Rating:Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, by Jon Krakauer. Anchor (2011) 96 pages.
Vindication! I read Three Cups of Tea a couple of years ago, well before the scandal broke (via the April 17 episode of 60 Minutes), and was unable to get more than halfway through it. Not because of boredom (though there was plenty of that), nor the quality of the writing—something about the book simply pissed me off. I was angry enough to post a review of the book on this website, even though our policy is to review only books that we have completed. In my review (which I ended up removing about a year after it was posted, in order to conform to Book Shark policy), I mentioned that I found myself hating the author, as well as the cultish behavior of his followers. (I recall a friend of a friend carrying on for over a half an hour about how life-changing the book was, and how he had come to realize that his life was utterly meaningless and sad compared to Greg’s. He was clearly in the thralls of cultish Greg worship, and it freaked me out.)
Three Cups of Tea felt disingenuous to me. I could not understand his behavior following his “kidnapping.” Why were there no emotional repercussions of any sort? He simply carries on as if nothing had happened, filled with the same humanitarian urges as before, with no feelings of anger toward the “kidnappers” or any doubt whatsoever about their worthiness to receive 100 percent of his time and devotion? While ignoring his newborn baby on the other side of the planet? I kept wondering about a father who would have so little interest in getting to know his own new baby (firstborn) because the children of people who supposedly almost killed him needed his help. Actually, I wondered a great deal about his true feelings toward children, because I didn’t believe he particularly liked them. Part of what felt false as I read was this: here is a person who has made his life’s purpose helping children. That’s why he wrote the book, why he started his charity, why he was doing everything—it was all For the Children! And yet children are almost entirely absent from the book. He doesn’t talk to them, interact with them, or explain in any detail what he hoped the schools will do for them. In the few places they do appear, they are not portrayed as individuals but as a homogenous little pack of star-struck fans, completely in awe of him, pulling on his hands, leading him to and fro, and so on. Cute little monkeys—part of what makes the landscape quirky and fun, but certainly not any meaningful aspect of the book. I found this very odd indeed, and couldn’t believe he failed to relate a single conversation with a child in his book. What did the kids hope to learn? What subjects would they study? What had their schooling been like thus far? What did they have to say about a new school? I blamed the editor for not getting Greg to answer these questions, then gave up on the book in disgust.
And now I’ve just finished the exposé Three Cups of Deceit. Who better to bring Greg’s evils to light than the amazing and brilliant Jon, one of the most engaging writers on the planet, an actual mountaineer and humanitarian, and himself a victim of Greg’s, having donated about a hundred thousand dollars to the fake charity?
Deceit is a slim book at just 75 pages, but nobody researches as thoroughly and passionately as Jon, and this is a must read not only for those who read (or tried to read) Tea, but also anyone with a general interest in charlatans. The kidnapping was a lie. Schools were not built. Millions of dollars were squandered. The IRS was lied to. Everybody he ever met was lied to. And I bet I’m right that he doesn’t even like kids.
(Interesting side note for those following the fascinating new field of memoir fraud litigation. The same lawyer who filed the suit against James Frey’s publisher, on the grounds that the book was falsely advertised as nonfiction and consumers were due their money back, is now seeking restitution for Tea readers, on the same grounds. Read about it here. Shockingly, only 1,345 readers actually requested a refund for Frey’s book. Let’s all demand our money back for Greg’s fake book!)