Boy Soldier of Fortune
Ishmael Beah, the author of a powerful memoir about his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, may have made one major tactical mistake in writing his book. Explaining why he was able to remember his horrific experiences in such detail, Beah wrote that he has a photographic memory that allows him to "indelibly" recall the events in his life. So once critics, over the course of the last two months, began to raise questions about the validity of certain events described in his book, the 27-year-old author, who now lives in Brooklyn, had less room to maneuver than if he'd simply said he'd done his best to remember things as accurately as possible.
That book, A Long Way Gone (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), has not only sold 700,000 copies and captured a coveted endorsement from the Starbucks coffee chain; it has made Beah an international celebrity, and brought the whole ugly issue of child soldiers into the public consciousness. The book is scheduled to come out in paperback in August, and it is a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Beah writes about his village being attacked in 1993, about his parents being killed, and how he was forced to wander the country as a refugee until he was absorbed into an army unit, where he became a ruthless, drug-addled killing machine. The story ends with his rescue, his transfer into a UNICEF refugee camp, and his eventual emigration to the United States, where he attended a private high school in Manhattan. He then went off to Oberlin College, where the work he did in writing classes eventually became the manuscript for his book. Since its publication, he has become a kind of unofficial spokesman on the plight of child soldiers, working with UNICEF and Human Rights Watch, and giving lectures here and overseas.
Out of the depths of the suffering descibed in the book, Beah's story goes, he emerged a transformed and redeemed person, and one who was looking forward to a considerably brighter future than his former comrades in Sierra Leone.
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In January, however, the Sydney-based newspaper The Australian began a series of articles documenting discrepancies in the timeline of Beah's tale. The newspaper also called into question whether two of the central anecdotes had even happened at all.
In one instance, Beah describes in vivid detail a deadly brawl between two rival factions of child soldiers in a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in January of 1996. Six teens died, Beah recalls—but The Australian could find no one in Freetown who could remember the incident, and no official report of the fight. Reporters who covered the civil war told The Australian that it would have gotten enormous attention at the time.
In the other instance, Beah opens his book with an account of the attack on his village of Mattru Jong, which forced him to flee into the countryside as a refugee. He claims the attack took place in January of 1993. But The Australian reports that the battle he describes took place in January of 1995, not 1993. The paper found school officials who remember Beah attending the local school in 1993 and 1994, and said there were school records to confirm it.
This is significant, because Beah claims that he was wandering the countryside and then fighting in the army during this period.
The Australian also spoke with Kabba Williams, a former child soldier himself. Now a student and activist in Sierra Leone, Williams agreed that Beah was a soldier, but only in 1995. Williams added that he has difficulty recalling the details of his own ordeal.
But for all the work these Australian reporters have done on the scene in West Africa, only the barest details of their investigation have made the American papers. When The New York Times broke the news that another memoir, Love and Consequences—the tale of a white woman's experiences growing up in a black gang in Los Angeles—was a fabrication, the newspaper aggressively went after its author, Margaret Seltzer, and her publishers with multiple stories that only seemed to reflect how badly the Times had been duped in an earlier lifestyle feature on Seltzer.
The Times heavily promoted A Long Way Gone as well, running an extended excerpt from Beah's book in its Sunday magazine last year. But for some reason, the paper has printed only a couple of paragraphs about the questions concerning its veracity.
"The story is very hard to verify, because he rarely puts a date with a place with a name," said Peter Wilson, the Australian reporter who did the legwork in Sierra Leone that raised the central questions about the book. Wilson said that he sent a list of 20 questions on matters of basic fact to Beah's publisher, among them a request for the full name of at least one child soldier with whom Beah had served. Wilson has yet to receive a direct response to any those questions. "If he would answer some of these questions, it would clear everything up," Wilson said. "Why not just deal with them?"
These days, publishers are typically not expected to vet a manuscript in the same way that an article in, say, The New Yorker is fact-checked, one publishing executive said. The manuscript might be shown to people in the field or to lawyers to check for libel, but that's usually all that happens.
In some situations, the publisher might consider placing a disclaimer of some kind at the start of the book. "One thing that always strikes me about oral history is how ephemeral it can be—how two people on the same street corner at the same time will see an event totally differently," the executive added.
