Posted by: Neil Hollands
Another nonfiction book group favorite is not faring well under close scrutiny. Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools have inspired book groups everywhere, has not provided good answers so far to questions about the veracity of his books and the conduct of his organization.
The extent of his guilt is not yet clear, but things don’t look good for the author who has made much from his efforts to build schools to educate girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Questions from early supporter Jon Krakauer (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman; Under the Banner of Heaven; Into the Wild; Into Thin Air) about Mortenson’s claims and conduct led to a 60 Minutes exposé. Unhappy with Mortenson’s answers, his publisher Viking announced that it would begin an investigation of Mortenson. Even more seriously, the Attorney General of Montana (where Mortenson’s nonprofit Central Asian Institute was established) announced yesterday that it has begun an investigation as well.
Among the accusations are that Mortenson grossly exaggerated events in his books, fabricating a kidnapping from a friendly meeting with tribesmen, reneging on promises to some communities, and building some schools which have gone largely unused. CAI funds–which he has always promised go 100% to charity efforts–seem to have been used for Mortenson’s benefit. For instance, he has been accused of buying large quantities of his books from stores (not at the wholesale rate or publisher cost, as these wouldn’t be counted toward bestseller status) and giving them away at the speeches for which he regularly earns five figures.
Unlike earlier cases of fabricated nonfiction, the insult in this case extends beyond that done to believing readers. Mortensen’s charities have taken in tens of millions of dollars including donations from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize award, other prestigious humanitarian awards, and even the collected pennies of schoolchildren. There’s no doubt that the Central Asian Institute has done some real good. It would be a shame to see its work completely undermined by the scandal, but at the same time, it’s clear that a good chunk of the charity money has been spent on book tours, advertising, and perhaps even Mortenson’s personal comfort. In all, CAI spent more in 2009 on such “domestic outreach,” $4.6 million, than it did on actually building schools.
Krakauer has made his full account available online through a new site, byliner.com. Entitled Three Cups of Deceit, the electronic-only (so far) 75-page book is briefly available for free in pdf format, after which it will be available for a price that Krakauer will donate to charity.
Mortenson, in the meanwhile, has mostly refused comment, admitting some “compressions and omissions,” then taking to a hospital bed to mend from a heart condition. What response he has made has been published online at the Outside magazine site.