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Three Cups of Humble Pie

Tuesday, April 19, 2011 by Marianne Elliott

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In my country we get well-schooled in the dangers of getting ‘too big for our own boots’. We call it the ‘tall-poppy syndrome’: the risk that any flower who stands above the rest will be lopped off.

I suspect some people will see this week’s controversy about Greg Mortenson’s writing and work as an example of this alleged communal impulse to strike down anyone who rises too high.

‘No good deed goes unpunished’ said Clare Boothe Luce (or Billy Wilder, depending who you ask).

Some of my friends think Greg Mortenson is the victim of a media that loves only one thing more than building up a hero, and that is tearing him (or her) down.

And that’s probably part of what is at play here. I’ll confess: my very first thought when I saw tweets coming through about this controversy was “I hope my book is never successful enough to motivate a witch hunt”.

It’s terrifying enough exposing your not-so-admirable qualities in a memoir without wondering whether someone will go and hunt out the Police Chief you criticised on page 143 to ask him whether your allegations of his corruption are true.

(I can think of at least one Chief of Police, one Provincial Governor and the head of one UN office who are likely to claim everything I say about them in my book is a lie. Does that make me a liar? I digress. But only partly. I’ll come back to this in a bit)

But that’s not all there is to this.

I’ve just finished reading the impressive 90 page report ‘Three Cups of Deceit’ by Jon Krakauer (author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air).

First point to be made about this is: read it

Don’t rely on the short video clip from 60 Minutes (which I’m not even going to link to because I want you to read the full report).

If you made the time to read Three Cups of Tea or Stones Into Schools then you owe it to yourself to read Krakauer’s report. Apparently it is only available for free until 20 April, so if you don’t want to pay for it, download it now. Although, if you paid money for Three Cups of Tea, you may think – like me – it is worth paying a little for this very carefully researched commentary.

Okay. So we’ve all read the report? It is 90 pages long so I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes you three cups of tea to get through it. Take your time. This is important. If necessary bookmark this page and come back in a week once you’ve had time to read it.

Okay – now what?

Well, my take is that there are (at least) four different issues at play in this situation.

1. Questions about ‘truth’ in memoir

2. Questions about the effectiveness of Mortenson/CAI’s approach to education programming

3. Questions about our obsession with the ‘Great White Hero’ in development/humanitarian/aid narratives

4. Questions about the management, especially financial, of CAI

1. The Perils of Telling the ‘Truth’

Oh boy. This first one gives me the heeby-jeebies.

In an interview with Outside magazine Mortenson talks about how he worked with his editor and writer to agree on ‘compressions’ in the story: combining two or three trips to the same place into one trip for the sake of actually fitting it all into one book.

I do that in my book.

I combine two different trips to Qala-e-Naw town in Badghis province into one visit in the book. In one trip I met two men in the prison who were alleged to be Taleban and who told me they had been tortured as a result. On another trip the provincial governor was being investigated for corruption. I wanted to include both stories. My editors found the two trips repetitive and confusing. They suggested combining both stories into one trip. I agreed.

I agreed because both stories did in fact happen and because the timing seemed to me to be irrelevant. I’ve also combined more than one real person into a single character in order to protect the identity of each person.

I’ll be very clear in the foreword that I’ve done these things.

But do these changes make my story less true?

And what about those Police Chiefs and Provincial Governors who – if asked – will almost certainly accuse me of lying about their collusion with drug traffickers leading to the death of a junior police officer? What if 60 Minutes ever interviewed them about the veracity of my book?

More concerning, to me anyway: what do my Afghan colleagues (whose names I have changed) really feel about the way I’ve presented them in the book. I suspect that their approval of my writing is tainted by their reluctance to do anything that would cause me trouble. I fear they keep saying everything is okay because it seems terribly rude to them to do otherwise.

When Brett Keller talks about ‘The Tea Test‘, I wonder if my book would pass.

It’s a minefield, this business of writing a non-fiction book about a place like Afghanistan.

And yet, I know that I can stand behind every story in my book. I may have changed names, changed ethnicities, even combined more than one person into a composite character who will be unrecognisable to anyone from his village who reads the book. But I have not invented.

And although I think ‘truth’ is a slippery word, I also think that those of us who tell our readers that we are reporting life as we experienced it, rather than fiction, bear the responsibility of the trust our readers then place in us to report that life as carefully, mindfully and – yes – truthfully as we are able.

If we plan to then leverage our story to encourage our readers to take action (and I would love it if readers of my book decided as a result to take action in support of human rights in Afghanistan) then we bear an even heavier responsibility not to mislead them in any way.