Janice Harayda, editor of the book website One Minute Book Reviews and a former book editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said she was astonished that Beah's publisher had declined to place a notice of some kind in A Long Way Gone. Harayda has pursued a campaign to expose what she claims are questionable scenes in the book.
"When authors re-create scenes from memory, responsible publishers put a disclaimer in the book: 'Because these events happened long ago, I have changed names,' or whatever," she said. "[Beah] admits to not one change. At the very least, it shows poor editorial judgment."
Because of the power of Beah's story, most observers are loath to question it, thanks to the attention it has so successfully brought to the plight of the child soldier.
Neil Boothby, a highly regarded expert on children and war at Columbia University, holds that view, but he also said it's possible that Beah may have exaggerated his account at the prompting of aid workers and others—recognizing that the worse the story, the more assistance he would receive.
Boothby is the director of a Forced Migration and Health program at Columbia University. He has worked with child refugees in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami, and in Rwanda, Croatia, Mozambique, and Cambodia. He was team leader of UNICEF's child-protection assessment unit in Darfur in 2005 and 2006. He has taken part in special initiatives for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and he did a long-term study on child soldiers in Mozambique.
Boothby said the most sensational accounts tend to get the most attention. Orphans fleeing the Khmer Rouge who had the most horrific stories, for example, tended to be resettled much more quickly than other refugees.
"I think what [Beah] has done is meet with UNICEF, journalists, and others, and he told stories, and people responded to certain stories enthusiastically," Boothby said. "That has encouraged him to come out with an account that has sensationalism, a bit of bravado, and some inaccuracies. To me, the key question is whether there's enough accuracy to make the story credible."
While Beah has issued statements and his publisher and agent have defended the book, the author has yet to sit down for an extended interview about the questions that have been raised.
"My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration," Boothby said. "I've seen it over and over. Whether by psychologists or journalists, they are encouraged to tell the sensational stories. It's not surprising that that could be the case here.
"The system is set up to reward sensational stories. We all need to look at why does something have to be so horrific before we open our eyes and ears and hearts?"
A red flag for Boothby is that Beah's account happens to include just about every possible trauma that can occur in the bleak life of a child soldier. It would be extraordinary for all of those horrible events to happen in the life of a single person.
"Without question, these things happen," he said. "But it's very unlikely that all of that bad stuff would happen to one kid. Any story [with that kind of] blank-slate horror has to be called into question."
Amani M'Bale, an official with the humanitarian organization CARE in Sierra Leone, told the Voice that the book does depict experiences common to child soldiers in Africa. But she added that she cannot speak to its credibility.
"There are thousands of young people who weren't as lucky as Ishmael," she said. "They remain here, their lives interrupted, simply without the means to secure a livelihood. Many are illiterate. It's important for us to do something to give these people hope."
For his part, Boothby said that he's pleased with the attention that the book has brought to this issue and has been hesitant to express his views for that reason.
"I've refrained from any sort of comment or criticism because I would hate to see something like this undermine the human-rights momentum," he said. "[Beah's] a very courageous, very eloquent spokesman."
Likewise, Wilson, the Australian reporter, believes that Beah "beefed up" his story to get to the United States and then got locked into it. "I believe he was a child soldier for about two months, and a refugee for about 10 months," Wilson said. "Just look at the pacing of the book: He takes 100 pages to describe the 10 months, 20 or 30 pages to describe the two years as a child soldier, and then reverts to the original pacing once he reaches the refugee camp."
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."
Wilson said that he also found a dozen people in the town who insist that the battle took place in 1995. "This wasn't a skirmish, this was a wholesale invasion—and the only time that happened in Mattru Jong was in 1995," he said. "For people from that town, it's like questioning a New Yorker on whether the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001."
On the questions surrounding the date of the rebel attack on the village, Beah told the Associated Press in late January: "I have tried to think deeply about this, and my memory gives me 1993 and nothing more. And that's what I stand by."
Beah and his publishers have also pointed to Mboka, the counselor at the Benin Home, as someone who can back up his account. But Mboka didn't meet Beah until 1996, some time after the battle in his village, and also after the alleged killings in the UNICEF-run refugee camp.
Mboka told Wilson on January 21 that the book accurately recounts Beah's time at the Benin Home. Mboka added: "He was a young child who had been through terrible things, so he could easily have got things mixed up."
