Book club members the world over were disheartened this week at the news that Greg Mortenson may have lied in parts of his widely read memoir, Three Cups of Tea. The allegations came via a 60 Minutes expose and journalist Jon Krakauer's Three Cups of Deceit -- both of which questioned the facts of Mortenson's book and the management of his charitable organization, which builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Now, I'm all for honesty and integrity, especially when it comes to the written word, but if Mortenson did, in fact, stretch the truth a little, is that really such a bad thing?
Before we rush to judge the author, let's consider some of the accusations leveled against him. First, critics are questioning some of the personal anecdotes in the memoir -- namely, that after failing to summit K2, Mortenson stumped across a small village, was nursed back to health, and vowed to build a school there. 60 Minutes claimed he visited the village nearly one year after his K2 attempt; Mortenson is sticking to his story but adds the disclaimer that this part of the story is "a compressed version of events."
So, what in the world really happened up there? I think the more important question to ask is: Who really cares?
Whenever I read a memoir, I assume that the author has taken a bit of liberty with respect to the facts. I'm not condoning outright lies, of course, but if the author happens to emphasize certain parts of the story to make it more exciting or portray themselves in a more positive light, can we really blame them? In the end, we're interested in the author's reality -- that's why we're reading the book in the first place! And that reality most certainly differs from, say, another writer's reality, who happened to jump on the story years after it occurred.
Some people are saying that with Mortenson we have another "James Frey" on our hands. That's hardly an appropriate comparison simply because Frey was out only to benefit himself with his book, while Mortenson had a much larger goal in mind. So what if he twisted the facts? As Michelle Goldberg writing for the Daily Beast says he is "the single most famous champion of the transformative power of education for girls in poor countries." He educated millions of people about the plight of Afghan women and girls while inspiring people to try and make a difference in the world and contribute to non-profit organizations (and not just his). If his narrative is a little off, then so be it.
Of course, the second part of the allegations is way more serious -- for example, that Mortenson hasn't been honest about the number of schools he's actually built and that much of the charity's budget is spent on promoting his books. If there's truth to this, then Mortenson should obviously be held accountable and be forced to deal with the consequences.
But given his role in shedding light on a very real issue and empowering people to bring about change, can we really stay that mad at him?
Do you think Greg Mortenson told lies in Three Cups of Tea?
Image via Penguin