Feature

Greg Mortenson: Another fake memoirist?

According to 60 Minutes, Mortenson may have made up much of Three Cups of Tea, his best-selling memoir of salvation in Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan.

Three Cups of Tea may be “one big lie,” said David Usborne in the London Independent on Sunday. Greg Mortenson’s best-selling 2006 memoir of salvation in Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan made millions for the author, launched a respected educational charity, and became a guiding text for U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. But according to CBS’s 60 Minutes, Mortenson, 53, may have made much of it up. He makes questionable claims about being nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after a near-fatal attempt to climb K2 and, in a subsequent book, about being kidnapped by the Taliban. More damning, said Lloyd Grove in TheDailyBeast.com, is the allegation that Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has exaggerated the number of schools it has built in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that it spends millions each year flying Mortenson around on a perpetual book tour. Unless Mortenson can fully rebut the allegations, his reputation, like those of other inspirational memoirists before him, will lie in “a million little pieces.”

At worst Mortenson is guilty of a few “lesser literary evasions,” said Ethan Casey in Huffington​Post.com. He has admitted that he “compressed” two visits to Korphe into one, and it may turn out that he mischaracterized his relationship with the armed Afghans he traveled with in 1996. But no one disputes that since returning from Afghanistan, Mortenson has spent his life doing “urgently important good” for the people of that blighted region. Did the CAI spend $1.7 million flying Mortenson around to speaking engagements last year? Yes, it did, and the result was $23.7 million in donations to help educate the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. “I hope he’s not a liar,” said Rodger Jones in Dallas​News.com, but “even if Mortenson’s story is only half true, it’s still an amazing life’s work,” and his work still deserves our support.

Actually, if Mortenson’s lying, said Spencer Ackerman in Wired.com, then he may have done more harm than good. No less a figure than Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is a fan of Three Cups of Tea, as is Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Soldiers on the ground carry dog-eared copies of it in their backpacks. Mortenson’s heartwarming, sugary tales of cross-cultural understanding may have inspired many to adopt the simplistic view that “the man who drinks the most tea with the most villagers will earn the most goodwill,” and distracted them from the “bloody and unpleasant work of hunting the Taliban.”

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