“When your heart speaks, take good notes.”
That’s the line Greg Mortenson keeps as a personal mantra, taped to his mirror at home, he told me in an interview last year.
Well, it seems that his heart has been telling him tall tales. Either that, or he hasn’t been taking very good notes. The once-celebrated author and humanitarian is under suspicion this week after last Sunday’s 60 Minutes exposé accused him of fabricating parts of his best-selling memoirs, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, and using his charity, Central Asia Institute, set up to build schools for impoverished children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “as his personal A.T.M.”
What was clear in the interview I had with him was that Mr. Mortenson is a complex bundle of emotions. He is an enigma to himself. For many months of the year, he leaves his wife, Tara Bishop, and their two young children, Kyber and Amira, now 10 and 13 respectively, in their home in Montana to go to dangerous and remote parts of the Middle East.
“I’ve been gone from my children for half their lives,” he told me with a mournful expression that didn’t suggest regret but rather bemusement. He appeared thoroughly disorganized and fragile, in need of concerned handlers who had brought him to a private club in Toronto, where he had spoken to a well-heeled audience about the “Girl Effect” – how young women are “the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world.”
The persona he skillfully inhabited was that of high-drama selfless hero, looking up often with meek brown eyes, shrugging his shoulders, a giant of a boy lost to his good intentions.
The day we spoke, he had traded his shoes for slippers beneath his shabby suit. His thoughts were distracted. He was ill with a parasite that had led to viral pericarditis, an inflammation of the tissue around the heart. He had suffered brain swelling too. (This week it has been reported that Mr. Mortenson requires heart surgery.) He needed supplemental oxygen at various points in the day. His wife, who is a psychologist, is the only one who understands his emotional make-up, he suggested. She often cancels his engagements and shelters him from any communication with outsiders when he is emotionally overwhelmed, he explained.
Cultural sensitivity is all that’s needed, he meekly put forth. Peace through education. Do for those children as you would for your own. The year before, he had taken some Taliban sympathizers to see one of his schools - at their request. “When they saw the giant playground, they put down their weapons, and for an hour, they went on the swings and slides,” he explained. Who could resist the poignancy of such a scene? Black-turbaned, misunderstood bad guys kicking up their heels?
Maybe Mr. Mortenson’s heart told him that Westerners desperately needed a hero like him to assuage their guilt with a cheque. We wanted an easy solution. If the allegations are true - Mr. Mortenson has denied most of them, acknowledging only that he had compressed certain events for story-telling purposes - perhaps we, his rapt audience, are as much to blame as he is.