I haven’t read activist Greg Mortenson’s memoirs, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, but in their spirit, let’s pretend I have. They tell the story of a man who, after inspirational encounters with various Pakistani villagers (and an eight-day kidnapping misadventure by the Taliban), comes to build schools for the poor in various troubled areas. That Mortenson has done a great deal of good with his schools has been verified by independent sources. The trouble starts, however, when we discover that many of his more memorable published claims have been proven to be false.
Mortenson hasn’t spoken extensively to the press since reporter Steve Kroft subjected him recently to a classic 60 Minutes takedown (complete with an on-camera ambush in the old Mike Wallace style). Instead, he has issued a defense of his works: one to his local Bozeman, Montana paper and the other to Alex Heard, in an interview with Outside magazine.
Of interest to us are these lines concerning his ghostwriter, David Oliver Relin:
He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything.That sounds proper, and a good working solution.
David insisted on writing the book in third person, which is really awkward. The publisher said, Greg, you’re too understated, so this needs to be in the third person. My wife, Tara, also told me that if I wrote a book, it would be a pamphlet.Again, fine. We all have to make our narrative choices. But Mortenson didn’t want to make these choices? Was he bullied?
Or had he made a Faustian bargain, instead? In the name of a compelling narrative that would sell, he would lie? He goes on to say:
What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003, it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and. … I don’t know, what that’s called?As an ex-fact-checker I’d say that’s called a lie. It doesn’t follow that you “recreate scenes” when you switch from first person to third.
Mortenson seems to claim that confusion and misguided trust of his ghostwriter led to where he is today: a bug wiggling under a pin thrust into him by Steve Kroft. Was he bullied? Is the ghostwriter at fault? I find it wrong to blame the ghostwriter. He’s a ghostwriter -- it’s not his name on the book. He’s not the one on TV making the claims. The subject is. The subject needs to retain control, in the name of the story (and it goes without saying, that story’s inherent truth). I find it an odd contention that one could bully Mortenson. In my experience with clients, I’ve not been able to bully anyone.
Few people know what a ghostwriter is. And because so few do (and because they have such a spectral name) it could be assumed they’re powerful beings who bully their clients -- is that Mortenson’s last-ditch hope? He also throws in the publishing company (and by implication, their corporate greed) for aspersion and blame. I don’t think this washes, especially since Mortenson has repeated the various “compressed” claims in other venues (for example, on Bloomberg TV).
Ghostwriters make sense of a story and deliver a narrative. They clarify matters. If they “compress” a story, yes, that’s wrong. But ultimately the subject has a story that’s all their own. They are responsible for it.
Armstrong is a freelance writer and ghostwriter based in New York