Just when we thought the whole “fake memoir” craze from last year had completely abated, along comes the New York Times’ Abby Ellin to upset the apple cart once more. The book up for scrutiny is Deborah Rodriguez‘s KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL, whose tales of hairdressing in the midst of Islamic restrictions and fundamentalism propelled both book and author to bestsellerdom. Problem is, “Crazy Deb,” as Rodriguez refers to herself in the book, has raised the ire of six women who were involved at the founding of the Kabul Beauty School. The women say the book is filled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. They argue that events did not unfold the way Rodriguez depicts them, and that she exaggerated her role in the formation of the school.
Though Random House notes on the copyright page that some personal, place and organization names have been changed, and some chronological details adjusted, Ellin explains, the women believe that the discrepancies are too vast to call the book a memoir. They even question whether the stories Rodriguez tells about Afghan women – disturbing, heartbreaking tales of abuse – are real. And they object to Rodriguez’s explanation of how she came to be in charge of the school, as she is today. They say that, instead of being its savior, as she represents, she plotted to move the school from the Women’s Ministry to the house she shares with her Afghan/Uzbek husband, Sher (called Sam in the book). And, they said, she did it for personal gain. “She couldn’t have a for-profit business at the ministry,” said Patricia O’Connor (pictured with Shaima Ali and Terri Graguel, left) one of the school’s founders.
So far, this isn’t quite in James Frey territory and everyone involved admits this isn’t a case of outright lying. But once again, we’re faced with the question of how much truth there must be in a memoir with no easy answers – especially as KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL follows a pattern set in many true-to-life books and psychological accounts that tell stories with names changed and stories melded. Indeed, Richard Pine, a literary agent and partner at InkWell Management, said Rodriguez wasn’t bound by journalistic standards. “Journalists know about fact-checking,” he said. “Beauticians know about hair dye and shampoo.”