The summer before senior year of high school, instead of being assigned to read classic literature like A Tale of Two Cities or Pride and Prejudice, I was assigned to read the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.
Anyone who despairs of the individual’s power to change lives has to read the story of Greg Mortenson, a homeless mountaineer who, following a 1993 climb of Pakistan’s treacherous K2, was inspired by a chance encounter with impoverished mountain villagers and promised to build them a school. Over the next decade he built fifty-five schools—especially for girls—that offer a balanced education in one of the most isolated and dangerous regions on earth. As it chronicles Mortenson’s quest, which has brought him into conflict with both enraged Islamists and uncomprehending Americans, Three Cups of Tea combines adventure with a celebration of the humanitarian spirit.1
My class – nay, my whole high school – fell in love with Mortenson and the work that he did in rural Pakistan to educate impoverished village children, particularly girls. The argument that education was the answer to alleviate religious extremism in a notoriously volatile region was one that anyone could get behind, and get behind it we did. In Three Cups of Tea, Being the idealistic let’s-save-the-world types that only 17 and 18 year olds can be, we sought to raise money to build our own school. We ended up donating our fundraised money to a school we had an existing relationship with in Africa.
Even though we didn’t donate the funds to the Central Asia Institute, my school community still held Greg Mortenson in the highest regard. He was my high school’s speaker of the year that year. I have a faint memory of there being some commotion and a lot of anxiety on my teacher’s part because there was something about a flight delay or some other logistical issue that prevented him from getting to my school on time, pushing the event back by hours. Ultimately, though, a small group of students (myself included) were invited to meet with Mortenson privately before he was scheduled to give his speech.
I sat next to him in that event as we listened to him talk about his experiences in Central Asia and building schools for those impoverished children. I remember being awed by him both figuratively and literally; he was a giant mountain man (seriously, I remember thinking his hands were humongous) who had done gigantic, mountainous things. We told him how we saw him as an inspiration, how he inspired us to raise money and do what we could to better the education of children in a less fortunate place in the world. His speech later that night moved us all once again, and he ended it with an inspirational quote about how even in the darkness, there are stars. That night, I saw that quote pop up in my Facebook news feed over and over again.
In the year or two following my senior year of high school, I’d see Three Cups of Tea in the bookstore or hear someone mention Mortenson’s name. I would think back to how he inspired my senior class to do more than just sit in a room and talk about how to change the world, we actually did something and put money where our mouths were. I’d remember that time my class went to a book signing he did at a local bookstore months before we knew he would be our senior class speaker and how captivated the audience was by Mortenson’s remarkably story.
Then Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer came out.
Greg Mortenson has built a global reputation as a selfless humanitarian and children’s crusader, and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also not what he appears to be. As acclaimed author Jon Krakauer discovered, Mortenson has not only fabricated substantial parts of his bestselling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, but has also misused millions of dollars donated by unsuspecting admirers like Krakauer himself.
This is the tragic tale of good intentions gone very wrong.2
I’m not sure how big, if any, of a news splash Three Cups of Deceit made in the States when it was released along with the accompanying 60 Minutes expose. I was backpacking in Southeast Asia at the time and hadn’t a clue what was going on in the world (I didn’t know Bin Laden had been killed till days after the fact, nor did I realize that Will and Kate had gotten married till weeks later). But at my hostel in Kunming, China, I was browsing the Kindle bookstore when I noticed Three Cups of Deceit pop up on my screen. Curious, I downloaded it. After I had read it, I felt sick to my stomach.
I can’t honestly say I had any strong affection for Mortenson personally (a girl in my class said “Greg Mortenson” when asked who her hero was, which was definitely not the case for me) but I did respect him. That’s what cuts the most after all the allegations of his mishandling of funds, the outright fabrication of his stories, the unearthing of irrefutable evidence pointing to the fact that Mortenson built himself up on a bed of lies: I respected a liar and a cheat. A con man who conned us all.
Among the many, many people who donated to Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute were people I personally knew. My friends’ parents, my teachers, friends of friends. Even my own family made a donation. We had all believed in him! We felt that even though we couldn’t personally change the world like how he (allegedly, in retrospect) was, the least we could do was support him in those efforts with any way that we could. And support him we did, like so many others did, too. He inspired my senior class to raise the money for that school in Africa, and I’m just thankful that we didn’t end up sending the money to the Central Asia Institute.
Mortenson was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize for three times, for goodness sakes! Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, Christiane Amanpour and Krakauer himself were once admirers and supporters of Mortenson too! It wasn’t just my high school community, or Mortenson’s own community that he fooled. He got us all, and he got us good.
When I thought of Greg Mortenson in high school, I saw him as someone I respected whose positive work I could hope to one day emulate. Now, though, his dizzying fall from grace is what I see as a metaphor for growing up. You believe in the world only to realize that everything horrible they say about it is true, that it’s rotten to the core with corruption and misdeeds and deceit, that greed and selfishness trump all. So in response to Krakauer’s recent article on The Daily Beast about whether or not it is time to forgive Greg Mortenson, my answer is an unequivocal no. I am not one to forgive easily in the best of times but I don’t think I can ever forgive a man who not once has made himself accountable for any of his mistakes.