Nothing But the Truth

The blurred lines between fact and fiction

by Hannah Westerman


We love a story even more if we think it’s true­—not a greater truth or an emotional truth but a this-really-happened truth. The label of non-fiction is no longer limited to journalism or textbooks. Now we revel in best-selling memoirs and historical adventures: real people living real lives. This love of non-fiction extends even beyond the book world. Some of our most popular and critically acclaimed movies proudly champion their “realness.” Leonardo DiCaprio finally earned his long-awaited Oscar for his portrayal of frontiersman Hugh Glass in “The Revenant.” Millions of moviegoers watched as DiCaprio’s Glass survived a brutal bear attack and went on a treacherous journey to avenge the death of his son. DiCaprio was so committed to portraying the role accurately that he ate raw bison liver despite being a vegetarian. However, the movie plot itself doesn’t seem as dedicated to realism as DiCaprio. In the movie, Glass’ son is brutally murdered. In reality, the son never existed. Now, viewers probably assume based-on-true-story movies are heightened or exaggerated—that’s just the way Hollywood works. But where do we draw the line with these “true stories”?

To Hampton Sides, Colorado College’s Journalist-in-Residence, the phrase “based on a true story,” or the even worse “inspired by true events,” is really just “an announcement that we just made most of it up.” Sides, the author of five non-fiction books including “Ghost Soldiers,” “Blood and Thunder” and “In The Kingdom of Ice,” has personal experience with the strange choices made by Hollywood when presenting “true” stories. When a screenplay was developed from one of his historical non-fiction books, he was baffled when, in a first draft, they chose to kill a character that really survived and save a character that actually died. “It’s a shame because a lot of people are getting their historical knowledge from these movies,” said Sides.

This factual manipulation is not just limited to movies. While we might expect it from Hollywood (as Sides puts it, to sell tickets “Hollywood would turn a drama into a musical comedy”), the world of non-fiction books has always seemed more sacred. Yet, we still find writers pushing the boundary of fact and fiction. 

Philanthropist Greg Mortenson has been both famous and infamous for his writing. Sides once heard Mortenson speak about his bestselling memoir “Three Cups of Tea” and his efforts to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Sides was moved enough to donate money to the author’s cause. Sides was not the only one convinced by Mortenson’s story—donations flooded into Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute. 

In 2011, when I was reading “Three Cups of Tea” as a high school assignment, it was revealed that the memoir was filled with fabrications. His touching origin story about building his first school in order to thank Pakistani villagers who had cared for him after a mountaineering accident was a lie. His terrifying abduction by the Taliban never happened. Believing that what was written in the book was the truth, readers donated over $70 million to Mortenson’s charity.

On top of his ethical failings as a writer, Mortenson was also accused of misusing charitable funds and spending more money to promote his book and travel by private jets than on building schools. Mortenson claimed he didn’t pay much attention to the actual writing of the book. The physical writing was mainly done by his co-author David Oliver Relin, who committed suicide in 2012. 

“It was obviously a lie…I stand by the story, but there were compressions and omissions,” Mortenson told the Washington Post. He admits that when asked for statistics, such as the numbers of schools built, he would just guess. “It was misleading,” Mortenson said.

Supporters of Mortenson say that the holes in his story don’t matter because, ultimately, by having a successful book, he was able to raise more for charity. But readers expect truth and accuracy from a writer claiming non-fiction. One cannot be exempt from this simply because they believe what they are trying to do is more worthy than the truth. In an article for Newsweek following the “Three Cups of Tea” scandal, Sides wrote that the initial popularity of Mortensen reflected our need as a country for heroes. Mortenson’s purportedly true story of selflessness fulfilled something we all want more of in our own lives. The intense emotional reaction to the novel’s lies was a result of the betrayal readers’ felt as their hero was removed from his pedestal. Despite the public outrage, Mortenson was successful in defeating a class-action lawsuit claiming he defrauded readers. However, a fraud suit has been successful against another exposed-as-fictionalized memoir.

James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” and his publisher reached a legal settlement to refund readers who claimed to be defrauded by Frey’s book. Frey’s “memoir,” beloved and publicly lauded by Oprah Winfrey, details his life as a drug addict. In the book, Frey describes an incident where he hits a police officer with a car, is charged with assault, and sentenced to an 87-day jail term. An investigation revealed that the arrest was actually over traffic tickets and Frey spent only five hours in police custody before being released. The book was also accused of multiple other fabrications. Frey ultimately confessed that what the investigation had exposed about the lies in his story was correct. 

