Over the last few years, a Montana nurse named Greg Mortenson has been building an international reputation as a world-class hero and future Nobel Peace Prize winner for having built scores of schools, mostly for girls, in war-torn Afghanistan. At this writing, his 2006 book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time has been on the New York Times’s paperback nonfiction bestseller list for 220 weeks. But everything changed on April 17, when 60 Minutes broadcast an exposé of Mortenson. The next day, Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and a former supporter of Mortenson, published online a detailed takedown of Mortenson entitled Three Cups of Deceit. Among the richly substantiated charges was that Mortenson had invented key episodes in his book (and in its 2009 sequel, Stones into Schools), that many of the schools he claimed to have built did not exist and that some of those that did exist had not received help from him or his charity, the Central Asia Institute, since their construction, and that he was guilty of serious financial irregularities. (One former colleague accused Mortenson of using the CAI “as an ATM.”) The fallout from the takedown made it clear that zillions of Mortenson’s fans around the world were shocked by the allegations.
I wasn’t. When I first heard Mortenson speak at a conference two years ago, I was unaware what a big deal he was. Indeed, as far as I can remember it was the first time I’d ever heard of him. I was immediately appalled. He was swaggering, slick, self-satisfied. These attributes especially stood out in contrast with the other speakers at the conference. For the occasion was the first annual Oslo Freedom Forum, at which many if not most of Mortenson’s fellow speakers were genuine heroes — men and women who’d stood up for freedom in autocratic countries and been punished for it with years of imprisonment and torture.
Those heroes had a right to swagger. Only they didn’t. On the contrary, most of them seemed embarrassed by the attention they were receiving. They weren’t comfortable in the limelight. They recounted their experiences in halting voices, their sincerity shining through. Plainly, they were telling their stories not to sell books or build a brand but because they knew that, for the sake of human justice, their stories desperately needed to be told. The focus of their testimony wasn’t on their own courageous endurance but on the cruelty of the tyrants who’d made them suffer — and on the need to free others who still chafed under the same yoke. Such was their humility that, to my shame, I came away not being able to remember most of their names.
But it was impossible to forget Greg Mortenson’s name. For he was the star of his own story. The whole point of his talk was how much one brave, selfless individual can accomplish in this world even against the most formidable of odds. And that individual was him. The premise of his spiel was that he’s a miracle worker, pacifying belligerent jihadist types by sitting down with them over three cups of tea and listening to their concerns. Yet the egomaniac I saw that day was somebody you couldn’t picture listening to anybody else for more than thirty seconds.
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.
Mortenson’s shameless self-celebration in Three Cups of Tea left me speechless. As Oscar Wilde observed of Little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop, how could any sensitive reader react to such nonsense with anything but derisive laughter? Yet untold numbers of people took every word of Mortenson’s self-hagiography as gospel. Not until Kraft and Krakauer came along, however, did I understand just how widely revered this fourflusher was. Not until they came along did I learn that while the Central Asia Institute — which is registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit — footed the bill for splashy ads for Mortenson’s books, paid for private jets to fly him from lecture to lecture, and purchased the copies of his books that were sold or handed out at his lectures, Mortenson pocketed his lecture fees as well as the income from book sales. (One striking detail was that the CAI did not avail itself of Mortenson’s author’s discount when buying his books, thereby inflating his sales figures and allowing him to receive royalties for these purchases.) Out of the millions Mortenson made from his books, moreover, he contributed a relatively tiny sum to the CAI, the overwhelming majority of whose income came from public donations.
Indeed, it turns out that the CAI has spent far more money subsidizing Mortenson’s lavish lifestyle than it has on schools in Afghanistan. Practically speaking, then, the whole dog-and-pony show wasn’t really about Afghani children; it was about Mortenson and his book. What I was witnessing that day in Oslo, briefly put, was one stop on the longest, most expensive, most successful, and most appallingly corrupt book tour in publishing history.
