Boy Soldier of Fortune

A celebrated memoir threatens to blow into a million little pieces

Seroy also declined a Voice request to interview Sarah Crichton, the book's editor, on specific questions (nor did he wait to learn the questions before denying this request).Likewise, Seroy turned down several Voice requests to interview Beah himself, saying that it was "a possibility down the road, but not at the moment."

Meanwhile, Beah's availability has been tightly controlled. Although he gives lectures and makes public appearances, his schedule is closely held. Beah has given statements reaffirming his position, but he has yet to give a complete interview surrounding the questions raised about the book.

According to Harayda, the publishing company's approach to the questions has been unusual. "I've never seen such a wall of silence," she says.

Columbia University professor Neil Boothby has examined enough child-soldier tales to question Beah’s.
Stacy Kranitz
Columbia University professor Neil Boothby has examined enough child-soldier tales to question Beah’s.

For their part, Wilson, Nason, and Gare, the reporters at The Australian, have expressed frustration that the story hasn't been picked up more widely in the U.S., and they are also irked at claims by Beah's supporters that they have acted unethically.

"They seem to have no compunction about telling bald-faced lies about what sort of people we are," says Nason, The Australian's New York–based correspondent. "It makes you think they have plenty to hide."

Beah said in a Starbucks book chat that he wrote and edited the book over the course of three years, while he attended Oberlin College and after. He received substantial assistance from a writing professor at the Ohio school named Dan Chaon, who told USA Today that he figured either the story was true or Beah had a sick imagination.

Presumably, Beah also received assistance from Laura Simms, a self-described professional storyteller, writer, and activist, who helped him emigrate to the United States and later became his surrogate mother. (Simms has been variously identified as his foster mother or adoptive mother, but their legal status remains unclear.)

One thing that makes it difficult to fact-check Beah's book is that the events it describes all took place long ago and far away; many of the encounters the book describes are fleeting, and many of the people in it are now dead. Beah also makes extensive use of characters with no names or just one name—people who would be hard to track down. And it's unclear how the ordeal, and the forced drug use that he describes in the book, affected his memory. Of course, in such an account, those kinds of problems would be expected. But other problems in the book are less easy to dismiss—for example, the six kids supposedly killed in that UNICEF camp. Following such an incident, UNICEF, like any serious organization, would have done an exhaustive investigation. And yet neither UNICEF nor the Sierra Leone government could supply Wilson with any record of it.

At one point in the book, Harayda points out, Beah says that he was shot three times in the foot. He claims that he continued to fight afterward. He also says that the wounds didn't cause any long-term damage, and that one bullet was removed by a man with a pair of scissors. Harayda questions whether such wounds wouldn't cause lasting injury—at the least, a permanent limp.

The Voice spoke with Vincent DiMaio, a leading forensic expert based in Texas and the author of a well-regarded treatise on gunshot wounds. DiMaio thought it unlikely that Beah had been hit by three rounds. "Think about how hard it would be to put three bullets into a foot," he says. "If you were talking about a grenade going off, that's different—then you'd have the fragments."

DiMaio says it's plausible that Beah kept fighting after he was wounded. He also notes that it's common for wounded soldiers to believe that they've been been shot when, in fact, they were actually hit with shrapnel.

"The story sounds a little peculiar," DiMaio says, "but not medically impossible."

The Australian's reporters also dispute Beah's account of the battle in his village, which he claims took 24 hours. That's an extraordinarily long time for a battle between small units, fought with small arms at close quarters in a place without concrete fortifications. "In that war, the normal battle was, one side would attack a village from the bush, and the other would run out the other side," Wilson said. "Those battles were over quickly; there wasn't a 24-hour battle in the entire war."

For her part, Harayda contends that the heavy drug use Beah describes in the book would tend to raise questions about the clarity of his memory. (Beah says that he used marijuana, a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, and a white powder that may have been speed—but in one interview, Beah didn't correct Comedy Central host Jon Stewart when he described it as "crystal meth.") And she also questions whether he could have sat close enough to a group of rebels for hours and listened to their conversation, as he claims, without being discovered.

Then there's the map provided in the book, which, according to Wilson, distorts the distances of some of the key locations in Beah's account. The town of Yele, for example, is shown at a great distance from Mattru Jong, but in fact it's about 12 kilometers away, Wilson said.

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