“Some people think memoirs should be held to a perfect journalistic standard,” Frey told The Guardian. “Some people don’t. Obviously I don’t. My goal was never to create or to write a perfect journalistic standard of my life. It was always to be literature. I thought in doing that it was OK to take certain licences.” The word memoir comes from the French mémorie, meaning memory or reminiscence. The human memory is obviously not infallible. Because of this, in the non-fiction field, “memoir is given more latitude” according to Sides. But Frey went beyond the fallacy of memory inherent in most memoirs. “[Frey] was making up whole swaths of his life,” said Sides. 

What motivates someone to sell fiction as fact? Money definitely seems to be a factor for both Mortenson and Frey. “I think with James Frey there was a definite financial factor. They said we could call this a novel and it won’t sell or we could call it a memoir and it sold extremely well,” said Sides. When Frey first tried to get his book published, he marketed it as fiction and was turned down by 17 publishers including his eventual publisher Doubleday. Frey alleges that Doubleday eventually agreed to publish it, but only as a memoir and he was told that if it was at least 85 percent was true then it was fine. 

“People asked me, ‘How much of it’s true, how much of it’s not true?’ Initially I said, ‘I want it to be published as a novel so I don’t have to get into all that. I don’t wanna have to go through picking it apart, talking about what was changed and why.’ Things were changed for all sorts of reasons: effect, for respect, other people’s anonymity, making the story function properly,” said Frey.

Frey casts part of the blame on the publisher who he claims knew that the text was manipulated but billed it as non-fiction anyway. Doubleday defended itself by distinguishing between a memoir and an autobiography and claiming that a memoir is just “an author’s remembrance of a certain period of his life.” This defense of memoir worked successfully in Mortenson’s case. But in Frey’s case, he actually admitted that certain events in his “memoir” were knowingly falsified, which may be why the fraud suit against him was successful.

Sides shared that, unlike journalistic outlets, publishers don’t have on-staff fact checkers for the non-fiction books they publish. For each of his books, Sides has hired his own fact checkers. 

“It should be [the publisher’s] responsibility, but it isn’t,” said Sides. He cited cost as the reason why the onus of fact-checking is left on the writers. If a writer’s intent is to misrepresent the veracity of their story, it’s often impossible for publishers to tell fact from fiction. Even well-regarded journalistic outlets can be deceived by a writer who purposefully misleads them. These writers can seriously damage the reputations of respectable media outlets. 

Many have heard about Stephen Glass and his fabricated stories as a writer for The New Republic exposed in the dramatized movie “Shattering Glass,” or The New York Times’ Jayson Blair revealed to be writing his supposedly “on-location” stories about Maryland and Texas without ever leaving New York. But print journalism isn’t alone in these scandals.

In 2012, Public Radio International’s(PRI) “This American Life” featured an excerpt from Mike Daisey’s one man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” At the time, it was the most popular podcast in “This American Life”’s history with 888,000 downloads. Daisey’s monologue was about his trip to China to visit the Apple factories and the atrocities he saw there. But in a follow up investigation, PRI tracked down Daisey’s Chinese interpreter (to whom Daisey had given a false name and lied about being unable to contact), and the interpreter refuted much of Daisey’s story. Some of the fictions were small, such as the number of factories Daisey visited. Others were far more significant, such as Daisey claiming to have met with workers poisoned by a harmful chemical while working on an iPhone assembly line. An incident like that did happen, but in a completely different city a thousand miles away from Daisey. 

PRI acknowledged that they should have killed the story when they were initially unable to contact the interpreter. Daisey later admitted to fabricating characters and details and apologized for allowing his show to be presented on a journalistic platform. “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey told PRI’s Ira Glass. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”  

In response, PRI produced an entire separate program debating and revealing the discrepancies in Daisey’s story. “In our original broadcast, we fact checked all the things that Daisey said about Apple’s operations in China,” said Glass, “and those parts of his story were true, except for the underage workers, who are rare. We reported that discrepancy in the original show. But with this week’s broadcast, we’re letting the audience know that too many of the details about the people he says he met are in dispute for us to stand by the story. I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves.”

In Sides’ opinion, the motivation to package fiction as non-fiction is not just financial. “It’s an instinctual desire to tell the best story,” said Sides. And in some cases that desire leads writers down paths of exaggeration and manipulation. But whatever the reasons, be it purposeful or accidental, non-fiction needs to be protected as a source of factual truth. And while in an ideal world this could be accomplished by relying on the ethical integrity of the writers, in reality, there needs to be a shield. That shield is rigorous fact-checking. No one and no story is above fact checking. Non-fiction doesn’t have to be devoid of creativity, but false information should not be covered by artistic license. The writers exposed in these scandals gained notoriety under false pretences. Getting to label writing as non-fiction is a privilege and it should not be used as a gimmick to sell a story. The public needs to be able to trust the term non-fiction. Those that break that trust have to deal with the legal and social backlash.