Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer

I read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen a few years ago; it was so inspiring that I thought about donating money to Mortensen’s cause: that of building schools in areas of Pakistan that are under Taliban rule. I didn’t get around to actually donating money, and now I’m glad I didn’t.

Jon Krakauer, however, did. He send the Central Asian Institute, Mortensen’s non-profit organization, $55,000. But he got to know some members of the board of directors of the institute and heard some disturbing things. Being a journalist (he wrote Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, among other books), he started investigating Mortenson and his organization and this book is the result.

I’m sad to say that according to Three Cups of Deceit, Krakauer researched all of Mortensen’s claims that he presented in his book and in his follow up book, Stones for Schools, and discovered that they’re all pretty much bogus. Here are a few highlights:

1) Mortenson claimed to have summited a “half-dozen” peaks in the Himalayas before attempting K2. He didn’t. He summited one, which is considered a tourist or “beginner” peak.

2) Mortenson claimed to have been ill and nursed by health in a village called Khorje; he says that he showed his gratitude by sticking around, healing a few villagers (he’s a nurse) and left promising to come back and build a school. Not! According to his climbing partner, they came down the mountain by jeep, straight to Skardu, then visited a village home of one of their guides and Mortenson promised them a school. Then he broke this promise and built the school in another village, Khorje, which is why he decided to make Khorje his original village in his book, even though he only visited Khorje a year later.

3) Mortensen claims to have been kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban. Actually, he met an Afghani, got friendly, and was hosted by him and his family in their village. These people are very hurt to find out how he portrayed them, and how he twisted this story to make himself a victim and hero.

That’s just for starters, although my favourite one is his claim to have visited Mother Teresa in 2000, holding her hand while she lay in bed. That is totally amazing, as she died in 1997. Krakauer likens Mortenson’s literary lies to James Frey’s mendacity in his “memoir” but points out that Frey didn’t solicit millions of dollars from gullible donors to enrich himself.

Then there are the financial shenanigans. Here are some highlights:

1) The royalties of Mortensen’s books go to Mortensen and his ghost writer, not to the Institute.

2) The Institute pays for all the advertising (in expensive publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times) and promotion of Mortensen’s book.

3) Mortensen bought thousands of copies of his own book in order to boost his ranking on the best-seller lists, and also for the royalties. He doesn’t buy the book wholesale from the publisher; he buys them for full price from retailers like Amazon because this is how you boost your sales numbers and get lots of royalties. The Institute pays for these books. Mortensen gives them away at his talks.

4) Mortenson gives talks – for $30,000+ a pop, with another $3,000 for travel expenses, even though the Institute pays for his expenses. And we’re not talking about a seat in coach. We’re talking about chartered flights and luxury hotels. Mortensen charters helicopters and jets to fly himself and his entourage around. Nice!

So if you’ve donated money to Mortenson’s Central Asian Institute (the board of directors kept on quitting because of the lack of transparency in his financial dealings so now it’s down to Mortenson and two flunkeys) then you’ve paid for Mortensen to promote himself and line his pockets.

The schools? Well, Mortenson did build a few. Not as many as he’s claimed to, and certainly not personally, but a few. Unfortunately, he didn’t maintain them nor did he staff them so they are empty buildings. He doesn’t bother going to make sure that his entire raison d’être, his justification for all the fund-raising, the project that has launched him into international fame, major fortune, and nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize! is actually happening. He’s too busy flying around in helicopters to the Telluride Film Festival and figuring out more ways to fiddle the books.

This is what happens when you start a cult of personality. According to those who’ve worked with him, Mortenson seems to feel that since he’s the reason money comes in, he’s entitled to help himself. Direct quote from Mortenson in an interview with Outside magazine: “I’m really the only reason CAI can exist right now.” He gloats about the tearful standing ovations he gets when he appears at speaking engagements, about how there are so many people who adore him and want to see him that he fills stadiums and has to be broadcasted on a JumboTron. Real modest.

There was an investigation by 60 Minutes about this and there are various stories on the web. I think it’s very telling that Mortenson refused to meet with Krakauer for a taped interview, and that he insulates himself with people so that he is very difficult to contact. Like Chairman Mao (when he was alive, durr)! Because the investigative journalist is Krakauer, I’m inclined to believe him and not Mortenson who has been pretty thoroughly discredited. Shame on him, and shame on us for allowing him to build such a cult of personality and using poor people in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a pretext and stepping-stone to personal enrichment.

If you haven’t read anything that made your eyes roll up to heaven lately, this is a good one.

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