Mike Daisey is a liar.
John D’Agata is a liar.
Greg Mortenson is a liar.
James Frey is a liar.
I am a liar.
You are a liar.
When I discuss ethics with my students, we try to suss out whether or not there are any universal truths, things which we all agree are wrong. They name the usual suspects, murder, stealing, assault, cheating, lying, etc… I then go down the line and ask how many of them have violated one of these rules at some point in their lives. They laugh as I ask about murder, and even assault. Some will admit to a petty theft of a sister’s sweater or a candy bar from a convenience store. Lots will admit to having cheated in school at one point or another. (But never in my class, of course.)
I leave lying out of the discussion, and then turn to other matters briefly before coming back to our list, and ask, “have any of you committed one of these terribly foul acts today?” Again, they laugh. Here, maybe I’ll go to the board and tap the dry erase pen on the word “lying.”
“Who’s told a lie today?” I ask.
It’s fun to watch a room full of people think. It’s one of the chief pleasures of teaching. After a few more beats as their faces softly collapse in that way that signals a small epiphany, I’ll say, “I’ve told a lie today, probably several if I think about it, and you have too.”
I ask them what they’ve lied about that day, and it’s always trivial. A lie to mom and dad about what they did the night before, or to a friend about their availability for lunch. My own lies are the same, why I didn’t make it to the previous night’s hockey game, or if I noticed that we were almost out of milk before I poured the last of it on my cereal.
In our minds, we use the “white lie” defense, a “diplomatic or well-intentioned untruth.”
As many of you have probably already heard, radio program This American Life was compelled to retract a previous story by the monologist Mike Daisey. The story was based on Daisey’s one man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which Daisey billed as being based on his own mission to China and his interactions with and interviews of workers at the infamous Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. In his theatrical performance (which I haven’t seen), Daisey is said to tell the tales of mistreatment and abuse and inhuman working and living conditions the factory workers must endure for wages of $15 a day so that the West can be supplied with our electronic gadgets.
Daisey’s one-man show is apparently quite compelling. Theaters sell out show after show. Listening to even short clips demonstrates Daisey’s mastery at holding audience attention. The facts of poor labor conditions in China in general, and at Foxconn in specific, have long been known -- that’s what led Daisey to undertake his trip in the first place -- but not widely, not in a way that had caused any significant response.
Daisey’s monologue tells a tale of low-grade espionage, of using fake business cards and subterfuge to sneak past armed factory guards into tours for potential foreign investors, where Daisey and his intrepid interpreter and sidekick “Cathy,” would talk to 12- and 13-year-old girls who worked the assembly lines and slept ten to a room in 10 ft. by 10 ft. “concrete cells.”
Listening to the original broadcast on This American Life, you can hear that Daisey is a master storyteller, making fine use of specific language, striking images and numerous dramatic pauses. He has brought the plight of these workers to life, and in so doing made people care, made people pay attention. That’s hard to dispute.
What’s also clear is that part of what’s so compelling about his stories is the audience’s understanding that what they’re about to hear really happened.
Except that it didn’t.
For one thing, only the police and military in China can carry firearms, not factory guards.
According to the TAL follow-up story retracting the original, it is these small details, like the armed guards, or factory workers looking to unionize meeting in a Starbucks, that sparked Daisey’s undoing.
Rob Schmitz, a China-based correspondent for “Marketplace” (produced by American Public Media and frequently, though not exclusively, heard on NPR-member stations) was suspicious about Daisey’s claims the moment he heard the story. He’d been to many factories in China and had never seen armed guards. And why would factory workers making $15 to $20 per day meet in a Starbucks, which is “pricier in China than in the U.S.”? (Note: This post has been updated to clarify the nature of "Marketplace.")
Schmitz wanted to dig deeper, so he started in a logical place, trying to track down Daisey’s translator, “Cathy.” As Schmitz recounts in the episode:
“I could pretend finding her took amazing detective work.
