The Fog of Memoir
The feud over the truthfulness of Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone.
"That's probably defamatory, apart from anything else," Wilson swiped back. "Does Crichton think the principal is going to take money? They have no reason to lie. They have goodwill towards Ishmael. They went through the records as a matter of hospitality. They were mystified and quite hurt that Ishmael said he didn't know them."
When I asked Crichton if the conflicting accounts by the Catholic priest who said he witnessed the only attack on Mattru Jong in 1995 gave her pause that maybe the book fudged at least some of the timeline, Crichton said no, that she believed Beah's narrative to be true. "I have watched [the Australian] publish a systematic distortion of facts. I have heard from too many people who were interviewed by them that their words were taken out of context," she said, citing an aid worker named Leslie Mboka, a former child soldier named Kabba Williams, and Beah's writing teacher Dan Chaon as examples. "I have called people in Sierra Leone, I have done research. I had done research before. Not one of their articles says that there were sporadic attacks before 1995. They started with the supposition that the conflict started then. … They have been cherry-picking their reporting to such a degree that I don't trust them."
David Nason, the Australian's New York correspondent, fumed when I told him that Crichton said that he had misquoted Chaon. Nason showed me an e-mail that he sent Chaon on Jan. 29, after Chaon had posted a letter and his version of a transcript on an Australian literary blog. "It seems to me that you guys are awfully naive in accepting your Murdoch produced 'news' as gospel," Chaon posted. "Hmmm. Do you think there might be an agenda in the decision to go after a third world author whose work is making people aware of human rights abuses in his country? Something to think about."
Nason e-mailed Chaon in response: "Dan, after 30 years in journalism I've been called a liar by all kinds of crooked politicians, corrupt police and shonky businessmen. It goes with the job," he wrote. "I've also been called a liar by people like you -- decent, ordinary folk who say things they later regret when they see the words in print and seek salvation by slagging off the reporter. This unfortunately goes with the job too. But I've never in 30 years had anyone actually make up a transcript like you have and then post it on the web. I know you're a creative writing professor but this really is taking things to extremes. Fortunately, I taped our conversation (something I am permitted to do under New York and Ohio law) so there is absolutely no doubt about the accuracy of my report, the inaccuracy of your comments post publication and the fraudulent (and potentially actionable) nature of your invented transcript."
Last month, FSG rebuffed one of the Australian's claims. Jeff Seroy, FSG's publicity director, e-mailed me a letter that Crichton sent to the Australian on Feb. 14 disputing Wilson's assertion that the map at the beginning of A Long Way Gone exaggerates the length of Beah's journey. For weeks, the Australian had claimed Beah himself had sketched out an inaccurate map used in the book's first edition and hyped the duration of his journey to support his narrative. Crichton's letter shows that FSG has fact-checked the locations Beah mentions in the book, and they check out. "I've been a journalist and a writer for a long time now," Crichton told me. "I've never seen anything like this."
The level of vitriol and escalation of rhetoric has surprised both sides. Clearly, as an objective journalistic exercise, the Australian reporters have made this personal. The obsessive nature of their coverage can work against their reporting, but behind their dogged pursuit of Beah, there are serious questions about Beah's retelling of his traumatic teenage experiences and the publishing industry's sole reliance on authors to verify their memoirs. In marshaling their defense, FSG has cited witnesses who met Beah after his arrival at the refugee camp, but no former child soldiers who served directly with Beah have come forward to back him. Several characters, including a caring nurse who helped Beah recuperate and find his voice as a storyteller, haven't been identified at all.
Ultimately, though, the truth of what actually transpired might be lost in Africa. Crichton herself told me she recognizes the challenge of re-reporting decade-old events from the fog of one of Africa's most brutal civil wars. "As people who reported from Africa know, it tends to be a difficult continent to cover," she says. "You can't just talk to one person and have your story. That's not reporting." For his part, Wilson says he is willing to go to court to prove he is right. "If I'm maliciously inflicting commercial damage on them, they should sue," he said. "They're not suing because they know I'm telling the truth. And they're hoping we'll just go away. So my response is, sue us, and we'll see you in court."
In August, FSG will release A Long Way Gone in paperback. I asked Crichton if the paperback edition will carry a disclaimer or some editorial acknowledgement that the book is based on true events. "There will absolutely not be a disclaimer," she said. "A disclaimer is used when you say I've changed names, he hasn't; moved locales, he hasn't. So, no, there will not be a disclaimer."
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for the New Republic.
Photograph of Ishmael Beah by Mario Tama/Getty Images.