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?