Oh dear. More heeby-jeebies.

I worry that I won’t meet my own standards on this. I worry that my memories of Afghanistan have already been distorted by three years worth of writing and rewriting. I worry that I’ve already lost my grip on ‘the truth’.

And then I hope that the fact I worry about this so much is – in itself – some kind of protection against getting too far off track.

2. The Perils of Amateur or DIY Approaches to Educating Girls: The Empty School

This seems to be the point on which many readers are most disappointed: the CAI schools are empty.

Without teachers or ongoing operating budgets, perhaps built in the wrong place in the first instance, the image of CAI schools being used as warehouses or sitting completely empty has shocked many people.

Sadly, perhaps, it doesn’t shock me at all. In my two years in Afghanistan I saw my fair share of empty schools built by well-intentioned foreigners (ranging from the US military to a group of wealthy women from Germany).

Effective education programming requires a comprehensive approach. Teacher training, community engagement and consultation and – in the ideal scenario – effective government oversight to ensure that there is some kind of sensible strategy about which schools get built and where.

Which is why anyone who reads development blogs regularly will be have read aid bloggers decrying the perils of DIY development. Development is complex. Professional aid organisations don’t always get it right, but the good ones at least are learning from their own mistakes and constantly trying to get it better.

Which brings me to my next point.

3. The Perils of Hero Worship

Recently I caught myself bristling a little when a (wonderful) friend of mine used Greg Mortenson as the example of education programming for girls in Afghanistan.

I had nothing against Mortenson. I’ve always thought his books were doing a great job of raising the profile of girl’s education as a linchpin of development, human rights and security in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

My complaint was that I wanted her to list organisations like CARE, IRC or the Aga Khan Foundation. Organisations that have been building schools in Afghanistan since long before Greg Mortenson ever got there.

Perhaps even more importantly, these are organisations I’ve watched persist with the slow (and surely infuriating) process of liaising with the Afghan Ministry of Education in order to ensure that their activities were in line with the Afghan National Strategic Plan for Education.

Because here is my perhaps unpopular view: there can be only one solution to education in Afghanistan and that is the Afghan Ministry of Education.

Call me a socialist if you like. It won’t be the worst thing I’ve been called. And it’ll take a lot more than that to dissuade me of this view. A national education strategy led and monitored by the Ministry of Education is the only long-term solution to education for girls in Afghanistan.

I am not alone in this conclusion. Back in July 2009 Mosharraf Zaidi said much the same thing about Pakistan.

To educate almost seventy million children, the only “cup of tea” that will do, is the one that is served by the state. The state is not only ultimately responsible—legally, morally, and politically—for educating Pakistan’s children. It is responsible , and internally wired, to ensure Pakistan’s survival.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. So I won’t try to. I’ll just say that I’m not surprised CAI schools are standing empty. But I also don’t think that building schools in Pakistan or Afghanistan was ever going to be the most important work Greg Mortenson did in the field of education.

His most important work was, in my humble view, his work to educate the public of the US (and the rest of the West) about the importance of education, especially education for girls.

Which is why I don’t find it terribly shocking, either, that 60% of CAI’s program funds were spend on domestic outreach rather than building schools in Pakistan. Perhaps that was the more important (or at least the more appropriate) education work for Greg Mortenson to be doing. But that does bring me to the next set of questions, the questions about the financial management of CAI.

4. The Perils of the ‘Founder Syndrome’

From all accounts – and to be fair this is one of the few criticisms of Mortenson that does come through in the first book – Greg Mortenson resists any kind of management or oversight. Of all the accusations leveled against him, this is the one that stops me in my tracks. This is the one that makes me want to take him by the collar and say, “Greg, dude, what are you doing?”

In my own memoir I write in the first chapter about the training we get in the not-for-profit world in being accountable for every penny we spend on a project. This is fundamental.

And yet, according to Krakauer’s report, Mortenson resisted accounting in any detail for any of the money he spent from CAI. One by one senior members of CAI staff and CAI Board members resigned as a result, because it prevented them from doing their job. And yet – somehow – this all remained unreported in the media until now.

This is the part of this whole scandal that really shocked me.

Desiree Adaway has written a very good post about the basics of effective governance and oversight of a not-for-profit.

Her first point it perhaps the most challenging and, in this case, the most critical. It is a Board’s responsibility to appoint the Executive Director of their organisation. It is their job to find and select the person most qualified for the role.

That person may not be the founder.

I could say a lot more about the way in which CAI money appears to have been spent to fund book-related promotions (on the one hand I think a legitimate case can be made that this is both effective awareness raising and powerful marketing for CAI – on the other hand I find it concerning that CAI appears to have recieved none of the payments for those promotional events).

