particular program the donation is for. That's always what I've been told. I'll have to research.