The Fall of Greg Mortensen and Our Longing for Heroes

Greg Mortensen with school children in Afghanistan. CAI-Polaris

I remember my first Mortenson Moment. It was a few years ago, in an old auditorium in Santa Fe, N.M., and I sat waiting with my wife and son in a large murmuring crowd. Greg Mortenson, arriving late, flashed a shy smile and a namaste sign as he took the stage. He had a bashful cluelessness that somehow made him all the more endearing. Soon he launched into The Story: How in 1993, he stumbled into the tiny Pakistani village of Korphe after a failed attempt on K2. How the kind villagers nursed him back to health with many cups of tea. How as payment for their generosity, he returned to build a school. How that one school became hundreds of schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan. And how, tonight, we could help him build more.

If Mortenson's story—distilled from his mega-bestseller Three Cups of Tea—seemed smarmy in places, its pull was irresistible. Anybody with a heart had to be inspired by the beautiful idea that one man could make such a profound difference in such a hard and desperate part of the world. I remember thinking that this was not only a book talk and charity fundraiser, it was something akin to a religious experience—a modern-day tent revival. People had not merely come to listen, they'd come to believe. Mortenson, a son of missionaries and a nurse by training who by then had been thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (and whose books were required reading by the Pentagon), was a secular saint who'd seized upon a revolutionary notion that soared across conflicts and continents—the power of educating children, especially girls, in tribal societies racked by poverty and war. In our cynical age, he was one dreamer who seemed to give off an authentic halo glow. That night, I could see genuine reverence in people's eyes and in the earnest faces of children clutching their jars of pennies.

I wish I could say now that I was skeptical of Mortenson's performance, but I wasn't. Like everyone else, I wrote a check and bought a book and stood in line. I, too, believed.

This past week, thanks to a 60 Minutes exposé followed by an extended piece of electronic journalism by bestselling author Jon Krakauer, we learned that Mortenson may very well be a charlatan. That significant passages of The Story appear to be fictions (including the whole genesis tale about his sentimental recovery in Korphe). That the "Taliban abductors" so harrowingly described in Three Cups of Tea were supposedly friendly villagers protecting him as a guest of honor. That his charity, the Bozeman, Mont.–based Central Asia Institute, is apparently hopelessly mismanaged. That many of its schools stand empty—some of them serving as storage sheds for hay.

It's only natural to feel betrayed and disappointed upon discovering that those we admire are flawed. But this was more than simple imperfection. Mortenson stood accused of literary, managerial, and fiduciary sins so sweeping that they threatened to demolish the entire edifice of his good works. Believers like me were left to pick up the million little pieces of yet another shattered hero. And to wonder, how could we have been so gullible?

Americans have a profound longing for heroes—now perhaps more than ever. We need our explorers, our sports icons, our Medal of Freedom winners, our Nobel laureates. We need our Greatest Generation warriors, our "Sully" Sullenbergers, our Neil Armstrongs. On some level, we still subscribe to the myth of the man in the white hat. We yearn to believe not only in his good deeds but in his inherent goodness as a person. Perhaps it's something rooted in our Puritan past, but we seem to have a monochromatic view of heroism. We have a hard time believing that the doer of a heroic deed could have serious defects or even be rotten to the core. Heroes are supposed to be heroic—period. We prefer to take ours neat.

Yet all heroes and saints are imperfect—even the greatest ones. Mother Teresa, Mortenson's professed role model when he was growing up, was widely criticized for the deplorable condition of her clinics—and for accepting large sums of money from mafia dons and Third World dictators. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis and engaged in marital infidelities. Gandhi had a decidedly weird habit of sleeping beside naked young women to test his vow of celibacy—and, according to a new biography out last month by Joseph Lelyveld, may have had a homoerotic relationship with a German-Jewish architect in South Africa. So what? Their accomplishments seem all the more heroic for their having been complicated, multidimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings.

Our deep need for heroes is tied to the sheer size of our country and the myth of the frontier. During the time of the "winning" of the West, the most popular form of literature in America was the "blood and thunder": mass-produced novels in which swashbuckling characters like Kit Carson rescued kidnapped women, shot up the savages, and saved the day. There was a real Kit Carson, of course, whose exploits were already extraordinary enough—but never mind, the pulp writers back East had to improve on the story and turn it into fable. The nation was hungry for a single heroic character who could personify the surge of Manifest Destiny, exalting American accomplishments while simplifying the stickiest aspects of Western conquest. Who cares if it wasn't true?

Perhaps the most telling quote from Krakauer's piece speaks to this same theme—the notion that Mortenson's story was allowed to blossom without check for years because it soothed the national conscience during a messy, intractable war. "He's a symptom of Afghanistan," a former Mortenson colleague told Krakauer. "Things are so bad that everybody's desperate for even one good-news story. And Greg is it."

In the end, I'm not quite sure how I feel about Mortenson's very public stoning last week. Even when it's justified, it's always heartbreaking to dispatch a hero. For my taste, this was a character assassination that went down entirely too fast. In the days of ink, the process by which heroes were knocked off their pedestals took weeks and months; in the digital age, it can be accomplished in hours and minutes. Thanks to a hundred websites, blogs, chatrooms, and social-media sites, all the possible stages of reaction to a complicated story like this—shock, disbelief, resignation, outrage, recrimination, numbness, and then, inevitably, amnesia—race along at warp speed.

As of late last week, it remained unclear how Mortenson's organization would weather this fast-moving storm. Mortenson himself said he was heading to the hospital for surgery to repair a "hole in my heart"—presumably a literal one. Until we hear from him, I prefer to hold on to the perhaps naive belief that the final truth of these allegations will fall somewhere shy of doing irreparable harm to his great cause. The idea of Three Cups of Tea remains heroic, even if its creator has gone astray.

I, for one, still want to believe.