Beah's statement also quotes Alusine Kamara, a former director of the Benin Home, who said: "I have no doubt that what he says is true." But Kamara's statement doesn't directly address The Austalian's specific questions either.
Meanwhile, the people around Beah—his publisher, Sarah Crichton; his publicist, Jeff Seroy; and his agent, Ira Silverberg—have leaped to his defense, aggressively attacking the critics and accusing them of being on a "vendetta" against Beah. But Wilson is an award-winning reporter who was once named Australian journalist of the year and has served in Iraq. His colleagues on the story, Shelley Gare and David Nason, are also well respected in the field: Gare has won awards for editing an Australian literary review, and Nason has earned the coveted role of New York correspondent. The three of them have over 20 years of journalistic experience each .
Wilson said that he approached Beah following a speech in London and confronted him with the account of Joseph Benya, one of the three school officials who recall Beah attending school in 1993 and '94. Beah denied knowing him, even though Wilson said he'd not only spoken to the three school officials (the former principal, now a national minister; the former boarding master, now the principal; and a third official who is now the chairman of the district council); he'd also gotten confirmation from one of their nephews, who was in school with Beah at the time.
"None have any incentive to lie, and none have read the book—and yet they've been dismissed," Wilson said.
Indeed, when the Voice called Ira Silverberg, Beah's agent, he didn't even wait for a question before launching into a lengthy soliloquy on journalistic ethics.
"This is a story about the media and responsibility," Silverberg said. "You all need to look at yourselves—and if you want me to say that to your editors, then I will."
Silverberg then went on to accuse The Australian of unethical behavior, contending that people from Sierra Leone do support Beah's account.
Beah's supporters are quick to point out that The Australian is owned by Rupert Murdoch, as if that might explain why the paper has some kind of interest in smearing Beah. But actually, the events that led the paper to the story were innocent enough: A western Australian mining engineer found himself being transferred to Sierra Leone, to the mine where Beah's father had worked. His wife, a bookseller, gave him a copy of A Long Way Gone to read on the plane. Naturally, he became curious about the tale and asked the workers at the mine if they had known Beah's father. To his surprise, he was told the man was still working there. The engineer tried to get word to Beah and, having no luck, turned to The Australian. By then, he had also noted that Beah seemed to have gotten his dates wrong.
In the end, it turned out that the man at the mine wasn't Beah's father, and The Australian didn't write a story. But when reporters at the paper found their efforts to reach the author blocked, they began to get suspicious.
Silverberg pointed out that a memoir, especially about childhood, can hardly be 100 percent accurate, given the vagaries of memory and perception: "If you had a fire when you were 13 years old, and you write a piece 20 years later about it, who's going to expect you to get every detail accurate?" He might want to ask his client that question.
Jeff Seroy, a spokesman for Beah at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, closely questioned why the Voice was interested in the story. He repeated many of the points made by Silverberg and wouldn't add anything for the record, insisting that all of the salient issues have already been addressed.
"We have already responded to the questions raised by critics, i.e. Peter Wilson of the Australian, and have no more to add to the discussion," Seroy wrote in an e-mail last week.
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.
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.
"Look at any map of Sierra Leone and you'll see the inaccuracy," he said. "The book version is five times larger than any other version I've seen." Beah's publishers at FSG insist that the map is accurate. But officials with HarperCollins told Wilson that they plan on correcting the map in future editions. London journalist Bryan Appleyard has written that the map is "the grossest error I have ever seen in a book from a major publishing house."
Another odd circumstance, Harayda noted, is that Beah's book and a novel about the civil war published in 2005 both contain soldiers who recite and perform Shakespeare.The novel, Moses, Citizen and Me, was published prior to Beah's book. The Voice contacted author Delia Jarrett Macaulay via her publisher but didn't receive a response.
"It seems to me that Beah's book has gotten much less scrutiny than it deserved," Harayda said. "People think if you question the book, you're questioning whether child soldiering is a tragedy. They are separate issues."
But St. John, the Portland professor, said Beah's story is so powerful that he's willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. "Hell is hell, no matter how long you were in it," he said.
For the reporters from The Australian, however, the course that the story has followed remains mystifying. "We have had no agenda, and we have wondered about the motivation of Beah's supporters," Nason said. "My view is they are clinging to Beah's futile protestations of truth and accuracy to protect themselves . . . . But nobody will let us near Beah to try and find out."
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