The feud over Ishmael Beah's child-soldier memoir, A Long Way Gone.

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March 6 2008 2:20 PM

The Fog of Memoir

The feud over the truthfulness of Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone.

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Three days later, Jacoby called her friend Shelley Gare, a 55-year-old freelance journalist and former newspaper and magazine editor. Jacoby told Gare there might be a story behind A Long Way Gone. According to Gare, Lloyd was reluctant to talk to the press and had no intention of taking his claims to the media. But he was troubled by FSG and Simms' response. Wouldn't a man bearing good news that Beah's father was potentially alive be embraced? In the publisher's cagey responses, Lloyd began to sense there might be a reason they didn't want to know that some facts could differ from the account in Beah's memoir. Lloyd, after some prodding by Gare, agreed to go public.

Gare spent several weeks looking into Lloyd's story that Beah's father was in fact alive, and she called Crichton and FSG's public relations director, Jeff Seroy, for comment on Dec. 11. "It was a very hostile exchange," Gare told me. First, Gare raised the possibility that Beah's father wasn't dead, and then she told Crichton about the discrepancy with the book's chronology and that Beah might have become a child soldier in 1995, not 1993. "After that, there was an incredibly long silence," she said.

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Crichton denies this account and says that the Australians were biased from the beginning because they somehow felt slighted by FSG. "They felt dissed by us," Crichton told me. "It weirded us out. Right from the outset, Shelley Gare said 'You were rude to Bob Lloyd. Laura Simms was rude to him.' They felt we weren't taking them seriously as journalists."

Two days later, Crichton wrote Gare a lengthy e-mail both defending the book and detailing her qualifications as an editor and writer: She's a former Newsweek editor; she runs her own imprint at FSG and collaborated with Mariane Pearl, wife of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, on her memoir. To Gare, Crichton's message implied: Do you know who I am? On Dec. 15, Gare e-mailed Crichton back. "Thank you for your letter but I need to make some points for the record," she wrote. "One, I have never suggested that Ishmael's entire story is a hoax. Nor have the Lloyds. … Two, it was entirely appropriate for me to bring up the problem of the date on page six. … Please do not try and make it appear that I purposely tried to spring something on you."

Gare also disputed Crichton's assertions that the Australian and Bob Lloyd were trying to create a media spectacle of Ishmael's memoir. "The Lloyds came to you, via HarperCollins, with exactly that intention of private celebration in mind," she wrote Crichton. "They were met with a mix of such rudeness, silence and dismissiveness that they finally went to Andrew Denton's website simply seeking to get help. Andrew Denton's people - NB not the Lloyds - eventually got in touch with me after the Lloyds continued to have problems that seemed puzzling. … Ms Crichton, I understand your fierce passion for this book, but nobody at this end has ever tried to do anything except present some key points to Ishmael Beah and to the people who have been working with him. The Lloyds honestly believed and still do that they were going to help unite a father and son."

In January, the Australian's European correspondent, Peter Wilson, traveled from London to Sierra Leone to investigate Beah's story on the ground while Gare finished writing the piece back in Sydney. In Sierra Leone, Wilson discovered that the man claiming to be Ishmael's father was mistaken and was most likely a distant cousin, but questions about the book's timeline remained puzzling. Several locals, including the boarding master at Beah's school and the village chief, confirmed to Wilson that the attack on the village of Mattru Jong that Beah describes in the book occurred in January 1995, not 1993. The incident is a pivotal moment in Beah's narrative: After the rebels occupy Mattru Jong, Beah is forced to flee and begins his monthslong exile before being conscripted in the army for two years. "The only way any of us survived was by using a footpath through the swamp which was the one thing the rebels had not noticed," Sylvester Basopan Goba, the acting chief of Mattru Jong, told the Australian. "If they had done their reconnaissance properly none of us would have escaped. I can tell you it was terrible and I tell you that none of that happened in 1993.''

The Australian published its investigation on Jan. 19. Three days later, Beah released a statement stridently rebutting charges that he embellished his experience. "I was right about my family. I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. The Australian's reporters have been calling my college professors, asking if I 'embellished' my story. They published my adoptive mother's address, so she now receives ugly threats. They have used innuendo against me when there is no fact. Though apparently, they believe anything they are told–unless it comes from me or supports my account. Sad to say, my story is all true."

The next day, Gare, Wilson, and Nason issued a 1,000-word statement of their own, rebutting Beah's rebuttal and pointing out, among other things, that they published Simms' business Web site, not personal address. In subsequent weeks, the paper published 10 more critical articles further challenging facets of A Long Way Gone.

The reporters have assembled their case by interviewing subjects who claim that the memoir's most harrowing scenes didn't happen, or at least not in the gruesome fashion Beah describes. A Jan. 21 piece states: "A large number of people in Beah's home region, including a local chief, a Catholic priest, medical staff at his local hospital, his family's former neighbours, several local miners and Beah's former school principal have independently confirmed to The Australian that the attacks he describes on his home town and region happened in January 1995, not January 1993 as stated in his book." Dan Chaon, Beah's writing professor from Oberlin College, is paraphrased in a Jan. 21 piece agreeing that any inaccuracies in A Long Way Gone should be chalked up to "poetic license." The reporters also pointed out that Beah began working on his memoir with Chaon as fiction, suggesting that embellishments remained after Beah recast the project as nonfiction. A follow-up article on Jan. 25 alleges exaggerations in the map at the beginning of the book. A piece on Jan. 26 quotes both UNICEF relief workers and Western journalists who were stationed in Sierra Leone during the civil war stating that they could not recall the deadly fight in which six people died at the refugee camp which Beah portrays in his book. On Feb. 2, Wilson reported that Beah's former schoolteachers had even located academic documents that prove Beah was in school in March 1993, months after he claims to have fled the rebel attack on Mattru Jong.

Despite the allegations, Crichton told me last week that she remains committed to Beah and the truth of his timeline. "The conflict started in 1991. There were successive waves of violence," she says. "That's what Ishmael is writing about." Crichton dismissed the Australian's recent reports that Beah was in school in the spring of 1993. "First, the AP sent a reporter to the school and reported the records were destroyed. Then, the Australian suddenly said, 'a cache of records proves that Ishmael was there.' First of all, that's pretty amazing that there are all these records. Second of all, who are these men? Thirdly, why did they stay up all night long [looking for the documents]?" she said. Crichton hypothesized, "Obviously, these guys are being paid, they're not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. And even if they do come up with something, it's the easiest thing in the world to falsify something like that."