Three Cups of Controversy

I read Three Cups of Tea (2007) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin during 3 a.m. feedings with my newborn daughter. Each time she woke me in the early morning hours to feed, I snapped on a small desk lamp with a dimmer, sat in the pink gingham rocking chair with my squalling daughter, and picked up the book for the latest installment of Mortenson’s mountain climbing, school-building adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  After 30 minutes or so, Baby Daphne was satisfied and sleepy, and I was ready to return to dreamland.  I repeated this several times each night for a few weeks.  I kept my copy of the book on the dresser in her room and slowly worked my way through it during the midnight hours.


I read it with my neighborhood book group.  I was delighted that somebody had picked it, as it was one that I wanted to read.  Its status as the book club “pick” moved it quickly to the top of my list, and I slowly read about Mortenson’s bad luck, financial troubles, good heart, and adventurous spirit.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, especially given that his goal was to educate girls.  I am a fan of education for girls, and I recently read Malala’s book, which has a similar theme. Any book that promotes education, especially for women and girls, is of interest to me.

However, a year or so after I had read Three Cups of Tea and discussed it thoroughly with the women in my neighborhood, I heard about a controversy surrounding this book.  Was Mortenson not all he was cracked up to be?  Did he exaggerate the truth, take credit for others’ work, and pocket much of the money he claimed to be using for charitable purposes?

It seems like many books in the last decade have been revealed as “frauds” or less than truthful.  James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003) comes to mind, and although I haven’t read it, I was thoroughly outraged at his calumny.  Ha ha, not really.  I didn’t care much, but I did feel bad for the embarrassment it caused Oprah.  I kept hearing people say that he should have presented it as fiction and it would’ve been fine, but we all know how hard it is to break into the fiction market. Why not write a crazy story and call it a memoir?

What do you think?  Does controversy ruin a perfectly good book, or does it just add to its bestseller status?  Are you more likely to read a book once you hear its “tainted”?  I still haven’t reached for Frey’s book, so I think my answer is “no,” although, as I explained recently, a banned book does hold appeal for me as a reader.

68 thoughts on “Three Cups of Controversy

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  1. I read both books. A Million Tiny Pieces felt so fabricated even when I was reading it, but Three Cups of Tea did not feel that way. A Million Tiny Pieces seemed like a man trying to create this monolithic vision of himself as a recovered addict, but Three Cups of Tea had a more humbling image of a man with a message about our views of war, peace, and education. All stories have some fabrication, and I think I am okay with that if the overarching message is one of love and acceptance.

    1. I like that attitude, because even memoirs that claim to be true have to be fabricated in some sense because our memories aren’t reliable. I do love the idea behind Three Cups of Tea, so I guess I’ll hang onto that.

  2. Emily, the controversy in this case makes it less authentic and takes away from the message. When the message is important, tough and complex, people tend to look for ways to identify it or give it a persona. Others who disagree with that message can then combat it more easily, so in their mind it is wrong because the messenger is less genuine.

    A good example is “An Inconvenient Truth” produced and discussed by Al Gore, who won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. When he became the face of the global warming concerns, an orchestrated campaign was made highlighting Gore, his big house, and his imperfections. The PR campaign focused on making Gore look less authentic to diffuse the issue.The fact is the science continues to prove the rightness of the claims in the movie, yet the lack of authenticity with the messenger played up by the fossil fuel industry’s PR “hoax” campaign had a field day. This hoax campaign worked so well, a Congressional committee even took up the issue, and it lingers in some minds even today.

    So, it does matter from a marketing standpoint that the writer is less authentic. And, I am chagrined when the underlying message should be heard.

    Thanks, BTG

    1. BTG, you are describing ethos, or the authority/character of the author or speaker. It certainly is a big issue for anybody taking a stand, and it can cloud very real and interesting ideas if the person delivering them is unlikeable. To point out those flaws is an ad hominem attack, instead of focusing on the issues at hand and engaging critically with what matters. It is a fascinating phenomenon, and a very human way of reacting to ideas we don’t like. Thanks for reminding me of those two terms from my days as a composition teacher!

      1. Thanks Emily. You just provided descriptive terms about political discourse and reporting. It is cognitive dissonance at its worst. Someone aligns with ethos of the speaker, so even when presented with information that contradicts a specific argument of the authority figure, the person will not be swayed as the ethos of the speaker is so powerful. It is also why the blame game is played recurringly.

  3. I’d be sad to find out that Mortenson isn’t the man he made himself out to be. However, if he still did the things he says happened in that book, I can’t find too much fault in him.If he made it happen, then good for him.

