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You Broke My Heart, Mortenson

(This week On Violence is discussing its “Most Thought Provoking Event of the First Six Months of 2011”, the event that probably isn’t the most important, but intrigues us the most. For this half year, that is the investigative reporting on Greg Mortenson by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer.

To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to write this post, emotionally I mean. I really liked Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. It inspired me. I agreed with it. I celebrated it. (Thankfully, not on this website, unlike Michael C...)

But it isn’t true.

As 60 Minutes and the essay “Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakaeur showed, a lot of the facts in Mortenson’s memoir just aren’t true. Mortenson and his co-writer condensed time, heightened the narrative, and, probably, flat-out lied. Mortenson might not have even been captured by the Taliban.

You lied, Mortenson. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.

I feel like I should defend the book. I’m not going to. Even though I agree with the book’s thesis and political point of view, that doesn’t matter. Lies in a left-leaning memoir are just as bad a lies in a right-wing memoir.

If you write a book, stick to the truth. Don’t dress it up in fancy Sunday clothes when, in reality, the truth wore sweat pants. This book influenced soldiers, generals, politicians and the public; it didn’t need to lie. Tell the truth, don’t fudge any of the details, because it will tear the whole thing down.

In the end, Three Cups of Tea is more an historical document promoting both Mortenson’s charity and political cause than it is a piece of literature. (And I never would have ever made the case that this book is great literature.) But this only raises the factual standard that the book should have met. The abolitionists discovered this the hard way in the 19th century. Their first few attempts at slavery memoirs--pre-Frederick Douglass--were discovered to be factually inaccurate, and Southerners jumped on it, decrying the whole abolitionist movement.

From Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History:

“[Abolitionists] had worked on the ends-justify-the-means assumption that in a narrative that showed the true horrors of slavery, literal truth wasn’t important. Yet the alacrity with which their opponents seized on the falsehoods in the texts proved that in this literary battle, factual accuracy was very important indeed.”

People want the truth. While building schools in Central Asia may be awesome, “war is war”-iors won’t care. They’ll use one fake narrative to tear the whole philosophy down. If you want to write a memoir about your dog, double check your facts--or write a novel. But if you want to influence people, change their minds, triple check your facts. Then have someone else quadruple check them for you.

Or don’t write the book at all.

five comments

Eric C addresses an interesting point here: he never reviewed Three Cups of Tea as art because he never really considered it art. Much like Frey’s memoir, the power of the work came from the fact that it was billed as truth. When this veil of truth, or parts of the veil are removed, the whole structure comes tumbling down.

(I apologize for mixing metaphors.)


There will always be opponents to any point of view. Because of this, there will always be those who will attempt to counter a point of view with facts and studies of their own. Fabrication gains nothing but momentary support. It actually loses trust and breeds skepticism. My example is the link between (vaccination and autism.) There is none. But one fraudulent study spawned a legion of followers. Now, even if any tenuous relationship is demonstrated, the entire study will be considered suspected.


Good piece, VERY good.

While the textual issues have not held the center of my attention in the CAI / CBS News brouhaha, the specifics of your citation re: US abolitionist literature is a stunner ~~ and has brought me up short.

I’ve been urging folks for months to keep an open mind, and now I see why: because otherwise I wouldn’t have been open to this “lesson.”


Y’all have written that fiction is better than the memoir.


@ Susan – Thanks for the kind words. I have two main thoughts on Mortenson, our posts, and keeping an open mind.

1. I do have an open mind. If reports come out clearing Mortenson of lying or misleading, or fudging the truth in his memoir, I’m all ears. I’ll write about it here. I’ll try and get the word out. But at this point, I trust 60 Minutes, and every other news organization that reported this story.

2. Even if Mortenson is innocent, the world as a whole doesn’t think he is. And Michael’s post on Weds, and my post today, reflect that reality. Soldiers, politicians, conservatives don’t like charity, and this is their proof. It is unfair, but we have to recognize this.