Three Cups of Pennies

I have to confess, I have never read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. I use “confess,” because Three Cups of Tea is one of those books that was “you must read” / “what do you mean, you didn’t read it”. And, I didn’t. Not my cup of tea. (Groan).

My main knowledge of Mortenson before last week was from the Pennies for Peace program, a program embraced by schools and libraries. Those who use the Collaborative Summer Reading Program materials will find information on using that program and summer reading. (I’m writing this from home, so don’t have access to those materials. Monday night I’ll edit with specifics). (Disclaimer: my state is one of those that had libraries that participated in Pennies for Peace.)

Because of Pennies for Peace, it was with great interest that I followed last week’s news reports about misstatements found in Mortenson’s books and allegations about misuse of funds from his charities, both Central Asia Institute  (CAI) and Pennies for Peace. I watched the 60 Minutes report, Questions Over Greg Mortenson’s Stories and bought and read Jon Krakauer’s expose, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian, Lost his Way (excuse the link to Amazon. Krakauer’s article is part of the new Byliner Originals website, which will have original writing and articles like Three Cups of Deceit. For a few days, the article was available for free; now it costs $2.99 and is only available via Kindle editions. I gladly paid $2.99 to read on my iPhone using the Kindle App.) I’ve read through the various statements listed on the CAI homepage. I’ve read some of the responses, such as What Mortenson Got Wrong at the New Yorker, Greg Mortenson’s Dizzying Fall From Grace at the Guardian, and Three Cups of Tea, Spilled by Nick Kristof at The New York Times; and posts like Three Cups of Tea Author Lied for All The Right Reasons (The Stir, a Cafe Mom blog).

For those of you who haven’t heard, in a nutshell, what 60 Minutes and Krakauer allege (and I urge you to watch and read them yourselves, rather than relying on another’s interpretation): Three Cups of Tea contains fictional events presented as fact, including changing the village that was first promised a school; the finances of CAI, Pennies for Peace, and Mortenson individually are co-mingled to a confusing and overreaching degree and the monies raised are not used as represented by CAI and Pennies for Peace; schools that were built are not as they are represented by Mortenson and CAI; and a school was built to provide the Three Cups of Tea sequel, Stones into Schools, a satisfying narrative.

Personally, the questions I am most interested in seeing answered have to do with the Pennies for Peace program and what happened (and is happening) with those contributions.

As a reader, I’m curious about the issues of truth in memoir. Ashley Judd wrote a memoir of her childhood, All That is Bitter and Sweet, and her mother’s response was that she honored her daughter’s reality. That is a pretty respectful way to address that question of whose truth appears in a memoir. Krakauer’s report, however, is far more damning than a difference in interpretation of events. Rather, it’s about Mortenson changing what happened in order to make it a better story, to make it more compelling, to make the reader respond. And, for Stones into Schools, it’s about creating facts — creating a school — so that a book can say “and then we created the school!”

As a former lawyer, I am fascinated and appalled by the management and finances of CAI, as put forth by 60 Minutes and Krakauer.

What also intrigues me is the question of gurus; of those people whose personality is so overwhelming that things aren’t questioned, questions aren’t asked, and when they are asked, are dismissed because how can you say this about someone who has done such and thus? How much is forgiven when the person is likable? Has done some good? I mean, really — no one noticed that Mortenson wrote about seeing Mother Teresa’s corpse after she died, and using the wrong year of her death, to point to one factual inaccuracy. Gurus aren’t only in charities; they are in publishing, in the library world, in many places.

What does it say about us that so many people fell hard for Mortenson and his story? That the defenses include “even if it’s true….” So even if it’s true that the pennies from schoolchildren paid for private jets, it’s OK because…well, because it’s Greg? Because he has raised awareness of education in Pakistan and Afghanistan? The Atlantic, in the Magical Myth of Instant Development, delves further into why Mortenson’s story is appealing, and Two Cups Short of Full Service (Easily Distracted blog, by Timothy Burke) offers more insight. Reading all this also makes me wonder…. why schools? No, really — is formal, traditional schooling like we have in the US really the answer, the blueprint, for everywhere?

As my friend Jone asked on Twitter, what is a librarian to do with the Mortenson books now? How do we respond to patrons’ questions? What about ourselves — do we need the “instant development” myth so badly that we will believe when the next individual comes up, or is it possible to become wiser about those myths?


12 thoughts on “Three Cups of Pennies

  1. My “grown up” book club read the book last year. One of our members was quite vehement that the book did not ring true and she thought parts of it were fabricated. After that discussion we decided to focus our discussions on novels/fiction as nonfiction was too contentious. All of this is quite interesting in light off that discussion. Seems we were reading fiction after all!


  2. I don’t know about any of the rest of the allegations, but I can attest that CAI did in fact use commercial booksellers to donate items to public libraries. My branch received boxes from Barnes and Noble with 3 copies of 3 Cups of Tea. One box of hard covers, one box of trade paper and one box of audio cds. Every branch in my system did. That’s 72 branches.


  3. Admitedly I’m not much of a memoir reader, in fact I’m not a memoir reader at all so these issues tend to pass me by. Having said that I think the onus is on everyone involved (author, publisher specifically) to provide truthful information. If it’s fictionalized then it shouldn’t be marketed or categorized as a memoir it should be labled as fiction.

    But like you, it seems the larger of the two issues is the misappropriation of funds. Unethical at best, that money should have been used towards funding that which contributors were lead to believe it would be. I can see using some for travel expenses (if the travel was critical to the mission of the organization and was done so economically) but private jets and what not is excessive, inappropriate and not at all appropriate.


