Memoirs and Lies

Perhaps Greg Mortenson should have taken author of On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s advice prior to writing his

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magnum opus, Three Cups of Tea: “think small.” The memoir/biography that Mortenson co-wrote with David Oliver Relin is now under fire for his alleged tall-tales and untruths from all sides including the development aid community, journalists, and most importantly, many donors and supporters of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), the organization founded by Mortenson to further his two-fold mission of education for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to raise awareness regarding this issue in North America.

In the aftermath of the media firestorm, after responses by the board of the Central Asia Institute as well as Greg Mortenson, and the publication of an 89-page byliner by John Krakauer, the following are a few pieces of information that have emerged:

  1. Mortenson may have exaggerated, fabricated, condensed, however you want to call it, the chain of events starting from his descent from K2 and his contact with the people of Korphe village.
  2. Mortenson may not have been abducted or kidnapped by the Taliban as he described.
  3. Mortenson may not have contributed to building as many schools as he purports.
  4. There are some serious issues with the financial management of the Central Asia Institute that CAI needs to address.

Mortenson has responded to the accusations, “I stand by the story of “Three Cups of Tea.”” Also adding, “The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.” But based on Krakauer’s scathing expose, it appears more than just a “compressed version of events.” While a memoir writer may at times “construct a scene that conflates time”* ultimately his job is to be as accurate and as honest as he can be. John Krakauer certainly makes it seem like Mortenson maliciously and purposefully formulated a false story for the sole purpose of selling more books for increased personal gain.

If it’s true that Three Cups of Tea is based on fabrications, aside from weakening readers’ trust in the accuracy of the memoir as a viable historical and biographical source of information, it also undoubtedly damages the reputation of the Central Asia Institute via its relationship with Greg Mortenson. As some articles have already synthesized, it also may have a larger scale negative impact on development work and charitable giving in North America, where Mortenson had a following that was intensely and emotionally charged by his story. Despite the strong allegations of deceit and fraud, I am having a hard time accepting that a person as seemingly selfless as Greg Mortenson would make such poor ethical choices based solely on greed.  So, why then? Nobody seems to be providing any viable reasons (I don’t consider pure greed to be a convincing enough reason). Was it to sell more books, to raise more money, to build more schools? It’s possible. Could it be that Mortenson believed in his purpose so strongly that he thought conflating the story for that ultimate goal made it justifiable? And if so, does that make it justifiable? Sure, good intentions alone are not enough, but don’t they count for anything?

It does give people excuses to not have trust in moving tales of altruism. It also gives critics and cynics another reason to vilify a Western philanthropist for claiming credit that he does not rightfully deserve.

What of all the good work he has done and the awareness that he has raised in North America for girls education in Pakistan? I personally know a handful of people in the U.S., who had no interest in Pakistan or philanthropy, but were moved to action by Three Cups of Tea. Hopefully, this will not be lost to us in the aftermath of this disheartening scandal.

In my career in philanthropy so far if I have learned anything it is that supporting local, grassroots organizations is most sustainable and empowering in the long term. The Central Asia Institute is not that and probably not the best or most effective philanthropic Western organization out there either. But as an American citizen and Pakistani I also know how hard it is to make people care about Pakistan.

*Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT, NAMW President

Answers from the Board of Directors of the Central Asia Institute to the questions posed by 60 Minutes.
Outside Online Interview with Greg Mortenson.
Read also Daniel Glick’s article, 60 Minutes expose on Three Cups of Tea is weak – and wrong.

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