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.
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.