Dancing with the Con




David Breithaupt interviews Walter Kirn

Dancing with the Con

May 25th, 2014 reset - +

IF YOU’VE LIVED in a large metropolitan city for any length of time and have used public transportation on a regular basis, chances are good that you have met a Napoleon or Jesus or two. What if, however, you live in Montana and receive a request from a man named Clark Rockefeller in New York City who wants to adopt your friend’s handicapped dog, a dog they listed on the internet? Who would pretend to be a Rockefeller to adopt a dog with faulty legs? Rockefellers want A-list seats in the best restaurants or at the opera. They don’t respond to ads about damaged dogs, do they?

So who was Walter Kirn to say no when Clark Rockefeller answered the ad, and said he wanted to rehabilitate this poor dog in need of a loving owner?

Kirn also smelled a story. Here was a Rockefeller, part of the iconic American family dynasty, willing to take a break from shifting the balance of the world’s financial power to help a poor dog. Kirn answered the call, driving east to New York with the dog, hoping at the very least to have an index card or two filled with character traits of the rich and eccentric.

Instead began a 15-year acquaintance, which at times bordered on friendship, between Kirn and “Clark Rockefeller.” Kirn’s book is part memoir, documenting his own hopes, setbacks, motivations, and loves lost and gained. A study of human dysfunction on a grand scale, and how it duped many and killed others, it is the literary equivalent of Las Meninas, Velázquez’s portrait of Philip IV and company, warts and all, with the painter on the side looking on. When “Clark Rockefeller” is finally outed as German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a fugitive on the run from a murder charge with a history of kidnapping, Kirn’s decade-and-a-half involvement with this man forces a reassessment of human nature and the bonds of trust. Kirn gives us a vivid portrait of two psyches — not only Gerhartsreiter’s, but also his own.

I discussed the aftermath of this affair with Kirn online recently. Amid criticisms of being too easily duped and conning his readership — see for instance the Nathaniel Rich review mentioned below — Kirn defended his book and experience during our conversation.

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DAVID BREITHAUPT: The book begins with a journey from West to East, and you’ve just come off a major book tour, traveling across the country. You’re a Western man who is no stranger to the East. How do you characterize the difference between East and West?

WALTER KIRN: I suppose I have to trade in clichés a little here. When I read from the book about driving a crippled dog all the way from Montana to New York, I notice that people in the East are a bit puzzled by my extravagant act. They’re skeptical about why a person would do such a thing. In the West, there seems to be a greater understanding of the impulsive spirit of the act. Maybe that’s because in the West the long road trip is seen as a way to clear the head, a search for something, a leap into the unknown. My book is filled with accounts of strange behavior, “Clark Rockefeller’s” but also my own, and I think in the East, where convention and authority play a greater role in people’s minds, there’s a bit less sympathy for outsized gestures and improvised decision making.

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Nathaniel Rich took you to task for being as big a con man as “Clark Rockefeller.” How do you respond to that? 

The con artist and the writer are allied in that both of them live by their wits, their creativity. The difference between them is one of intention. A con man makes things up in order to gain an advantage over people, while the artifices of the writer are meant to transfer energy to people, amusing them and informing them. What Rich specifically accused me of was disingenuousness; he finds it unbelievable, apparently, that I could have trusted “Clark” and bought his act. Well, I did, and the reasons are in the book. They range from a trusting nature to my own vanity, my talent for self-deception, my insecurity, and my literary curiosity about someone so different from myself. Gullibility is a strange human phenomenon; with 20/20 hindsight it seldom makes sense. Does it make sense that our entire country went to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that, looking back, weren’t there at all, and for which there was so little tangible evidence? Does it make sense that large charitable endowments as well as hardheaded multimillionaires would invest their money with Bernie Madoff, ignoring annual returns that were consistently too good to be true? The victims of charlatans, in their embarrassment, tend to clam up, to bow their heads in shame, rather than come forward and describe their own muddleheadedness and lack of prudence. I decided in my book to break this pattern; to display my mistaken judgment for all to see. I didn’t expect that this show of vulnerability would attract quite so much hostility as it has. I know better now. The human ego survives on the illusion that it’s more discerning than it is, better able to see the truth of things. My story puts this notion to a test, and perhaps that makes some people uncomfortable. How could an educated, thinking person be such a fool? Well, let me count the ways …

In trusting “Clark” you reveal much about yourself. Is this something you expected as you took on the book? 