One revelation that I found especially appalling was that a great deal of the dough raked in by the Central Asia Institute was donated by children participating in something called Pennies for Peace. This “international service-learning program,” which is part of the curriculum at hundreds of American primary and secondary schools, combines reading and discussion of the adult, youth, or children’s edition of Mortenson’s book with out-and-out hustling — which is to say that the pupils are not only expected to learn about Greg; they’re expected to kick in. Mortenson has stated over and over again that every last penny kids donate to Pennies for Peace goes directly to CAI’s programs; what he has omitted to say is that the CAI counts its purchases of Three Cups of Tea and its funding of Mortenson’s luxurious lifestyle as program expenses. This whole Pennies for Peace thing threw me for a loop: what kind of elementary-school curriculum compels pupils to donate money to something? Why didn’t this scam raise any red flags?
Then there’s Mortenson’s lie about having been kidnapped by the Taliban. He stuck a picture in his book of him and some Afghani acquaintances — who had treated him kindly — and identified them in the caption as his kidnappers. 60 Minutes demonstrated definitively that this was a fabrication. Mortenson replied feebly that he hadn’t meant they were members of that Taliban — the word, he pointed out, means “teacher” in Arabic. What kind of man makes up such things? Is it somehow possible that Mortenson is not a sociopath? When Kroft talked about the Taliban story, I was reminded at once of the scene in All about Eve in which Addison de Witt calls Eve Harrington on her lie about being a war widow: “That was not only a lie,” he tells her angrily, “but an insult to dead heroes and to the women who loved them.” Mortenson’s Taliban story isn’t only an unforgivable crime against the non-kidnappers; it’s an insult to all victims of Islamic terrorist kidnappings and to their loved ones.
The 60 Minutes exposé, combined with my memories of that 2009 conference, has prompted me in the last few days to reflect on the question: why was this guy a household name and international hero when so many of his truly deserving fellow speakers at that conference were not? And what about other, anonymous educators in Afghanistan? There are, I gather, real heroes of education in that country. They’re nameless and faceless; they work quietly, with dedication, and at low pay as part of large enterprises that they don’t run. Their work doesn’t allow them the time to jet from one U.S. city to another promoting themselves. Most real-life heroes are like that. Real-life heroes don’t write books about their heroism. Is that so hard a fact to grasp? (When the Church is thinking about canonizing a guy, it doesn’t call him in to testify to his own sanctity.)
In recent days many commentators have lamented that it is dismaying to know that Mortenson’s a phony. No, what’s dismaying is that so many people were taken in in the first place. What’s dismaying is that so many people don’t seem to recognize a huckster, a con artist, a flimflam man when they see one — and, by the same token, don’t seem to recognize authentic virtue, selflessness, and humility either. Have we become so coarsened by celebrity culture, so accustomed to slick showbiz packaging and self-promotion, so habituated to feeding the ravenous narcissism of the famous, that we’re no longer capable of detecting what Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof called “a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity”? Hemingway said that the one thing a writer needed most of all was a foolproof “bullshit detector”; are twenty-first-century Americans’ bullshit detectors hopelessly out of whack? Have the glossy, streamlined, highly polished and tidily ordered versions of human reality served up on all too many “reality” programs and Oprah-type talk shows destroyed our very ability to separate the genuine from the bogus, the real article from the counterfeit, and even caused us to turn our noses at the imperfect, unprocessed, clunky, smudged, and pockmarked real thing? Do we want to be fooled?
Some might suggest that the elevation to the presidency of Barack Obama, an empty sales pitch in a snappy suit, answered these questions definitively. Others might point to cases like that of Al Gore, who despite his Mortenson-like fondness for private jets and his humongous carbon footprint (he’s used “more than twice the electricity in one month than an average American family uses in an entire year”) is still somehow getting away with his absurd environmental-hero act. One thing that has particularly stunned me in the wake of the Kroft and Krakauer revelations is the readiness of many of Mortenson’s longtime fans to react with a “Yes, but….” Yes, they say, Mortenson may have lied, cheated, stolen, leveled false accusations, and so forth — but he’s also done some good. Right — and Mussolini made the trains run on time. One can only hope that the shock of so many of these fans over the exposure of Dr. Greg’s perfidies will in time translate, in at least some cases, into a somewhat diminished credulity, a hesitation to embrace personal narratives that seem just too good to be true, and an increased willingness to approach every truth claim in a spirit of (dare one say it?) critical judgment. Admittedly, it’s a slim hope — but then Easter is the season of hope, isn’t it?