But others have already said plenty on that topic and at the end of the day I think Desiree’s point is the most important one, beware the organisation that is drwarfed by the profile of its founder.

5. The Perils of Being Human

Finally, I wanted to say that Greg Mortenson has been turned into some kind of hero. He may well have willingly collaborated with that process, but he did not do it alone. Many of us wanted to believe in the possibility of one ordinary man making an extraordinary difference in the world.

We wanted to hear the story as it was told. We wanted an idol. We wanted a hero.

When my mother first told me about Three Cups of Tea I was living in Afghanistan and everything she told me about it pissed me off. I was tired of the cult of the white/Western hero.It was several years before I would conceed and read the book. And when I did, I was surprised and impressed.

I confessed, at the time, that I had been humbled by his story.

I was feeling skeptical about well-meaning individuals. I knew that there were organisations like CARE who had built many hundreds of schools in Afghanistan. They worked closely with both the government and the local community. They knew how much a school should cost and they understood that a school without teachers wasn’t much good. So they also worked to support training for local teachers.

At the time, if anyone asked me about doing something like what Mortenson was doing I would tell them to give their money to CARE instead. I had seen how badly good intentions can turn. I hadn’t even read the book but I placed Mortenson into the same category as those other well-meaning soldiers.

But then I read the book and, in my own words: “Concerned as I was about the perils of well-intentioned amateurs undertaking development work, Mortenson taught me that they can almost all be overcome with the kind of loving attention that he shows in his work.”

Was I wrong? Was I – like so many others – totally sucked in by the great white rescuer myth that Greg Mortenson seems to fit and fulfil so beautifully?

It appears I was wrong. At least in part.

And in this humble reminder of my own ability to get things very wrong, despite my best intentions, I feel compassion for Greg Mortenson. Compassion, after all, has very little to do with blame, desserts or worthiness. It is rooted in our shared humanity and in our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of another.

I want to finish with the words of my friend Roxanne:

Mortenson is, rightfully on some counts, getting de-idolized and I find the idolization itself problematic in the first place. In light of the other pieces of the puzzle though – the positive ones, the ones that inspired me and many others – I resolve to extend some compassion to Mortenson. His work and life story still ignite something inside me.

If you want to read more about this subject, Saundra at Good Intentions Are Not Enough has been doing a great job of compiling all the recent posts on subject. Over at A View From The Cave responses from both Mortenson and CAI have been posted.

Other than the ones I have linked to above I particularly valued Elmira Bayrasli’s thoughtful post on the risks of ‘founder’s syndrome’, Kent Annan’s reminder that this is not an excuse for a lack of generositySolar Sister’s reflection on the ‘origin’ or ‘Eureka’ myth, and Joshua Foust’s exploration of what we are really losing in this whole debacle.

UPDATE: An edited version of this post has now been published at Huffington Post.

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44 Responses to "Three Cups of Humble Pie"

  1. Lisa McKay says:

    Great post Marianne. Really thoughtful and nuanced and well-balanced.

  2. If you outline where you have departed from staright narrative, especially if you outline good reasons for doing so, than you are doing the right thing. This isn’t a trial, where only absolute facts will do. No-one is being misled. This doesn’t, unfortunately, mean you won’t be criticised, or that people won’t use your strategies against you, but you always knew that somebody would be displeased! Go bravely along your path. You chose it for the right reasons, and there will be as many people who will support you as those who will blame!

  3. Tara Bradford says:

    Combining two visits to one place into one (where two separate events occurred) is hardly the same thing as rewriting the way one is treated by the locals, as Mortenson is accused of doing, among other questionable events. (On a side note, I think editors do readers a disservice by encapsulating several episodes and different places into one, as in Mortenson’s book. This veers into the realm of fiction, rather than non-fiction and is why readers have become such skeptics). And a board of directors or at the very least an accountant should surely have been running the finances of his organisation. (Nobody spends that much money promoting a book – and why should they? Mortenson had plenty of press/free publicity). As we know, good intentions don’t always translate into wise decisions.

    I read Krakauer’s piece last night, which made me even more conscious of the footprints we leave behind and our responsibility to get it right. It saddens me when readers are misled, particularly in a region about which we need to learn more.

    As for you and your book, I have no doubt whatsoever that it will be fair and accurate, wisely written from your big heart and open mind. Can’t wait to read it.