    Frey’s book is good if you approach it knowing that it’s exaggerated. I read it after the Oprah controversy and having that perspective helped.

  4. Dangit! This is the same problem I had with Somaly Mam’s The Road to Lost Innocence. In fact I had both books sitting on my shelf in my to-read pile. I ended up evicting Somaly Mam because she lied about her experiences and resigned from her foundation after she was discovered. I didn’t want to read fiction parading as non-fiction. After reading this article I kind of feel like I need to evict Greg Mortenson too now 😦

    1. I hadn’t heard about her book! It seems like this happens a lot. I still see value in reading their books, but it makes it hard to discern which parts to believe and be moved by and which parts to disbelieve and reject.

      1. I think the problem is with me. I get very emotionally invested in books (I finished reading one recently called The Underground Girls of Kabul by putting my head down on the table and sobbing for 15 minutes), so if I were to find out later that those tears were deceitfully jerked, I’d feel betrayed and take it very personally.

        It might be different knowing that I’m being lied to from the outset though. You think I should still give it a try?

        I also read a book called Little Princes by Conor Grennan, and I think his story and charity might be on the up-and-up, simply because his charity doesn’t seem to generate a lot of revenue.

        1. I get emotional with books too! I find that some of them have the power to “control” my moods. I can start acting out in real life the emotions that are happening with the characters. It is hard to deal with that, so I can totally understand how it would really affect you to find out that those emotions were manipulated. I don’t know if you should try it. Maybe read more about exactly what happened before delving in.

  5. I always try to do the most research I can when I hear a book is “tainted”. I try to look at it from both perspectives and then decide for myself whether I trust the author enough to read the book. Most times, the books still have important things to say about issues that aren’t talked about enough; so I think that oftentimes they do merit a reading. I personally had a hard time reading 3 Cups of Tea. I read it a few years ago (before the controversy started) and Mortenson rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning of the book. I definitely got a vibe that he was more interested in showing the world how great he was rather than actually helping the people. That was just my initial gut feeling though; I’m sure not everyone will feel the same way.
    -Kaitlyn 🙂

    1. It sounds like you picked up on what was really going on before the rest of us did. I wish I had that ability! I like what you are saying about doing research and at least giving the book a chance. I agree that important ideas can be raised, even within less-than-ideal circumstances. Thanks for weighin in!

  6. I had not heard about the controversy with this book! I read it years ago and really liked it. It’s a shame the author was disingenuous but I don’t feel it ruins the message of the book for me. Girls worldwide should be educated. People should give to charities that work towards that goal. People who give to charities should always research the spending history and make smart choices about which charities best spend their money. All the main truths of this story still hold true and to be honest I’d forgotten already that some dude had a role in it.

    I also think that a banned book is a completely different thing than an untruthful author writing false memoirs. I wouldn’t seek these false memoirs out like I do a banned book. But having already read Three Cups of Tea, I guess I’ve already assimilated it and will choose to keep it’s positive message and forget it’s author’s role.

    1. Agreed on all counts! I am in a similar place, where I read the book and agreed with its main ideas, so the later controversy didn’t really affect me. I was aware of it, but not invested enough, in him, to care all that much. I love that you forgot “some dude” played a role in it.

  7. I read James Frey’s book and was deeply invested in it, even convincing my husband, who doesn’t read, that he HAD to read this book. He was just a few chapters in when the controversy come out with Mr. Frwy, and he stopped reading it because he thought it was all true. I was angry, but that was a great piece of work, regardless of the controversy. I could not put it down. I still follow James Frey and I love his work, so no, it didn’t ruin it for me. I think, in some cases, controversy, much like media exposure for celebrities, is often “good press” for books. To me, it shows that people are reading, and becoming invested in what they are reading. And that is a good thing.

    1. Good point. If it gets people reading. . . I am sorry about what happened with your husband. My husband isn’t a book reader either, so when I get him to read something, I want it to be a good experience! Your description of Frey’s work makes me want to read his stuff now. 🙂

      1. I liked it. But a lot of people were turned off by that. I even read the follow up book, My Friend Leonard. It is worth noting that Fry and Winfrey have “kissed and made up” as well. I am trying to get my husband to read, “This Is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper now. It is going to be a movie in the fall, so I am hoping it gets him to pick it up!

  8. I don’t think I’d read a book that had been the (proven) subject of a controversy; the controversy itself provides too much publicity for writers who don’t deserve their readers’ trust.

      1. Thanks! I guess it bugs me that I know who James Frey is when there are hundreds of authors out there who deserve the amount of attention he received.