A con is a dance; it takes two. I knew my part in this transaction more intimately than he did his, and there was no way to be honest with the reader about my willingness to play along with his eccentric schemes, from building a secret Canadian propulsion lab to entertaining Britney Spears at his New Hampshire country house the month before hosting (supposedly) Germany’s retired head of state, Chancellor Kohl. I realized as I was writing the story of “Clark” that without confessing to my own insecurities, I was owning up to my longing for approval, and taking the keen delight of a provincial at penetrating an elite, insular world — New York’s Lotos Club, Boston’s Algonquin Club, etc. — on the mere say so of a foppish young Rockefeller. American literature spills over with stories of the resourceful charlatan, the cunning flimflam man, and the brazen impostor, but our literature is curiously uninterested in exactly how the victims fall so easily prey to such deceptions. In a country where we’re constantly being fooled — by political leaders, business partners, lovers, and the rah-boys on Wall Street, who pitch their pie-in-the-sky financial stories so they can take our money, run, and hopefully liquidate the proceeds before the colossal bubble that they’ve been blowing inevitably bursts — it’s time that we stop looking at the element we can’t control — them, the flimflam artists — and develop a sense of chastened humility about our susceptibility to their wiles. The best way to guard against being fooled again — by teaser-rate mortgages, by secret caches of “weapons of mass destruction” that don’t exist, and even by our intimate partners — is an honest appraisal of our own soft spots.

In your essay “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon,” you wrote, “Sometimes a person doesn’t know what he’s made of until strangers try to tear it down.” Do you think “Clark” will ever strip down to his, shall we say, real self?

Clark has no real self to strip down to; what appears to be his self is entirely sampled, appropriated, borrowed. People assiduously resist acknowledging that the sociopaths in our midst are qualitatively different beings; a predator species clothed in human attributes whose bedrock belief is that trust is weakness, good faith is self-deception, and that their targets deserve whatever they get as sentimental, hopeful dopes whose mistake is projecting their own humanity onto those who have none, in the normal self. Clark, I have reason to believe, is recasting himself, in the classic jailhouse way, as some sort of reformed, religious character who has conquered an addiction to using people and will never, ever operate again in such callous, self-serving terms. He’ll prove convincing to those who cherish such narratives — of the prodigal son, the remorseful sinner, the convert who sees the light — but woe to those who fall for the charade. He told me the last time I saw him that the Holy Bible is the only infallible guide to truth on earth. He didn’t smite me when he said it, but I could feel him scanning my face as he tried to determine if I was buying his line. I know better now. All his lines are lines. And plagiarized lines, most likely. He has no center. We can’t let go of the notion that he must because our sentimental view of life requires it. Which he knows all too well and has banked on all his life. But evil exists, and it exists in him, my experience has taught me, and the evil consists of him believing this: he is real, and you are not, and he is God, and you are there to serve him.

Do you think your life was ever in danger as you associated with “Clark”? 

I never sensed I was until last summer, when a married couple in Montana who’d known Clark — the couple who introduced me to him, actually, and had been caring for the crippled dog that I ended up delivering to him — forwarded me a series of emails they’d exchanged with him a few months after I met him. In them, he described suffering a nervous breakdown in New York and voiced a desire to come to Montana to recover. He was very specific about the living situation he was seeking. He wanted to stay on a working ranch with a guest house. The ranch needed to be dog-friendly. Well, as he knew by then, my place fit that description exactly. And he also knew that the people he was writing to were friends of mine who could be expected to pass on his request to me. And in fact I remembered him asking me during this period if he could come stay with me for a while. I told him I had no space and that my wife was due to give birth soon. He persisted, asking me if I had a garage or little guest house. I said I did. “Well I used to live in a guest house,” he said, “and I’ve never been happier in all my life.” Flash forward to his murder trial. The last time he’d stayed in a guest house, it turned out, he’d murdered the young couple who lived in the main house and buried the husband in the yard. Another chilling detail from one of the emails was that he planned to occupy himself in Montana translating Dostoevsky. To me, that was one of his telltale literary hints: he had Crime and Punishment on his mind, a novel about a boarder who kills his landlady out of arrogance, to show himself he can.

Has this relationship with “Clark” tempered your relationship with others, especially new acquaintances?

