How many lies in Three Cups of Tea? ~ Emily Gubler

Via on Apr 27, 2011
Photo: 60 Minutes, CBS News

Yet another hero is toppled as critics claim that an inspiring bestseller contains lies and its author is hiding money. How to react?

I’ll start this off by stating some of my biases: I have read Three Cups of Tea, I have heard Greg Mortenson speak (at UNC Greeley, Feb 10, 2010) and I have given the Central Asia Institute (C.A.I) money. I’ve never been head-over-heels in love with Mortenson (he wasn’t a very good speaker and the book does reek of “noble savages”) but as a climber who changed his life to help others (or so the story goes) I’ve respected him as someone who managed to do something to improve the world.

Photo: Viking Hardcover

I was surprised and disheartened tonight to read about the current controversy surrounding him and his organization. Below are links to some of the stories. The last link is an in-depth collection of writings about this controversy.

In short, “60 minutes” aired an exposé (see below) of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute last Sunday. Since the “60 minutes” piece, others, notably Jon Krakauer, himself an acclaimed author/journalist, have come forward with more information. The critics are claiming that Mortenson’s book contains gross inaccuracies (including his claim to have been nursed to health in Korphe and having been kidnapped by Taliban), that he claims more schools have been built than actually have, and that there are financial issues with the amount of money from donations actually going to the schools and the amount of money from the C.A.I. going to promote Mortenson’s books.

60 Minutes April 17, 2011 story (video)

New York Times Opinion Piece April 20, 2011

New Yorker April 21, 2011 story

Outside Online article (no date posted)

Three Cups of Deceit (I haven’t read this; it costs $2.99 and is apparently a 75-page article by Jon Krakauer about the controversy)

A great collection of many writings about this controversy: as of this writing, this website has collected almost 150 different articles about the controversy and a few background articles about the work of the C.A.I. The same website has an excellent discussion (here) of this scandal as part of the larger issues of global aid and philanthropy.

What do I want to say about this controversy? Again, there is the I Don’t Know What I Know problem that I have written about before. I am forming all my opinions on the writing and research of others; I have no idea how accurate that work is. With the media and names such as Jon Krakauer and 60 minutes involved everything gets even more confusing.

My second thought is the now-cliché idea that we need to always topple our heroes. Greg Mortenson is clearly not perfect, as a climber, a fund-raiser or (I suspect) a manager. I’m now reading concepts that building schools wasn’t helpful to these kids, instead, training and paying teachers may have helped more.

But he still did something.

I don’t know if he did get off track, if C.A.I. became a money-maker for him through book tours, if he lied about the first time he went to Korphe. From what I’ve read, I suspect that he had good intentions but his skills were overwhelmed. Perhaps building schools for girls wasn’t the most helpful thing for the area. I suspect the organization was poorly managed and inefficient. I’m not giving Mortenson a free pass for his errors; it is each of our responsibility to recognize our weaknesses and improve or ask for help.

But right now, knowing the little that I know, I give him kudos for doing something.


Emily Gubler lives with two wonderful special needs dogs in the mountains of Colorado. When she isn’t walking her dogs, she is contemplating and writing about the ordinary contradictions of life here.

This article was previously published on

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9 Responses to “How many lies in Three Cups of Tea? ~ Emily Gubler”

  1. L N Rother says:

    At least "he did something" is not good enough for me. As a potential donor, I want to know my hard earned funds are being used for the purpose they were intended. I accept nothing other than that. Without "individual" watchdogs besides official watchdog organizations, there are no limits to what a non for profit can do or hide from donors. I know, I was the CFO of a major non for profit.
    I just won't accept the "at least he did something" theory!

  2. Emily says:

    LN Rother, the more I read the more I'm agreeing with you. As someone who has never been in Afganistan and has little experience working for non-profits, I'm beginning to think my initial reaction was naive. I still prefer doing something to not doing something… I think the question for me is becoming "what can I do that is significantly positive." Thanks for the comment!

  3. yogiclarebear says:

    This is a hard one for me too. I can't say much…don't know what is true or what! But I do "feel" that Mr. Mortenson had good intentions overall. That does NOT excuse any ego-ness or untruth or manipulation that occurred. It is a really sad situation, hard. Thanks for your post and outlining the news, regarding.

  4. Emily says:

    Yogiclarebear, you define the struggle I am feeling as well. At first (and when I wrote this piece) I really wanted to forgive Mortenson for poor management. The more I learn and think about it the less I feel that way. Thanks for the comment!

  5. tjlucca says:

    If aspects of the book are untrue, that is a major let down. Though, I think we should give him an opportunity to respond. The CAI being poorly managed doesn't indicate sinister intent. In addition, no one could have said for sure what the outcome of building schools for girls would have been before it was actually done.

  6. Mary Lou says:

    I believe that Mortenson will be the first to admit to being a poor financial administrator. I believe, in fact, he said this in his book. For me, the essence is – did the work he do actually make a difference?
    (As for kidnapped by the Taliban, how can that be really proved or disproved? The Taliban is not one conglomerate organization where each knows what is going on with each little band.)

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