Book Review: Three Cups of Deceit

Mental note: If Jon Krakauer is investigating you, you better get the heck out of Dodge.

Three Cups of Deceit, which Krakauer turned into a thin book of powerful investigative reporting after first publishing his article as an ebook, is a stunning, unflinching and devastating examination of activist Greg Mortenson and the experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to his best-selling books  — Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools — and his efforts to build schools in that region of the world.

I had heard about Krakauer’s report, and the 60 Minutes interview, and I was interested in the unfolding saga because, like many other schools, we used the young reader’s version of Three Cups of Tea to teach our students about different cultures, about making a difference in the world, and about the use of non-fiction to examine a story of significance. Two years ago, all fifth and sixth graders in our school read the book, did projects about the book and Mortenson, and raised money for Pennies for Peace at a benefit concert at our school. A group of students even personally met with Mortenson during one of his talks and handed him a check for his project.

Now, what do I think? I’m pissed off, actually.

Krakauer rips apart Mortenson’s story from the very start, showing how much “fiction” went into this non-fiction narrative that he created with Three Cups of Tea. I never held Mortenson up as a hero or anything, but still … the number of inaccuracies in his account of his experience in the region (from how he was saved by a small village to how he chose Korphe for the first school to his account of being kidnapped, and more and more and more and more …) gives me a long pause on my role as a teacher introducing the story to my students. I can’t shake the feeling that Mortenson deceived me, and that I in turn deceived my students. Most disappointing is the trail of money through Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and the lack of schools built that are actually now schools in operation, which was the whole point of Pennies for Peace and student activism.

It comes down to character, and Krakauer (who once donated tens of thousands of dollars to Mortenson’s efforts before smelling something fishy and launching his investigation) is someone I trust as a journalist. Mortenson, through his actions and silence on where the millions are going, is now very suspect (he better watch out for the IRS  because he has lot of cash to account for). Krakauer does make clear that Mortenson had good intentions all along — helping educate children, particularly girls, in a part of the world where Americans are often seen as the enemy — but his actions on translating the collective good will and charity from the American public, including young children, into actual change is now in question.

I feel let down by Mortenson and angry at him. And I wish I had that class of students from two years back again for a final talk about the newest developments. I would make it a lesson in fiction and fraud.

Peace (in the tea leaves),


Share this post:
  1. My reaction was much the same as yours. I think I also trusted Krakauer’s account because … well maybe I’m assuming too much, but I would think that an an author who’s accusing another author of fudging information would out of necessity be very careful about his OWN information! ;D

    It makes me wonder – what is the role of the author’s agent? publisher? in ensuring the accuracy of a work marketed as nonfiction.

    And it made me glad that I read Three Cups of Tea by checking it out from my public library.

  2. I heard a really interesting perspective from a friend who said Americans have no idea what is really going on over there… and that Mortenson’s story is more complicated than what we know. Made me feel a lot less harsh toward him.

    • I wonder at what point do we say that good intentions and a good heart (both of which I think he has) aren’t enough when millions of dollars are at stake, though? Of course, it must be very complicated to create an educational system in that part of the world. The cultural barriers are huge. But transparency for an organization that mines the hearts of people, including our students, and asks them to put their money where their heart is is not too much to ask.
      Thanks for stopping by, T.

      • I wonder at what point do we say that good intentions and a good heart (both of which I think he has) aren’t enough when millions of dollars are at stake, though?

        WOW. Are you sure you’re not talking about Bill Gates’ foray into public ed here in the US?

  3. Here is a great article about three cups of tea and others who are out to school the world by filmmaker Carol Black…

    Three Cups of Fiction
    Posted by Carol Black ⋅ May 11, 2011 ⋅ 36 Comments

    On Greg Mortenson, and how our collective fantasy about saving the world with schools goes from romance to comedy to tragedy. The recent revelation that Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea is based on fictionalized accounts of his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan….

    love to have you join the conversation there….

    David Loitz

  4. Pingback: Kevin's Meandering Mind » More on Mortenson, Three Cups and the World

  5. A lot of people are complaining about Mortenson and his non-profit which had done both good and perhaps screwed up in a difficult, dangerous part of the world. Take a look closer to home and the corruption and failure in the Atlanta public school system. As a teacher, I believe there is no better good to support than education, and schools are not perfect.

    But few Americans seems to mind that our tax payer dollars are being wasted at a much greater quantity in places like Afghanistan. Hundreds of millions of tax dollars go to waste and un-accounted for in Afghanistan through agencies like USAID. Krakauer should use his energy to scrutinize the government instead of going after a lost cause.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *