This news causes me intense pain…


I just saw the news about David Oliver Relin’s suicide, and it causes me intense pain, because I feel like I viscerally understand how this tragedy happened.

For those of you who might not know Relin’s name, he’s the co-author of Three Cups of Tea, the story about Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute (CAI).

I was outrageously angry and frustrated with myself when Three Cups of Tea was topping every best-seller list on earth — I’d known about CAI and Mortenson for years and never had the idea to write a book about it.

And after Jon Krakauer’s Byliner expose brought to light the dark side of Mortenson’s feel-good story, I was awash with relief that it hadn’t occurred to me.

Relin got that inspiration, and it seems to have cost him his life.

As a writer on the lookout for a “high-concept” story, I could easily have fallen under Mortenson’s spell, and if in our interviews I was having my head filled with mis-remembrances, not-quite-the-truths, distortions, disinformations, evasions, inaccuracies, inventions, misrepresentations, prevarications, misstatements, and other whoppers, big and small, I might not have had the brains — or the courage — to smoke them out, either.

That thought fills me with terror, because there but for the grace of God goes me.

David Oliver Relin’s blood is on someone’s hands, I think I know whose, and it fills me with bitterness.

So many people have been hurt by this, and such an incredible opportunity has been squandered.

And to be 100% clear, I don’t think that person is Jon Krakauer.

I’m grateful to the CNAC veterans for being truthful in the interviews which were crucial to the writing of China’s Wings. In so many ways, I was at their mercy.

*In a related note, many of my CNAC veterans can remember in minute-by-minute detail significant events that happened to them in the 1930s and ’40s. Here are two that describe what it was like to interview Moon Chin, one of China’s Wings main supporting characters (and an incredibly reliable witness): Ceiling 500 feet, Intermittent Drizzle; and Why interviewing Moon Chin is like interviewing a jazz riff.

*Here’s a link to The New York Times story about Relin’s suicide.

* Here are a few more thoughts I’ve added about this tragedy.

This entry was posted in Book & Movie Reviews, China's Wings, Enduring Patagonia, Reading, Writing, and Research. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to This news causes me intense pain…

  1. Tom Barnhill says:

    Ya man. I spoke with Greg in 96 well before these events due to links via Brent Bishop and my work on a project highlighting an expedition to Pakistan. Something of it all didn’t feel right at that time and I didn’t go. Mortenson was interested in my work and wanted me to contract for CAI and potentially lead their communications. I didn’t. For a long time, I too was a bit jealous and held “not going” on that trip to Pakistan as a sole life regret. And when things broke and then shattered, I lost that regret and was thankful I was not the Director of Communications holding the bag of shit and broken glass. That really sucks for this guy to go down and I too know how he must have felt. Not entirely, I don’t mean to minimize but just to empathize cause that would be a terrible road to travel for a man and for an author who wanted to tell a story of truth and integrity. Thanks for this post and your anger is understood.

    • Gregory says:

      Damn, Tom… that’s standing in a whole lot closer to the peril than me. Glad you steered clear of that rocky coast. It’s such a grim story.

      • Tom Barnhill says:

        Yep, an odd one. I was also involved in the Armstrong affair too but smelled stinky things early on and jumped ship w/o an exit plan. I have some skills in attracting the Big Story (w/a catch) and half-skills in getting out of them before I get consumed. I’m not sure if that makes me a fool or a wise man or some combo ‘tween.

  2. Oscar Wilde says:

    Forgive me for sharing your pain in a different form. You feel “someone” is responsible, but it’s not Jon Krakauer? Then who? Are you blaming Greg Morenson for Renlin’s death? Are you mad? He wrote the book because he believed the story, and because you seem so entrenched in the media assassination of both men, you neglected to add that Mortenson was found guilty of nothing. The faux class-action suit, elbowed in on by Larry Drury was thrown out of court by Judge Haddon. The attorney general and the CAI agreed (not forced, by mandated, not court-ordered) he paid back $1 million in travel expenses they had paid. For that $1 million in expenses during the same tax year, the CAI raised $20 million for the 250 schools that can be proven actually do exist (including the one on the cover of the “innocent” writer).

    I feel more pain after your deluded idea that “someone” killed Renlin but Krakauer is innocent. Prove me wrong. He said he donated all proceeds to Stop Girls Trafficking. Check out their 990. Email them, like I did, and you wil find that after giving his book away on Byliner for 72 hours any royalties after that (plus the $10k Byliner sent in May) is all they received. So stop acting like Krakauer not only has blood on his hands he has blood money in in bank. He kept the royalties for the Random House edition, a much larger royalty agreement than he ever had with Byliner (remember, edited by his good friend from Outside?) A man is dead because Byliner needed a sensation story to launch.

    Sleep well all of you who believed every piece of dirt presented as fact.

    • Gregory says:

      Dear Oscar Wilde,

      With a name like that and without a link back to a personal website, am I correct in assuming that you’re using a pseudonym? Although certainly within the limits of internet fair play, it does seem out of keeping with with spirit of the original post.

      Yes, Renlin believed the story, but I suspect the person who was telling it to him going far beyond the realm of what actually happened. And probably wasn’t making clear to Renlin where, when, in what specifics, and to what degree he was deviating from reality. I’m inclined to agree with what a friend commented on the FB link to this page, “To have a book be as successful and admired as Three Cups of Tea, then discover, later, that you have been profoundly deceived and that said book is full of lies would be an emotional roller-coaster ride that would be hard for anyone to take.”

