Several people have asked me in recent days to weigh in on the flab about Greg Mortenson's alleged exaggerations in his two best-selling books, Stones Into Schools and Three Cups of Tea. I have read (in part) both books and have also listened to the various interviews on 60-Minutes and read other columns by people I respect and who are close to the work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including some of Mr. Mortenson's friends, who are not confirming the accuracy of these books.
Here's my take.
It would appear that Mr. Mortenson has indeed been engaging in exaggeration of his work in these lands (though he has done great good). More troubling, however, than the many half-truths and "memoir-like" histories recorded in his two best-sellers, are the indications that Mr. Mortenson has been using school-building contributions to the non-for profit organization to support his jet-set, world-travelling speaking pipeline and further spike sales of his books. Much of this money could have built more schools.
Okay, but this wouldn't be the first time that books like these, hailed as "memoirs", turned out to be filled with half-truths, exaggerations, or, in some cases, outright fabrications to make the books more exciting and marketable. I could cite a half dozen recent best-selling "memoirs" that actually turned out to be more appropriately classified as novels (and a couple that were discovered to be complete and total fabrications).
Memoir, as a genre, has always been a sticky-wicket. And today, now that it is so easy to follow up on facts, people simply can't get away with calling their work a memoir if it didn't happen. I can think of a couple of memoirs I've read where the author has placed a disclaimer up front that essentially says, "I don't remember the chronology of some events, or complete conversations, but this memoir is factual to the best of the author's memory and research."
I can accept this.
Mr. Mortenson, however, didn't do this. And he continues to claim that everything in his books is history or factual (despite evidences to the contrary) and that he is not using non-for-profit money earmarked for more schools . . . but seems to be pocketing a good share of the funds so he can fly around the world representing himself.
This doesn't shock me. And that's why I always place the following disclaimer on anything I write that might have historical, personal, or memoir-like effect:
I am now 50 years old . . . and I can't remember my own name!