The publishing world has been aflutter recently following a 60 Minutessegment that raised doubts about the truth of author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson's work and writing.
Mortenson, best known for the 2006 memoir Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee whose nonprofit, Central Asia Institute (CAI), has raised tens of millions toward educating children, especially girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to CBS report interviews, however, a number of stories in Mortenson's books—including one where he's kidnapped by the Taliban, one where all the yaks of a region are loaned to him for a school's construction, and one where a Pakistani village helps him back to health after he happens upon it, ill and lost—are fiction. What's more, Mortenson could be liable for up to $23 million in back taxes from "excess benefits" he received from CAI through 2009.
For now, the Montana (home to CAI) Attorney General has promised to investigate, the CAI has pledged transparency in the process, and Mortenson's reputable friends have been cautiously coming to his defense. It seems possible to assume that the teacup is half-full: that the unlikely school-builder isn't also a liar-writer, that his motives have been sound all along.
Yet oh, have we been here before.
One doesn't have to look far in the memoir/autobiography genre to find authors who have boosted their fame by making stuff up. In 2008, Margaret Seltzer confessed that her Love and Consequences, which told of an upbringing amid gang life in L.A., did not come out of her own experiences but from stories of other people she'd met. At least two books and one almost-book set during the Holocaust have within the last ten years been revealed as false. James Frey, author of the largely fabricated A Million Little Pieces, has so much scandal on his name that it's still big enough for one of the last Oprah shows.
The simplest math behind sham-autobiographies is this: Great books—the kind that people read and then recommend to their friends, the kind that can bring authors heaps of cash and celebrity—are built on sustained conflict and exceptional characters. And for most of us, A Year in the Life of Me is too dull to pitch to a publisher. The trials we face aren't flashy enough to drum up interest, the people we know aren't quirky enough to keep a story moving, and we ourselves aren't heroic enough to worthily be called protagonist.
So for many hopeful writers, the temptations loom: to fill book proposals with extraordinary, never-happened tales and with fearless, much-embellished people, to submit them as all true. Mostly these are a single temptation: to present one's self as the kind of Somebody who is an instrumental part of Something Important and Awesome. It's me, Me, ME. If ego weren't part of it, the fabricators would write novels instead.
Honesty is the topic at hand, though, so let's be honest with ourselves: Even the non-writers among us and even those of us who aren't blatantly self-motivated, are at least a bit smitten with the idea of having our 15 grandiose minutes. There is pride in us lurking everywhere.
Yet what we so easily forget is that the leading role in the realest real Story has already been cast and played. We are the lesser characters; the point of all this is God drawing humanity to himself through Christ. That self-giving sacrifice encompasses what is true: it informs all else, and everything outside it points to it. A spotlight blares on an author's fallenness when she builds a memoir out of fake details. Yes, but sin is every bit as obvious when an author tells his story in truth.
To write one's self honestly—to take a day, a month, a year, whatever, and record what actually happened—is not a pretty experience. It's especially harrowing for those of us who assume we are mostly good. When the veil comes off, when the real thoughts and events and conversations are put to paper, we find that we are not the delightful and winsome people we'd like to think we are. Sometimes we don't even come close. This is why one of the biggest challenges in writing memoir is presenting the self-character fairly: not skimping on ugly portions, and not giving extra emphasis to attractive ones. There are times when the allure of over- and under-stating can feel constant.
At a most basic level, each of us would like to believe that we are not so flawed as our actions would prove. We'd like to believe we are better, and we'd like to be seen as better. But the gospel of Christ can free us from the desire to masquerade. In him, there's no need for anything more—no exaggerated trimmings, no theatrical frills—because he is it, and with him we have enough and then some. His light falls on and around and through our sinful realities, and that illuminated darkness is a story worth telling every time. His presence puts meaning in our unseemly and bare details, and makes them spellbinding.
Lisa Velthouse is the author of two books, including her new (and true) memoir, Craving Grace: A Story of Faith, Failure, and My Search for Sweetness. She formerly served on staff at Mars Hill Bible Church (Grandville, MI), and she blogs at LisaVelthouse.com. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.