  4. Laura says:

    Great post, thanks for writing this …

  5. asiyah says:

    Wow, you just blew it away. That was a very thoughtful post. I’ll be sharing this piece far and wide. I do agree there is quite a bit of the ‘witch hunt’ in this situation…

  6. MariAnne,

    This is very good, very carefully thought through, and nuanced. Very helpful on many levels. I read Jon Krakauer’s piece today, BTW.

    If you were a doctor writing about your work in medicine, you would have to change the names and identifying factors of the patients in your story, that’s what you are essentially doing in your book, and that is very different from what is alleged here. I do not have an issue with that at all. I am looking forward to your book!

    I got sucked in by the hero worship thing, as did so many others. Especially as I have been to NW Pakistan (vacation), & have an inkling of the enormous challenges an American would face building a school there.

    Where I am stuck is the money thing. There is just no way around it, from what I can see. I wish I were wrong.

    I agree compassion is in order. I really hate seeing someone being shellacked by the media, who are not always fair & rarely kind. To ere is human.

    Thank you so much for your enlightening post.

  7. Amy says:

    I think you are doing exactly what should be done in the wake of an event such as this: evaluate what lessons should be learned and apply them to your own life.

    Most people who read Mortenson’s book(s) felt inspired by the positive message. Now, they can be equally inspired by the not-so-positive message. Can we do better? Could we investigate more? Can we continue to be passionate about girls’ education without following a single leader?

    Mortenson opened up the topic. It is now our responsibility to keep the ball rolling with transparency and determination.

  8. Katy says:

    Great post, and first I’ve heard of any scandal surrounding Mortenson’s work, though I guess I’m not entirely surprised. I personally didn’t question what I was reading, though I don’t think I was pulled into the ‘white hero’ image. Mostly, I was touched and inspired by what just some guy managed to do on a promise he once made, as well as the larger lessons of the impact of (specifically girls’) education. I also agree with you,

    “Because here is my perhaps unpopular view: there can be only one solution to education in Afghanistan and that is the Afghan Ministry of Education.”

    While I can’t say I know a lot about the issue, I do think that the intentions of outsiders may be pure and good, and the initial results of their interventions may be great, but something as long-term and complex as education cannot be carried out without the internal support and guidance from something like the Afghan Ministry of Education.

    And now, I look forward to reading your book. And it’s as others have said in their comments, all you can do is what you seem to be doing, apply the lesson learned from this situation.

    Thanks for the post. Best of luck with your book.

  9. Roxanne says:

    Thanks for writing this, Marianne – and for setting the wonderful friend straight on women’s education in Afghanistan 😉 I know she really appreciated it.

    I understand the heeby-jeebies (you know I only recently learned that word? non-native English speaker…) I think the way you talk about compressing events and time suggests a trait that I associate with reliable storytellers: You feel responsible for the story you are telling. I appreciate that immensely and cannot wait to buy your book.

    Thank you for synthesizing this complex issue so delicately. I always love reading your writing.

  10. This is a great post and thanks for adding your calm and nuanced voice to the noise. I like you was not as shocked or worried about empty schools. That is the nature of some dvelopment work– and its more common than not.Its not the best situation but it happens. I am always worried when individuals become bigger than the mission of their organization. I have worked at amazing organizations where founders have literally overshadowed the mission. It is NEVER about the founder and always about the communities being served. Our need for bigger, better, more exciting stories that will get more funding for an org encourages this type of exaggeration and ultimately hurts the communities they are trying to serve.

  11. […] 41. Three Cups of Humble Pie – Marianne Elliott – […]

  12. Heather says:


    Thanks so much for writing this. I spent three years working in Lahore with a local NGO focused on education development, and when I went through the first half of the Krakauer report last night many of these same thoughts were running through my head. I was thinking, “How can we really write with 100% objective truth about a place like Pakistan?”

    I also wasn’t surprised that some of the CAI schools are now standing empty. So many people are outraged about the 60 Minutes clip, but I think it comes across clearly in Krakauer’s report that the issues are much more complex than simply branding Mortenson as a fraud or a liar. Take ‘face’ into account, and I don’t think anyone but Greg Mortenson will ever know what really happened.

    Excellent post and analysis of the issues. Thanks!


  13. Swirly says:

    When I first got wind of this “scandal”, I refused to read too much about it, because I knew you would provide a thoughtful, balanced perspective of it. I am glad I listened to my intuition, and am deeply appreciative of the time and effort it took for you to compose this. I always value what you have to say about situations such as this.

  14. L says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful approach. The one thing I ponder is: what is the definition of “Memoir?”

