Book Review – Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way by Jon Krakauer

In Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson makes reference to the support he and the Central Asia Institute received early on from Jon Krakauer. Only a few years later, Jon Krakauer has come out with a revealing explanation of why he has since withdrawn his support. Beyond a detailed breakdown of just how, when, and where Greg Mortenson lied, Three Cups of Deceit inspires the reader to look a little closer at what’s being done with any money they are inspired to donate.

In a concise and organized manner, Krakauer goes through the different elements of Greg Mortenson’s bestseller, Three Cups of Tea and precisely presents the reality that was carefully veiled and even altered by Mortenson. In a well-organized and methodical manner, Krakauer addresses each element from Greg Mortenson’s self-creation myth through the questionable math behind what is posted on the Central Asia Institute’s website regarding donations and expenses.

In contrast to Mortenson’s own meandering and embellished style, Krakauer’s approach could not be a better example of the polar opposite. Freely citing Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, Krakauer backs up his own claims by providing well-documented excerpts and follow-up interviews with many of the players in Mortenson’s own chart-topping book, a number of whom were displeased with Mortenson’s distorted portrayals of events.

It is easy to be skeptical of Krakauer’s claims. He donated about $75,000 to CAI after being inspired by Mortenson’s heroic and selfless tales. It was after having met with Mortenson on a few occasions and in trying to get information regarding how the donations were being used that Krakauer became uneasy. In doing one of the things that he does best, researching, Krakauer uncovered enough questionable material to withdraw his support from CAI under Mortenson’s leadership and was driven to inform others who had similarly been taken in and donated money in good faith. One could easily imagine that Krakauer’s short book is simply a personal attack on Mortenson.

However, the way that Krakauer presents his findings and his overall message contradict this understandable assumption. There is just too much presented that supports what he claims and it is so flawlessly documented. After having finished his book, some additional information turned up regarding the credibility of one of his interviewees and Krakauer added it to the notes section, leaving it up to the reader to assess how much of the new information affects the interviewee’s credibility. Krakauer maintains that CAI in itself was neither a bad idea nor that its mission should be wholly abandoned. He calls only for a change in its leadership, as Mortenson seems to be acting from a conflict of interests.

Some of the incidents that Krakauer clears up seem, in hindsight, to explain some of what I had simply dismissed as bad writing or difficulties working to blend together the different styles of two “writers.” Perhaps what I took for bad pacing was simply Relin writing around Mortenson’s presentation of what happened and whatever research Relin compiled.

Krakauer doesn’t make excuses for Mortenson and though condemning of Mortenson’s actions, he doesn’t undermine his described goal of helping others through education. Ultimately, what this reader walked away with was a sense of the need to be careful about how and where to give to charity. Being moved by someone’s words or deeds enough to give money to a worthy cause is wonderful but what good is it if that money never actually gets used responsibly for that cause?


Read my review of Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin


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