‘Three Cups of Tea’

12.06.12

The Death of Co-Author of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ Is Ruled Suicide

Friends and colleagues mourn the death of David Oliver Relin, who was widely considered innocent of the lying of which his co-author Greg Mortenson was accused, writes Michael Daly.

On Wednesday, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office reached an official determination that David Oliver Relin took his life on Nov. 15 by stepping in front of a freight train outside Portland, Ore.

The 49-year-old coauthor of the bestseller-turned-controversy Three Cups of Tea is said to have driven to the Corbett Hill Road exit of Interstate 84 and left his car in a parking area beside the railroad tracks that run along the Columbia River.

Nearby is a forested area where he had once read to his wife, schoolteacher Dawn Relin, the earliest pages of the book that would become a blessing before it became a blindsiding curse.

“The look on her lovely fire lit face that evening in the Salmon-Huckleberry-Wilderness when I read her the first few completed chapters,” David Relin recalled in the book’s acknowledgments.

In the aftermath of his suicide, Relin’s family said through his literary agent only that he suffered from depression. That struggle could not have been made easier by seeing his first book soar on the strength of his talent and hard work and love of words and attention to detail and lifelong passion for speaking truth for the powerless only to have it all smeared by scandal in which he seemed to have played no witting part.

Relin was so proud of Three Cups of Tea that he dedicated it to his late father, Lloyd Relin, a prominent Rochester attorney who won a landmark bankruptcy case before the Supreme Court and died in 1986. Imagine how the son must have felt last year, when both 60 Minutes and author Jon Krakauer charged Greg Mortenson, Relin’s co-author and the focus of the book, with fabricating significant parts of the story and using charity donations related to the book for his own benefit.

“The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact,” Krakauer wrote with palpable indignation in an e-book called Three Cups of Deceit. “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.”

Mortenson did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast, but he had eventually acknowledged to Outside magazine some inaccuracies in Three Cups of Tea. He insisted they were just the result of “literary license” and “compression,” suggesting Relin was complicit.

“What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different,” Mortenson told Outside.

‘He wasn’t the type of journalist who was interested in tearing people or things down.’

Mortenson did not even try to explain why people he said were Taliban who had kidnapped him told reporters that they had in fact served as his protectors. These supposed kidnappers produced a photo of Mortenson standing with them, holding an AK-47.

Relin appears to have been constrained from defending himself at least partly by legal concerns, foremost among them a 2011 class-action lawsuit brought in the name of readers who said they had been defrauded when they bought the 2006 book believing it was nonfiction. His plight must have seemed all the more unfair to the upstanding son of an upstanding lawyer.

“This lawsuit threatened Relin’s career as a writer,” says Relin’s attorney, Sonia Montalbano, in court papers.

Relin needed no defense among the many colleagues and friends who continued to consider him a writer of uncommon dedication and integrity. Not even Mortenson’s most prominent critics have suggested that Relin knowingly incorporated falsehoods into his account of how Mortenson came to build schools in remote villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

‘We never had any indication that he was involved in any way with the inaccuracies and fabrications in the book,” says Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes.

Relin had reason to be greatly relieved when U.S. District Court Judge Sam Haddon dismissed the lawsuit as “speculative and flimsy” in April. But there remained the court of public opinion, before which Relin’s second book is scheduled to appear next June.

Second Suns centers on America eye surgeon Geoffrey Tabin, who happens to have been a co-inventor of bungee jumping but whose true claim to fame is teaming up with a counterpart in Nepal in curing cataract-related blindness in the indigent.

The subject matter seems as compelling as the first book and the jacket in the publisher’s 2013 online catalogue is similar in design. The jacket bills Relin as the co-author of Three Cups of Tea, which otherwise would have been a big boost toward another bestseller, well-deserved acclaim, and, what Relin seems to have prized most, the furtherance of a worthy cause.

Only, Three Cups of Tea still carried a taint of fraud.  How do you secure forgiveness for something for which you bear no reasonable blame? How do you shake the fact that what might have been has been forever changed because a man you trusted betrayed you?

And Relin was not some hack hagiographer who regurgitated whatever his primary source told him. He studied English literature at Vassar, won a fellowship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and honed his craft over the years writing magazine pieces, working with such care that he usually needed little or no editing.

“There was a nice music to his writing,” says Lee Kravitz, his longtime editor at Scholastic and then at Parade. “He cared about every comma … He also had a particular talent and ability to tell stories of people whose stories are not often told.”

Relin focused much of his work on young people: child soldiers, homeless youngsters, girls denied education. He had a way of making readers not just care about the plight of his subjects but want to do something about it. He saw journalism as a calling, and he answered it with all of his heart.

“The type who goes out there to use his skill and talents for the good,” Kravitz says. “He wasn’t the type of journalist who was interested in tearing people or things down.”

Kravitz had learned of Mortenson through another writer who had done a piece on him for Parade. Kravitz felt that Relin was just the just the writer to tell the full, book-length story of this man who seemed to be doing such remarkable good in a part of the world that desperately needed it.

“It was the perfect match of writer and story,” Kravitz says.

In a 2010 talk videotaped at a Tacoma, Wash., public library, Relin recalled that the suggestion from Kravitz came after he had turned down an offer to be embedded with American troops in Iraq.

“I didn’t want to become embedded in what I consider to be the greatest foreign policy mistake in my lifetime,” Relin remembered.

And Relin just happened to be in town when Kravitz called.

“I was in New York for my best friend’s wedding, and Greg Mortenson was in New York chasing rich people,” Relin recalled.

Kravitz had invited Relin and Mortenson to his office at Parade.

“It was sort of like one of those scenes where the drawbridge comes up and the dungeon door closes,” Relin recalled. “I don’t think he actually wrapped chains around his office door and shut a padlock,  but it sort of felt that way.”

