60 Minutes and Greg Mortenson’s Fraud: The Power of Sentimentality

As you probably know, Greg Mortenson is the best-selling author of two books that detail his efforts to build schools and promote the education of young girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan — Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools.  On CBS, 60 Minutes recently aired a segment which revealed convincing evidence that much of Mortenson’s narrative is a fraud:  some of his heart-warming stories are exaggerated or mis-represented, others invented whole cloth.  The segment also highlights financial improprieties at Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, which Mortenson has used to pay millions of dollars for his book tours without sharing the proceeds of those books with his charity.  If you haven’t seen the segment, you can view it here.

These books are required reading for U.S. servicemen deployed to Afghanistan.  In the liberal-minded district where my children have gone to school, Three Cups of Tea is assigned almost every academic year:  it exemplifies the values of altruism and social service heavily promoted by its instructors and administration.  According to the teachers who assign it, this book is full of tales that should fire your idealism, inspiring you to emulate Greg Mortenson’s self-sacrifice and dedication to social service; it presents an alternative model to the egoistic, selfish approach to life that seems so prevalent in our society today.  My kids hated it.  My oldest son found it manipulative and preachy.

The 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson’s fraud shows that he used his stories, retailed in two best-selling books and hyped with promotional tours and speaking engagements, to solicit donations to the Central Asia Institute, which he used as his own “personal ATM.”  Despite the way my own children felt about Three Cups of Tea, it apparently does the job Mortenson intended, for his charity has collected millions and millions of dollars in donations.  A look at some of his core stories — his founding myths, so to speak — will show why he has been so effective in bilking the public.

It all began when Mortenson decided to climb K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, in order to honor his sister Christa’s memory.  Christa died from a seizure after struggling with epilepsy throughout her life, only the day before a planned trip to visit the Iowa cornfield where Kevin Costner filmed Field of Dreams.  Apparently it had been Christa’s long-cherished dream to visit that spot; Field of Dreams was her favorite movie.  She died before she could fulfill that dream, so Mortenson decided to climb K2 and place her necklace at the summit in remembrance.  Thus the Mortenson saga begins with a young life cut tragically short by disease after long suffering; it involves thwarted dreams and a selfless act of dedication.

Mortenson never reached the summit of K2.  Because he and his companions had to spend more than 75 hours rescuing a fellow hiker, they were forced to turn back; Mortenson, weak and exhausted, took a wrong turn on the descent and was separated from the rest of his party.  Days later, he wandered into the tiny village of Korphe.  In numerous interviews, Mortenson has told how the villagers “gave me everything they had — their yak, their butter, their tea.  They put warm blankets over me and nursed me back to health.”  He later found a group of young girls writing their school lessons with sticks in the dust.  According to Mortenson, “a young girl named Cho-cho came up to me and said, ‘Could you help us build a school?’  I made a rash promise that day and I said, ‘I promise I’ll help you build a school.’  Little did I know it would change my life forever.'”  Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes refers to this as a “powerful and heart-warming tale.”

In addition to the continuing theme of self-sacrifice and thwarted dreams (saving the other hiker prevented Mortenson from completing his ascent), we now have the good villagers, motivated by concern and generosity, who nurse Mortenson back to health.  Then there’s Cho-cho, that good little girl, who so badly wants to have a school where she would be able learn!  And Mortenson, the hero who makes a promise that changes his life forever.  If it sounds like the story line of some sentimental movie, it’s because this turns out to be a carefully constructed work of fiction:  there’s widespread agreement among people who know Greg Mortenson, including one of the hikers as well as the porters on the expedition, that Mortenson did not hike out alone and didn’t visit the village of Korphe until more than a year later.

No sentimental tale would be complete without its bad guys:  another one of the central stories in the Mortenson saga is that he was once abducted by members of the Taliban, who held him hostage for 8 days.  According to Mortenson, he eventually won them over when he asked for a Koran.  He even has pictures of those men in one of his books.  60 MINUTES tracked down four of the men in that photo, who all insist they are not members of the Taliban and that Mortenson was not kidnapped.  The entire story is a fraud.

