According to the lawsuit,
"Mortenson and CAI committed actual fraud against Plaintiffs by inducing them to donate to CAI and purchase the book that Mortenson and CAI publicly represented to be a true work when in fact Mortenson’s books contained numerous fabrications."
Shocking, yes. But there's more:
“The purpose of these fabrications was to induce unsuspecting individuals to purchase his books and donate to CAI.”
Actual Fraud! Inducement of unsuspecting individuals! You'd think Mortenson had conned their grandma on the subway, not written a freaking book. INTERN isn't saying these readers aren't justified in feeling cheated—especially when you throw the whole charity thing into the mix, which changes everything. But what is it about truth—or the bending of it—that turns perfectly nice readers into a pack of hyenas? Why do we feel such personal affront—such outrage—when authors fail to meet our expectations of truthiness? What's the value of all this truth stuff anyway? And why are we, as a culture, so obsessed with it?
You might remember the James Frey settlement, in which the author of the memoir A Million Little Pieces and his publisher agreed to give angry readers their money back as long as they sent in a mangled piece of the book and some kind of maudlin victim impact statement in which they swore they would never have bought the book if they knew it wasn't 100% true. According to the New York Times:
“hardcover buyers, who are entitled to a $23.95 refund, must submit page 163 (chosen at random, according to the source familiar with the negotiations); paperback buyers (entitled to $14.95) must send in the front cover of the book; those who bought the audio book ($34.95) will have to send in a piece of the packaging, and those who bought the e-book, at $9.95 apiece, must send in some proof of purchase.
People making a claim will also have to submit a sworn statement that they would not have bought the book if they knew that certain facts had been embroidered or changed.”
It's that last sentence interests INTERN. When you buy a memoir, do you buy it because you believe it to be true—is truth just that titillating? Or do you buy it because it sounds like a good story about growing up in the '30s/being a call girl/surviving abuse? INTERN suspects it's some combination of both: the story sounds interesting, and the fact that it's "true" makes it all the more compelling—because we have a yearning to know the details of other people's lives, or because we find inspiration in stories that "actually happened" because they make us feel like anything's possible.
In real life, intimate relationships are characterized by a high level of honesty and truth-sharing. Couples and best friends tell each other secrets and make confessions they wouldn't make to anyone else. For better or for worse, many people experience the same feeling of intimacy when they read a memoir. Not a tempered, I've-never-even-met-this-person kind of intimacy—the same intimacy. Otherwise, why do so many readers react just as strongly to an untruthful memoir as they would to an untruthful friend or lover?
In Greg Mortenson's case, the whole intimacy thing is made even more complicated by the fact many readers of Three Cups of Tea also trusted him enough to donate to his charity, the Central Asia Institute. And yes, when you're asking people to donate to a charity, you owe it to them to use their money how you say you're going to use it. But when it comes to writing a memoir, how much truth you do you owe your readers? Is 95% OK? 90%? Or will only 100% do?
Personally, INTERN would rather read great books than 100% true ones. She also hates—hates, hates, hates—the way that litigation (or the threat thereof) stifles/poisons/kills all sorts of creative endeavors in this country, and would rather read a wonky memoir or two than live in a society that threatens its artists and writers with class action lawsuits if they don't conform to some arbitrary definition of truth. If we need to create a new genre to deal with this problem—sortamemoir, anyone?—INTERN is fine with that.
INTERN wants to know: How much truth do you expect from a memoir? How fake does a memoir have to be for you to feel cheated? Have you read Greg Mortenson's book? (INTERN hasn't). Do you feel cheated by it? Why do people love suing people so much in this country?