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Truth or Consequences

The accuracy of yet another bestselling memoir has been called into question.

According to Publishers Weekly, a newspaper from Down Under has questioned the accuracy of key dates in Ishmael Beah’s highly regarded bestseller, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The Australian reports that it has evidence that the date of the attack on Beah’s village in Sierra Leone that murdered his family and turned him into a remorseless killer, was two years earlier than he said in his book. This discrepancy means that he would have been a teenager instead of a child when he was conscripted, and that his “service” lasted a few months instead of the two years he claims.

This is reminiscent of the case of James Frey, who was forced to grovel before Oprah and beg for forgiveness for fudging some facts in his memoir of redemption, A Million Little Pieces. I don’t know how important these dates are to the integrity of Beah’s book, or even if there are discrepancies at all. The Australian is certainly making the most of the story, claiming, breathlessly, that the affair “tells us a lot about story-telling and modern publishing, about the Western world’s hunger for stories of terror and exploitation from the undeveloped world.”

Beah and his publisher, Sara Crichton Books (an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux), stand by the book’s accuracy. Farrar, Straus & Giroux circulated a rambling and not very well written press release from Beah stating his case. “I was right about my family”, he wrote. “ I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong.” To support his chronology of dates, Beah provides quotes from two of his countrymen. “Others from Sierra Leone,” he said, “can bear witness to the truth of my story.”

Beah’s supporters in the U.S are legion, and have circled the wagons. The most passionate and prominent include the likes of author Dan Chaon, who discovered Beah in his fiction class at Oberlin College, author and publisher Sara Crichton, Laura Simms, the Brooklyn-based storyteller and activist that adopted him, and Ira Silverberg, his agent. (Silverberg was also the agent for disgraced author JT Leroy, who was not who she claimed to be and was outed by the New York Times.) Beah has testified before Congress, and was designated the official UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War. He is glib, has a great smile, and looks wonderful in an Armani suit. He is, in other words, beyond reproach.

The reporters from The Australian may be brash, rude, and utterly unrelenting in pursuit of their story, but Beah and his supporters have enveloped themselves with an off-putting sense of haughty disbelief that anyone would question the veracity or motives of such a beatific child. Attitudes aside, however, we live in an age of all-knowing and unforgiving search engines, and live among self-styled Encyclopédistes that believe that truth is pure and must not be transgressed. Can there even be memoirs in a world watched over by caped crusaders who leave no stone unturned, no mystery unexamined? Would the great works of the past survive such an audit by Google or Wikipedia?

Whatever the truth of the matter, I’m afraid that Ishmael Beah’s reputation will take a hit. He may write other books, but I don’t think that he will continue to be the international poster-boy for child soldiers. For those of us who are less than high-minded about all of this, and do, in fact, “hunger for stories of terror and exploitation from the undeveloped world.” there is a new kid in town.

According to Associated Press, an infamous rebel commander known as “Gen. Butt Naked” (because he liked to lead his troops into battle wearing only his lace-up boots) is returning to Liberia of his own accord to face his accusers. Joshua Milton Blahyi, allegedly responsible for 20,000 deaths, also supposedly killed children and ate their hearts before battle. Not to be outdone, other fighters in the Liberian civil war floated into battle high on drugs and wearing “wigs, flowing gowns and carrying dainty purses stolen from civilians.”

Perhaps Mr. Blahyi could be persuaded to write his memoirs. If so, he better get his dates right, because if even a hint of dissembling is uncovered, the self-appointed guardians of literary truth will met out a fate more horrible than anything dreamed up by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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