In all of these founding myths, Greg Mortenson comes across as the good guy.  In the black-and-while world he portrays, he’s the hero, a “doer of good deeds,” as the Wizard of Oz might have described him.  Evil epilepsy took his sister Christa and so Mortenson climbed a mountain to honor her memory; the bad Talibani kidnapped Mortenson but he won them over when he asked for that Koran; abject poverty deprived Cho-cho of an education but Greg Mortenson built her a school!

Hampton Sides in Newsweek believes that Greg Mortenson’s fraud succeeded because of the particular nature of America’s longing for heroes:  “We yearn to believe not only in his good deeds but in his inherent goodness as a person. Perhaps it’s something rooted in our Puritan past, but we seem to have a monochromatic view of heroism. We have a hard time believing that the doer of a heroic deed could have serious defects or even be rotten to the core. Heroes are supposed to be heroic—period. We prefer to take ours neat.”  I entirely agree but I think the issue goes much deeper than a longing for all-white heroes.

People everywhere want to believe that conflicts and problems can be resolved in a permanent way, whether it’s the internal conflict between love and hatred inherent in human relationships, or complicated external conflicts between opposing sides in war.   Tolerating ambiguity and living with ongoing conflict is difficult; we’d much rather have a final solution, where the world ultimately turns “white” and good triumphs forever.  The Harry Potter books, the Star Wars saga and countless other myths and fables reflect our longing to see the world in terms of black and white, with good ultimately and permanently victorious.  If we want desperately to believe, as Hampson Sides writes, in our hero’s inherent goodness as a person (his non-conflicted goodness), it’s because we long to be that way ourselves:  full of positive, loving emotions only, untroubled by the other feelings that cause us trouble, such as greed, jealousy, envy, anger and hatred.  The longing to be free of such ambivalence lies at the core of sentimentality.

Greg Mortenson succeeded because he gave us such a world to believe in, where we could feel good about his altruistic deeds, and good about ourselves for supporting his cause.  By subscribing to his myth and writing him a check, we could all be white-hatted heroes, riding in upon our white steeds to save the world from poverty and ignorance.  Greg Mortenson’s stated goal of promoting the education of young women in Afghanistan is worth supporting; I don’t in any way intend to demean that goal or question the value of philanthropy in the developing world.  What I resist is the manipulative way these goals are promoted, where lies about human nature are used to evoke a sentimental response that prompts us to give money.  Evoke that misty-eyed response and watch the hand reach for the checkbook.

No, thanks.

Finding Your Own Way:

Pick one of your favorite sentimental movies and give it another viewing.  Take The Sound of Music, for example.  I’m always a sucker for that one, even though the people in my universe are nothing like the Von Trapp family.  Watch how the movie portrays the world in terms of black-and-white.  The Von Trapp children are little mischief-makers who only want their remote father to pay attention, and once he does, they’re perfectly good and happy.  Louisa never resented Liesl for getting more of Daddy’s attention, of course not!  Kurt didn’t hate his older brother Friedrich for tyrannizing over him.  And the Nazis are all cardboard characters out Victoria melodrama, entirely black in contrast to the pristine white of the Von Trapp family.  Pay attention to the central conflict and then notice how the conclusion resolves it in some permanent way that brings tears to your eyes.  Every time Captain Von Trapp carries little Gretl over the summit of that mountain and the music swells, I cry.

That feeling is what I refer to as sentimentality:  I so badly want to believe it can all work out that way — that you can escape from evil Nazis and live happily-ever-after in Switzerland.  Life would be so much easier if the destructive parts were all outside instead of within me, where I must grapple with them on a daily basis.  Take a good hard look at your emotional response to a sentimental favorite and see if your experience is anything like mine.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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19 Responses to 60 Minutes and Greg Mortenson’s Fraud: The Power of Sentimentality

