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Ishmael Beah’s Memoir Facing Frey-like Scrutiny

As if the Cassie Edwards’ copying scandal hasn’t demoralized your faith in the publishing industry enough, Ishmael Beah’s bestselling memoir, A Long Way Gone, is the subject of two investigative pieces by The Australian. The first article was published on January 19, 2008, and tells the story about a couple who were keenly interested in Beah’s story.

They engaged in some research and thought that they might have uncovered Beah’s father. This discovery led to a revelation crucial to the timeline of Beah’s memoir.

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 date difference is important since it mean that Beah might have only spent a couple of months in the army and not the years the memoirs describe. The article is not an indictment of Beah’s story but rather the oversight that the publisher took in fact checking the book. Perhaps this would be a non story if not for the Frey hoax but the reporters of The Australian note that the date could be confirmed by a simple Google search.

When the publishers, FSG, were questioned, the reporters were met with hostility and the couple who had discovered the date discrepancy were accused of being “troublemakers.”

The second article further implicates the publishers suggesting that they had exploited Beah.

Professor Chaon suggested Beah’s publisher and agent were being protective of a young writer because “there are a lot of predators out there”. He discounted the idea that the publishing business itself might be the biggest predator.

There was some suggestion that the memoir needn’t be subject to the stringent standards of journalism (doesn’t this all sound familiar). In rebuttal, the reporter offered up the following:

Literary agent Fran Moore, of Curtis Brown, said there was a standard contract for authors that protected publishers. “The author has to take responsibility that the work is true and proper. If the publisher has any doubts, they’ll have it legally read.”

Melbourne University Publishing’s chief executive officer and publisher-in-chief Louise Adler disputed the idea that a memoir was permitted to be less reliable than an autobiography.

“There’s no difference. I expect the highest level of authentication and fact-checking in both. Doing a memoir doesn’t let you off the hook,” she said.

Edited to add: Ishmael Beah has come out with a public statement in his defense.

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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

12 Comments

  1. Marg
    Jan 23, 2008 @ 00:29:19

    That will be a shame if it is found to be Frey like. I was really moved when I read the book.

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  2. sula
    Jan 23, 2008 @ 07:15:36

    One would think that it would be rather hard to go back and investigate a case like this. During such a long and protracted civil war like the one he was involved in, I rather doubt that meticulous records were kept. And in my experiences of living in West Africa, exact dates and times are never important, but rather life is measured by major events and rites of passage.

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  3. DS
    Jan 24, 2008 @ 05:11:07

    I heard a report about this on NPR. Apparently an Australian mining engineer who was sent to manage the titanium mine where Beah’s father had worked, took a copy of the book with him. One of the workmen mentioned the date of the attack which was different from the book and the engineer asked around about it. The principle of the school Beah had attended stated that the facts about the attack were correct, the date was wrong.

    The publishers were approached privately but brushed the person approaching them off so he went to the newspapers.

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  4. aussie reader
    Jan 24, 2008 @ 10:19:17

    actually, the engineer was originally approached by someone claiming (falsely) to be Beah’s father. So his initial approach to the publisher was due to his hope that he might have good news, but he met with a very hostile response and couldn’t understand why. So he did not call in the media in the hope of exposing inaccuracies, but in the hope of reuniting Beah with surviving family.

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  5. DS
    Jan 24, 2008 @ 21:41:06

    Thanks for the correction. Can’t even trust NPR to get the story straight.

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  6. Benedict
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 09:21:13

    I am amazed that Beah is still travelling the world with this tale of his time as a child soldier. I am amazed that the UN has not terminated his sponsorship as a spokesman for child soldiers. His book has been so completely discredited that anyone buying it should know that it is a piece of ”historical fiction” not fact. It really gets to me that this guy is still being warmly embrased by groups he talks to. Suppose its just a matter of time before the fraud is exposed to all.

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  7. Silver
    Sep 04, 2008 @ 21:22:52

    People are discredited all the time. I don’t believe everything I hear. I’m not sure if you have read the book but it doesn’t seem possible that those events could be false. However, they could be. But as long as he WAS a boy soldier and he DID go through a lot of the things he wrote about, who CARES about the length of time it actually took? Honestly, he went through a lot and I bet that’s more than most people can take credit for. Read the book. It’s fantastic. I also recommend A Million Little Pieces. People tell stories all the time, you just have to trust them to be telling the truth.

