Monday, May 2, 2011

Mortenson, Lying, Cheating, & Self-Mythologizing

Laura Miller at Salon recently posted her take on the Greg Mortenson memoir scandal. She argues that the fabrications in "Three Cups of Tea" are irrelevant compared to Mortenson's misuse of charitable contributions for his own gain. She writes:
"It's unfortunate that the Mortenson affair is being presented as a publishing scandal rather than a philanthropic one, because the case against the author (the lying) is less compelling than the case against the nonprofit director (the cheating)."
Reading this, part of me wanted to shout: Yes! Finally someone is pointing out how misleading donors was much more damaging than misleading readers. But unfortunately this argument is an oversimplification, ignoring how the lies in the book are inextricably tied to, and led to, the philanthropic disaster.

In the article, Miller holds Mortenson accountable for misdirecting contributions but sees the lying as justifiable means to an end:
“Heartwarming anecdotes come with the territory and as with the happily-ever-after endings of romantic comedies, everyone tacitly agrees not to examine them too closely. "Three Cups of Tea" is a wonderful tool for eliciting donations for the very worthy cause of educating Afghan and Pakistani children, which is its purpose.”
While I deeply believe that personal nonfiction has the license to create some amount of fiction (such as inventing dialogue or other details, or compressing time), one aspect that distinguishes the genre from fiction is the way in which it can use its material, the actuality of everyday life, to deconstruct stories, to examine where and how actuality diverges from cultural myths and dominant narratives. This lack of pre-fabricated narrative can be a gift to the craft of nonfiction and an antidote to those “happily-ever-after endings of romantic comedies.”

Mortenson, however, seemed to prefer the happily-ever-after. And instead of examining the tensions between myth and reality, he got swept up into the narrative of a personal mythology, creating himself into a Heroic Man: a man who happened upon the simple but generous village that saved not only his life but his spirit. A man with inspiring determination to give back to this village and to the countrie of Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in the face of nearly unimaginable (and nearly all fictional) challenges, including surviving firefights and being kidnapped by warlords.

In creating this myth, he turned a story of this region into a story about himself. Or, more accurately, into a story of his illusion of himself. And he used this illusion to solicit very real contributions through his Central Asia Institute which, as of today, still includes Mortenson's largely fabricated biography on its history page.

I imagine that Greg Mortenson is probably a very well-intentioned human being who never set out to deceive either his readers or donors. But ultimately it was his inability to see clearly the difference between actuality and his dream of himself that led him to fail as both a writer and humanitarian.

(Photos from CAI website.)


  1. Thought-provoking post, Nuria. Did you see Dinty Moore's recently published (probably reiterated) definition? Sounds like your view is similar. Am I reading you right? If not, how is it different?

  2. Yes, I definitely agree with Dinty's definition.

    When he writes, "That means that an author who is willingly, consciously subverting what he remembers is not writing memoir, by my definition," and I take that sort of subversion of truth to mean altering facts and meanings on a larger scale than just filling in details of scene or compressing time.

    Thanks for sharing the link!