  4. Thank you for a balanced analysis. I encourage you to read one more: Charity Watch’s analysis of CAI’s accounting irregularities, including a March 2011 update.

    As a writer, I am less troubled about a memoir containing compressed timelines or taking liberties with the facts than I am the misappropriation of tax exempt funds.

    However the insults to Mortensen’s Afghan and Pakistani hosts (calling them Taliban, alleging being kidnapped) are deeply offensive. As Krakauer alleges, this behavior likely would keep him from being able to run an effective organization in those regions, if that is typical of how he portrays and treats people who offered him hospitality and a window into their culture.


  5. Book Moot, I’m sure that reader is saying “I was right!”

    Shayera, wow. that’s a lot of books.

    Michelle, I think it’s tricky once it gets away from differences in perspective. Five people can live through the same thing and view it 5 different ways; I get that. Here, though, it seems to be more deliberate than just a differing point of view. I know for some memoir/nonfiction, there are disclaimers about names changed, etc. I’m not sure if 3 Cups of Tea had that or not; if it would have been enough. Personally, I prefer such notes in works of historical fiction (…”three years were combined into one year”) so why not for memoir? Part of what I can’t go over for this is how long it was going on. This isn’t newish growing pains as the organization goes from individual to nonprofit. CAI is now 15 years old; Krakauer sites concerns raised 9 years ago. And, at this point, how to parse out what is Mortenson individual and what is Mortenson CAI spokesperson?

    Windy, thanks for the link. And yes, the treatment of cultures is disturbing. I didn’t comment that much on it as I didn’t read the original books, so am unsure if Krakauer has highlighted the worst of it or if it’s throughout the book. The quote about eating meat was bothersome, as (aside from the Taliban allegations) it seems a classic example of making the “other” brutal, barbaric, etc. Yet others who have read it seem to take the view that it’s a positive portrayal. Honestly, at this point I won’t invest the time to read the books but look forward to others’ responses.


  6. I’m curious to know what libraries will do with the book if it is determined that it is… what? Myth? Hoax? Fraud?

    By most of America, I’d be considered an “other” because I’m Pueblo Indian (American Indian). We are one of the groups that are the subject of campaigns to ‘save’ us from… poverty. Most of those campaigns are scams. As Thanksgiving nears, I get mail asking me to donate a sum of money so a Native family can have a turkey for their Thanksgiving. Double the sum and even more families will get turkeys. That’s just flat out GROSS, given the history and way that “Thanksgiving” story is told in the U.S.

    Year round I get the catalog from a foundation selling turquoise jewelry and the like, so that poor Indian people can be helped by the foundation that sells the jewelry for them. It is bogus and has been covered by Charity Watch:

    And then there’s the one that features an elderly Native woman standing by an old wood stove. They’ve got a better stove in mind, if only we’ll buy their jewelry (which I doubt is made by Native artists).

    We’ll see what comes of the Mortensen investigation. But back to your question. I’d like to know, too, what librarians will do with the books. What did they do with the Frey book? What about the hoax of EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE?


  7. Debbie, it was pointed out to me on Twitter that since last week & next week are prime school vacation periods, maybe there hasn’t been that much library discussion because of people being on vacation. The issue of where in the collection is definately one to address; as is what to tell students now, especially those who participated in Pennies.

    To be fair, right now these are allegations. Troubling ones, yes, but I think libraries/schools/others do need some time to learn more. I’m definately interested in seeing how it plays out on the different levels — how the books are treated, whether there will be any changes at CAI, whether CAI will refute the allegations, etc.


  8. Thanks for this great roundup. It save me a lot of time and I gave it all back reading the links.

    I like the way the people who are handling the allegations are going about. It looks as if they’ve been at it for at least a year, and are doing their research.

    One thing that makes me very upset is the CAI paying for Mortenson’s travels to promote and sell his books. Which the CAI admitted was true when they answered 60 minutes questions. That in itself tells me how this may go.


  9. I read the book before it was a bestseller and was just impressed with the work being done. (Call me gullible!) However, a few months ago a KidLit Book Club I’m in looked at the adult and children’s versions of Greg Mortenson’s books. The consensus was that they were books about how wonderful Greg Mortenson is, and the children’s books were written better.

    Anyway, I was interested in that perspective from the other book club members. They weren’t convinced Mortenson was really as wonderful as the books were trying to portray. And now this….


  10. Doret, thanks! When I start reading posts I can right away tell whether or not Krakauer’s full article has been read because of what they are, and are not, reacting to or saying. One thing I liked about Krakauer’s article, and his interview with 60 Minutes, is pointing out that Mortenson has done good. He’s just not a saint, and in ways that impact his organization’s mission. Krakauer points out that when 3 schools are built, Mortenson said 11. Why exagerate when 3 is a great number to begin with? I look forward to hearing more responses on the allegations, because right now the responses (all detailed at the CAI site) arent, in my opinion, very strong. Especially the defenses of CAI promoting Mortenson’s book.

    Sondy, I wonder what the book club is going to say about this at the next meeting. Given the extensive time this covers, as well as the rather late stage entrance of the book, it seems like part of it may be a person believing their own press, caught up in the magic of their own story. We’ll see.


  11. Jody, I just saw this where one of the 3 CAI Board Members (and Mortenson is one of the 3) says he hasn’t read Krakauer’s piece because he doesn’t like the title. “I was put off by the title, ‘Three Cups of Deceit.’ It was too inflammatory,” he said. “I will read it when the semester is over,” in about three weeks.” How can CAI respond to the allegations if they don’t read the allegations?!


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