    (in response to Benedict, above ^^^)

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  8. danny bloom
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 04:20:55

    Jane

    please email me here. I have news of a new unpublished but soon Holocaust memoir that many in the Jewish historian commuinty feel might be a hoax, or in the last, highly EMbellished…….the man is a Holocaust survivor, that is true, but the tale he has told to media in USa and soon in OZ, get ready, is right out of an OPRAH show or Hollywood movie, and mostly likely NOT TRUE….but i cannot prove this….although i have the smoking gun…the media in the USA won’t listen to me, can we break this story in OZ?

    danny

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  9. danny bloom
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 23:08:13

    Wow, so you did censor my last 3 comments? Why? Because i named some names and you are afraid of lawsuits? Never heard of free speech? But okay, i guess u need to protect your rear too. no problem. do email me though. i thought that since you were blogging on BEAH and other hoax books, u might wnt to know more

    I just got email fro agent Ira Silverberg too. he says he cannot help me but to go with what i’ve got, “I cannot help you but i think you have a lot to run with….”

    Planned Holocaust “memoir” said by some to be a hoax now

    This is pure conjecture, but interesting nonetheless…

    NEW YORK — When Oprah and the Assciated Press trumpeted the amazing
    love story of two Holocaust survivors who
    allegedly met on a blind date in 1958 in the USA and recalled that
    same night that they had been young “friends” in a Nazi camp in 1943,
    when she, living in nearby village and posing as a Christian girl
    (although she was Jewish) threw apples over a fence to feed the young
    teenager — his “angel at the fence” — little did the media outlets
    know that he was telling a great big fat fib. His
    autobiography, ghostwritten by an un-nnamed writer and coming in at
    300 pages from a major New York publisher and set for a February 2009
    national laydown, has now been said to be shown to be
    a hoax. Perhaps. Think James Frey and other Holocaust “memoirs” that later
    turned out to be fake.

    A respected Jewish historian has discovered that the entire backstory
    that he the media — and also a Newsday reporter in New York a few
    years ago — is
    a maybe iffy so so hoax.

    This man is greatly concerned about the autobiography
    soon to be published. He knew of the story for many
    years now, had been asked about it by other survivors, and he worries
    about its impact.

    “The story is a figment of his imagination. There is not a word
    of truth in what he is saying. I feel sick…. (by the appearance of
    the story),” “Even his late older brother , now dead, was embarassed and ashamed
    by his story. He didn’t know
    where the story came from.”

    .

    This man is especially concerned that a concoction like this puts a
    lie to and undermines serious Holocaust memoirs.

    “It is really sad,” who doubts the truth of
    his backstory, says, and notes he has proof to back it up. ” I
    read these stories (i.e., untruthful or
    embellished stories). They always upset me. If someone would
    investigate it, he would expose it easily. They (such authors) are
    not even aware of the inconsistencies.”

    the focus turned to
    his publisher and the news organizations that helped publicize what
    appeared to be a genuine and true Holocaust autobiography.

    The book’s publisher said on Tuesday that there was nothing else that
    he or the book’s editor, could have done to prevent the author
    from embellishing.

    “In hindsight we can second-guess all day things we could have looked
    for or found,” he said. “The fact is that the author went to
    extraordinary lengths: he provided people who vouched for him. There
    was a Jewish historian professor who vouched for his backstory, and a
    writer who had written about him that seemed to corroborate her
    story.” He added that the author had signed a contract in which he had
    legally promised to tell the truth. “The one thing we wish,” the
    editor said, “is that the author had told us the truth.”

    The publisher has recalled nearly 50,000 copies of the book and is
    offering refunds to book buyers.

    The editor said she also trusted the author because his memoir had come
    through “a respected literary agent” who had in turn been referred to
    the author by a writer whom the editor had worked with previously.

    Despite editing the book in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding
    James Frey, author of a best-selling memoir, “A Million Little
    Pieces,” who admitted making up or exaggerating details in his account
    of drug addiction and recovery, the editor of the new book said
    she did not independently check parts of the man’s story or perform
    any kind of background check. She said she relied on the author to tell
    the truth.
    “In the post-James Frey world, we all are more careful,” she said. “I
    had numerous conversations with him about the need
    to be honest and the need to stick to the facts.”

    “There was no reason to doubt him , ever,” the book’s agent said.
    Similarly, reporters from major wire services and top newspapers who
    interviewed him were also taken in by his
    backstory.

    “The way I look at it is that it’s just like when you get in a car and
    drive to the store -’ you assume that the other drivers on the road
    aren’t psychopaths on a suicide mission,” said one book critic.

    The editor now said she wished she had been more skeptical and done
    further fact-checking. “Of course I wish I could do it differently,”
    she said. “I think a lot of other people were fooled before me.”

    The book critic said: “I was to some degree trusting that the vetting
    process of a reputable book publisher was going to catch this level of
    duplicity.”

    In a publishing landscape that has been rocked by scandals like Mr.
    Frey’s fabrications and the hoax perpetrated by Laura Albert, the
    woman who posed as the novelist J T LeRoy, a supposed addict and son
    of a West Virginia prostitute, other publishers and agents said their
    business still operated on trust.