  1. Jas'n says:

    When I read about stories or event such as this my mind goes to a lot of places. One of the places it goes is to a television program called American Greed. I give it three stars simply because of what it revels about the American mentality when it comes to money and finances. I’d give it a higher rating were it not for the fact that our way of disclosing such goings on has almost become as much the problem as the crimes themselves. I see these kinds of events as crimes against persons and crimes against Nature, when you factor in the trickle down effect and the attitude it perpetuates. When I look at the life we live I see a spectrum with two extremes and a middle ground that becomes more muddled with diverse logic and excuses as time goes by. One group of people will read and see these kinds of stories and be totally shocked to discover that something like this could really happen. Another group will read the same story and say, “see there I told you the world is a terrible place to live.” And then there’s the ever expanding grey area in the middle where most of the serious damage is done simply because the middle is where people or the least protected from themselves if nothing else. Well meaning , hard working, God fearing, if you will go so far as to say that. Many of those people will say “I don’t care what he did as long as I have my money, my house and my cars or whatever. All this and how society actually punishes or reacts to the people in question who prey upon the public sentiment as though they were kids in a candy store. One of my favorite movies of all time that describes how this country use to be is a movie called “Old Yeller.” Dog befriends boy. Boy loves dog. The nature of the animal is that he will take a bullet for his master. Dog does so in a confrontation with another animal. In doing so , the dog contracts rabies and has to be put down. Boy takes on the heartbreaking chore of doing the dirty work himself. Makes it his responsibility. That was so long ago and such an old movie few people will probably realize the implications. The implication is being responsible for what we create whether we know or intended to create the situation. Life gives us things we have to deal with. Do or don’t, the are consequences for both.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I remember ‘Old Yeller’ well from my childhood and I’m sure another viewing would make me cry. I’m glad you pointed out the lesson of responsibility it carries because cynical me would have focused instead on the sentimental “good” dog story, and his pure love for his master.

  2. Bob Dillman says:

    The naysayers about Greg Mortenson are missing huge points. First of all, I read both his and CAI’s responses and I was satisfied with their explanations on money. They make sense. More importantly, no light is shown on the ignorance of 60 min. Anyone with half a brain knows that if 60 min comes to ask Afghanis if they are Taliban they will say no. Also, this occurred nearly 10 years ago and political and social alliances change in that area. They may have been Taliban then. Whatever that label means.

    I have spent tons of time in the Himalayan region. His story seems true and whereas he may have spiced it up, piling on is not fair. Jon Krakauer especially should keep his arrogant mouth shut. He was wrong about Anatoli Boukreev (sp?) during the Everest debacle and is one of the more arrogant writers i know. Him using hearsay to say debate whether Greg’s story is somewhat fabricated is disingenuous at best.

    Mortenson has done great things and used his celebrity status for some personal and professional gain. He has worked his ass off and is the real deal. Get over the minor discrepancies and see the big picture.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks, Bob. I’d be interested to hear what other site visitors have to say. I agree that you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but Mortenson’s improprieties strike me as more extensive and serious than you find them. Krakauer’s story of Mortenson using charity funds to buy copies of his own book because he was distressed that “Eat Pray Love” had displaced him from the bestseller list made him seem terribly narcissistic. If true, that is hardly a minor detail.

    • Sanjuana Gabriela Enriquez Galvan says:

      Also, it’s one thing to ask Pakistanis “are you Taliban?” and get a no response
      It’s another for one of those Pakistanis to be an NGO worker in Islamabad (someone unlikely to be a Taliban member)
      It’s another for those men to provide another photo of Mortenson with them, holding a gun
      It’s another for the Taliban to not even be in that region of Pakistan in 1996…

  3. paul f says:

    on second thought, maybe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater: http://www.slate.com/id/2293127/

  4. Gayle says:

    Before I think about calling him a scam artist, I would like to hear from the hardware supply company owner who Mortensen purchased his building supplies from, from the Afghan students who attend Mortensen schools, from his large donors from the early days, from the Afghan military helicopter pilot in the book.

    How many schools does Mortensen say he built? How many schools does the disputer say he built and how did they count the schools?

  5. J.J.Brown says:

    Thanks for sharing this commentary on the news about Mortensen from the perspective of an expert in psych. I also recently blogged on the creation of personal fiction and it’s use for financial gain–because I found it particularly disturbing. Even if all of our history is colored by personal bias, that which is bent toward personal financial gain is least forgivable I think. The ends don’t justify the means for me, when the end is not really in sight and those deployed are still reading the fiction as fact.

  6. Cathy Sander says:

    No wonder I sometimes root for the enemy in some stories. They seem to be more human than the protagonists, which are more stereotypical.

