At the Crossroads: Where Non-Fiction Meets Fraud


Mandy Moody
ACFE Social Media Specialist

After 10 years of watching my best friend lose more and more hours of his days to alcohol and drug abuse, visiting him at the various rehab centers he frequented and desensitizing myself to loading a dishwasher full of bent spoons and used needles, I found it unbelievable to hear in the summer of 2006 that he was successfully completing a recovery program.

Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was the angst of being in my early 20s, but for whatever reason, I wanted to understand why these last 10 years of his life had gone the way they had. I wanted to know why a guy who had everything made countless decisions to lose it all. And, most importantly, I wanted to understand recovery: the good, the bad and the ugly. That is when I bought, and savored, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

It wasn’t that he successfully conned Oprah, which I must say is in itself a ballsy move, that angered me. (Oprah can hold her own.) It wasn’t the lies or embellishment of a life as an addict and criminal that “kept me up at night.” It was the fact that the personal connection I made with Frey when I read his “memoir” turned out to be a connection between me and a character. Don’t get me wrong, Frey was a brilliantly developed character that I identified with and grew compassionate for, but he turned out to be a creative writer, not the autobiographer I so anxiously wanted to understand. 

Yesterday, USA TODAY announced that two Montana lawmakers hit Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson and his charity, the Central Asian Institute (CAI) with a class-action lawsuit claiming “fraud, deceit, breach of contract, RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) violations and unjust enrichment.”

The suit, most likely to be the first of many, comes just weeks after “60 Minutes” reported on an investigation into CAI-allocated funds being used for Mortenson’s personal use, as well as parts of his acclaimed non-fiction novel being speckled with fiction. Even Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, published an online article, Three Cups of Deceit, outlying Mortenson’s fabrications and lies in his best-selling book.

These two incidents got me thinking about the crossroads at which a non-fiction author must stand when deciding whether to stick to the facts or add a little, or in these cases a lot, of poetic liberties. When does non-fiction become fraud? Also, does the fraud triangle exist for authors?

P.S. For those wondering, my friend has been sober for five years and he is doing amazingly well. I am thankful for him every day.