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Sometimes it seems like the world is divided into two groups: givers and takers. Takers are people like Lindsay Lohan, who takes whatever she wants (drugs or otherwise), grabs a nap, then treats herself to another trip to rehab. Givers are those like Oprah and Mother Teresa. Somewhere between these two is Greg Mortenson, co-author of the 2007 memoir/charity donation request Three Cups of Tea.
Three Cups of Tea, co-authored (and by co-authored we mean, "written entirely by") by journalist David Oliver Relin tells the story of mountain climber turned humanitarian Greg Mortenson, who went up a mountain and came down a hero. After failing to climb K2 in Pakistan's Karakoram Range, Mortenson stumbles into the village of Korphe, and decides to build a school there to educate the kiddos. This mission expands to the entire country, and eventually beyond its borders to Afghanistan.
The book dominated the best-seller charts for four years, helping Mortenson raise money for the Central Asia Institute, the charity he founded to further his cause. Mortenson even wrote a sequel, Stones into Schools, which focuses on his endeavors in Afghanistan. People eager to help children in need were moved by Mortenson's cause, a cause which he said would promote peace in the Middle East through education.
Mortenson was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and 2010 (losing in 2009 to someone named Barack Obama… why does he sound familiar?). Tea also won the Kiriyama Prize for nonfiction in 2007, a prize for books that promote understanding of the nations of South Asia.
Wow, Mortenson is definitely a giver, right?
Maybe not. In 2011, journalist and author Jon Krakauer, as well as 60 Minutes, investigated Greg Mortenson, the financial management of the CAI, the claims Mortenson makes in the book, and his business practices. Krakauer published his findings in the book Three Cups of Deceit, and 60 Minutes picked him apart on air.
Mortenson found himself with a lot to answer for—including accusations that he used a lot of the charity's money to promote his book, which only he benefits from—and was eventually asked to step down from his position on the board of the Central Asia Institute, as well as reimburse the CAI for one million dollars, by a watchdog group.
So is Mortenson a giver or is he a taker? You'll have to drink your fill of both Three Cups of Tea and Three Cups of Deceit in order to come to a conclusion yourself. After all, every story has more than one side.
But we're a classy bunch, right? So let's put the scandal aside for a moment. Why did thousands upon thousands of people connect to this book before, and even after, the scandal broke? That answer is also simple: It's a real-life hero story. Three Cups of Tea, at its heart, is about a guy who wants to do good in the world. Greg Mortenson puts his life on hold, leaving his wife and kids at home, to work toward educating children in a foreign country for their benefit, and for the benefit of the world.
From superheroes in comic books to superheroes in literature, like Katniss Everdeen, this type of story resonates with people. Three Cups of Tea goes a step farther by being real (how real depends on which side you agree with in the scandal). Mortenson is a superhero and you can be his sidekick, doing your part for world peace simply by donating a few bucks from the comfort of your own home. So read the book and see if you feel inspired. And if you decide to help, do a lot of research into any charity before you donate. It's just good practice.
Three Cups to the Wind
The official website talks about everything from Three Cups of Tea to the children's book Listen to the Wind… well, not everything. The FAQ page is lacking perhaps the most frequently asked question at this point—you know, about whether this is all a lie.
The URL for the Central Asia Institute is named after a silk fabric symbolizing "strength […] and resilience." Seeing how the CAI still stands after Mortenson's scandal, we'd say that's an appropriate symbol.
Hop in the wayback machine and read this interview with Mortenson from 2009, before his tea was tainted with scandal.
Tea is for Tragedy
The co-author of the book, Relin, killed himself in 2012. The New York Times details his legacy and his role in creating this book.
No Tea, No Shade
Mortenson finally goes Outside, as in the magazine, and responds to the allegations leveled against him by Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes.
Talk about bitter Tea. The New York Times details the allegations against Mortenson and his response.
The CAI has a good mission, to educate children in the Middle East, but the delivery of its message, at least through its Mortenson mouthpiece, is problematic at best. Considering this, in 2013 the Daily Beast asks "Is it Time to Forgive Greg Mortenson?"
Here's the full 60 Minutes expose on Mortenson. (It won't take a full hour to watch it.)
Mortenson apologizes to Tom Brokaw (who once donated to Mortenson's cause). Does his apology hold any water?
NPR raved about Mortenson's charitable acts back in 2009, calling him an Ordinary Oprah. He never gave us a car or a vacation…
This interview was also conducted with Mortenson before the scandal for NPR's "From Scratch" series.
Mortenson views this beautiful stone during the book. We doubt it came from space, but it sure is purdy.
Time's a changin'
Mortenson has only a magazine to keep him company when he's (allegedly) kidnapped by the Taliban. This is his Time magazine buddy.