An Interview with Walter Kirn
Walter Kirn’s new memoir, Blood Will Out, chronicles his years-long friendship with convicted murderer Christian Gerhartsreiter—Clark Rockefeller to his friends. The book opens with Kirn driving a crippled dog across from Montana to New York and ends with Kirn facing Gerhartsreiter in prison, Gerhartsreiter having been convicted of murdering his landlady’s son.
Though Blood Will Out is primarily about the murderer, it also offers occasion for self-examination—just how did Gerhartsreiter convince so many people for so long?—and an exploration of some larger human truths about identity and gullibility. Kirn does not let himself off the hook. Far from it, sections of the book are almost uncomfortable in the degree that he self-flagellates. But this isn’t a book requesting your pity.
It’s a book that examines, unflinchingly, the lies we tell ourselves and allow others to tell in the spirit of human kinship. It’s about a man willing to exploit that human willingness to play along in service of his own villainous intent. Spanning many years and crossing the continent several times, Blood Will Out is a book that demands attention and might demand that you not put it down once you’ve cracked it.
I talked with Kirn over the phone about deception, the moment he knew, and Gerhartsreiter’s love poem about the German electoral system.
I. A RENAISSANCE OF VIRTUAL IMPOSTORHOOD
THE BELIEVER: This book is kind of all over the place.
WALTER KIRN: You never know when they’re going to be all over the place. Non-fiction beats fiction in that respect. It’s also a time now when people feel deceived by various government and corporate bodies, so the theme is probably relevant.
BLVR: It’s interesting. You cover this in your interview with yourself in the New York Times—
WK: [laughs] It’s not an entirely serious interview, but maybe I cover it. I don’t know.
BLVR: I was just talking about the fact that you really think that there couldn’t be a case of concealed identity these days because everything is so searchable.
WK: You’d think that but let me tell you something, Michael. I’m dealing this very second with concealed identities. I’ve been convinced that Christian Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a. Clark Rockefeller, has been writing one-star Amazon reviews. They’re all reviews where the reviewer has no history and makes the same point: “This book is too much about the author, not enough about the killer.” I just looked at saw that they all appear at the same time of day. I just saw another one and it used his famous initials, CC. He called himself at one point Christopher Crow and then Christopher Chichester. And this latest review is Christopher Corcoran on Amazon. In my first conversation with him, back in 1998, I told him I was a book reviewer and he said, “Oh! You should check out the Amazon review that I just wrote.”I print it, actually, in the beginning of the book—an excerpt of this one-star review—and he’s up to that same game from jail.
In a way, the capacity to have avatars and sock puppets and aliases has never been greater. The ability to be a real-life, walking-around impostor is probably hard. But to be a virtual impostor, which I think is his next move, is reaching a renaissance stage.
BLVR: These days it’s much more possible to take in full corporations or real entities.
BLVR: Or the public on a large scale. The thing that comes to mind is Radiohead being rumored to play Occupy Wall Street.
WK: [laughs] More and more our authentication technologies and instruments are being challenged online. I really couldn’t tell you whether half my Twitter followers are my next-door neighbors or the NSA. For somebody who’s devoted his life to manipulation and deception and intelligence gathering, this must be a bonanza. I’ve been told in prison, you can get a hold of smuggled cell phones. People run whole drug smuggling gangs from prison. They can certainly reach out and troll you on Amazon and Twitter.
Even though I think the practice of Googling people when we meet them may weed out impostors, out in the virtual world it’s a free-for-all. The fact is that the game of spy/counter-spy has gone on throughout human history. Google gave us a leg up in finding out who people really are, but soon, those who wish to fool us will gain that but take the advantage again. It’s a never-ending struggle.
BLVR: Then you get into catfishing and these elaborate Facebook hoaxes.
