As cycling moves from one doping scandal to the next, the book world has recently encountered its own version of a doping scandal. Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools has been accused of fabricating major parts of his story, indeed, he has been accused of lying about the most inspirational parts of his story.
In broad strokes, Mortenson, a mountaineer, says that after failing in a bid to climb K2, he was separated from his climbing party, became lost and wandered into a village where the residents took him in and nursed him back to health. He vowed to start a foundation to build schools to educate the girls and proceeded to raise millions of dollars on their behalf. He went on to start the Central Asia Institute to do just that. Mortenson believed that by educating girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he would weaken the hold of the Taliban in those countries. Almost no one disagreed with him on that point.
The TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes ran an exposé on Mortenson that strongly suggests that he has lied about when he first visited the village, how many schools he has built, whether or not he was kidnapped by the Taliban, and just how much money his foundation raises actually goes to the schools.
The criticism against Mortenson isn’t a red state/blue state sort of issue. One of his fiercest detractors is the author Jon Krakauer, the respected author of Into Thin Air and a contributing editor to Outside Magazine. Krakauer was one of his early donors, giving him $75,000. Krakauer said he pulled his support when the accountant of Mortenson’s foundation resigned and told Krakauer that Mortenson was treating the charity as a personal ATM.
The book world should, in theory, be free of this sort of thing. To draw a comparison to cycling, whereas all bicycle racing is supposed to be clean—tall tales are not permitted on the race course—literature has a category for top fuel; it’s called fiction.
To rebut the charge that he didn’t visit the village of Korphe in 1993, but in 1994, Mortenson suggested that the Afghan villagers weren’t clear on our concept of time. Of other events some say are at best fantastic exaggerations, Mortenson threw his coauthor under the bus, saying he was told the way it was written made for a more compelling story.
Mortenson’s fabricated tales of being saved by destitute villagers, being kidnapped by the Taliban and more aren’t the first nonfiction scandal. You may remember the furor over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which featured some fanciful passages, passed off, of course, as nonfiction. Let’s not forget, either, Jason Blair, the New York Times reporter who invented sources for many of his stories.
There’s no way to answer why someone would prefer to write fiction and call it nonfiction, rather than just call fiction, uh, fiction, or do the research necessary to report proper nonfiction (i.e. journalism). But the outrage that people feel for Mortenson sheds some light on the enduring anger over doping.
Fiction and nonfiction have fundamentally different roles in our lives. A novel is meant to entertain us, and though the story may not be true in its details (think Lord of the Rings), it tells us something true about the nature of man. In so doing, we can learn large truths about the world, even if there is no such thing as magic.
Nonfiction is meant to tell us something objective about the world, something factual down to its very roots. Inspirational stories, of which Mortenson’s books purported be, are meant to be a road map for what is literally possible. They take the magic out of good deeds, removing them from the realm of miracles and into riches of the soul we may yet achieve.
Mortenson’s problem goes beyond billing fiction as inspriation true story. It seems that his willingness to play fast and loose isn’t limited to facts, but extends to the coffers of CAI. Little is known about how much money actually makes it to Afghanistan and Pakistan; the foundation he formed isn’t what we’d call transparent. Some of the schools he has built are unused, or worse, have become barns to store food or livestock. Meanwhile, Mortenson flies from engagement to engagement in private jets, which are to expensive what Abraham Lincoln is to the penny.
Of Mortenson’s transgressions, Salon’s Laura Miller wrote that they don’t matter. That his sins are forgivable, forgettable. Miller makes the case that the feel-good nature of Mortenson’s books trumps the need for strict truthfulness, that, in effect, the agenda is a bigger priority than the truth.
It is, in effect the same argument being made for why investigator Jeff Novitzky and company should lay off Lance Armstrong.
At what point do good works become so good that lies created to accomplish those good works become acceptable? I have to argue that there is no point. After all, what we’re arguing here is the scourge that Macchiavelli wrought, that the ends justify the means.
But even Salon’s Miller concedes that there may be some management issues with Mortenson’s foundation.
The question on my mind is if his publisher had vetted his initial claims more thoroughly, would he be having these problems now? Consider the assertion that he was kidnapped by the Taliban, a claim which was later proven false because one of the purported Taliban is in fact a respected researcher at a local university, a man who went out of his way to help guide Mortenson in his travels.
The parallel here to Armstrong is unmistakable.
Had Mortenson simply told the truth—whatever it was—would he have been as successful? It’s impossible to know, but it’s clear that Mortenson didn’t think whatever inspired him to want to build the schools was good enough, otherwise he wouldn’t have felt a need to embellish his tale.
The parallels between Armstrong and Mortenson don’t end there, though.
The question on everyone’s lips is whether the revelations will harm the CAI. No one disputes that his efforts have resulted in good deeds. Just how much good has been done is in significant dispute. That most of the foundation’s expenses seem to be associated with Mortenson’s expenses for promoting his books doesn’t sit well with some people, nor should it. Similarly, people wonder if Jeff Novitzky’s investigation into Lance Armstrong’s history will harm the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Fortunately, the LAF seems to be much better run than the CAI. (As a matter of fact, the LAF posted a piece about just how they spend their money on their blog today and the post is titled, “Where the Money Goes.”)
Still, if Lance Armstrong is indicted by a grand jury for criminal acts associated with doping and his seven Tour de France victories, it’s safe to say his foundation will suffer. Naturally, we want to ask, “Should those charities suffer even if the stories their founders used to build their reputations turn out to be something other than the plain truth?”
I think that question doesn’t really matter. Whatever consequences befall those charities when or if the truth comes out won’t be without cause.
The bigger question is: Should we tolerate reputations built on lies?
The answer is a resounding no. What Mortenson has done takes résumé stretching into new realms; he has pulled his own so taught it could be used as a trampoline. If we begin to accept large-scale fabrications as the same thing as white lies, what point will there be to honest acts? Why would anyone dream of racing clean? Why bother with actual journalism?
Armstrong and Mortenson have one significant difference. Mortenson remains one of a rare few writers accused of fabricating some of the most important parts of his story. However, even if Armstrong is guilty of every doping allegation he faces, other investigations have demonstrated everyone he shared the podium with in his seven-year rout of the Tour was also guilty of doping. His behavior was the rule, not the exception.
For those of us who care about others, how people forge a bond based on mutual trust and how those relationships add meaning to our lives, we know there are no shortcuts. The tragedy is how some believe they must invent themselves before we believe in them.