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Do We Want To Be Fooled?

The recent 60 Minutes expose on Greg Mortenson, the author of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea, has prompted me to reflect on the question: why was this guy a household name and international hero?

by
Bruce Bawer

Bio

April 30, 2011 - 12:17 am

Everybody who attended that conference got a free copy of the paperback of Three Cups of Tea. I dipped into it. I’d never seen anything like it. Mortenson’s name appeared on the cover as co-author, yet throughout the book he was referred to in the third person. The only apparent reason for this was that it allowed him to tell us over and over again how exceptional he is, and to quote other people singing his praises:

“You’re a great guy, Greg,” Marina said. (p. 101)

“I think a few love Doctor Greg already.” (p. 121)

“I couldn’t have been happier to meet Greg Mortenson.” (p. 122)

“I could see the greatness of Greg’s heart right away.” (p. 147)

“We were all worried about Dr. Greg sleeping inside with the smoke and the animals, but he seemed to take no notice of these things.” (p. 177)

“I looked into [Greg’s] heart that day at the petrol pump and saw him for what he is — an infidel, but a noble man nonetheless, who dedicates his life to the education of children.”  (p. 191)

“For these blessings, I thank Almighty Allah,” As Iam says, “and Mister Greg Mortenson.”  (p. 208)

…the legend of a gentle infidel called Dr. Greg was likewise growing.  (p. 210)

“It is a part of the world where Americans are mistrusted and often hated,” Richard wrote, “but not Greg Mortenson…” (p. 228)

“While most of us are trying to scale new peaks,” Lowe told an audience of climbers, “Greg has been moving even greater mountains on his own….” (p. 229)

“You work too hard, Greg,” Vera told him…. (p. 231)

Mortenson, unsurprisingly, returned to Montana empty-handed.  “It just makes me sick to see Greg kowtowing to all those rich people,” Jerene Mortenson says.  “They should be bowing down to him….” (p. 233)

“I’ve met a lot of people in my life, but no one like Greg Mortenson,” Bashir says. (p. 236)

“Greg bent over backward to help me,” Fedarko says. (p. 298)

“If that’s not heroism, I don’t know what is.”  (p. 304)

I don’t think I read every word of Mortenson’s book, but I read enough. I read the part where he finds out that Mother Teresa has died, so he goes to her mission in Calcutta. He’s a total stranger, but a nun lets him in and leads him to a room where she leaves him alone with Mother Teresa’s body. Nobody else is around. I remember thinking: this may be the most far-fetched-sounding anecdote I’ve ever read. Mother Teresa has just died and the place isn’t surrounded by mobs of mourners and journalists? This guy turns up from out of nowhere and they let him in and leave him alone with her body? The only reason to buy the story was precisely that it was so far-fetched — after all, the book had sold zillions of copies over the previous couple of years, and presumably if the anecdote were fake, Mortenson would have long since been called on it. Not until after 60 Minutes caught up with him did I discover that the Mother Teresa story was not just exceedingly improbable but utterly impossible — for Mother Teresa actually died two years before the date on which Mortenson claimed to have paid his respects in Calcutta. Mortenson’s own duplicity, in short, was hidden in plain sight all along — in a book that has sold more than 2.5 million copies in over two dozen languages.

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