WK: Yeah, yeah. I remember a year ago or whenever it was when that football player at Notre Dame [Manti Te’o] was being roundly mocked for having been perhaps deceived by this fake romance online. Having known Clark Rockefeller, I had a lot of sympathy for the guy. I thought, you know, how can I put it… One thing I’ve learned publishing this book is a lot of people are threatened by the idea that they’re vulnerable to fraud and deception. But, our history proves that we’re completely vulnerable to it. We’ve gone to war repeatedly on the basis of false information in this country. The right would say that Obamacare was largely sold to them through false promises. The left insists that the Iraq War happened because of fake intelligence. The CIA was fooled by this Curveball fellow if you hear them say it, who convinced them that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In some ways, history is simply the cumulative story of all the ways in which we get fooled or taken advantage of.
BLVR: It’s about who can lie the best.
WK: It really is that way after a while. My experience with a master con artist convinced me that we’re far too arrogant about our own ability to discern falsehood. It’s better to be humble; it’s better to assume that you’re capable of being lied to than it is to believe that you’re immune to it. Because that’s when it’s going to happen.
BLVR: You at that point were an established journalist, multiple book author…
WK: Yeah. At least I didn’t have to be fooled in public like Dan Rather. He lost his job because of a forged document that he promoted. It’s humiliating in a way, but it’s also an invitation to join the human race.
II. A DOSTOEVSKIAN CHARACTER
BLVR: This is mentioned in the book, but do you remember the moment when you realized Clark Rockefeller was this murderous con man?
WK: The specific moment was this. Even when he was arrested for kidnapping his daughter, and the Rockefellers disowned him, I believed that he was indeed a Rockefeller. Maybe a sort of off-the-books bastard Rockefeller. I thought were throwing him under the bus because he brought scandal to the name.
But the exact moment when I realized he was a fraud and a criminal and probably a murderer was when he had been named as a person of interest in the murder after having been arrested for the kidnapping. I saw in one of the articles that said he had been living in a guesthouse at the time the murders were committed. I flashed on a moment in the beginning of our relationship when he asked to come out to Montana and asked if I had a little guest house or garage that he could stay in. He told me he used to live in one and he’d never been happier in all his life. When I put that phone call together with this detail in the murder case, I realized he was a monster.
BLVR: Did you realize in retrospect that he could have been coming out there to hurt you in some way?
WK: Yes, definitely. As a result of an article that I wrote about the trial in the New Yorker last spring, some people who lived in Montana—and were in touch with Clark at the same time I was first in touch with him—sent me some emails they had exchanged with him unbeknownst to me. In one of them, Clark asked if they knew of anyone who had a ranch that was dog friendly. Mine was—my wife at the time ran a humane society and kept dogs at the ranch—and he asked if they knew anyone who had a guest cottage (I did), where he could translate Crime and Punishment.
When they sent me this email, which was only last summer, that they’d gotten from him back in 1998, I realized Clark had intended to come to Montana to hide out here. He wanted them to ask me if he could stay with them. And when I saw that email where Clark tried to cajole them to persuade me to let him stay with me, I was really chilled.
Especially because he is one of those people—a Dostoevskian character—he always loved to confess in a way that people couldn’t interpret. He once played a game of Trivial Pursuit on the grave of his victim, told people the disturbed earth next to the game table was the result of plumbing problems in the yard. He was a Hitchcockian, Dostoevskian villain who loved dropping clues that other people couldn’t read and would allow him to feel secretly superior. When he told these people that he wanted to translate Dostoevsky in the guesthouse of whoever would have him, it was his signature admission of ill intentions.
BLVR: Do you think he viewed himself as a villain or views himself as a villain?
WK: Yes. Yes. I think he’s a guy who quite consciously in his dramatic, narcissistic way has made a kind of pact with evil. Since the book came out a lot of people have gotten in touch with me, privately, who knew him and it’s clear that he was up to awful mischief that never was sniffed out. He’s a sadistic guy.
BLVR: Do you have a specific example of something he was up to that you found out about after the book came out?
WK: Well, I don’t know. I hesitate to say it because it might be traceable. This is a funny story. Somebody came to me and said that Clark had convinced him to pose as Henry Kissinger’s investment advisor. The game was this: Clark went to a party with this friend who posed as Henry Kissinger’s investment advisor. The point was for the friend was to thank Clark for helping him make so much money. That way the other people at the party—the bankers—would witness the exchange and hire Clark to sell bonds at their firm. Apparently it worked.
