David Oliver Relin, Gregory Mortenson’s co-author on the bestseller “Three Cups of Tea,” has died. The 49-year-old committed suicide Nov. 15 in Oregon, the Multnomah County medical examiner announced late Sunday, saying blunt force trauma to the head was the cause of death.
Relin’s suicide adds to the shadow cast on “Three Cups of Tea,” which tells of Mortenson’s travels in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan and his work creating schools for the children, particularly girls, in those remote regions. The book was plunged into controversy in April 2011, when Jon Krakauer published an investigative report highly critical of Mortenson’s claims, titled “Three Cups of Deceit.”
In that report, Relin was named as Mortenson’s co-author, but it was Mortenson himself who was criticized the most harshly. Krakauer, himself a mountaineer and author of the bestselling “Into Thin Air,” called the facts of Mortenson’s story into question.
“The first eight chapters of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact,” Krakauer wrote. “And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem.”
The report also raised serious issues about the disposition and management of the millions of dollars Mortenson had raised for his charity, the Central Asia Institute. “Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built,” Krakauer wrote. “ ‘Three Cups of Tea’ has much in common with ‘A Million Little Pieces,’ the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham.”
Krakauer’s report was the first piece published by Byliner, a new forum for long-form nonfiction. It immediately rose to the top of Amazon’s e-book bestseller charts -- helped, in part, by a concurrent report on “60 Minutes” that featured Krakauer talking about what he had learned.
In the aftermath, Byliner went on to publish a paperback edition of the story. And the Central Asia Institute, the nonprofit set up by Mortenson, went through a major restructuring to bring its organization and spending in line with philanthropic guidelines.
Mortenson protested some of Krakauer’s criticism about his version of events, telling the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “As the co-author of the book, along with David Oliver Relin, I am responsible for the content in the book. There were many people involved in the story and also those who produced the manuscript. What was done was to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.”
It was one of the few times that Relin’s name was prominently mentioned in the hubbub. Relin, who shared in the profits of “Three Cups of Tea,” did not co-author the sequel, “Stones into Schools.”
And yet, publicly, Relin had kind words for Mortenson -- other than expressing good-hearted exasperation at the difficulty of pinning him down to complete the book. In a 2010 appearance in Pierce County, Washington, Relin recalled Mortenson asking him to help write the book. “I can’t imagine anything more important,” Relin said he replied.
In that appearance, Relin described his dissatisfaction with how the Muslim world was being depicted by American media -- fearsomely, monolithically -- and saw Mortenson’s project as a counterweight to that. “I felt like Greg was working on curing the disease itself, and by that I mean the root causes of terrorism: poverty and ignorance and the people who cynically take advantage of people who are suffering from those conditions,” he said.
Relin is survived by his wife, mother, stepfather and two sisters. His family said through a representative that he “suffered from depression” and no more. In 2013, Random House will publish a book authored by Relin alone, “Second Suns, Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives.”
Byliner would not comment on whether Relin’s suicide would prompt an updated version of “Three Cups of Deceit.”