Law and Conversation

August 29, 2011

Three Cups of Tea, or Three Cups of Deceit?

If you’ve read “Three Cups Of Tea,” the bestselling memoir by Greg Mortenson and David Relin that professes to tell the true story of how Mortenson tried to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, in Pakistan, failed, got lost on the descent, was rescued, vowed to build a school for the children in his rescuers’ village, and did so, you ought also to read the e-book, “Three Cups of Deceit,” by Jon Krakauer.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a compelling story with a convincing message: that it would be far more beneficial for everyone if the US and other countries used their resources to build schools and otherwise facilitate the education of children, especially girls, in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan than to provide military assistance to this or that faction opposing this or that objectionable government.  It’s inspired not only huge sales and a similarly best-selling sequel, “Stones For Schools,” but millions in donations to the Central Asia Institute, the foundation Mortenson set up for his schools project.

Like many others, journalist, author, and climber Jon Krakauer read Mortenson’s book, became enthusiastic about his message, and donated to CAI. Then, he says, people associated with Mortenson and CAI started giving him information suggesting that Mortenson’s story was not all that it seemed.

Krakauer, who is personally familiar with the terrain Mortenson wrote about through his own climbing travels, started investigating, and, in April, published his e-book. As his title suggests, Krakauer presents a case that Mortenson took far more than poetic license with the facts and actually fabricated significant portions of his story. He also quotes sources who question CAI’s fiscal management.

CAI characterizes the stories from “some media outlets,” including CBS’s “60 Minutes,” as “cherry-picked, manipulated, and misrepresented.” The organization notes that an investigation and a lawsuit are pending. A suit filed in the federal court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging, among other matters, fraud (H/T: JenandthePen), was voluntarily dismissed shortly after filing, but another suit remains pending in Montana, though news reports suggest that CAI is no longer a defendant. Mortenson recently filed a response denying that grounds exist for a class action. In the meantime, Krakauer is posting post-publication updates on the website.

Read both of these books, be on the lookout for responses from Mortenson and CAI and resolutions of the legal matters involving them, and make up your own mind. Here’s what I’m wondering: if Mortenson did deliberately fabricate portions of his book, which was classified as nonfiction and marketed as a True Story, is that a problem? Or everyone does it, no big deal? And if Mortenson made up parts of his story, does that damage his message’s credibility?

UPDATE, September 13, 2011: Mark Fowler, a lawyer in New York who tweets as @rightsofwriters, has written a very interesting and thorough post on memoirs and the law on his excellent blog, Rights of Writers.

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