One of the most popular humanitarian nonfiction books of the 2000s was Greg Mortenson’s best seller Three Cups of Tea. Three Cups of Tea was marketed as a call for humanitarian aid to impoverished Central Asian nations such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Mortenson’s life story of dedicating himself to providing education to the people of Central Asia was the emotional connection that sold many readers on the book. Mortenson traveled across the U.S., giving lectures, setting up charities to provide money for his Central Asia Institute (CAI), and appearing on numerous talk shows to promote his book. As beautiful as his humanitarian mission seemed, it was ultimately revealed as too good to be true by writer Jon Krakauer, whose expose Three Cups of Deceit explored the lies in Mortenson’s story and the lack of effectiveness in the CAI’s schools program. Although Three Cups of Deceit can be a depressing read at times, it also makes for a fascinating study in media awareness and image manipulation.
Krakauer’s criticisms of Mortenson’s honesty begin immediately, as he explores the fallacies and embellishments in Mortenson’s claims of what happened when he came down K2. Mortenson claimed he was separated from his porter, nearly died, and was taken in by kindly villagers; in reality, his descent was relatively uneventful, he was never separated from his porter (or anyone else in the expedition), and first came up with the idea for a school charity at a completely different village! Even more dishonest is Mortenson’s account of being captured by Taliban for several days and nearly killed. Krakauer dissects the falsehoods in this account thoroughly, providing interviews with people in the village, explaining that the Taliban did not even occupy the region of Pakistan at the time the events supposedly happened, and which illustrates that Mortenson’s account relied on his audience’s ignorance of the culture of Pakistan to make it believable.
Krakauer’s analysis of the business aspects of Mortenson’s charities and the schools created by the CAI is equally damning. Krakauer portrays Mortenson as uncommunicative, unreliable in scheduling, and poor at the financial management, and provides interviews with several former CAI employees who resigned in frustration due to the difficulties of working with Mortenson. Mortenson is portrayed as an individual who operates on “African time”, showing up weeks late for scheduled meetings and possessing little aptitude for strategic planning and analysis. Krakauer then describes in great detail the flaws in the CAI’s school building program, portraying many of them as “ghost schools”, beautiful buildings with no teaching staff or students. Some of these buildings were built in inappropriate locations chosen by people with little experience in Central Asia, others were redundant for communities that already had schools, and still others were used as police stations and supply depots by the Pakistani government. Comparatively few actually lived up to the promise of becoming useful schools for their communities.
As illuminating as Krakauer’s account is, it resulted in a tragic end for Mortenson’s co-author David Oliver Relin. After the publication of Three Cups of Deceit in 2011, Mortenson and his co-author Relin were criticized for embellishing and fabricating numerous details in the history of Mortenson’s nonprofit work. Suffering from depression and stress as his work on Mortenson’s book came under heavy criticism, Relin ultimately committed suicide. Is Mortenson a man who truly believed in creating a sustainable educational system for Central Asia who was willing to lie and embellish accounts to accomplish his goal, or a manipulative huckster who had ulterior motives at the start? Even Krakauer cannot truly form a conclusive character study of Mortenson, since his analysis is based largely on second party descriptions of events rather than confessions or admissions by Mortenson himself. Sadly, the true nature of Mortenson’s mission has already been lost in a maze of distortion and manipulation, leaving Krakauer to describe the factual narrative of events and disappointing results of the CAI’s work. Truth should always be prized highly, especially in the area of nonprofits, but Mortenson’s had been sacrificed on the altar of the Cult of Personality long ago.