  9. I’ve heard of the controversy surrounding Three Cups of Tree and it saddens me more then anything else. I’m originally from Pakistan and debates this particular controversy ignited were interesting to say the least. I haven’t read it and probably never will. There’s a difference between non-fiction masquerading as fiction and controversy around books banned for cultural/religious/national reasons. While I might read the latter, I never read the former.

    1. Yes, there is a differnce. I feel it, but it was nice having you articulate it for me. This helps me to see why I feel indifferent toward one set of books and drawn to the other.

  10. Thanks for writing about this. I received duplicate copies of Three Cups of Tea as a gift, and then I picked up the abridged children’s version for my son. I was starting to read it when I heard about the controversy, and then had mixed feelings and stopped. I asked my husband what he thought about letting our son read it, and he said that if the book tells an important story about life in another culture that is so different from our (generally) privileged one, then it is good for him to know about it. I agree. I’m just not sure why I have a hard time picking it up for myself…

    1. I can see why, because the controversy has taken the shine off of the greater story that is being told. I love what your husband said. He’s a smart man!

  11. I think there’s a significant difference between books that are banned because they contain controversial material, and books that are fraudulent. I’m always in favor of an intellectual or moral challenge, but I can’t abide dishonesty, especially if it’s perpetrated by a desire to earn more money! That said, I read A Million Little Pieces and ended up not caring that it was billed as a semi-memoir. I don’t think memoirs are usually terribly accurate given the fickle nature of human memory, and the ensuing witch-hunt left a bad taste in my mouth. Nonetheless, I didn’t think the book was anything special. And I certainly won’t be reading 3 Cups of Tea, ever!

    1. Excellent thoughts on why the two types of books are different. I agree. And I love your point about fraud in order to make money. I think that is where a lot of the problem comes in for people, especially, as another commenter pointed out, when our emotions are involved.

  12. Why not bill the work, from the beginning, as fiction based on fact? It’s hard for me to understand, in a world where information is so readily available, why a writer thinks s/he can make up facts and go undetected. When we talk about writers establishing authority, we’re talking about a good measure of trust extended by the readers. Not to be overly dramatic, but–I felt betrayed when I read about Mortenson’s misrepresentations; I invested a good deal of time and emotion into his tale!

    1. It seems like betrayal is what many of us felt. It is understandable! We invest time and emotion into him and his story, and then we feel duped. And I agree. Why not just market it as fiction, especially in Frey’s case.

  13. Have not read either book, nor will. Mortenson’s books are in the deep discount bins at my local used bookstore. I think fraud is the cousin of academic dishonesty. Seems to me that there is an issue of public trust in publishing non-fiction works, an implied covenant with your readers. I feel the same way about works of a religious leader I knew celebrating marriage, only to find out he’d been unfaithful to his wife. Great works with lots of true stuff, it seemed to me, but I can’t pick any of his work up.

    1. Ooh, those are such astute comparisons. I like the idea of it being akin to academic dishonesty. And yes, it is a covenant. There is a built-in relationship of trust, especially after going through the publication process. We readers expect it to reliable.

  14. Hi Emily – great post as usual! I posted (a while ago) about Jon Krakauer’s book, Three Cups of Deceit. You should read that; Krakauer is a respected nonfiction writer and was originally intrigued and moved by Mortensen’s book, so much so that he donated money to Mortensen’s cause. But then he got to know the people working with Mortensen and uncovered loads of fraud….it’s really sad and taints non-profit efforts everywhere. Have a look, I’d love to know your thoughts.

    1. Oh man, that is so sad! Krakauer seems to have experienced what some of us did on a magnified level given his involvement. My uncle mentioned Three Cups of Deceit yesterday after seeing this post. I’ll check it out. Krakauer writes good stuff!

  15. I love this proverb comes with the book : “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family…”
    Yes i middle east country like afghanistan seems the education is shouting to be touched , specially for the girls those they are very in separation of society! nice book to read,.
    check and follow this blog you will enjoy reading also :

  16. I read Three Cups Of Tea before I heard the controversy surrounding it. I liked it. I liked that I came away with a higher awareness. I wasn’t bothered by the controversy after the fact because I didn’t have a connection to Mortensen, I had an emotional connection to the villagers.

    1. Yeah, I felt more emotional toward the people too, rather than Mortenson. I was impressed with his willingness to live with so little and to practically be homeless for their sake, but now I wonder if that was true too.

