Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Mortenson, memoir, victims, whiners, and the sometimes sickening truth

The undeserving casualties of the recent fracas over Greg Mortenson’s exaggerations in his bestselling memoirs are many: the people that donated money to his schools in Afghanistan and the schools themselves – guaranteed now to be shorter on funds than before – and the girls who attend them. Then there are readers, even the non-donators, and attendees of Mortenson’s speaking engagements who believed a story and now feel duped. But not least among them are memoirists everywhere who have taken yet another blow to their credibility.

Credibility that has long been suspect. The root of the accusations is familiar: how can any writer remember all the details? Memoirists, the naysayers point out, compress time and make-up dialogue and details. True enough. But most readers are cool with that. The truth is, often enough, the eye-rolling exasperation has less to do with how the story is told – how true exactly – than with what kind of story it is. Memoir is the genre of victimization, say the eye-rollers. The realm of whiners.

I should know. I taught memoir writing online for several years to hundreds of writers – new writers, experienced writers, rich writers and poor, good writers and bad, women and, occasionally, men – and among the shocks I had to face was exactly how widespread childhood trauma, especially family trauma, is. Not verbal abuse, but horrid physical and sexual abuse. I recoiled. I didn’t want to read it, not once and certainly not dozens of times a day, but I was awed and humbled by the guts it took for writers to relive the trauma, and it did not take me long to realize that these stories must be told. The sheer number of them makes them impossible to ignore. Victimization is not an attitude that’s gone viral. It’s a reality that’s been shoved under the carpet. Because we want it there. We want to change the subject.

Oddly enough, it’s rarely the (mostly female) victims of horrific crimes who exaggerate or lie in memoir – I’ve never heard of a documented case – but the (mostly male) perpetrators of minor ones. James Frey lied about his the extent of his drug dealing. Ditto Malcolm X according to a new biography. Greg Mortenson apparently not only exaggerated his commitment to the village schools, but also the extent of his trespass into enemy territory and his subsequent kidnapping. Let’s face it: bad guy dramas, packed with danger and daring, tend toward excess. Whether and how to punish or prevent such excess is, I suppose, a discussion worth having.

But let’s not change the subject.

Let’s not allow courageous writers who were once victims become victims (again) by letting “Did this really happen?” morph into “Are these stories really worth telling (again)?” They are. And the most important ones may not be packed with misdeeds-turned-bravado – the street thug turned civil rights hero, the climber turned philanthropist – but with pathos and cold hard, sometimes sickening, truth.