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2011-11-07 Steve Gardiner Book Review: Three Cups of Deceit

Last May I wrote an essay called Can We Believe Three Cups of Tea? It's Greg Mortenson's account of coming down off the second highest mountain on earth, K2 in Pakistan, and being nursed back to health by local villagers. In return, he agreed to build them a school the next year.

It is a riveting story, a dream-come-true vision of humanitarian gestures. However, the truth of the story has come into question. In a 60 Minutes documentary, Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air about the 1996 tragedy on Mt. Everest, called Mortenson's book a lie. He has now published a short book called Three Cups of Deceit (Anchor Books, 2011) in which he examines Mortenson's claims and compares them with accounts of Pakistani citizens who met Mortenson, worked with him, and wanted to share their version of the story.


Three Cups of Tea has been a bestseller for years. Many schools have made it part of their curriculum. Millions of dollars have been donated to Mortenson's Central Asia Institute to help build more schools. As Krakauer wrote, the millions who bought the book “haven't merely read it; they've embraced it with a singular passion.”


Krakauer compares Three Cups of Tea to James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, another autobiography that, in the end, turned out to be fiction. Krakauer wrote, “The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson's books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. 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.”


One particular story Mortenson told was of being kidnapped by Taliban for eight days. Mansur Khan Mahsud, a Pakistani scholar, told Krakauer that Mortenson was never threatened or harmed. He said Mortenson “really enjoyed his stay there. And he was given very good treatment. If he tells, 'I have been kidnapped,' he is lying. He was an honored guest of the whole village.”


Fabricating a dramatic history is one problem for Mortenson. Handling his finances seems to be another. Famous mountain climbers like Tom Hornbein, whose miraculous ascent of the West Ridge of Mt. Everest in 1963 has spellbound adventure readers for decades, jumped on to help Mortenson by becoming a board member of the Central Asia Institute. Hornbein, according to Krakauer, warned Mortenson frequently about keeping better records of his finances but Mortenson did not listen, and in the end, Hornbein resigned from the board of directors.


Krakauer reported that Mortenson often used CAI funds to promote Three Cups of Tea and its sequel Stones into Schools, but did not place any of the funds created by book sales back into the institutes accounts. Krakauer wrote, “It may surprise many people who have donated money to CAI, as it surprised me, to learn that CAI receives none of the proceeds from any of Mortenson's books.”


I still want to believe in Greg Mortenson and his mission to educate the girls of Central Asia. It is a powerful story, but the evidence from Krakauer, 60 Minutes, and other sources seems to be stacking up against Three Cups of Tea. The book Three Cups of Deceit builds a powerful case against Mortenson and his claims. It appears this is a story too good to be true.

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