    I Googled it, and found many definitions. None required a fact-by-fact approach. Most could be summarized as defining “Memoir” as a focus on a person’s experience, especially as how it relates to a relationship they experienced, or a turning point in their lives. Experience, it implies, may be external or internal, internal being how a person felt about a situation, or how it influenced their future decisions.

    –In the CAI’s response to the 60 Minutes store, it says that they indeed have put many measures in place in their quest to run a responsible foundation. Also, it said that some schools may have been visited during the off-season (our version of summer vacation). So, of course they would be empty at that time.

    –In reading Mortenson’s books, I don’t recall a promise to sustain lifelong operational funding for these schools. All I recall is that his and the CAI’s goal was to build the schools.

  15. kathleen says:

    Thank you for writing this very thoughtful post – I’m going to read the Krakauer report now. I still admire Mortenson’s work – and agree with your friend Roxanne – he deserves compassion, not blame or judgement.

  16. […] Providing help that’s not actually helpful like schools without teachers, a major theme of this blog. (see Not Even His Cause Was Worthy, Three Cups of Humble Pie) […]

  17. Yvonne says:

    I read his book early last year and really connected with it. I still think what he did was amazing but I agree with the finance part- everything should be accounted for!

    I feel compassion to for a man whose life work has been torn down in this way….

  18. Lianne says:

    Thank you for this, Marianne. Your insight is invaluable.

    I recently watched the documentary “Schooling the World” and it along with this controversy has me really considering my own beliefs around education in developing countries.

    I am *so* looking forward to your book.

  19. Thomas Hager says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. Writing nonfiction is a profession for Krakauer and a tool for Mortenson (and, let us not forget, his cowriter on “Three Cups,” a journalist named David Relin, who is now being blamed by Mortenson for the book’s problems). That is one reason I trust Krakauer’s reporting and suspect Mortenson’s. Careful, ethical nonfiction writers need not worry. The problems here arise not from condensation or narrative smoothing, but from making stuff up — in other words, lying. Mortenson’s good works are no excuse for his bad behavior.

  20. Captain Cat says:

    I respect and agree with some of your points (particularly about what he achieved by raising awareness and your mention of the need to work with ministries, which I v much agree with), but the issue stands: Mortenson misled his audience, thereby cheating them and the people he claimed to serve. His ego got in the way of what he was purporting to achieve and god knows what has happened to the money supposedly diverted for PR and outreach purposes. I have a hard time feeling compassion for someone who lied in a book about being kidnapped, when he was hosted for a week — probably at great expense — just to glorify a tale. The sad irony is that he didn’t need to glorify any of this; his intentions were good, he worked hard, he’s had incredible experiences. Yes it’s easy for the media to demonize and to seek to dismantle (sadly, it’s what they do), but seriously, what an idiot. He’s an idiot, because, as Foust correctly says, ‘Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping’.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Thanks Captain Cat – I was just reading it back and wondering if I’d gone too easy on him. The simple truth is that it is my commitment as a Buddhist is to extend compassion to everyone, even human rights violators and murderers so Mortenson definitely gets my compassion. But compassion doesn’t absolve us of our responsibilities and I agree strongly with the point you and Foust make about the damage this will do to the people his schools were intended to help.

  21. Emily Perry says:

    Thank you for your insight: it just amazes me with how big this all got:: i think the money issue is kind of the deal breaker for a lot of people. xo

  22. Tanya says:

    Marianne –
    What an incredibly thoughtful, robust, weighty and compassionate read/analysis/exploration on a situation that has confounded some, satiated some and inflamed others. Your touch soothes, clarifies and invokes.
    Bravo and thank you.

  23. Abbie says:

    This is an amazing post, Marianne – thank you!

  24. Sharon says:

    This is one of the more thoughtful posts I’ve read about Mortenson and I think we should be reminded of the need for compassion. However, if Krakauer is right, I have little problem with the issue of compressing events into a coherent narrative. But creating villains out of men who clamed to be his hosts seems a step beyond the writing process you describe. To create a kidnapping is just a lie- one that suggests a callous disregard for the goodwill shown him in the first place. (I say this mindful of your point that afghanis you deal will might dispute accusations made against them.). Further, that he might have rushed the building of a school to create a successful ending for Stones into Schools is more than an issue of writing for clarity and craftsmanship. All that said, I don’t think he’s a charlatan, but someone whose personal myth making got out of hand and who rejected any idea that he should be accountable to others.