But basically, I just typed ‘Cathy and translator and Shenzhen into Google.
I called the first number that came up.”
From there Daisey’s account unravels almost completely. Daisey is not telling the truth about the guns, or the age of the workers he talked to. He lies about having seen the living quarters first hand. He lies about how long he spent in China, about how many factories he visited, the number of people he talked to.
He lies about meeting a man who had been poisoned by exposure to n-Hexane, a solvent used in manufacturing that also acts as a neurotoxin. Daisey describes meeting a man whose hands “shake uncontrollably” because of his exposure to n-Hexane.
“Most of them … can’t even pick up a glass,” he says.
This man may exist. And if he does, he may be representative of thousands of people maimed and marred by working in factories that provide us with our electronic gee-gaws.
Daisey did not meet him.
Essayist John D’Agata also alters or invents facts in his writing, most notably in his story of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository and Las Vegas, About a Mountain.
D’Agata says, “I like playing with the idea of journalism and our expectation of journalism. So I like making something feel journalistic and then slowly reveal that that approach isn’t really going to give us as readers what we want from the text, that we need to try a different sort of essaying, and then the essays become a lot more associative and the perhaps become a bit more imaginative and start taking the problematic liberties.”
D’Agata’s lies are in the service of what he feels is a larger truth, the experience of art:
“I think it is art’s job to trick us. I think it is art’s job to lure us into terrain that is going to confuse us perhaps make us feel uncomfortable and perhaps open up to us possibilities in the world that we hadn’t earlier considered.”
Listening to This American Life host Ira Glass and reporter Rob Schmitz confront Mike Daisey is painful.
Daisey admits some of his lies, things like inflating the number of factories he visited, and that he’d never personally met anyone poisoned by n-Hexane.
Schmitz and Glass confront him about this directly:
Rob Schmitz: "So you lied about that. That wasn’t what you saw."
Mike Daisey: "I wouldn’t express it that way."
Rob Schmitz: "How would you express it?"
Mike Daisey: "I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of 11 my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about."
The central story in Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea recounts his failed attempt at ascending K2 and how he was separated from his climbing companions during his descent and wound up stumbling into the small village of Korphe, where they nursed him back to health with their tea, their warm blankets, their yak butter.
As thanks, Mortenson promised he would build them a school.
Through his position at the Central Asian Institute, and his own charity, Pennies for Peace, Mortenson generated tens of millions of dollars in donations, some of them quite literally pennies from American schoolchildren, designated to build schools in Pakistan.
The central story in Three Cups of Tea is not true, even by Mortenson’s contemporaneous account of his attempt on K2.
Perhaps the most painful part of Mike Daisey’s conversation with Ira Glass and Rob Schmitz is his refusal or inability to say that he “lied.”
It is clear that he lied to the fact checkers to cover his initial lies, going so far as to tell them that Cathy, the translator Rob Schmitz found with one phone call, is unavailable. He lies on the spot, even as he’s confronted with his lies, inventing justifications for continuing discrepancies between what he says happened, and what his constant companion Cathy recalls.
It seems possible that Daisey has told this story so many times that he’s no longer entirely sure what really happened and what he’s made up.
Daisey was “kind of sick about” the thought of being found out.
Why? “Because I know that so much of this story is the best work I’ve ever made,” he says.
There is a difference between John D’Agata and Mike Daisey. John D’Agata tells readers where he’s deviated from the known knowns. He even participated in a book, The Lifespan of a Fact, about the arguments he had with one of his fact checkers over his alterations. The conversation between John D’Agata and his fact checker, Jim Fingal over the course of seven years is an extended exploration of the nature of truth and what we can or can’t know.
Though even the conversation in the book had to be “re-created” well after the fact, something D’Agata and Fingal’s publisher, W.W. Norton, has been coy about.
