Memoir, or what some call "creative non-fiction," is a literary genre ripe for fraudulent claims, as we've seen recently with the potential debunking of parts of Greg Mortenson's best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea. That book chronicles Mortenson's quest to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mortenson, who recently had surgery, has not yet given a full response to a recent '60 Minutes' and Jon Krakauer investigation of his book. The '60 Minutes' piece alleges that, among other things, Mortenson wasn't rescued by villagers after a failed ascent of the mountain K2 on the Pakistani border, which led to his desire to build them a school. The investigation also concludes that Mortenson wasn't ever taken captive by the Taliban, as he says he was.
Famously, Oprah Winfrey and others were taken in by James Frey's 2003 memoir, A Thousand Little Pieces, which describes Frey's descent into addiction. And both Winfrey and the New York Times recommended a book called Love and Consequences, by a woman who says she grew up half-Indian in foster homes and was involved in street gangs. In reality, her biological parents raised her and she went to private school.
In that instance, it should have been quite easy for a publisher to fact-check the story, because members of the author's family were still alive, and indeed it was her sister who tipped off the Times that the book was a fraud.
In general, though, memoirs are difficult to prove in their entirety, because many elements were witnessed only by the author, by people who are no longer alive, or by people who can't be found.
But sometimes you get a "feeling" when you read a memoir that something is not adding up. I had such a sense when I read Rory Stewart's account of crossing Afghanistan in the winter, The Places in Between. I couldn't put the book down, but it seemed absolutely unbelievable to me that he had survived his journey so easily. Only time will tell if the book is accurate.
I also had an odd feeling when I read Ishmael Beah's book, A Long Way Gone. I was scheduled to interview Beah, who was speaking at the Sun Valley Writers' conference. His compelling story of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone felt strangely incomplete to me, because he spent very little time in the book actually describing being a soldier, which he says he was forced to do for two years.
Most of the memoir is about him being on the run from rebels who destroyed his village, and then being 'rehabilitated.'
After doing a web search, I discovered that an Australian newspaper had done an investigation into his story, and that after talking to people still in Sierra Leone, its reporters felt strongly that Beah had been a child soldier for only a few months. I asked him about it in our interview: http://video.idahoptv.org/video/1678295342/
He discounted the allegations, saying that they were racist. He said hadn't spent much time describing the horrors of being a soldier because he didn't want to "glorify the violence."
"I didn't put myself into the war so I could write about it," he said. "War happened to me and then I wrote about it. I wasn't walking around with a book in my hand, writing down facts and taking down pictures and documenting it, so that I could present it."
"All I have is my memories of what happened." Beah said.
So now we come to my interview airing this week with journalist Jere Van Dyk. In 2010, Van Dyk published an account of being taken hostage by the Taliban for 45 days in 2008 called Captive. He came to Boise in November, 2010, to speak to the Boise Committee on Foreign Relations, and that group's leader asked if I wanted to interview him. It seemed like a compelling story, and I'm very interested in that part of the world, so I said yes. Our interview occurred on November 17, 2010.
Even before our conversation, Van Dyk became teary-eyed when he was in our production control room and saw some of the photos that his publisher had sent us to be used. Then, during the interview, he choked up describing having guns put to his head while he was recorded on videotape by his captors. It certainly felt as if he was still close to the experience, perhaps even somewhat emotionally damaged by it, which would be only natural.
I waited to air the program until now because I felt strongly that it would be better with photographs. So for four months, I corresponded with Van Dyk to obtain photos of himself in the 1970s and 1980s in Afghanistan. I think the photos do add to the program.
However, there are no photos of him in captivity. The only photo I was offered by his publisher from that time is a picture of him upon his release, supposedly taken by the FBI.
I say "supposedly" because recently it came to my attention that there is a community radio host in Portland who believes Van Dyk is lying about his captivity, and that his book is a fraud to push the Pentagon agenda of being in Afghanistan.
The host, Linda Olson-Osterlund, interviewed Van Dyk in July, 2010, on KBOO-FM. She reveals her biases right up front, saying that because Van Dyk once worked for an Afghan aid group started by the National Security Council that he can't be believed.
Her interview style, in my view, borders on rudeness and condescension, as she grills Van Dyk about various elements of his story. Some of her questions are silly, as when she asks him whether he can really be considered a journalist if he's not a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (many journalists are not, including me, but are members of their local press clubs.)
But Olson-Osterlund also asks some good questions about inconsistencies in his story, and whether the book was fact-checked, or just published by a friend. She also asks him why we never knew about his imprisonment while it was happening or when he was released. Despite his questioner's aggressive tone, Van Dyk is surprisingly passive, not arguing back with her.
On April 18, 2011, Van Dyk was asked by OPB radio host Emily Harris about Olson-Osterlund's allegations, because the KBOO host had written Harris to say that Van Dyk was a fraud.
To my surprise, fully eight months after the KBOO interview, with presumably a lot of time to think about a response, Van Dyk doesn't defend himself vigorously. He wanders in his answer for almost five minutes, so much so that Harris has to ask him again.
"What can I say?" he says. "Go to the Tal-, talk to the US government, talk to the FBI, talk to the CIA, although I don't suppose they'll talk. The DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), the Pentagon. Talk to all the people who were involved in releasing me."
But then he wanders again for minutes. Finally, in a faint voice, the former track runner for the University of Oregon says, "You don't cheat in running. I didn't lie."
When I read Van Dyk's book, I found copy-editing errors, and also what I thought were inconsistencies in his political viewpoints regarding the Taliban. I asked him about the latter issue. But in the back of my head, I also wondered about his story. For instance, why he was only held for 45 days? Why he wasn't harmed?
Do I wish now that I had asked him point-blank how we can know his story is true, or whether he faked it to get a good tale and fulfill his book contract? Yes.
Do I wish I had asked to see the videotapes of him being held at gunpoint? Yes.
Do I wish I had asked him why none of us had heard about his captivity and release? Yes.
And looking back, does it seem a bit odd to me that two years after his captivity he would be so emotional about it, when asked a simple question? A bit.
In sum, it's a good lesson for me to trust my instincts and, as I did in the Ishmael Beah interview, push harder to ask non-fiction authors more questions about the veracity of their memoirs.
Ultimately, do I think Van Dyk made up his story of captivity? I don't know. Only he knows.
I do know from photographs that he was in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s. I do know that he seems like a modest, sincere man in person. I do know that he is critical of certain facets of American operations in Afghanistan. I do know that he has been interviewed by national journalists like New Yorker staff writer George Packer and NPR's Neal Conan, who have not questioned his story, nor did Washington Post book reviewer Ann Scott Tyson, who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As soon as I heard about the allegations on Monday, April 24, I wrote Mr. Van Dyk for a formal response. He wrote me on Thursday, April 28, saying he had drafted a response and wanted to "clear it" with some people before sending it. I have not received it yet. Stay tuned.
Posted in | 1 comments