Clark’s unmasking rocked my faith in my own judgment. I realized that I was a fantasist at heart, a self-deluding wishful thinker who didn’t confine my imaginative tendencies to my writing. Some who read the book simply can’t believe that I was thoroughly taken in by him, given how preposterous and sometimes inconsistent his stories were. I suppose you could compare my gullibility to the “willing suspension of disbelief” that readers bring to works of fiction. I wanted to be amused by Clark, to drink in his eccentricities, his oddness, possibly as the basis for a character I might build a novel around someday. He was a portal into a domain, the superrich American aristocracy, that was otherwise closed to me. Or so I thought. Discovering he was a psychopath who’d made himself up from scratch, and who was capable of gruesome violence, shocked me into realizing how manipulable my fanciful thinking made me. My first reaction was shyness and withdrawal. I lost a certain degree of faith in others, but I lost even more faith in myself. The problem is that social life, business life, romantic life is simply impossible without trust. Nothing good can happen between people without it, meaning that chronic skepticism and doubt will eventually shrink your life to almost nothing. So I waded back into the pool. No other option. I overrode my suspicious, uncertain reflexes pretty much by force of will at first. That’s how I still operate, to some extent. Clark put a permanent stutter in my step, but a smaller and smaller one as time goes on. 

Part of your book deals with a brief history of your experience with substance abuse, especially with stimulants such as Ritalin. Much has been written about the influence of amphetamines and other stimulants in 20th-century politics and writing. From Hitler to JFK and from Kerouac to Hunter Thompson, the influence of these drugs was significant in our cultural and political geography. How much influence did these drugs have on your writing in terms of style?

I started taking Ritalin when I told a psychiatrist I was having trouble meeting journalism deadlines. I was working for Time then, and often received assignments the day before they were due. The Ritalin glued me to my desk chair and brought a certain euphoric urgency to pieces that otherwise would have bored me stiff. My style, I noticed, grew chilly, barbed, detached, but I churned out the work, sometimes in all-night marathons. Soon, I developed a tolerance to the drug, upped the dosage, and started to spin out, compulsively rewriting the same sentence or letting a sentence grow to a whole paragraph. The problem was that, unless I took the pills, I couldn’t bring myself to work at all, and unless I took sleeping pills to ease me down, I couldn’t rest. Then things got even worse. The sedatives lost their power to relax me and instead gave me amnesia, meaning I’d go on writing in a trance, pouring out mad immensities of verbiage that, when I reread them in my right mind, seemed like someone else’s work entirely, some loony, pretentious, prophetic alien desperately trying to enlighten planet Earth. I also sent out emails in this state, often extremely confessional and intimate and often addressed to people I barely knew. The pills had to go. I focused more on fiction, which helped me unwind and slow down and learn to breathe again. Then Time let me go, a blessing. Though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that those amped-up deadline nights felt thrilling at times. The race to beat the clock. The lonely romance of writing under pressure, your thoughts on fire, dawn about to break, your editor starting to panic. It’s a rush. 

“Clark Rockefeller” is a hard act to follow. What do you have planned next?

 I’ll definitely write a novel, not nonfiction. I’m eager to build a world from the ground up, to create not reflect, to invent not sift and sort. Nonfiction storytelling is like doing a puzzle; the pieces exist but the trick is in arranging them. Blood Will Out was a complicated narrative, a story that happened over 15 years but radically changed course along the way, forcing me to relive it from a new angle and reconcile what it seemed to mean originally, when I was blind to its true significance, with what it came to mean once Clark was exposed. A knotty task that left me craving freedom, a space all my own to range about at will, with characters who emerged from deep within, not ones imposed on me by reality. My notion at the moment, still quite hazy, is to strike a folkloric tone with a modern tale, to pare away the distractions of technology, media, pop culture, and politics, and send off an everyman on a great adventure of an elemental, heroic, timeless sort. We live in a time of cacophony and flux, of fractured attention, of pulverizing novelty; it’s hard to discern life’s abiding, mythic layers. I want to dig down and raise them to the surface. We’re engaged in an ancient, ongoing, unfinished journey, but we seem to have lost track of its direction. It’s time to pause, reorient, take stock. We need a Tom Joad, a Huck Finn, an Ishmael. We need the kinds of characters and quests that will steer us back into the main current, out of the shallows, and carry us onward, send us on our way.

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David Breithaupt’s last piece for LARB was on death cafés

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