By Nancy Harris
You can add Greg Mortenson to the long line of writers, particularly memoirists, who have been accused of fraud in recent years.
Mortenson, author of the best-seller ‘‘Three Cups of Tea,’’ had been considered a titan in the non-profit world until last month. That’s when CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired a piece accusing him of fabricating much of the inspirational story that was said to have been the basis of his building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Since then, readers across the country have been voicing their opinions about Mortenson’s alleged misdoings. And some are doing it loudly.
Well-known author Jon Krakauer (‘‘Into Thin Air,’’ ‘‘Under the Banner of Heaven’’), for example, has called Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Deceit.”
Locally, Mortenson’s book has an admirer in Pat Coyne, a retired teacher in Dedham. Her reaction to the controversy has been more guarded, saying the matter is “complicated” and that perhaps we shouldn’t “rush to judgment” just yet.
Coyne herself has always been passionate about the education and welfare of children and says that as a teacher, she went to work every day believing that if she could connect with one student, that child might just be the one to go forward and make a difference in the world.
Pat also believes in giving back to community, and does so by volunteering with the elderly, collecting goods for food pantries, and recycling.
The humanitarian goals expressed by Mortenson struck a chord with Coyne. When she heard about the latest allegations, she said she was deeply disappointed to hear that Mortenson embellished his story for dramatic effect.
But she added, “While I don’t approve, I could live with the inaccuracies and fabrication if that is all that he did.” After all, she says, “this man still focused international attention on helping children through education, in a region where help is genuinely needed.”
For those who aren’t familiar with ‘‘Three Cups of Tea,’’ it recounts Mortenson’s ill-fated attempt to in 1993 to scale K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, to honor his dead sister, Christa. It vividly chronicles his getting separated from his climbing party and becoming hopelessly lost, until he accidentally stumbles into a tiny, remote mountain village called Korphe, in Pakistan.
In the book, Mortenson said that after losing his way, he became terribly weakened and ill, but was taken in by the small, impoverished village of Korphe, where he was given shelter and care for seven weeks.
Mortenson wrote that during his convalescence, he discovered children so poor, they are forced to scratch out their school lessons in the dirt.
Out of gratitude for their kindness, Mortenson promised to one day return to build a proper school not only for for Korphe, but for a multitude of children, especially girls, in rural Afghani and Pakistani villages.
With co-author David Relin, Mortenson says he dealt with corrupt Taliban officials, endured long separations from his family, and was even kidnapped.
Mortenson also describes his journey organizing the Central Asia Institute, which ultimately became a hugely successful campaign to raise funds, thanks largely to a book that touched the hearts of millions of people.
So inspirational is his story that it became required reading in schools across America, and is even used by the American military as a manual for employing more humanitarian policies and strategies to win over the hearts and minds of tribal Afghanistan in the post 9/11 era.
Coyne has recommended ’’Three Cups of Tea’’ to countless friends and relatives. Thus, these allegations that he never even visited Korphe until a year after the climb and was never kidnapped are troublesome.
“I guess in the end, I could live with the inaccuracies in his book if his heart was in the right place,’’ she said. ‘‘I want to believe he intended to give the gift of learning to children and to bridge the divide between East and West, rather than promote book sales.”
But she added: “However, should it prove to be true that he truly took money raised for this purpose and used it to line his own pockets, and used it primarily to advertise and promote his own book for personal gain, I will be profoundly upset.”
Coyne noted that not only were adults allegedly duped, but Mortenson may have taken betrayed the trust of school children across America who donated through organizations like Pennies for Peace. ‘‘That, to me, would be unforgivable” she said.
“I am at a loss for words in a situation such as this. Certainly, I have seen it happen before. But I for one, am not jumping immediately to vilify Greg Mortenson..... at least until we hear the final word on these investigations.”
Nancy Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org