Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Undue Non-Diligence 1

GalleyCat and Publishers Lunch have been all over the story, broken in The Australian (first article here, follow-up here), about "major factual errors" in Ishmael Beah's memoir, A LONG WAY GONE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Seems that reporters Peter Wilson and Shelley Gare did some math and fact-checking, and discovered numerous discrepancies in Beah's account of his young life in war-torn Sierra Leone. For example:
The date of the key event in the book's narrative is curiously out by two years, according to Inquirer's lengthy investigations, turning the child soldier-recruit into a soldier who would have been in his mid-teens.

If the dates are wrong, this would also mean that it would have been impossible for Beah to have been in the army for two or so years, as he has written. Instead, he may have been in the army for just two or three months....

Beah writes on the second page of his story: "The first time that I was touched by war I was 12. It was in January 1993.''

But the event he goes on to describe did not occur until January 1995.
The reporters also wrote:
The Australian believed that those inaccuracies were a result of Beah's memory being impaired by the trauma, drugs and extreme youth he describes in his book...Beah suffered a terrible ordeal during his country's civil war. However a book sold to hundreds of thousands of readers as non-fiction should accurately recount that ordeal.
Beah came back hard with his own statement, trashing the reportage. Per the second newspaper article:
Efforts by The Australian to have the timeline discrepancies explained by Beah, [his editor, Sarah] Crichton, who has her own imprint at publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, or his New York agent Ira Silverberg have been met with evasiveness, unreturned calls and, at times, unrestrained hostility.

On Friday, Crichton said that Beah, now 27, "stands by his book", but she did not offer the same support on behalf of FSG.
I understand that memories, particularly of traumatic childhood events, may be inaccurate. But it's one thing to rattle off dates and events when recounting a story aloud; it's another thing entirely to write them down as hard truth without checking.

Here's a trivial case in point:
Yesterday I wrote an email to a friend, telling how scared I was as a child by "The Old Dark House," starring Tom Poston. I was dead positive that I'd seen it at age 5. But just to be sure, before I hit "Send," I looked up Poston's filmography on imdb.com. I scrolled down to find the year in which I turned 5. Nothing. I looked again. Ditto. What the hell? Then I searched by film title. Surprise! "The Old Dark House" came out on Halloween of 1963, a week before my 8th birthday.

So. Why didn't Beah's US or Australian publishers verify his dates and facts? Why isn't a memoir subjected to the same rigor as a biography or history? Do the words "a million little pieces" not ring any bells? Incidentally, Silverberg was also hoaxer JT LeRoy's agent.