NPR logo

'Tea' Debacle Reflects The Murky Waters Of Memoirs

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Tea' Debacle Reflects The Murky Waters Of Memoirs


'Tea' Debacle Reflects The Murky Waters Of Memoirs

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Greg Mortenson, the author and philanthropist, is pushing back against allegations made by the CBS program "60 Minutes." He admitted to making some mistakes in running his Montana-based charity and in his best-selling book, "Three Cups of Tea," but he vowed to defend himself. And now his charity faces an inquiry from Montana's attorney general.

NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered why these publishing problems keep happening.

NEDA ULABY: It almost feels now like an annual occurrence: the running of the fraudulent memoirist.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Mr. JAMES FREY (Author): I wrote it from memory. I...

(Soundbite of TV show)

Mr. J.T. LeROY (Author): I'm J.T. Leroy. My real name is Jeremiah.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. MARGARET SELTZER (Author, "Love and Consequences"): Gangs in L.A. recruit like the NFL. They go out. They look at kids - okay, that kid doesn't have parents.

ULABY: Those were in order James Frey defending his memoir on "Oprah." The supposed young male writer J.T. Leroy, on a French talk show - he turned out to be a middle-aged woman - and Margaret Seltzer on NPR's TELL ME MORE, promoting her completely made-up remembrance of running drugs for gangs in L.A.

(Soundbite of clicking clock)

ULABY: Now, thanks to "60 Minutes'" expose this Sunday it seems Greg Mortenson's joined the ranks.

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Unidentified Man #1; Greg Mortenson's book, "Three Cups of Tea," is a publishing phenomenon that has made him a celebrity, a cult-like figure on the lecture circuit and inspired people to give nearly $60 million to his charity.

ULABY: The story of Mortenson's mission to build schools for kids in remote Afghan and Pakistani villages sold over four million copies. It's required reading for American military there.

But on CBS, Mortenson's story was debunked by everyone from journalist Jon Krakauer...

Mr. JON KRAKAUER (Journalist): It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie.

ULABY: To the tribesmen who allegedly kidnapped him.

Unidentified Man #1: This is totally false, and he is lying. He was not kidnapped.

ULABY: The obvious question, posed by Oprah Winfrey to James Frey on her show...

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk Show Host): Why didn't you just write a novel?

ULABY: For the answer, let's turn to Ira Silverberg. He was JT Leroy's agent.

Mr. IRA SILVERBERG (Agent): The biggest problem publishers have is that the fiction category isn't as good as it used to be. And in the age of Oprah and celebrity, reality television and true tales, everyone wants a spokesperson for some horrible incident or some horrible tragedy. So a lot of writers feel forced into making a memoir of something that might more accurately be called fiction.

ULABY: Which horrifies acclaimed memoirists like Mary Karr, author of "The Liar's Club" and, most recently, "Lit."

Ms. MARY KARR (Author, "The Liar's Club"): It's just - it's really obscene. I mean, as somebody - you know, I spend years writing books, and I spend a lot of time with the people that are in them.

ULABY: Karr says she does no fact-checking at all. Instead, she relies on collective memory.

Ms. KARR: I write the books entirely from memory. I dont do research, and then when they're done, I just send them to the people who are in them.

ULABY: And not once has she ever been accused of anything worse that getting a date wrong. Still, inaccurate memoirs have enjoyed gloriously long history, says literary agent Scott Mendel.

Mr. SCOTT MENDEL (Literary Agent) And I think we know from memoirs going back all the way back from St. Augustine's confessions that, you know, writers embellish in order to make the point, in order to affect their readers as powerfully as possible.

ULABY: So why aren't publishing houses more careful, the way newspapers and magazines are?

Mr. MENDEL: There's actually a warranty clause where, you know, the author is obligated to assert that the facts are true and that there's no fraud being perpetrated on the public or on the publishing house.

ULABY: And the noble old world of publishing has not yet adapted to a digital age where fact-checking is sport, with results spread, smoking-gun-style, over the Internet.

Ms. KARR: I'm always suspect of a memoir in which someone becomes a hero.

ULABY: Mary Karr says the memoirs that tend to fall apart under scrutiny reflect their authors' outsize narcissism. And she says don't blame the publishers.

Ms. KARR It's not their job. If they had to have a fact-checking department like the New Yorker and fact-check at that level of detail, they couldnt afford to be in business.

ULABY: Book agent Ira Silverman agrees. But he thinks a distinction should be drawn between a literary memoir that looks at families or addictions and one like "Three Cups of Tea."

Mr. SILVERMAN: That book stands out as a very unique example of a news-making book.

ULABY: Dealing with live, active problems and people on the ground.

Mr. SILVERMAN: And should be treated with a little bit more vetting than something that is told, perhaps, in the past. I mean, this is a guy who's running a nonprofit.

ULABY: And whose three cups of tea now have him in metaphorical hot water.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.