  17. Hello Emily, The book seems alright and interesting to read but as you have asked …it mars the experience when one come to know that the fact were fiction! The quality of book does not decrease but as the writer definitely falls from reader’s eyes, the narration seemed fake.Interesting to note is, in fiction where we already know that the whole story ,incidents… are fabricated we happily read on enjoying the most unbelievable twists ….but here it feels different .. being cheated and taken for a ride.Specially because teachers/writers/god-man … are some professions which help in shaping the society. Slightest disparity from them shakes our faith in honesty and goodness. Readers emulate the characters in books and in such cases feel like fools and nobody wants to feel like that. If one has already read like you, then the book will not be affected as you have already ‘felt’ the feelings he wanted you to .. but for those who have not I am sure most will not pick it.
    PS. banned books make another case as fiction or fact..they are true to the feelings /thoughts of author.. so they are more then welcome but cheats are not !

  18. I was interested in reading this book until John Krakauer came out with his “Three Cups of Deceit” which his expose on the fraudulent parts of “Three Cups of Tea.” I didn’t read this book so I can’t recommend it but I do love Krakauer. He wrote “Into the Wild” which is one of the rare books I have read multiple times. I have found him to be a sensitive and intelligent journalist with the passion for the truth in complicated situations. I do not know what drew him to this book. Maybe he read it and then found out things weren’t true and felt a pressing need to expose it. It is shameful for anyone to present something as nonfiction if it is not. One can always write fiction that is inspired by real events and people will be just as moved, and in a much more long lasting way then the sense of inevitable betrayal when one’s untruth is revealed!

    1. No worries about telling me about this book, again! 🙂 I agree that Krakauer is a great journalist, and I enjoyed Into the Wild as well. It looks like I really need to check out Three Cups of Deceit!

  19. I’m not a big fan of autobiographies, simply because I’m not that interested in the life of celebrities (‘ordinary’ people hardly ever publish a story about themselves). This also means I hardly ever remember the author, but I do remember the story. So whether the story is true or not in objective terms becomes a little bit irrelevant to me since I want to learn from / be inspired by the story – not the author. If he’s a crook I won’t invite him to dinner. But if his (fabricated) story inspires me and others to help those in need of help the story is probably worth reading.

    1. It sounds like you are able to distinguish between the author and the importance of the story. I think that works. Related to that is this idea of ethos, that BTG reminded me of in another comment. I was reading some rhetorical history yesterday and I guess Plato, Aristotle, and Quintilian were insistent that the speaker/author had to first be experienced, moral, and trustworthy before we could pay attention. I think things have changed since then.

  20. i think a lot of memoirs are over exaggerated. I have read the million little pieces and was saddened when the truth came out. I love reading out other peoples lives, it makes me appreciate what I have. It also gives me hope. I wish these books could be monitored more, but I know that’s hard to do.

    1. Yeah, it is hard not to exaggerate our memories. Everybody remembers the same incident differently. I’ve always wondered how memoir writers handle reactions from family and friends who are portrayed in their books.

  21. Your questions are interesting because you had already read the book and taken away something positive. Then you discovered the dishonesty. If you had read the book knowing the controversy your experience would undoubtedly have been very different. Once a genie like that is out of the bottle, it’s pretty impossible to put it back. But just because his tale was dishonest does not take away from the honesty of your response and your desire to take that response out into the world with you. If we dismiss good ideas and practices just because they are presented by someone who is less than exemplary, we may miss real opportunities for contemplation and growth.
    I hate to use two clichés in one post, but I’d deem this an instance where we may not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    1. I can agree with your cliches! 🙂 I like the idea of a genie out of a bottle. I certainly had a different experience reading this than others would if they knew the problems beforehand. If I revisited it, I would probably have a lot of skepticism and cynicism going in. I’m glad I had a good experience with it, now that you made me think about things the other way around.

  22. You got new baby? Congratulation! I had been so busy with lectures for the first time that i couldn’t visit your site. Now it became summer vacation and i tried to revisit your site though i am still busy to prepare next semester like all the other beginners. But your mention of your daily life gives me deep impression as well as your opinion on the book. Thanks for your review.

    1. This was a retrospective post, so my baby is 4 years old now! I hope your preparations for school go well and you have some time to relax. 🙂

      1. When i started to read this post I checked the date but i couldn’t find the exact time in your post. Now your baby, Daphne, i remember the name which i mentioned that name comes from the Greek mythology, she is 4 years old! Anyway, it was not about your daughter, it was about the reality, it is about what kind of impression that book gave the reader. But what about the phenomena this kind of book has caused? We, the reader as strangers still have interests or concerns a lot on the fact to get closer with the truth.

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