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 ...1
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