Posted by Heidi Willis at 17:16
Although Mortenson and Relin’s biographical book, Three Cups of Tea, has been criticized for showing Mortenson in a biased and all-too-heroic light, I disagree. There is plenty of flaw in this mountaineer-turned-humanitarian, and that is what made him come alive on the pages, and, if possible, seem even more heroic.
Although listed as co-authors, it’s fairly clear that the majority of this book is written by David Oliver Relin. It presents a third person point of view biography of the man who has come to be known as Dr. Greg. The story begins with a failure and a triumph. On his way to conquer K2, mountain climber Greg Mortenson is called off-course, after already climbing eight times to high camp with the expedition’s food and oxygen stock, to save another climber suffering from pulmonary and cerebral edema. Though it might be easy to paint Mortenson as a superhero who trekked up and down K2 saving lives, it’s this saving of the life that saps his energy and costs him his bid for the summit. Once a helicopter rescues the ill climber at the lower camp where he has been dragged, Mortenson is left to descend the rest of the mountain on his own, where he gets lost and ends up quite sick himself in a small Pakistan village that has never seen a foreigner.
Although this failure brings about the life-changing plans to build schools for the impoverished children of Pakistan, it never seems far from Mortenson’s mind. Failure itself seems to hang over him hard, even through the successes, as he lives in his car and in crack-addled hostiles, faces empty rooms where no one shows to hear him talk, and waits long days for replies to hundreds of pleas for funding that never come.
It is not just his external circumstances that scream failure; Mortenson himself is full of flaws. His work is seemingly disorganized, his basement office “an embarrassing mess.” He appeared depressed, often hiding from the world and his family when he is back in the United States and eventually is given the name of a therapist when he is unable to cope with the depression and anger towards people who want more time than he has to give. He left his family – first a wife, then eventually two children as well – for months at a time, traveling overseas to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India as well as around the country on fund-raising missions. In charge of the Central Asian Institute, Mortenson frustrated his fellow board members with his inability to delegate tasks and allow others in on the planning, leaving them with the knowledge that without him, the charitable work in the middle east through CAI would cease to be. He also became obsessed about the work to the point where “he stopped climbing and exercising. He stopped sleeping. He began to gain so much weight that he didn’t even look like a mountaineer anymore.”
Even in his more heroic acts, he stumbles. When making good on his promise to build the first school, he is ineffective on fundraising. He entrusts his load of cement and lumber to a Pakistani who hides it and uses it for himself and as ransom to get Mortenson to build a school in his town instead. Once he is ready to bring the materials to the town, he is told there is no way to get them there across the river as there is no bridge. Although there will be many instances in which Mortenson comes up against brick walls not of his own doing – such as the Taliban kidnapping of him and the destruction of his passport– there are plenty of times in which Mortenson himself seems to not plan enough and not handle the finances well enough.
He is, however, aware of these failings, and they serve to only send him into further withdrawals at home. When Mortenson is quoted, he is self-effacing and humble in his accomplishments, often giving credit to others
The fact is that what Mortenson does accomplish – building more than 81 schools and bringing clean water pipelines as well as other community improvements – in a region of the world that hates Americans and is at war with them, in a culture he does not initially know, with a language he does not speak, with no contacts or friends or political backing – is amazing. It would be amazing if a superhero with only an aversion to cryptonite did it. The fact that Mortenson, a humble, disorganized, self-conscious and shy individual has done it is what makes it so very heroic.
For writers of fiction or non-fiction this is a lesson to be learned: let the weaknesses shine. Not only does this make for a more believable character, but it makes their victories more triumphant.