Three Cups of Maybe

You’ve probably heard by now that Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, is under fire for allegedly exaggerating or concocting from whole cloth many of the events in his famous book.

Mortenson has become a major force in shaping America’s mental picture of itself in an age of permanent war.   We are warriors, his book suggests, but also healers and teachers.

In March 2010, David Sommerstein reported on the profound impact of Mortenson’s visit to Fort Drum, near Watertown, to talk with soldiers and families.

“As [military] spouses, we spend so much of our time hoping the phone doesn’t ring, finding comfort in each other,” said Heather Sutton, one of the organizers of the Watertown event.

“When we read a book like that, I think we automatically need to and want to see the positive.”

But on Sunday, the CBS News magazine 60 Minutes reported in depth that many of Mortenson’s claims about his own personal narrative and about his school-building work in Afghanistan, are dubious.

It remains unclear whether  he will be able to explain away the apparent discrepancies in his hope-inspiring tale.

But it’s worth noting that supposedly well-meaning literary frauds are a fairly common event in our culture, going back hundreds of years.

One of the most interesting cases involves the poems of Ossian.

The poems were supposedly discovered and translated in the 1760s by a Scottish poet named James Macpherson, and they formed a centerpiece of the Scottish independence movement.

Activists snapped up the work, and adopted it as a sort of banner of their worldview.

They needed the hope and identity that seemed to be buried in those lyrics, just as families at Fort Drum need Mortenson’s narrative of war-zone idealism.

It turns out the Ossian writings were largely cooked up by Macpherson himself, but that didn’t prevent the poems from becoming hugely politically influential.  Thomas Jefferson was a fan, supposedly, as was Napolean.

There was a time when this kind of thing was looked on with less severity.  Here’s an account of Benjamin Franklin’s often political writing offered during a PBS documentary about his work.

“When Franklin used a pseudonym, he often created an entire persona for the ‘writer.’ Sometimes he wrote as a woman, other times as a man, but always with a specific point of view.”

Franklin often winked at his readers, suggesting that his work was less a con and more a literary device.

But there has emerged in the last half-century a bizarre cottage industry in Holocaust writing, for example, that purports to actually be authentic, first-person accounts of life under the Nazi regime.

Often these deceptive works offer powerful expressions of persecution and identity.

The most famous is probably The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinsky, which was embraced by political figures including Elie Wiesel.

Most scholars now believe Koskinsky’s text was not autobiographical but was, rather, a fairly inspired work of fiction.

The personal memoir is perhaps most vulnerable to this kind of fool-me-twice writing.

James Frey’s hugely influential account of his own troubled life, “A Million Little Pieces,” turned out to be heavily leavened with hokum.

So was Margaret Seltzer’s account of life in the gang culture of East LA, which was withdrawn by her publisher when it turned out the work was largely fiction.

The truth, of course, is that the truth matters.

Whether writers are shaping our mental landscape over relatively small domestic things — addiction and recovery, for example — or big things like war and genocide, they can literally change the world.

If Mortenson’s account of his own humanitarian work turns out to be accurate, then we know something concrete and meaningful and hopeful about our society’s role in Afghanistan, both as warriors and as peace-makers.

But if his account is mostly fiction, then we have learned once again, painfully, that in war truth really is the first casualty.

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9 Comments on “Three Cups of Maybe”

  1. Peter Hahn says:

    He (Mortenson) seems to be responding that it is essentially all true. One (crucially important) part was condensed to make the story easier to tell, but still basically accurate.

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  2. I wish people were as skeptical about claims used to launch acts of destruction and hatred as they were about claims used to launch acts of construction and harmony.

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  3. Bret4207 says:

    To be fair, in Franklins time and MacPhersons some of what they wrote could have gotten them prison if not the gallows.

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  4. Mervel says:

    John Krakauer is a pretty reliable source. The truth does matter particularly in these sorts of books in my opinion.

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    Haven’t read the book and never will for the following reasons.
    I don’t read memoirs or auto-biographies because I figure no one has a really good memory and the temptation to fudge and commit outright lies is too great.
    There is probably far more truth in fiction than there is in heart warming, inspirational memoirs. At least the authors of fiction are more honest because they label it as fiction.

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  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “Three Cups of Tea” didn’t ring true to me. Much of it seemed implausible or mis-remembered and some of the detail felt fake to me. I had credited it to a bad co-writer. But it was a feel good book. People wanted to believe that they could somehow make a difference, and I think they can.

    Mortenson may or may not be a fraud but he has pointed to a better direction. Building a few schools wont really change the world but a few schools and a few wells and some new roads and a couple of hospitals might help. It’s better and cheaper than shooting 200 cruise missiles at somebody.

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  7. Mervel says:

    I agree.

    I think the tragedy is that if much of what he said is a fraud, people will be that much more cynical about all of these sorts of efforts. He will hurt the cause he wanted to help.

    This is from the New Yorker:

    The writer declined to speak to the show, and, as the fifteen-minute segment rolls along, with one damning bit of evidence after another—from the statement of the even more beloved-mountaineer-turned-best-selling-author Jon Krakauer that Mortenson’s tale of how he came to build schools for kids across Pakistan and Afganistan “is a beautiful story, and it’s a lie” to the images of those schools filled not with children but blocks of hay—his silence comes to seem an admission.

    Read more

    But though we might still be willing, as a memoir-consuming public, to put up with teensy white lies for a great “true” story, we are way past the point where we’re willing to put up with major fabrications, and we were never willing to put up with profiteering. There’s a tacit understanding between the author of a book that draws attention to a social injustice while proffering a solution and the buyer of that book: the understanding is that the purchase is akin to a donation. We don’t usually seek to know exactly how the money’s being spent, but we assume it’s serving the cause in some non-frivolous way (“60 Minutes” reveals that donations to the Central Asia Institute, the charity that Mortenson set up to run the schools, have gone toward luxuries like private jets for Mortenson).

    Read more

    Private jets?

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  8. oa says:

    Feel good can be bad. Makes it seem like it’s easy to invade a foreign country and spread our gospel to people who really don’t want to hear it.
    And this has nothing to do with Ben Franklin and the founders. Much of their writing could have had them hanged. There was a real utility and art to their pseudonymous writing, beyond mere profit and a chance to be on Fresh Air and Oprah.

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  9. Jack says:

    “in war truth really is the first casualty”

    Really? I don’t think you’ve established this conclusion. Seems to me that, for whatever reasons, certain individuals choose to lie and it’s unconnected to war or any other particular pressing social problem, calamity, or etc.
    I’m just glad that this fraud was caught.

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