    • SadlyHumbled says:

      I have been reading and following this extensively as I find myself enraged at people who pretend to be do-gooders in order to take advantage of others. The thing which I am most struck by is peoples acceptance of being lied to on such a large scale. Why does this seem to be alright with so many bloggers. They point to the good that he has done and excuse all the bad. Are we deprived of anyone doing good anymore that if we see just a small franction of what we are “told” is good being done that we turn the cheek on the possibility that the bad actually outweighs the good. If he goes and builds schools that are then abandoned has he not just flushed all that money down the toilet. So can you count that as a good act anymore? If he pockets all the proceeds from his books and then uses the foundations money to fund the books promotions how could you possibly think that this is OK. I’m completely puzzled at so many, not all, but so many people which think that this is not news worthy. We are sending the message that it’s ok to mislead people, lie, and manipulate IF your cause inspires people and appears to be philanthropic.

      • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

        I was listening to NPR this morning and a psychologist was discussing a book he had written called, “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.” He talked about how hard it is for people to admit they made a mistake. Most people don’t want to see that they were taken in by Mortensen’s manipulations because they feel so foolish.

  7. Hermes says:

    I never cease to be amazed at people’s gullibility.

    I have never heard of Mr. Mortensen until reading your article, Joseph. He sounds like a right piece of work. Unfortunately, he is not the only one around.

    I agree with you Joseph:
    “What I resist is the manipulative way these goals are promoted, where lies about human nature are used to evoke a sentimental response that prompts us to give money. ”

    And, I mean, for heaven’s sakes, “Cho-cho” (San). Madame Butterfly is also a work of fiction.

    What a world!

    Hermes

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Speaking of Madame Butterfly, my good friend Angela Davis-Gardner (also a member of the same writer’s group I go to every Thursday) has a novel out now called Butterfly’s Child, which picks up the story after the curtain comes down in MB. It’s a wonderful novel that, among other things, challenges many of the misconceptions (some of them sentimental) about the geisha life. Right now it’s only available in hardback but it’s coming out soon in paperback. Here’s a link:

  8. Hermes says:

    Thank you for that, Joseph. I shall look up the book.

    Hermes

  9. Mara Rose says:

    I was fortunate to visit NW Pakistan in 1997. When the Mortenson scandal erupted, I wrote two blog posts about it, from the perspective of having visited the area myself. Here are the links, if anyone is interested:
    http://mararose10.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/when-heroes-fall/
    http://mararose10.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/reflections-on-hero-worship/
    I discovered your blog this evening, and am really enjoying it! Great info and wonderful insight.

  10. Tara Nonarchi says:

    Thank you, Joseph, for exposing Mortenson’s narcissism. He is a classical narcissist, and as I was reading the revelations in “3 Cups of Deceit,” I was thinking of the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder that he displayed. Grandiosity, denial of responsibility, blaming others, being passive-aggressive about disclosing important information (disingenuous), lying (and while I have read that not all liars are narcissists, I’ve also read that by definition, all narcissists are liars), haughtiness and arrogance, gaslighting to try to convince another person that what he said or did is not true, and a grandiose sense of entitlement. If what the quotes that Mortenson himself has said are actually true, then he is a classic narcissist. Regardless of how many good deeds he may have done in his life, he is dishonest and pathological in his sad quest for self-esteem.

  11. Samina Khan PhD says:

    It is shocking that you have diagnosed Mortenson as a narcissist based, solely based on on CBS and Krakauer’s book of allegations and lies. http://3000cupsoftea.org/trailer.php

    CBS 60 Minutes and CEO Jeff Fager have had three discredited stories in the last years, proven to be deliberately deceptive. For you to diagnose Mortenson and Armstrong with narcissism without ever having psycho-analyzed them, or spoken with their psychologists or psychiatrists is a disgrace to your profession. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sU305NqXT94

    One of the classic symptoms for the diagnosis for narcissism is a lack of empathy. Having known Greg Mortenson for about fifteen years, he has no lack of that, and if you could spend time with him, you would understand your diagnosis of him is fatally wrong.

    But far beyond if you are right or wrong, why not you be an example of empathy for us all: There is an extreme lack of psychologists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and millions suffer from mental illness. Instead of sitting at your laptop in California trying to make a quick buck, why don’t you go to Afghanistan or Pakistan and set up a school for psychologists, and let us know how it goes in ten years. Then I might believe in you.

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