A tempest in a teapot for humanitarian Greg Mortenson
When it comes right down to it I am nothing more than a fellow who took a
wrong turn in the mountains and never quite managed to find his way home.
-- Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
Is author and adventurer Greg Mortenson -- who wrote Three Cups of Tea --
an outrageous liar or just a good-hearted humanitarian who happens to have
really sloppy business practices?
It depends on who you ask.
In recent weeks Mortenson has been roasted as an imposter and a scoundrel
by journalist Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes.
Krakauer has published a 75-page e-book exposé called Three Cups of Deceit
($2.99 on Amazons Kindle), which goes into excruciating detail about
Mortenson and his claim to have built over 170 schools in some of the most
dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, helping to educate more than
Turns out there may be only half a cup of truth to Mortensons story.
Some background: Mortensons book, Three Cups of Tea, has roosted for five
years on the New York Times bestseller list, with his follow-up, Stones
into Schools, close behind. His Central Asia Institute (CAI) has raised
more than $50 million in donations to build schools overseas. President
Obama gave the charity $100,000 of his own Nobel Peace Prize money and
kids all over the world have sent thousands via Pennies for Peace.
Closer to home, Mortenson got a heros welcome in Traverse City in
January, 2009, when supporters raised $40,000 for his charity. One woman
even left a $1,000 check in the penny pot, according to a news account.
And his work perhaps served as an inspiration for the local On the Ground
project which recently raised funds for schools in Ethiopia.
But as 60 Minutes revealed, only 41% of the money raised by Mortensons
charity has gone into building schools in Central Asia. And in Krakauers
book, its claimed that Mortenson has misused millions of dollars donated
by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees.
Greg, says a former treasurer of the charity, regards CAI as his
On the other hand, Sally Stilwill, an educational consultant who organized
the event that brought Mortenson to TC, says shes met the author on
several occasions and has been to his home and CAI headquarters in
Bozeman, Montana. She says Mortenson and his family live in a modest home
and his charity is a small operation -- certainly not opulent. These are
hardly the hallmarks of a swindler.
I think the attacks may not be fair and would be very careful about
judging him before this is all resolved, Stilwill says.
She notes that Mortenson is in extremely high demand as a speaker and is
pulled in many different directions, traveling 140-150 days per year. All
of that travel and fundraising effort takes money to support building more
But, she notes, Mortenson is also a shy person who has a reputation for
being not that organized.
Its often said about Greg that Id trust my life to him in a second but
wouldnt ask him to set up the daily chore list, Stilwill says.
Of note, Mortenson also has staunch defenders in the media, including
Outside magazine, which has vetted his work, and New York Times columnist
Nicholas Kristof. While some of his schools havent taken root, that may
be for reasons beyond anyones control: for instance, a lack of teachers,
or parents who dont send their kids to school for fear of reprisals from
The man himself is someone I still believe in, Stilwill says. I think
hes a generous man whos given up a huge amount of his personal life to
this cause... I hope I wont be disappointed because I believe in his
Even Mortensons detractors agree that he has worked miracles establishing
a significant number of schools in Central Asia, even if there are holes
in his story.
But at the very least, Mortenson seems to be guilty of going along with
what might be generously called a tall tale.
In his e-book, Krakauer -- who donated $75,000 of his own funds to CAI --
rips Mortensons tale to shreds, backtracking in his footsteps and
interviewing close to 40 expedition members, porters, tribal chieftains
and other associates to debunk dozens of claims.
For starters, Mortensons claim that he wandered out of the Himalayan
mountains into a Pakistani village called Korphe after a failed attempt to
summit K2 in 1993 is a myth, Krakauer writes. Instead of staying in the
village for an extended time recuperating, inspiring village children and
fixing broken bones, Mortenson hopped into a jeep in another village and
went on a sightseeing tour of the region. He didnt visit Korphe until a
year later; nor did he place his hands on the shoulders of a village elder
and promise to build a school there, which is a dramatic moment in the
Nor was he kidnapped by the Taliban for eight days as he has claimed in
his book and hundreds of interviews. Instead, Krakauer tracked down a
friendly Pashtun scholar who showed Mortenson around his village in
Waziristan; the man was shocked to find himself depicted as a kidnapper
and jihadist and that no one ever drew guns on Mortenson or placed him in
any kind of danger. He was in fact a guest of honor.
The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought
work of fiction presented as fact, Krakauer writes. ... The image of
Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born
of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem.
Its possible of course, that Mortenson was simply naive or ill-informed
about whats ethical in writing a memoir. His background is as a trauma
nurse and mountain climber, not a journalist. Hes currently said to be
backpedaling and shifting the blame to co-author David Oliver Relin for
embroidering the truth. But that doesnt excuse the fact that he had five
years to set the record straight himself.
The Liars Club
Reading Three Cups of Deceit, one cant help but wonder if memoirs in
general tend to be written by people who like to fudge the truth.
After all, it was only a few years ago that the literary world was shaken
to its shelves with the news that James Freys true story, A Million
Little Pieces, was a bald work of fiction. Frey claimed to have woken up
on a plane, blind drunk and badly beaten, with no idea as to how he got
there. I lift my hand to feel my face, he wrote. My front four teeth
are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are
swollen nearly shut. Oh yeah, and his clothes were also drenched in a
colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.
Funny, but Freys literary agent, editor, publisher, Oprah Winfrey,
legions of book reviewers and millions of gullible readers never thought
to ask how a badly beaten, thoroughly stoned man managed to make it onto
an airplane instead of being handcuffed by security or rushed to a
We readers wanted to believe Freys transparent lies because they made for
a good story. We want to believe in the Gandhi-like Greg Mortenson because
it made us feel that saints still walk the earth. Thats how con men
succeed -- they make their victims want to believe in them. Desperately.
Some memoirists admit up front that they embroider the truth. Travel
writer Thomas Kohnstamm, who wrote Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, a very
funny book about his adventures in northeastern Brazil, said in his
introduction that some of the people in his book were composite characters
and some situations were drawn from here and there in his life. His book
was how he had made up some of his research as a writer of Lonely Planet
guidebooks, so readers were forewarned that he wasnt quite legit.
Similarly, Chelsea Handler has confessed that shes not really as loose as
she pretends to be in books such as My Horizontal Life: A Collection of
Then there are sins of omission: travel writer Paul Theroux -- who must
have the longest-suffering wife in the world -- is forever coyly alluding
to his sexual misadventures in both his fiction and nonfiction works
without ever fully spilling the beans.
The truest memoirs seem to be written by bad boy and bad girl types who
wish to expel their demons by telling their sordid stories, straight and
true: rockers Eric Clapton, David Lee Roth, Mackenzie Phillips, Slash and
Keith Richards all come to mind with their excellent autobiographies.
In any case, writing a memoir built on lies doesnt seem to hurt sales:
Freys book got a nice bump when it was revealed to be a million little
lies; and last week Three Cups of Tea got a similar boost thanks to all
the bad publicity, celebrating its 220th week on the NYT bestseller list.
What should be our guide in believing what a writer purports to be a true
story? Perhaps if it sounds too good to be true, then we can rest
assured its not.
(Downes own travel memoir, Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming
Around the World, was published last week as an illustrated e-book on