Writers Who Lie

(reprinted from my post over at Murderati)

Sadly, it’s happened again. Another memoir, another embarrassed publisher. Greg Mortenson, author of the mega-bestselling Three Cups of Tea, about his humanitarian efforts to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been accused of fabricating key elements in his book. He’s also accused of misusing the donations to his charity, the Central Asia Institute, but it’s the book that I want to focus on. Because the writer who dreams up a dodgy memoir is such an old tale, I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised that another one has popped up.

Mortenson in particular has been on my radar for a while because all my close friends have raved about him. “He’s a saint, you must read his book!” they insisted, shoving the book at me. By the time the tenth person said that, I was irritated about the whole thing and never did read the book. Then, while I was in Dubai, I saw that Mortenson was one of the featured authors on the program. I tried to get into the session — held in a huge auditorium — but the place was packed so tight you could scarcely breathe. My brief impression of him, before I fled the overheated room, was that he was an immensely polished speaker who knew exactly how to work an audience. He had legions of adoring fans. I remember saying to my husband: “He reminds me of a fake TV evangelist.”

Maybe it was just the cynic in me. Maybe I was a wee bit jealous of the piles and piles of books he was selling at the festival. But now, a few months later, it turns out I may not have been so far off the mark.

It’s not the first time I got a whiff of uneasiness about a memoir writer. Some years ago, while waiting to go on the air at BBC in London, I was introduced to a writer named Norma Khouri who was scheduled to go on the air right after me. “Norma grew up in Jordan,” her publicist told me. Norma was getting a huge amount of press for her memoir Forbidden Love, about the horrendous honor killing of her best friend in Jordan. Norma was gorgeous, poised, and well-spoken. She also struck me as completely American. “Wow,” I told her. “Your English sounds like you grew up in the US!”

“In my school in Jordan, the teacher who taught us English was from the US,” Norma explained without an instant’s hesitation. “That’s why I sound American.”

It sounded plausible. Sort of. But I couldn’t get over the fact she just seemed so American. I think I even said that to my publicist. “She’s just like a gal from Brooklyn,” I said.

Fast-forward a few months, to the breaking news about memoir writer, Norma Khouri. Who, it turns out, had not grown up in Jordan, but in Chicago. (If you get a chance, watch the superb documentary Forbidden Lie$, about Norma and her astonishing fabrications.) As I’d guessed earlier, she was American, and I had detected that fact within a few sentences of talking to her. Yet for several years she’d managed to fool publishers, critics, journalists, and a gullible reading public. Part of the reason the fraud went on so long is that Norma was passionate about defending herself and skillful at covering up her inconsistencies. For every question, she had a ready answer. I think back to how quickly she responded to my observation that she sounded American, and how willing I was to believe her.

It didn’t occur to me that anyone would lie about such a thing. Or that anyone would be brazen enough to fake a story that any journalist, with just a few phone calls, could easily blast to smithereens. Yet it happens again and again. James Frey. Margaret Selzer. Forrest Carter. Every few years, there’s another fake memoir. And every time the truth is finally revealed, readers are outraged, publishers duck their heads in embarrassment, and everyone asks, “How could this happen?”

It happens because we want to believe uplifting stories of people who rise above their traumatic pasts. It happens because publishers don’t have the resources to check the facts. It happens because the writers are talented enough to create a reality that seems like truth. These writers are such darn good liars that we can’t help but believe them.

And it happens because there’s loads of money involved, money handed over by gullible readers who think they’re buying a thrilling true story of a man’s saintly deeds or a young girl’s survival on the streets. Many of these readers would turn up their literary noses at a mere novel. No made-up stuff for them; they want to be inspired by the truth. They want to enrich their minds with history. They’re above reading something as trivial as fiction.

How ironic that they were reading fiction after all.

6 replies
  1. therese
    therese says:

    This is not a happy time for someone (like me) who is marketing a memoir… It’s a good thing I’m happier writing fiction. 🙂

  2. susancolebank
    susancolebank says:

    I would have been suspicious over her saying “I had an American teacher.” Overseas, the only people that are brought in to teach English are pretty much the English. They don’t like our accents.

    I had a teacher in Sweden who wouldn’t let me help other students with their English because she told me, “You don’t know how to say it properly.” Oy.

  3. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    How about Nobel peace prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu,allegedly a “victim” of death squad terror in Guatemala?
    She admitted her book was made up about things the “could have” happened to her.
    They didn’t rescind the prize nor demand the return of the money she was awarded for nothing.
    Of course with Al Gore receiving the prize instead of a Polish Catholic woman who saved about 2500 Jewish children from the Nazis at great risk to her life and Barack obama receiving it for????(someone please tell me)the “prize”is about as significant as what you’d get in a box of Crackerjack.

  4. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    Actually I know a person from China who sounds like they’re from Kansas-I’ve noticed people from Beijing have a tendency to use the “long a”like Midwesterners.
    If you met this individual you’d swear they were from the US.

  5. astransman
    astransman says:

    I have written two memoirs: “Don’t Let Your Dream Business Turn Into a Nightmare: A Cautionary Tale for Would-Be Entrpreneurs” and “So, Why Have You Never Been Married?: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Lunacy”, and in both cases, what readers have marveled at is the level of detailed description, especially in my latter memoir, which chronicles events that took place well over 30 years ago.

    As a memoir writer, I have the ability to conjure the memory of a scene in vivid detail and to remember what people wore, what they said, where and how they moved, etc. I don’t know how I am able to do this, and I know that most people can’t, but the metaphors which I have read that attempt to explain the process of drilling down into our memory, such as riffling through files in a filing cabinet get me no closer to an understanding of this particular mental activity. All I can say is that the process seems to me to be a very different one from that of imagining a fictional scene – the great writer and writing teacher John Gardner wrote about dreaming a vivid dream, and that is why I don’t write fiction – I don’t consider what I do to be an act of imagiantion at all – it is an act of remembering, and it is in the accuracy of the recollection that the satisfaction lies.

    I don’t consider fiction trivial in the least. It is just a different animal. The fiction writer creates, the memoirist recollects.

    The memoir writer hwo fictionalizes doesn’t even warrant inclusion in this discussion.

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