    “It is not an industry capable of checking every last detail,” said
    an agent who represented J T LeRoy (without knowing he
    was actually Ms. Albert) and Ishmael Beah, author of the best-selling
    memoir “A Long Way Gone,” who was recently accused by Australian
    journalists of distorting his service as a child soldier in Sierra
    Leone’s civil war during the 1990s, a charge that he and his
    publishers have repeatedly denied. “So to present yourself as
    something you are not betrays all the trust.”

    Nan A. Talese, who published Mr. Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,”
    said the combination of these recent episodes could start to change
    the business’s practices. “I think what editors are going to have to
    do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their
    authors, ‘If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to
    be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we’ll deal with it
    before we publish it,’ ” Ms. Talese said. But she added: “I don’t
    think there is any way you can fact-check every single book. It would
    be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.”

    Sarah Crichton, publisher of her own imprint at Farrar, Straus &
    Giroux and the editor of “A Long Way Gone,” said she did some
    background checking on Mr. Beah. “I come out of journalism and so I
    certainly wanted to make sure the historical record was accurate,”
    said Ms. Crichton, a former editor at Newsweek. “But I will confess
    that I did the checking that I did also in part just to protect us,
    because I knew that we were going to be publishing into a changed
    landscape.”

    ReplyReply

  10. Jane
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 23:14:18

    @danny bloom: I’m deleting your comments because they are duplicative and thus are spam like. I’m not interested in writing any expose of this story or any other story. Any further comments by you on this subject will result in deletion.

    ReplyReply

  11. Ellen Jardin
    Dec 26, 2008 @ 03:02:40

    http://www.tnr.com/booksarts/story.html?id=f458c2c8-0d4f-4dc7-8cba-15e465c2201a&p=1

    Jane. More info came in. Maybe that guy above was right? This appeared in USA magazine called New Republican in DC….

    The New Republic

    The Greatest Love Story Ever Sold

    by Gabriel Sherman

    Is the author of a new Oprah-touted love story the next James Frey?

    Post Date December 25, 2008

    ReplyReply

  12. Bill Purkayastha
    May 10, 2009 @ 02:07:20

    Let’s take things step by step, and see how they stack up.

    1. There is no doubt whatsoever that Ishmael Beah’s account of events is a whole two years out of time.
    2. As a result of this, he cannot have been a soldier for more than two months rather than the two years he claims.
    3. Two months isn’t even enough time for basic training; Beah cannot possibly have experienced the combat he reports.
    4. Beah’s chronology is not the only other falsehood in the book; the claimed year long odyssey of wandering from Mattru Jong to Yele he claims could have been completed in one day because the two towns are 6 kilometres apart, not 450 kilometres as Beah claims and as an admittedly (by the man responsible for making it) false map in the book shows.
    5. The fight Beah claims happened in the UNICEF refugee camp in Sierra Leone which killed six ex-child soldiers never took place.
    6. Beah’s school records prove he was in school in 1993 and 1994, when he says he was a child soldier.
    Even without the evident Hollywood character of the book, complete with redeeming white American angels, the entire account is provably false.

    Now: does it matter that it is false? Here’s why it does:
    First, dishonesty is dishonesty, and it becomes more so when one makes a career out of it, and a lot of money besides. The Beah Camp is all complicit in this; they are frauds now, if they weren't all along. When the evidence is presented them that Beah is lying, and they choose to ignore that evidence, they are frauds.

    Then, by presenting himself as a de facto spokesman for child soldiers worldwide (and far more than Kabba Williams, it is Beah who's a recognised figure), our Ishmael is in effect hijacking their tales, whether such tales are from Congo or Cambodia, Sri Lanka or Sudan. Once his own transparently false tale is exposed, everyone's tale becomes doubtful by taint of association. Unfair, but that's how these things go.

    Thirdly, by reinforcing the notions of Hollywoodised salvation of poor victimised blacks, Beah is hiding the truth of the situation, where thousands of child soldiers (and child sex slaves, whom Beah doesn't mention) can never re-integrate into society and live lives of drug abuse, poverty and crime. All this is a crime against people who have no voice, whose voices the Beah Camp has stolen.

    Fourth, Beah’s account trivialises the very real sufferings of genuine child soldiers. Since Beah crammed his fictional experiences with cliches of child soldiering (except, notably, sex slavery) and stole the experiences of a large number of other ex-child soldiers, he appears to have suffered much more than they did. If you believe what he said he suffered, you can’t have that much sympathy for someone who was “only” made to cook and clean and carry weapons for rebels or sent into human wave attacks, and you wonder why those people can’t re-integrate into society while Beah did such a wonderful job of it.

    It’s time Beah, and his apologists, were forced to confront and admit his sins.

    ReplyReply

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