  25. Tabitha says:

    Firstly, I have to admit to really only just opening my eyes to what’s going on in the world around me instead of merely my own little melodrama. So, I’d never heard of Greg Mortenson until your tweet the other day. Being ex-Army and still in touch with many of the friends I made while in the service, I have heard about the schools and clinics we built. Which unfortunately in most cases were later blown up or in some other way distroyed by enemy forces. I like so many of my fellow soldiers didn’t understand why we built these things other than we were told to do it. I feel childlike in my ignorance and thank you for opening my eyes. As far as your book goes, I look forward to reading it and being further educated. I completely agree with Elizabeth and Tara above, in thinking the public should be more accepting of your altering the reality of your tale with some mention of it in your foreward. People will always complain about something somewhere, I think that’s in our nature. But I hope there will be less complaints and more eyes opening like mine have been! Thank you Marianne!

  26. Joel says:

    I appreciate your effort to be fair and compassionate with Greg Mortenson, but in doing so you underestimate how devastating Krakauer’s article really is. Through careful, thorough reporting he demonstrates unequivocally that Mortenson is a serial liar who continues to misrepresent, literally up until the day before the article was published, where the money raised for CAI is actually going — largely into his pocket. He’s not even above stealing from kids through the Pennies for Peace program.

    Krakauer gets painful reactions from Mortenson’s hosts in Pakistan to how he grossly misrepresented their hospitality. Meeting the Afghan king on the plane? Again, a total fabrication. Are we supposed to accept that these lies should be explained away by the nature of the memoir as art form?

    Sorry, I don’t feel one ounce of sympathy or empathy for Greg Mortenson. He joins the long line of American scam artists who prey on our need for heroes, while playing brilliantly on our post-9/11 fears of Muslim fundamentalism. It’s a scam made especially bitter by his nauseating sanctimony, and I hope there is a reckoning.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Thanks Joel,

      For the record, I don’t think compassion is the same as sympathy and I certainly don’t think it absolves anyone of their responsibility to account for their actions, or for the impact of their actions.

      The extension of compassion to all beings is a spiritual commitment of mine, as part of my Buddhist practice. As I understand it, it has nothing to do with blame or absolution.

      Nor do I think that falsifying fact is acceptable in memoir, which is why I say:

      “Those of us who tell our readers that we are reporting life as we experienced it, rather than fiction, bear the responsibility of the trust our readers then place in us to report that life as carefully, mindfully and – yes – truthfully as we are able. If we plan to then leverage our story to encourage our readers to take action … then we bear an even heavier responsibility not to mislead them in any way.”

      I don’t think you and I see this so differently, but I accept that my tone in this post may be too conciliatory. I wondered about adding a section on the effects of his misrepresentations on the people misrepresented, and now I think I should have.

      Thanks for your comment!

  27. […] Marianne Elliott, of ZenPeacekeeper, wrote a thoughtful and nuanced post about the Mortensen situation yesterday.  I recommend her perspective. […]

  28. L says:

    Is it correct that Krakauer’s premise is that if you ask a kidnapper about his crime, he’ll be forthcoming?

    “Mr. Kidnapper, can you confirm that you kidnapped this guy?”

    “Oh, yes. Of course. Here are the details.”


    You don’t have to be a fan of gangster films to know:

    1. Mr. Kidnapper is incriminating himself.
    2. Mr. Kidnapper is making himself the target of the victim’s friends. Friend that may want to retaliate.

    The age-old cliche is that the kidnapper’s response, even if he actually did kidnap, is:

    “WHAT? He was a GUEST of ours. We kept him very comfortable. Saw to his every need. I am shocked, SHOCKED to hear he’d say such a thing!”

    How did this come to be a cliche? Hmm…

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Hi L, I guess that’s the point I was making about the police chief in my book. If you ask him “So Marianne alleges in her book that you were complicit with drug traffickers in your province. Is she telling the truth?”, my money is on him calling me a liar. In that situation I have to rely on my credibility as a writer and the fact that all my other assertions stand up to scrutiny. Mortenson’s problem is that there are so many other inconsistencies in his story that he is the one who has lost credibility.

  29. […] UPDATE: For my response to revelations that Greg Mortenson may have falsified events in his books, m… […]

  30. L says:

    Hi Marianne,

    “In that situation I have to rely on my credibility as a writer and the fact that all my other assertions stand up to scrutiny.”

    While Mr. Krakauer is a proven writer, I wonder the following:
    -What does he know of Aghani/Pakistani culture?
    -Does he speak the languages and dialects of all those he interviewed?
    -Isn’t there a high risk of miscommunication here? People from two vastly different cultures, classes, education levels; talking about situations long past.

    -My response to the king’s son saying his father had never been on a plane is: so what?

    Do we really know for certain that the father shared EVERY single part of his life with his son? From what I’ve read in other similar profiles of Afghani/Pakistani life, such as “The Bookseller of Kabul” and others, indeed, it was quite usual for fathers to keep all kinds of information from their sons.