III. TWO SPEEDS
BLVR: One of the most interesting parts of this book was how willing people were to be complicit. You are obviously an example, but his girlfriends and wives went along with his scheme.
WK: To give them credit, the girlfriend with him at the time when he created the Clark Rockefeller persona was practically a psychological prisoner by the end. He cut her off from her family and friends, and convinced her that he was being pursued by kidnappers or malevolent intelligence agents. He milked her money and so on.
There is a point where somebody treats you so badly that you start playing for favor with them. In his marriage, his wife was a very busy woman who was a global management consultant and she was often away. I think, as in a lot of bad marriages, she dealt with this strange dude by spending as much time apart from him as she could. So, how can I put it… Not many people noticed until he was arrested that Bernie Madoff’s last name was “made-off” as in “made off with the dough.” Sociopaths fool everybody until they suddenly fool nobody. With 20/20 hindsight, everything they do is suspicious. When you’re in the first draft stage of your relationship with them, what you do is what you do socially in most cases. When somebody is inconsistent, you hesitate to confront them. When they brag you think, “Oh well, they’re insecure, they have to do that to feel good about themselves.” When they tell a lie, you construe it as a white lie that is an attempt to avoid conflict.
After a while—and Clark knew this—you paint a portrait of the other person that serves you and your needs and your desires for the relationship rather than reality. And he exploited this human tendency.
BLVR: You talk about how it should have aroused your suspicions that he never once disappointed you.
WK: Yes, exactly. A relationship in which everything is kind of amusing and low-conflict, and where there’s never any trouble is probably one you should examine. The reason there’s no trouble is probably because you’re being smoothed along. The thing to recognize is that the whole time I knew Clark Rockefeller, he was a fugitive from a murder investigation. He could never afford to arouse anger in others such that they would start checking up on him. He knew how to go up to the line as far as being annoying and full of himself but he never cause a breach, he never caused a rupture because he couldn’t afford to.
BLVR: I want to talk about something you mentioned in passing earlier, which was about Clark as a literary figure.
WK: Yeah. He told me at the sentencing last August that his entire career in America—he came over when he was seventeen years old–was based on The Great Gatsby, which his mother gave him when he was ten so that he could learn English in Germany. It was his favorite novel and he must have read it a couple of hundred times.
It’s strange, I got an email the other day from a friend of his from when he lived in Milwaukee back in the early 80s, when he was still downplaying his German accent and assuming this aristocratic persona. The friend of his mentioned that he was always talking about a book, his favorite book. I said, “Was it The Great Gatsby?” And he said, “No, it was Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan.” [laughs] I can’t imagine two books further apart. Back to your point. Clark told me many times that what he really wanted to be was a writer. As I detail in the book, he often asked me to help him edit a series of novels that he had written, which he was always coy about. He would never tell me what the novels were really were and finally I pressed him and it turned out they were novelizations of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I said I didn’t think I could probably help him with that. Then, when he was in prison, sent me a few letters last spring. And they contained sonnets. The first time I went to see him, he asked me if I could give him a book on sonnet structure. I didn’t but he went ahead and wrote some anyway. The first sonnet was perfectly executed, very skilful, and it was about the German electoral system. In other words, in the form of a love poem but about the driest, most unemotional subject possible.
BLVR: Seriously? It’s about the German electoral system?
WK: Yeah, it’s about the German electoral system. A sonnet. And to me, that captures Clark totally. The guy is a robot; he is an algorithm that has only one goal: prove you’re smarter. Take advantage. Hurt others. The guy has the empathy of a praying mantis. When it came time to write a sonnet, which most of us do to profess our love for an impossible romantic object, he wrote about the German electoral system. His emotional intelligence is absolutely sub-zero.
BLVR: At the same time, he duped everyone.
WK: He duped everyone because in most human interactions, it’s very clear what emotion you’re supposed to fake. In other words, if something happy happened, he would act overjoyed. If something sad happened, he would act desolate. But he only had those two speeds because it was all phony.