James Frey is a liar. In A Million Little Pieces he says he spent 87 days in jail. The reality is that it was hours. This is the central lie, but not the only one. It’s not really worth counting them.
Why did he lie about this?
“I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was sort of this image of myself that was greater, probably, than -- not probably -- that was greater than what I actually was. In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was -- and it helped me cope. When I was writing the book ... instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image.”
Wife (shaking a nearly empty carton): "Did you notice that we’re almost out of milk?"
Me (eating sufficiently milk-moistened cereal, also lying): "No."
Why did I lie?
Because it was morning, and I didn’t want to get into a thing. Why get into a thing over something so small and insignificant as unspilled milk?
This is the opening of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces:
“I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit, and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.”
Let me get this straight. A commercial airline allowed a man missing four front teeth, with a broken nose, eyes swollen shut and clothes covered in excrement who also happens to be unconscious to board unaccompanied?
Did it take The Smoking Gun or Oprah to tell us that Frey might’ve created something post-truth?
Here is a transcript of what This American Life calls “one of the most emotional moments in Daisey’s show.” It is his retelling of showing an iPad to a former Foxconn factory worker whose hand was “mangled” in an accident, received no medical attention, and was subsequently fired for “working too slowly.”
“I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. …. He's never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, ‘he says it's a kind of magic’.”
When reached for comment by Rob Schmitz, Cathy, Mike Daisey’s native Chinese translator says, “This is not true. You know, it’s just like a movie scenery.”
Why can she see it, but we don’t?
Do you imagine that my wife doesn’t know I’m lying about the milk?
After the initial confrontation over the “discrepancies” in the originally aired piece on TAL. Mike Daisey had some more things to say on the subject. Ira Glass thought he was coming in to admit to more fabrications. Instead, Daisey said this:
“And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end -- to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes – has made- other people delve.”
This is a comment taken from Oprah’s own website that is entirely typical of the response to her public dressing down of James Frey:
“Oprah's attack on James Frey was unnecessary and honestly just mean. Sure, he should have labeled the book as "based off a true story" but really what it comes down to is his books make a point, they touch and inspire people and give people hope. I don't think he should be brutally attacked on National TV just because Oprah feels embarrassed? I could care less about her embarrassment, she should applaud James Frey for fighting an addiction and overcoming as many things as he did. Get off your high horse, Oprah.”
Thanks to the efforts of Greg Mortenson through Pennies for Peace and the Central Asia Institute, three schools were built in Kunar province in Pakistan.
Mortenson told Charlie Rose it was eleven.
So, clearly I’ve been thinking about these things.
I’m wondering if maybe we are all better off with these lies having been told.
After all, aren’t we better off knowing about the deplorable working conditions in Chinese manufacturing plants that make the things we acquire so voraciously? Shouldn’t this message be spread far and wide?
Is it not better to have three schools in a violent region of Pakistan, rather than none?
If James Frey’s embellished tale of overcoming addiction helps even one person achieve the same, isn’t that a good trade-off?
Hasn’t John D’Agata done us a favor exposing what we already know, but don’t acknowledge often enough, that all stories are constructions, that nothing is truly reliable, that art should retain the right to wrong foot us?
In each of these cases, we’re told, essentially, that the lies somehow make for a “better” story. James Frey needs to be in jail for nearly three months instead of three hours because an addict who only spends three hours in jail hasn’t actually hit rock bottom.
Greg Mortenson needs to embellish the number of schools he’s had a hand in building because twenty schools is a great thing, but 100 schools is some kind of miracle.
Mike Daisey and John D’Agata need to make us “care” and sticking to the facts isn’t going to cut through the clutter. These stories are important. What harm is there in giving them a little extra juice.
It’s better for my marriage if I’m just absent-minded or careless about the remaining amount of milk, rather than a selfish SOB who takes what he wants and doesn’t consider others.
The thing is, that these lies, these distortions, these fabrications, these untruths don’t make for a better story. They make for an easier one, a story with fewer thorns to swallow on the way down, a less complicated story.