    My point of view comes from an interest in dissecting the paths here. My motive is not so much to defend Mortenson as it is to look at the information provided by Krakauer, Mortenson and the CAI with a detective’s eye. I’m truly not on either side; it’s just a way of striving to be media literate for me.

    That said:
    -I’ve Googled Jon Krakauer in an attempt to find a blog, a place to leave comments for him, or even a Twitter name. He seems to be off the grid. With such an incendiary piece, why hide?
    -I wonder who funded Krakauer’s project?
    -None of Mortenson’s lack of business acumen is a surprise. That’s been clearly woven into his books.
    -People who have lived for extended periods in cultures that strongly contrast with their own understand how promptness is often not as valued in other cultures as it is in Western cultures.
    -If there was an issue with Mortenson using the CAI as an “ATM machine,” then the CAI board could have simply stopped reimbursing him. Just said no. Perhaps an employee would be shy about it, but boards of directors are in place to oversee such things, and can simply refuse reimbursement if criteria are not met. It sounds like they took a different approach; one of attempting to reason, or train Mortenson into creating better habits.
    -Traveling the way Mortenson travels, it seems that receipts may very well be hard to collect.
    -Mortenson has really never worked in a corporate atmosphere. None of this receipt behavior has been modeled. I had to learn it from my employers. Every company does it a little differently. Most accept written notes to account for tips. So, Mortenson’s lack of discipline regarding receipts, to me, is quite understandable.
    -One solution would be to pay “per diem.” This is a common business practice in which average daily food expenses are considered, and then a daily flat amount is given to the employee to spend as they wish.
    -The CAI has issued a written response to Krakauer’s allegations. Why no mention of that here? I first saw it in a link included in one of the first articles I saw on this topic earlier this week. It’s also on the CAI website. So – all this “care” to examine objectively and no acknowledgment of the CAI’s response? If one is to be thorough, the CAI’s statement should be considered.
    -The CAI concedes that it also has been challenged with regard to bookkeeping, but that it began taking steps to address these challenges long before Krakauer’s investigation.
    -Is it really so terrible for Mortenson to finally making a fairly normal salary after a decade+ of investing his own time, for nearly pro bono rates year after year?
    -Let’s also remember that there are powerful forces who feel threatened by anyone interfering in their sphere. When power is challenged, those in power fight back. Some of this power may be from people who sincerely believe that war is best. Others may be motivated by religion. So again, I wonder, who funded Krakauer’s investigation?
    -People often mistake a person’s credibility and expertise (Krakauer’s) for transferring into areas in which they have no expertise at all. In this case, Krakauer’s “credibilty” simply does not hold water regarding THIS STORY. In reading his piece, the tone is very much cloaked in a tone of U.S. journalist’s perspective, but not so much in an objective way, as in packing in “evidence” to meet a pre-determined goal. I did not see empathy for cultural differences in his writing. Did you?
    -The vast majority of readers who see this have probably not had the chance to live in a culture that is strongly different from their own. They have no reason to be aware of how differently people of strongly contrasting cultures interpret the world: questions, memories, time, stature, protocol, etc. Not having experienced it, how would they know to look more closely and ask those questions? Does Krakauer know? I don’t see it. Do his readers know? I am not convinced. That makes it all the more odd to me that this inflammatory, vicious style of work has been essentially “dumped and ditched” upon the public.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Excellent point about my failure to link to the CAI response, that was an unacceptable oversight and I’ve done so now. Given that we bloggers don’t have editors I’m always grateful to readers who take the time to point out oversights like that.

  31. BisforBread says:

    […] of asparagus season, and even more about the recent revelations about Greg Mortensen’s outrageous failings with CAI and the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East. We’ve listened to NPR broadcasts on […]

  32. Lubna says:

    Hi Marianne,
    Thanks for your insights and L, thank you for your comments. Any Non Profit, which is rapidly expanding does face challenges on various fronts. I do hope CAI can put all this behind them and that their schools continue to be rightly used. It is for the community in Afghanistan/Pakistan to utilize the school structures well.
    Marianne, please do not be nervous regarding your book. You have already thought through things in a sensible manner and your book can contain a Letter to your Readers, explaining things, just as you have in this blog.
    Greg’s book impacted me. True, I knew about the Aga Khan Foundation, but Greg showed me that a single person can also do things. He prompted me to contribute my mite towards girl’s education, even if, in my own country India. Thus, to me, Greg remains an idol.
    Best regards,

  33. Tom says:

    As a “socialist” are you giving away all the proceeds of your book?

