I’ve never been a huge fan of memoir. I can count the memoirs I’ve read on one hand. But I did read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and I loved it. So of course I was dismayed to hear the 60 minutes broadcast, which accused him of fabricating several parts of his story. An article has been written in the Deseret News.

There are some details that I’m not too worried about, it was more like poetic license to keep the flow of the story, but others were a little disturbing, like fabricating the number of schools he built, or a kidnapping by the Taliban, which really was one of the most intense parts of the book. I feel a little ripped off that it didn’t actually happen.

I have no desire to go on a tirade about Greg Mortenson. All in all I think he’s done a lot of really great things and his mission is still a noble one. I can think of worse things to harp on people about. Three Cups of Tea was, in many ways, educational. Also it moved me, even if some things were fake.

But now I’m skeptical of memoirs. All of them. This is not the first time I’ve heard of memoir fabrication. Who doesn’t remember the drama incited by Oprah’s Book Club pick author James Frey for fabricating many details of his memoir A Million Little Pieces? And I found this piece from Smithsonian.com, reviewing five memoir scams.

Not only does this make me skeptical of memoirs but I’m curious as to where memoir really falls in the genre-line. Is it non-fiction? Or is it more like those movies “based on a true story”? What is the obligation of a publisher for fact-checking, even when a “primary source” writes the book?

At the very least, I feel the writer and publisher have an obligation to be clear about what is fact and what is not. I don’t mind some made up stuff; just tell me there’s some made up stuff! Maybe publishers can have some kind of memoir disclaimer stating that the memoir contains the views and memories of the author and does not necessarily reflect historical fact.

What do you think? Is this a scam or just lazy research? How do you feel about memoirs in general?


4 comments

  1. I like reading memoirs, and one thing I’ve noticed is that authors will often include a note at the beginning of the book; the note will indicate that they changed some of the details. In one of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, she wrote something like, “I have embroidered a little.” But I suppose it’s different from writers like James Frey who don’t include disclaimers like that and pass off their work as being 100% true when it isn’t, so I can understand why you would feel upset.
    For me, though, I typically just read memoirs like I read novels; as long as it engages me and it’s something that I can relate to, then it doesn’t really bother me if it isn’t completely factual.

  2. Wow, wow, wow. I definitely expect memoirs to be factual, so to find out one isn’t would be … disappointing.

    I’ve wanted to read THREE CUPS OF TEA, but this makes me want to read it less. What did you think, Liesl? Would you still recommend it?

    • Liesl

    • April 21, 2011

    • 8:11 pm

    Krista, it’s a good question. I flipped back and forth over the answer for a while, but in the end I think I have to answer no, I would not recommend it. If it had been a more personal/emotional memoir, one with a more novel-like feel, I might, but since Mortenson’s story branches out into political and social issues, and some of his experience with those issues were fabricated, the entire book is undermined. I still admire his work, but not the book.

    The book was co-authored by a reputable journalist and I feel that he at least should have done more research, interviewed some of those key players in the story to fact check and piece together the story in a more factual way. I’ve never had much interest in memoir to begin with, but I think it’s dropped to the negative now.

  3. If I read a memoir, I want to know that EVERYTHING in there actually happened. maybe we need another genre – a sort-of-embilled-to-be-published memoir…

    I don’t mind if people remember childhood experiences a little off, but a kidnapping? That’s kind of a big deal and should NOT be in a memoir.
    But maybe that’s just me…

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