That workers in factories that make Apple products are subject to conditions we simply wouldn’t tolerate in our own country is indisputable. We should be as outraged as Mike Daisey wants us to be, except that the $15 a day these people work for may also be far better than the alternative, which is to starve on nothing. Ten people to a ten foot square room may be a better shelter than none. But in that story, there’s no clear enemy, no target, no one to name the monologue after.
Greg Mortenson’s “miracle” makes us feel like we can accomplish anything, that the divides between cultures are bridgeable with time and knowledge and education. This is all true, except that the undertaking is a million times harder than the better story makes it out to be. The real story, the true story is not so reassuring. Victory is not guaranteed.
In A Million Little Pieces, James Frey, through force of will, manages to triumph over his addictions. It’s a great story that shows that you can overcome anything if you put your mind to it.
Except that you can’t because that’s a fairy tale.
I love my wife. I would take a bullet for her, but the truth is, if it’s between her and me for the last of the milk, I pick me.
Maybe I’m just suspicious of these “better” stories because to me, the best stories are the most complicated ones, the ones that refuse to resolve in easy ways. Those are the stories that are most true because resolution is something that always remains just beyond our grasp.
For example, the TAL story of the retraction of Mike Daisey’s is far more riveting that the original tale of Daisey’s trip to China, I promise.
It would be a comforting story, an easy story to think that what ails these men is some kind of pathology unique to them, runaway egos, rooted in childhood psychic damage maybe. But who hasn't told a lie to look a little bigger, a smidge more important, to see the impressed looks in someone else's eyes.
Let us also acknowledge the rationale that we tell these lies in service of some greater truth is also complete and utter bullshit. Mike Daisey and Greg Mortenson and John D’Agata and James Frey, and me will tell you that we tell the lie not to enrich ourselves, or for reasons of self-preservation, but because, in the words of Daisey, we “want to make people care.”
This is convenient, and maybe we even believe it, but that doesn’t make it true. It would even be handy to blame these lies on simple greed. Mortenson and Frey have profited to the tune of millions. It’s possible Daisey is approaching that.
But I think there’s a deeper truth here, a motivation that extends beyond the transparent B.S. that these lies are in the service of a higher calling.
What these lies invariably do to the stories is take the focus off the story itself, and place it on the storyteller.
Even before Daisey’s lies were exposed, his use of them served to make himself more central to the tale. The story is no longer about exploited workers, but about an intrepid and dogged Mike Daisey who cares so darn much he has to go and witness firsthand how his gadgets get made, and once there, connects so personally and profoundly with these workers, that only he can come back home and tell the story in a way that will change hearts and minds. Daisey isn’t in it for the money, but for the ego.
Similarly, Greg Mortenson’s tale makes it clear that in some way he was special, he was chosen by fate to execute this mission. I bet Mortenson treasures his sixteen honorary degrees over his millions.
For John D’Agata, his approach can’t help but remind us we need writers to tell our stories, lest we forget.
I’m tired of talking about James Frey, but you get the point.
Let us also not forget that none of us will ultimately be punished for our lies.
Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace continue to operate.
John D’Agata has drawn far more attention to himself and his book than would otherwise have been possible.
I got the milk for my cereal, and my wife didn’t threaten divorce.
The men and women of This American Life, the launching pad for the entire career of noted fact stickler David Sedaris, will get great credit for their defense of adhering strictly to the truth and fessing up to their mistake.
Theaters are lining up in support of Mike Daisey. He will undoubtedly work the controversy into the monologue in such a way that will highlight his “I did it to make you care” defense and in so doing engender even more sympathy for what he will say is his cause. It may be the new top applause line in the whole show.
But let’s remember Mike Daisey’s cause is Mike Daisey, not the exploited workforce of China.
I’m still done talking about James Frey, but look him up, you won’t be surprised that he’s been doing just fine.