  34. Kate O'Hehir says:

    Ms. Elliot:

    Thank you for being a calm “voice in the wilderness” over this issue.

    I agree with those who feel this is coming across as a witch hunt and/or vandetta by Krakauer. He has had to eat humble pie in the mountaineering community for his factual errors in the past over “Into Thin Air,” dodging a libel case when A. Boukereev died a year after the fatal accident he recounts, and continues to marginalize others in his books (the Mormons are quite unhappy about how they are portrayed in “Under the Banner,”) “Into the Wild,” also contained several factual errors, and Chris McCandles’ family was also upset with Krakauer. He never apologized to them, either.

    So, writers get it wrong. They should do what Mortenson is trying to do, apologize and move on. Krakauer remains unapologetic for anything he ever wrote, has refused to change passages even with black and white evidence to refute him.

    He is a bitter, angry man who has done more harm to an organization to help girls get an education. He wasn’t thinking about those girls. He wasn’t thinking about anything but the thrill of causing controversy which only servies to promote his books over others, and I will protest anyone paying $2.98 for his e-book.

  35. Kento Nowami says:

    “They should do what Mortenson is trying to do, apologize and move on.”

    Mortenson is NOT apologizing. He is standing by the main parts of the story that Krakauer is criticizing.

  36. Kento Nowami says:

    “dodging a libel case when A. Boukereev died a year after the fatal accident he recounts,”

    Couldn’t that man’s estate sue?

  37. Kento Nowami says:

    About the estate thing, from my understanding relatives of recently deceased could sue for damages too, if the info about the deceased affects the family

  38. Hi Marianne,

    It was only 3 weeks ago that I picked up “Stones into Schools” in a bookshop and chose it for my bookclub. I read it first and told my husband “It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, beautifully written and deeply inspiring.” I also realised then it wasn’t his first book so I went to download “Three cups of Tea” on to my Kindle and was confronted with all this breaking controversy about Greg Mortenson. I must say I was completely flabbergasted.
    With the books still fresh in my mind, I need to say, I don’t think Greg portrays himself as a hero and until very recently the money didn’t flow like water. I think that reading about the remote and inaccessible places he found himself in and the constant demands for unrelated help he received, the heart of the man would indicate to me that he got involved in helping a lot of causes he doens’t even mention in his books although he tried to steel himself against them. The hours he and his team worked and the large amounts of cash they had to carry to far-flung places, how could they possibly have written down every amount they spent when they were tired beyond bearing and lived on abruphen to cope?
    So much is made of his failure to ascend K2 but I’ve seen no one say that the reason he didn’t succeed was because of the effort it took for him and their group to save a fellow climber from certain death.
    He speaks of the demands on his team and the pace they worked at – a small but dedicated group that all made great personal sacrifices and took serious risks at times to see their projects through. They believed in what they did and gave no thought to becoming heroes. There was a far greater chance of them ending up in unmarked graves.
    Things are not clean-cut black and white as people would like them to be, especially not in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even growing up in Zimbabwe, amongst a few different African tribes, life was not a tad as confusing or complicated for me as the physical elements and social structures of those Muslim countries where Greg ends up pursuing what he feels is a calling.
    I am horrified at how quickly the American public are to turn on him and condemn him and believe the worst. It is a reflection of their own cynism and view of modern day humanity because that’s the way of people are – into something, only for what they can gain from it for themselves, so they don’t want to believe that there is still someone idealistic who genuinely has better motives. Already there are attempts to sue him to get 3 times what they gave, back. That he wilfully and purposefully, defrauded the NGO I seriously doubt. That this character assassination could seriously hurt him and his work is a real possibility. Who will win in the end – no-one, least of all the schools in far away places. Another man bites the dust! For what reason, news channels constantly looking for stories that dish up dirt to improve their ratings and we all know that bad news attracts more attention than good news. I still believe he is genuine if not perfect. His organisation has grown faster than he could cope with and his management skills are wanting but he needs assistance and support not public humiliation and a bashing.

  39. Very insightful post. As the Founder of Bridges to Prosperity, I took Steve Jobs story to heart years ago (his original departure from Apple). So, before my Board starting asking about Founders Syndrone, I took the lead and divested. It was the best thing I ever did relative to Bridges to Prosperity sustainability, growth and success. I knew from the original reading of 3 cups that Greg was in for a rough road in this regard. One more thought: Founders of Humanitarian organizations that partner with the media to help grow their creations, need professional PR consultants. To try to sustain an image like Greg’s takes some heavy duty horsepower.

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