Friday, April 22, 2011

Memoir Dans La Toilette

Apparently in French, un memoire is not an autobiographical work but a short incisive essay, like the type I write here (smiley face).  In light of events this week, "memoir" might need to be redefined as a work appearing to be about true events but in fact fictionalized for better storytelling.
What the hell is that!

Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, both of which I read and recommended, is under siege from Jon Krakauer, an eminent, best selling author of nonfiction such as Into Thin Air and my personal fave,  Under the Banner of Heaven, and 60 Minutes.  Krakauer has i-published, through a short book, Three Cups of Deceit, (now available on Kindle- all author proceeds go to a Stop Girl Trafficking Project), which outlines evidence that Mortenson told some tall tales in the two books and engaged in some financial shenanigans with his nonprofit NGO, Central Asia Institute (CAI).  The night before the Krakauer book was i-published, 60 Minutes ran its own expose with interviews of Mortenson and Krakauer.

The allegations of fabrication in the Mortenson books, (which were actually written by others, by the way, based on stories told by Mortenson, even though Mortenson claims in the book to have written Stones into Schools himself) bother most people, I think,  because we want to think that memoirs are true.  I believed what Mortenson wrote and feel somehow gypped to learn that certain events were likely made up or embellished.  The kidnapping, for example, by the Taliban, likely did not happen.  Krakauer has talked to those involved (with a caveat that one of his sources was described by another as a con man) and produced pictures of the event showing Mortenson holding a gun with his kidnappers and smiling. The description of his stumbling into Korphe as the first locale of his school building also appears to be a good story but not really true, although Mortenson contests that representation, but concedes conflating facts for better story telling (remember Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey Masson) and conflated quotes)  We have already lived through the James Frey scandal and we all live with the reality that reality TV is not real but scripted.  What makes this so different and why do we feel betrayed?  I think we all believed that Mortenson was a hero doing good for others and such a person should not take liberties with the truth in his storytelling. Network TV we expect to be entertaining and unreal but not stories of helping children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The alleged financial shenanigans, in many ways, bother me more.  Just as Mortenson was fast and loose with the facts in his books, Krakauer presents evidence that he was fast and loose with the finances of CAI, which has grown to a $20 million business. When expenses relating to the creation and promotion of Mortenson's books are deducted from "program expenses", the amount going to the program hovers more around 50% which should be a big FAIL in Charity Navigator. (Charity Navigator gives CAI 4 stars, its highest rating, but also now has a Donor Advisory based on the Krakauer/60 Minutes allegations).  Krakauer also contends that CAI made up documents (because it did not have them) to support the costs and expenses of the schools when it was audited in 2010.  Three Cups of Deceit at 49.

Nick Kristof feels, based on his personal experience with the man and the schools he built,  that Mortenson should be given the benefit of the doubt so far while the investigation continues given the good that Mortenson has done where no one else has tred.  Kristof says:

As we sift the truth of these allegations, let’s not allow this uproar to obscure that larger message of the possibility of change. Greg’s books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there’s nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools — and a better world.  

Should we forgive Mortenson his likely peccadillos, or should we hold him to a higher standard because his story lulled us into giving him more of our trust?  In light of the fact that Mortenson seems to genuinely qualify for the status of someone who can write a memoir--i.e. has done something memorable and in fact, productive, I am inclined to agree with Kristof.  However, I also agree that transparency in charitable organizations must be paramount.  Someone really needs to audit CAI and get it back on track so that the work can continue, with or without its larger than life founder.

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