Mortenson told a remarkable tale of being rescued and sheltered by Pakistani villagers after becoming lost while mountain climbing. Mortenson said he had pledged to repay their kindness by building a school there and he had made good on his pledge in memory of his dead sister. He hoped to build many more schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially for girls who would otherwise have no access to education.

Relin could not have imagined that this was a man who would later be called a pathological liar. Mortenson seemed to Relin to be fighting terrorism in exactly the right way.

“He’s not going and chasing the symptoms of the disease and by that I mean people with names like Osama or Saddam,” Relin told the library gathering. “Greg was working to cure the disease itself, and by that I mean the root causes of terrorism—poverty and ignorance and the people who cynically take advantage of the people who are suffering from those conditions.”

Relin recalled that at the end of the conversation in Kravitz’s office, Mortenson had asked if he was interested in writing a book about the effort and its genesis.

“I said, ‘I cannot imagine anything more important than that,’” Relin recalled. “I dropped what I was doing and began the sometimes pleasurable and sometimes infuriating process of chasing Greg Mortenson all over the world.”

Relin interviewed some 200 people over 18 months. The result sold more than 4 million copies and became required reading for U.S. troops deploying to Afghanistan. Relin said that he had seen the book as an opportunity to give voice to moderates at a time when extremists were seeking to pit Muslim and the West against each other.

“We are hearing from the loudest people,  the extremists, not just Muslim extremists but extremists in this, our own society, and they’re drowning out the rest of us,” Relin said. “They’re drowning out the majority of us, the moderates who have much more in common than we have the things that separate us.”

Half of the royalties for Three Cups of Tea went to Relin, but neither 60 Minutes nor Krakauer nor anybody else ever suggested that he was knowingly involved  in anything even slightly shady. The money did no doubt help make him a more alluring target of the lawsuit, which did not initially include him. He was only roped in afterward by an amended complaint.

Relin’s lawyer, Montalbano, would note that the plaintiff’s lawyers failed to identity which particular sections of the book were false but did request some very specific information from him.

“Plaintiff’s counsel demanded that Relin provide a statement of his net financial worth,” Montalbano said in court papers.

Relin had not responded to a request from 60 Minutes for comment before it aired its story in April of last year, but Montalbano offered an unequivocal defense in court papers filed in response to the lawsuit in Montana federal court.

Montalbano declares in the papers that “Relin does stand by the manuscript he wrote, ” noting that her client “fully acknowledged partial inaccuracies” in the book with what amounted to a disclaimer in the introduction.

“[Mortenson’s] fluid sense of time made pinning down the exact sequence of many events in this book almost impossible,” Relin had written.

The court papers go on to state, “Relin denies the accusation by the Plaintiffs that he somehow knew any of the anecdotes and stories included in 3CT were false at the time he wrote them.”

The lead plaintiff’s lawyer was Alexander “Zander” Blewett, a prominent personal injury lawyer based in Mortenson’s home state of Montana whose firm handles everything from auto accidents to dog bites, and reports on its website that it has secured 17 judgments in excess of $1 million. The Three Cups of Tea suit was apparently inspired by one brought by several readers against James Frey in 2006, after A Million Little Pieces proved to be fiction, not memoir, as it was billed. Frey’s publisher, Random House, by chance Relin’s new publisher, had eventually settled, agreeing to refund readers and of course pay lawyers’ fees, the total not to exceed $2.35 million.

Blewett did not return a call seeking comment, but it seems safe to assume he hoped for an outcome that was equally favorable and perhaps even more lucrative. Three Cups of Tea was an even bigger hit and the lawyers added allegations originally made by 60 Minutes and Krakauer that Mortenson had perpetrated further fraud in a second book written without Relin and misused donation to his charity Central Asia Institute (CAI), squandering ridiculous sums on chartered jets, author appearances, and purchasing his own book.

“It appears that the only purpose of the allegations involving CAI is to incense a jury with the goal of recovering punitive damages,” Relin’s lawyer says in court papers.

Meanwhile, the blameless Relin was listed among the defendants in a lawsuit bristling with allegations of disgraceful lies and rankest fraud.

“Within this maelstrom of accusations, Relin finds himself an unwilling participant,” Montalbano said in the papers.

Relin’s many loyal friends did not doubt him for a moment.

“I can’t imagine David doing anything but what was right and correct,” Kravitz says. “Writing a book like that or any article, I don’t think he would have made any decisions that were unethical. It just wasn’t him.”

An online obituary has a guest book filled with testaments to an eminently sane journalist who labored to make himself a benefit to the world. One friend remembered that Relin had been “a class act” even as a kid in summer camp. Another recalled him bringing a flower to his wife when she was teaching at Pubic School 183 in New York. Friends of his parents wrote of a young man who had “the head and the heart to bring elegance to the ordinary.”

“David had more stories to tell,” they wrote. “His loss belongs to us all.”

A neighbor at his home in Oregon wrote:

“What if the quiet young man down the street
finds a place to stand?
What if he notices that now he can move the whole world,
toward Peace?
What if he leans his shoulder to the world with all his might,
What if his efforts inspire millions,
And raise big waves?
What if the waves wash him away?”

His second book is still scheduled for release in June, and in the eye surgeon Tabin it seems to have an entirely genuine hero. Tabin said of Relin on Wednesday, “I’m deeply, deeply saddened by this tragic loss. I had the chance to get to know David well over the past three years while he was following me on my travels. He was a fantastic, passionate person who will be missed by all who knew him and loved him.“

Tabin suggested that another genuine hero of Second Suns is David Oliver Relin himself.

“I’m looking forward to the publication of his book, which will be a lasting statement of his compassion and dedication to overcoming human suffering.”