Tea and Lies

People read memoirs for a variety of reasons – curiosity, enlightenment, inspiration. However, the positive benefits of reading a memoir mostly rely upon the fact that the stories, events and characters are all true.  Not all memoirs are entirely non-fiction. Such is the case with Greg Mortenson, author of the highly acclaimed bestseller “Three Cups of Tea,” which details his travels through rural Afghanistan and Pakistan and the subsequent building of schools in the villages he visited. Many of his most heartwarming accounts have recently been uncovered as total fabrications or contortions of the actual events. The story first gained widespread attention when Jon Krakauer, another best-selling non-fiction author, alleged that large portions of Mortenson’s memoir are false. A months-long investigation by CBS News Program “Sixty Minutes” supported Krakauer’s claims. Principally, the “Sixty Minutes” report disproves two of the stories central to Mortenson’s memoir – first, that he stumbled into a rural village in Pakistan after a failed ascent of K2, where he promised the villagers who had helped him to return and build a school, and second, that he was kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban. This story in particular has been called out for being an invention of the writer’s deceptive creativity. Sadly, it is also where the book’s main themes of charity and amity – which reader’s found so enticing – stem from. By formulating such lies, he betrayed both the trust and the emotions of readers everywhere, making his actions inexcusable. Far worse is the fact that Mortenson has also been untruthful regarding the related charity organization he runs, the Central Asia Institute. The charity, which has collected over $60 million, claims to have built and supplied fifty-four schools and, in effect, to have educated approximately 60,000 students in the otherwise educationally deficient region. Further investigation, though, has found that only about half are aided by Mortenson’s organization, and the rest are either non-existent, empty, or not under his support, but someone else’s. The “Sixty Minutes” report found that more than half of the charity’s spending was done domestically, promoting the construction of schools, instead of abroad, actually building them. To lie about humanitarian aid is an atrocity, as well as an insult to philanthropists. It is as though Mortenson has taken the serious issue of education in the Middle East, and merely exploited it in order to gain recognition. Yes, it is true that the Central Asia Institute has done a considerable amount of charitable work, but the organization’s exaggerations will sadly prove to discredit them. Last year, the organization spent $1.7 million promoting Mortenson’s memoir – more than CAI spent on the construction of schools during that same period. Unfortunately, Mortenson has been extremely successful in this abuse of trusting charity supporters. Besides countless book tours and an extensive fan base, he has also been praised at an international level. Even a Nobel Peace Prize nomination is among his many honors. This proves his motives to be at least somewhat self-serving. There is no plausible reason, other than a desire for fame, to conjure up such tall tales. One of the main reasons the memoir was successful was because it inspired readers, who were drawn to its optimistic message. Mortenson lifted and inspired people’s spirits, only to then pulverize them even further with his lies. Mortenson has cast doubt on the legitimacy of countless charitable organizations, which will undoubtedly be subject to more scrutiny in the future.