By Zachary D. Roberts
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Meanwhile, Primus St. John, a professor of English at Portland State Univerity in Oregon, said that he's willing to accept some measure of error in a powerfully told tale. "One thing that comes up with memoir is what's true versus what's authentic," said St. John, who recently participated in a panel discussion on Beah's book and found himself drawn into the controversy. "Getting everything perfectly accurate is not exactly the point in memoir. That's an interestingly naïve perception of the genre. After all, fiction tells truth as well."
The controversy, though, comes at a time when the entire memoir genre is under conspicuous assault. Several recent memoirs have collapsed under scrutiny or forced publishers to address problems of fact.
Seltzer's memoir about being a member of the Bloods in Los Angeles unraveled after her sister called the Times to point out that the author had grown up as the member of a wealthy family and had about as much contact with street gangs as Nancy Reagan. Prior to that call, however, Seltzer's book had been the subject of laudatory reviews in the Times, Oprah Winfrey's magazine, and elsewhere.
There was also James Frey, who made up sections of his drug-addiction tale, A Million Little Pieces, and JT Leroy, a child prostitute fashioned out of thin air by writer Laura Albert (Beah's agent, Ira Silverberg, also handled "Leroy"). The effect of these cases has been to undercut the credibility of the entire field.
According to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis, the newspaper fact-checked the Beah excerpt before it ran last year. The Times contacted Leslie Mboka, a former counselor at Benin Home, a rehabilitation center where Beah stayed, and Olara Otunnu, the former United Nations special representative for children in armed conflict, who knew Beah before he became prominent, she says.
"The fact-checking, as often happens, turned up a few discrepancies that were resolved without undermining the plausibility of the story," Mathis said. She added that the discrepancies had to do with dates: "The explanations for them did not undermine the basic plausibility of his account, and we simply cut those passages out of the article we ran. The fact-checking found credence for an attack on Beah's village in 1993 as well as in 1995, but the fact-checking did not include new reporting on the ground."
The Times has been mostly silent about the questions that have emerged over the last several months, however, and other major American papers have ignored them as well, except for articles by the Associated Press and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, ran two stories that were favorable to Beah's account; the author of those stories has personal ties with Beah's agent and editor. The online magazine Slate, meanwhile, did an extended piece two weeks ago so tightly focused on the intricate back-and-forth between The Australian and Beah's publishers that it was hard to tell what the point was.
Beah's book is a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the "current interest" category. The prizewinners will be named in April. Spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan said the awards panel has discussed the questions that have been raised about the book at length. "The panel believes the fundamental integrity of the book is not being challenged, but rather that certain details are being questioned—details that did not change their opinion and response to Ishmael Beah's story," she said. Sullivan also insisted that the criticisms are "not proven."
On page 51 of A Long Way Gone, Beah asserts that he has always been able to "permanently retain everything that I have learned." He goes on to claim that he could memorize his schoolwork perfectly. "To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly," he writes.
But according to the scientific literature, there is plenty of debate about whether photographic memory actually exists. Alan Searleman, a psychology professor writing in Scientific American in 2006 on tests that sought to prove the existence of the phenomenon, noted that "virtually no adults possess the ability."
"Besides often being sketchy on some details, it's not unusual for them to alter visual details and even to invent some that were never in the original [picture]," Searleman wrote. "This suggests that these images are . . . reconstructed from memory and can be influenced like other memories."
In the past couple of months, as the questions over his accuracy emerged, Beah has offered a broad defense of his story rather than addressing The Australian's reporting point by point.
In a January 22 written statement, he was unequivocal: "I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong . . . . Sad to say, my story is all true." And he stuck to his dates: "My story, as I remember it and wrote it, began in 1993 when rebels 'attacked the mining areas in my village.' " In other words, The Australian got it wrong when it found that the battle had actually happened two years later.
But the newspaper pointed out that Beah's account of the 1993 battle offers a number of specific incidents that other sources all say took place in 1995. In the battle, according to the book, the rebels captured a priest and sent him into the town to warn the locals. The Australian's Wilson was able to track down the only priest in the area during the period in question. He is now a senior official in the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone, and he told Wilson that such an incident happened just once—in 1995. "I know, because it was me," the priest, Moses Sao Kailie, said. "I was the only priest in the region from 1991 to November 1995."