Three Cups of Tea with Charley in Search of Integrity

Years ago I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America and remember enjoying it greatly. Never did I imagine that it was fiction posing as travel essay. Recently, journalist Bill Steigerwald retraced Steinbeck’s travels. Though he did not set out to undermine Steinbeck’s credibility, he did not get far before he realized that the pieces of the story simply did not fit in the way that they were told. Steigerwald concludes, “Virtually nothing he wrote in ‘Charley’ about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted.”

Bummer. I like memoirs. I am a fan of thoughtful people reflecting on their lives lived. And I like to believe that when someone records a thrilling story that it is, in fact, true.

A few weeks ago my brother gave me a book that had become a favorite of his, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time, one which tells the tale of an adventurer whose travels bring him into a village in Pakistan. The kindness of the villagers leaves such an impression upon our hero, that he returns to America, founds a massive charity, and begins building schools all over that troubled region. CBS’s 60 Minutes then has to come along and play spoiler to the whole by exposing his inspirational tale as riddled with untruth.

“Upon close examination, some of the most touching and harrowing tales in Mortenson’s books appear to have been either greatly exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth.”

That’s pretty damning, if you ask me. Worse than Charley, Mortenson seems to be profiting from the charity that his books have championed.

Huck Finn told us that Mr. Mark Twain told the truth, mainly. But even Twain did not then ask that his book be shelved in the ‘non-fiction’ stacks.

Journalist Megan McCardle had some interesting reflections on the Mortenson revelation:

This sort of thing just mystifies me. I have nightmares where a false story has gotten into one of my stories by accident; I wake up with a sick start, and the relief when I realize that it was just a dream is sweet indeed. I cannot imagine the thought process that would lead you to do this on purpose. Leave aside the morality of it for the nonce–aren’t people afraid of getting caught? In this day and age, how can you hope to get away with passing off a photo of an Islamabad think-tanker as a terrorist who kidnapped you?…

Perhaps Mortenson’s exaggerations started by just playing with the edges of this uncertainty–sexing up his quotes and the characters he met. Then as nothing happened, he got bolder. Especially since he was probably rewarded for his creativity–lightly fictionalized characters are usually livelier and more compelling than actual people, who tend not to speak in well crafted dialogue, or make exactly the perfect point upon which to pivot our story.

Her analysis, while perhaps accurate for the way sin (and I do consider passing off untruth as truth morally aberrant) ordinarily enters into our experience, fails to take into consideration the impact of arrogance upon the human heart. At some point, some of us just believe we are too important to be bothered by ordinary restrictions.

I just wish those who come to that place would not expect me to read their books.

7 thoughts on “Three Cups of Tea with Charley in Search of Integrity

  1. anonymous

    That is a bummer! I read it some time ago, enjoyed it, and believed it to be true. Recently passed it on to a child who wants to read it. Call me Disappointed.

    1. Takes something away, doesn’t it, to find that you have been duped. I’m just afraid that soon, someone will expose The Lord of the Rings as fiction. That would be a grave disappointment.

  2. Adri

    In a similar vein is The Price of Stones by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, a Christian who with his American-born wife built schools in his native village (and surrounding villages) of Uganda. We also saw a remote video lecture from a Christian college with him telling their story. If I ever learn that parts are fiction, I’ll indeed be very sad.
    By the way: I think you need a reality check on Tolkien’s works. 🙂

  3. Eva

    I heard an interesting interview about this on NPR (although I forget who they were interviewing.) The point that was made is that in today’s market, fiction is hard to sell. People are buying nonfiction and memoirs more than fiction, so publishers are not seeking works of fiction. For this reason, authors of good stories are intentionally (or, sometimes at the prodding of the publisher) making a good work of fiction appear to be a memoir. I can understand this. I am, however, disturbed that Mortenson may have been making a huge profit off of his charity. I don’t know that he did, and I hope that any money that did come in was funneled to those in need. I read his book and enjoyed it.

  4. That is disappointing. . . the world is so broken. . . there is no need to exaggerate and fictionalize the brokenness. . . especially when it can be a call to reflect God in reaching out to help bring redemption and restoration.

    I bought the book to read the last time I went to visit my grandmother, forgetting that I never actually get to read on those visits, which are always good but tiring.

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