      As for that repaid $1,000,000, would that have happened without the expose? It seems most likely to me that it would not have been repaid. As I understand your argument, you think it’s okay that Mortenson “squeezed” 5% of CAI’s total income for that year for his personal use?

      I don’t think that’s okay.

      As an author, the detail I find particularly scandalous is Mortenson using CAI money to make mass purchases of Three Cups of Tea at the retail price, when as the book’s author, he could buy them at the wholesale price. (And I assure you from experience that it’s as easy to use a publisher’s bulk and author sales people to buy books as it is to use amazon. It generally takes one phone call or one email. The differences being that it costs half as much and doesn’t put money into the royalty account.) I find that hard to rationalize or justify as anything besides a money-laundering scheme crafted to use foundation money to divert 15% of the TCoT purchase price into a personal royalty account. And that’s a scheme, one well-planned and well-understood, which belies the “narrative” of a person too disorganized and forgetful to keep the details of his life straight.

      Is that not stealing from CAI’s till, Oscar?

      And as for the money earned from Three Cups of Deceit, I don’t understand what that has to do with the Mortenson/CAI situation. A writer or investigative journalist can do whatever they want with their legitimate income. They earned it.

      • Oscar Wilde says:

        Gregory (if you are Gregory)

        Not when they publicly announce they will donate all proceeds and not personal profit from trashing a competing charity.

        The whole scandal was about how book royalties are donated and used by educational charities. What makes Krakauer’s actions and motives worth any less investigation than the CAI?

        A man is dead for God’s sake. Hounded to death and gagged by a court order. Wasn’t that convenient? There was only one side legally allowed out, the plaintiffs.

        And they lost. There was no case. There never was, it was all PR and hot air to launch Byliner.com, and well they did their job.

        If the CAI had to have their feet held to the fire over this issue of book royalties and how exactly they were spent and where the money came from to the penny, what is so special about “Stop Girl’s Trafficking”?

        You demand transparency from the CAI over royalties, but the American Himalayan Foundation, who accepted those donations and does not need to be as open and transparent and the public?

        I hear the air is thinner in the upper ends of society. Perhaps you need your tank refilled.

        • Gregory says:

          Dear Mr. Wilde,

          Seeing as how this is my personal website with my name on it, my pictures in it, and lots of people with whom I’m personally acquainted chiming in, I think you can be reasonably assured that you are in fact corresponding with “Gregory.”

          You seem to debate somewhat less coherently than I imagine your namesake would have, so I’m continuing with the assumption that I’m not exchanging views with Oscar Wilde, but with someone using a pseudonym. Is there some reason you’re not willing to share your true name with the rest of us?

          It also seems like you didn’t address the questions I asked above:

          Do you think it’s okay that Mortenson “squeezed” 5% of CAI’s total revenues for that year? A sum amounting to $1,000,000?

          Do you think Mortenson would have paid that sum back without Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit expose?

          Also, there probably would have been a case if Mortenson had decided not to pay it back. He was caught with his arm rammed to the shoulder in the cookie jar! He’d have gotten his day in court if he’d have wanted it. And although we’ll never know because Mortenson opted not to face charges and be judged by a trial of his peers, I’ll bet he would have lost.

          Do you consider Mortenson’s scheme of using CAI money to buy copies of his own book at the retail price (and salt his own royalties account) when he could buy them wholesale to be okay?

          Personally, I don’t see any moral equivalence between Mortenson’s actions and Krakauer donating or not donating his receipts for Three Cups of Deceit to charity. Mortenson was not working in a private capacity — he was supposedly working for a charitable organization. Instead, he was stealing from CAI, from all the people who had donated to support his work, and from all the girls in Pakistan he was not educating with the money he stole. Krakauer was a private citizen, operating in a private capacity, and DOING HIS JOB as a journalist. And doing it pretty well, I might add. I don’t see how any of Krakauer’s actions merit an investigation.

          Said more plainly: what Mortenson was doing was illegal; what Krakauer was doing was not.

          Do you not perceive that difference?

          The man who is dead is poor David Oliver Renlin, tragically caught in Mortenson’s web of lies, and I’ll bet Mortenson had a perfectly crafted scheme in his head to ensure that Renlin never caught whiff of those lies — and an utterly callous scheme, mind you, because I perceive Renlin is the ultimate victim of this horror. And if you took the time to look at my original post, you’d see that my motive for writing it is because I can easily see how I could have been caught in that web.

          As for Krakauer, Byliner, 60 Minutes, and all the other journalists and media involved in exposing Mortenson’s fraudulent behavior, they were only doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s why we have a free press. Thank God.

          I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make when you ask why “Stop Girls Trafficking is so special. Nor do I understand what you’re trying to imply about the American Himalayan Foundation. At a guess, I’d hazard they’re complying with all the rules of running a 501(3)c. Which was more than could be said for Mortenson when he was at the helm of CAI.

          You think I’m at the upper end of society needing my tank refilled?

          Oscar, I’m probably a whole lot closer to the leisure class at the other end.

          And I don’t like it.

          But I’m not going to steal to get there, either.

  3. Pingback: More thoughts on David Oliver Renlin’s tragic suicide | Gregory Crouch

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