Thursday, 18 April 2013

Christopher Knight: The "North Pond Hermit"

(See my August 2014 update on Christopher here.)

Last week a man the press described as a "hermit" was arrested in Maine. As usual, the coverage was Swiss-cheesed with hanging references, and much of the rest played to stereotypes and sentiment. After concerted research, there are still great gaps in my picture of events.

But as far as I can tell, Christopher Knight is not a hermit (that is, a person who withdraws from society for spiritual ends). He appears instead to be a recluse. I did find, in a single article, a mention of meditation, without elaboration. Aside from that, all that's clear is that Christopher lived under a tarp in the forest, for a long time. I question whether he did so for the 27 straight years he claims; there are significant holes there, too.

He survived in the bush by stealing from shuttered summer cabins. Thus, many are furious with him. Fair enough; anyone who's been burgled will tell you the damage goes much deeper than the simple cost of the goods. But as an actual hermit, I can imagine the thought process that might lead an otherwise inoffensive solitary to such a decision, especially if he's been alone a long time. Removed from human influence, you start to be shaped by other moralities. That's why we do it.

However, if he isn't a fair-dinkum hermit, Christopher may at least lean that way. Even his victims admit he mostly stole the wherewithal of life: food, fuel, bedding, batteries. He walked right past money and valuables, damaged as little as possible, and even locked up when he left. And I found a single unsupported suggestion that he left things. Payment? Apology? Aggravatingly, no particulars.

Finally, not a single mention of weapons. Not even a knife. Hell, not even a stick. (Frankly, that begins to be a bit foolhardy.)

Tellingly, law enforcement agents speak of Christopher in solicitous tones; these are not people given to the benefit of the doubt. And the fact that there has been no description of the arrest means it was undramatic. Apparently, officers just walked into Christopher's camp, cuffed him, and led him off to a cell.

But what stung me is the unhelpful and untruthful "analysis" in some press coverage. An otherwise objective Bangor Daily News article quotes one Todd Farchione, described as "a research assistant professor in the psychology department at Boston University", as literally saying that seclusion "stunts development." I got news for you, Todd: so does society. He goes on to say that Christopher's appreciation of talk radio "falls far short of personal interaction with others." Since that's also the lion's share of social interaction for many right-wingers, I guess they must be similarly "stunted".

But far his most arrogant statement is this:

“He [Christopher] might have knowledge, but he’s not going to know what it feels like to lose his first job or lose his first love, or make a mistake or suffer the pain that comes with living. He has not been living in many respects, not in a normal, socially acceptable way.”

Gizo H. Bodhisattva, where to start? Christopher doesn't know what it's like to make a mistake? Really? He doesn't know the pain of living? Out there alone, where the central nutrient of our existence, human kindness, is completely absent? But perhaps this is no problem, since he's "not been living in many respects". Farchione suggests that makes him so "socially unacceptable", he's no longer human.

Check it out, college boy: this hermit has a stick. And he's reaching for it.

Inevitably, Farchione refers to "schizoid personality disorder", which he defines as "a condition in which people lack the desire for social relationships". Yeah. The same thing is often caused by those relationships. There are plenty of sane reasons to avoid people. And unlike cultures in other times and places, this one provides no honest, sanctioned way for such renunciates to get by.

Fortunately, in the same article, Boston College psychology professor Joseph Tecce, (after a few more premature allusions to mental illness), offers a more accurate assessment of Christopher's situation. "He has not practiced the art of interacting with people," Tecce says. He suggests Christopher have a companion to sit with him as he faces the maelstrom of officialdom. "He’ll likely feel overwhelmed, and another person’s presence at his side could offer relief." That's helpful, insightful advice.

Eventually the truth will out. There will be a trial, followed by a book, and then perhaps, God forbid, a TV movie. We'll learn that Christopher's life as a recluse wasn't quite as we imagined, and that his backstory is more complex and more ambiguous than first reported. He'll become a cautionary tale about guys who live in the forest, and the righteousness of hounding them out of it again. This civilisation brooks no abstention, spiritual or otherwise.

What will not happen is any re-evaluation of the morality that Christopher found less attractive than a grinding life in the rough. In that he reminds me of the Vietnam War vets who took to the woods outside my hometown when I was a kid. Respectable folk feared and judged them, called them hippies, maniacs, and delinquents, and sometimes sent the police to hunt them down. (The first Rambo movie, filmed here on the North Coast, was inspired by those incidents.) That experience too produced no change in public morality: of war, of exploitation, of collective guilt, of anything else. Because if there's one thing The Consensus does well, it's lambasting every selfishness but its own.

I hope Christopher gets support from decent people, and that as the public learns the full texture of his tale, he bears up against the blowback. When it's all over, the Maine winter may not be the coldest thing he's survived.

UPDATE: Hermythology, a documentary about Christopher, is scheduled for release 17 July 2013. Further information is available here.

UPDATE, 15 September 2013: Christopher Knight has been sentenced under a provision that allows him to serve his time without incarceration, in a supervised programme. All things considered, a wise and sensitive decision. Details here.

UPDATE, January 2014: The Maine State Police Trooper who led the Christopher Knight investigation believes his story is accurate as told; mention of an alcohol addiction; and his reintegration is apparently going smoothly to date. Details here.

(View of the world from under a tarp courtesy of Flickr and a generous photographer.)
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