Do we really need other people?
Christopher Knight didn’t think so. He left his home and family in Massachusetts, disappeared into the Maine woods and stayed there for 27 years.
He had no conversation with other human beings, unless you count the one time a hiker said, “Hi,” to him, and he said, “Hi,” back.
He took little food with him, and no fishing rod or gun to kill animals for food. The Maine woods don’t yield much in the way of year-round forage. He took no shelter with him that could withstand Maine winters. How did he survive? How did he get what he needed?
He stole it.
For nearly three decades he broke into cabins and summer camps, taking food, clothing, reading material and the occasional small amount of cash. He took only what he needed, but the burglaries left people feeling violated and uneasy. Law enforcement searched but never found him, never even figured out who he was. He was careful to hide his camp, to walk in such a way that he left few footprints. He survived the brutal Maine winters without once lighting a fire, because the smoke might give him away.
He was finally captured by a Maine game warden so determined to catch him that he used new high-tech equipment developed by Homeland Security, under condition that he keep quiet about the specifics.
It’s not a spoiler to know how he was captured, because that’s really only the beginning of the story.
Author Michael Finkel is a man who loves solitude, too. He’s a journalist who learned about Christopher Knight’s capture and reacted with “some degree of respect and a great deal of astonishment.” Finkel writes that he likes being alone, that his preferred exercise is solo long-distance running and that his job as a writer and journalist is “often asocial.” He had often wondered what it was like to spend long periods of time in silence, diving fully into his own innermost depths, figuring it would be both profound and disturbing. He was eager to hear what Knight might reveal.
Nothing, it turned out. He didn’t want to do in-depth interviews and the news media moved on. Finkel wrote to him, got some tentative communication back and went on to be able to conduct some correspondence and fairly extensive interviews. The way Knight’s story unreels is fascinating, and Finkel’s spinning of it keeps the suspense going simply through a series of questions: How did he survive? How did he get a supply of safe water? How did he commit more than a thousand break-ins without getting caught? Why didn’t his family come looking for him?
And a fairly obvious question: Is he crazy? The answer, by the way, is probably no. A forensic psychologist evaluated Knight for the state of Maine after his arrest, and the conclusion was “complete competency,” with the possibility of Asperger’s disorder, depression or possible schizoid personality disorder. Asperger’s is not grouped under the umbrella term autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. Finkel presented several experts with the evidence and analysis in Knight’s case. While Knight does show some of the traits of the disorders, such as apathy to people and his hypersensitivity to sensory changes, the experts were reluctant to label him with a diagnosis. Stephen Edelson, executive director of the Autism Research Institute, quipped, “I diagnose him as a hermit.”
So why did he just go into the woods and keep to himself? It becomes clear that interacting with other people depletes and confuses him. When Finkel goes to talk to him in jail, Knight reveals that the hardest thing about jail is the fact that there are always so many people around him. He avoids looking at other people’s faces because “there’s too much information there.” His most cherished time in the woods was in the dead of winter, when there were no rustling leaves or moving animals, a time when he was most likely to die. “What I miss most in the woods,” he said, “is somewhere in between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.”
Mystics and meditators seek that stillness, and stillness within. “People have sought out solitary existences at all times across all cultures,” writes Finkel, “some revered and some despised.” He shows us some of them, and he explores the evolutionary value of connectedness and solitude. Isolation can be healing, and it can be terrifying, and he points out that solitary confinement is the most severe punishment the American penal system exacts short of execution.
Finkel also takes a look at the effect Knight’s break-ins had on the people around him, near the remote North Pond in Maine. Some shrugged off his thefts, saying he really hadn’t hurt anyone, and didn’t deserve to be jailed. Some even raised money for him. Others were deeply angry, saying they felt violated over and over again, that they were afraid to sleep in their own cabins, their places of refuge.
And for all the exploration, Finkel’s book is short — 203 pages. Because of the way he keeps the suspense going, it is a quick read. It is also a profound essay on the nature of solitude, and well worth the one or two sittings it takes to read it.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full August 23 issue.
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