BY MARC VELASQUEZ
Author: Jon Krakauer
Filed Under: Nonfiction, Literary
Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit excites me for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a big fan of Krakauer’s work. I find his writing entertaining, enlightening and accessible despite it being so heavily founded on in-depth research. Not many writers can make fact-reporting as exciting as Krakauer continually does. But I’m also excited by Deceit because I’m a huge fan of long form Journalism. At a lean 20,000 words, Deceit is longer than a magazine article but shorter than a book; it’s sort of like a nonfiction novella, and it’s the perfect length for its subject.
What excites me most is that Byliner, the company that published Deceit, has promised 20 similar projects in the near future. Unfortunately, Deceit and Byliner’s second title—Into the Forbidden Zone, William T. Vollmann’s first hand account of the nuclear disaster in Japan—are only available from Amazon as “Kindle Singles,” and if Byliner releases future titles with that sort of exclusivity, it could be pretty annoying. However, I have to admit that the exclusive release of Into the Forbidden Zone did force me to download the “Kindle for PC” deally, so they might know what they are doing.
If you follow news about books, or news about Afghanistan, or maybe just news in general, you know that Three Cups of Deceit is Krakauer’s fact-based gut-punch to Three Cups of Tea and it’s philanthropist author, Greg Mortenson. Deceit’s premise, and the meaning behind the “three” in its title, is that Mortenson’s deception is threefold: Mortenson fabricated several of his book’s central stories; Mortenson lied and continues to lie about the way his foundation, Central Asia Institute, spends the donations they receive; and Mortenson lies about the impact his foundation actually has in Afghanistan. But if you haven’t read Three Cups of Tea, heard any of the fallout, or seen the 60 Minutes report, here’s a brief rundown:
According to Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson tried to climb K2 in order to leave a trinket from his dead sister at the summit. He didn’t make it. On his way back down, he was separated from his porters and a climbing partner, and exhaustedly wandered into a remote Afghani village. The good-hearted villagers took him into their homes and nursed him back to health. After spending several days in the village, after regaining his strength, Mortenson asked to see the village’s school. He was shocked by the horrible conditions, and decided he would repay the villagers’ kindness by building them a school. This anecdote is not only the center of Mortenson’s memoir, it’s the origin story of his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). And according to Jon Krakauer’s research, it is fabricated. Mortenson was never separated from his climbing partner, never nursed back to health in the village in question. He did promise to build a school for a different Afghani village, he even raised money to do so, but he used those donations to build a school for the village he mentions in Three Cups of Tea, breaking his original promise.
But that’s not Mortenson’s only fabrication. In his books, Mortenson also lies about getting abducted by terrorists and the story behind building a school in remote Pakistan. Krakauer also uncovered deceptions in the way Mortenson runs CAI, as well Mortenson’s morally questionable self-promotion.
Deceit does have a bit of a “jilted lover” feel to it; Krakauer was a major contributor to CAI until a former CAI board member turned Krakauer onto some of Mortenson’s financial improprieties. Krakauer immediately withdrew his support, and has been on bad footing with Mortenson ever since. And while I would normally be wary of jilted-lover journalism, I’m able to overlook that aspect of Deceit for a few key reasons. First, Krakauer is up-front about his involvement in the story. In fact, his proximity, it seems, led to his investigation. And second, although it’s clear Krakauer has disdain for Mortenson, the facts of his reporting have yet to be disputed.
Krakauer is also upfront about his intentions in writing Deceit. He believes the CAI can have monumental impact in Afghanistan, but believes in order for that to happen, Mortenson needs to step down as CAI’s director. And while I agree with him, while I am also saddened by Mortenson’s shifty business practices, I found myself reflecting more on what Krakauer’s work means to memoir writing.
Memoir is a complex genre, but all memoirists enter a unspoken agreement with their readers. That agreement is not that the memoirist will be factually accurate, but that the memoirist will not willingly deceive. The idea is that the memoirist, while mining his or her memories, is searching for emotional truth and, ultimately, for what it means and how it feels to be alive. Truth and meaning come from empathy, and we empathize with authors not through their triumphs, but rather through their flaws and mistakes. As such, the act of writing a memoir is both a humbling and humiliating experience. That humility and humiliation is a memoirist’s gift to literature. Mortenson should have practiced more of both.
In the end, if you’re a fan of Krakauer, a jilted Mortenson supporter, a defender of memoir, or someone who simply enjoys well written journalism, Three Cups of Deceit is worth picking up, even if it means you have to download Amazon software to do so.
Similar reads: Where Men Win Glory and Under the Banner of Heaven, both by Krakauer. And I’m guessing fans of Deceit might want to keep an eye on Byliner.com.
Note: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly wrote that CAI stands for Central Afghanistan Institute. It stands for Central Asia Institute. This has been changed.