Tea and controversy

Did Greg Mortensen lie about the story behind Three Cups of Tea?

A year ago today (April 21) Greg Mortenson spoke to a full house at Laxson Auditorium. His appearance was the culmination of a year-long celebration of his best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea, as the Book in Common at Chico State and throughout Butte County.

Mortenson was then riding a wave of fame, selling millions of books and funneling million of dollars to his charitable work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He’d become the world’s foremost fighter for girls’ education in the Middle East. President Obama had donated $100,000 to his Central Asia Institute. He’d also become rich, earning millions in book royalties and speaking fees.

Today, he’s hunkered down in his Bozeman, Mont., home with a hole in his heart, literally and figuratively. Surgery soon will take care of the physical hole, recently diagnosed, but the dent in his reputation may take longer to repair. On Sunday (April 17), 60 Minutes aired a devastating exposé accusing him of lying in his book and failing to build anywhere near the number of schools he says he’s built.

During his Laxson talk, Mortenson recounted the now familiar tale of how, alone and lost following a descent from K-2 in 1993, he stumbled into the Pakistani mountain village of Korphe, whose residents nursed him back to health. He promised then to return to the village and build a school.

“It’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie,” Jon Krakauer, the best-selling author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild and an early backer of Mortenson who donated $75,000 to his organization, tells 60 Minutes. Mortenson first went to Korphe a full year following his descent from K-2, he says.

60 Minutes also charges that Mortenson’s tale of being captured by the Taliban is a fabrication, that he has failed to build as many schools as he’s advertised, that the CAI spends more on operations than on building schools, and that its funds and Mortenson’s are commingled in inappropriate ways.

Mortenson, who ducked an on-air interview, has since sent out a memo to supporters, as well as answers to written questions posed by 60 Minutes. He stands by his books and charitable work and says the charges against him are unjustified. I wasn’t convinced, but your can see for yourself at www.ikat.org.

Brooks Thorlaksson is the associate dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at Chico State and also the point person for the Book in Common project. In an e-mail, she says she was “dismayed” by the 60 Minutes report. “I spent the whole day with him when he was here and I was impressed by his deep humility, his commitment to the schools, and to the idea that educating girls is the way to change the world. … His is a life that has mattered in the world.”

Krakauer told 60 Minutes he agrees that Mortenson deserves credit for helping “thousands of school kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan” but worries that “he is now threatening to bring it all down, to destroy all of it by this fraud and by these lies.”