March 2017

Michael Finkel

A hermit’s lonely path

Through a series of personal interviews, journalist Michael Finkel uncovered the story behind Christopher Knight’s elusive 27-year existence in the Maine woods.

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Through a series of personal interviews, journalist Michael Finkel uncovered the story behind Christopher Knight’s elusive 27-year existence in the Maine woods.

You write in The Stranger in the Woods that news of Knight’s capture in 2013 immediately “grabbed” you. Why did you identify with his story of living as a hermit?
One of the things I like to do most in life is spend time in the wilderness. Another great love is reading. Christopher Knight seemed to have both passions on an exponentially grander scale. I couldn’t help but be gripped by his life story.

You wrote to Knight in jail from your home in Montana. Were you flabbergasted when he wrote back?
Strangely, I wasn’t. Knight’s story—or at least the bit of it reported in the Maine daily papers—resonated with me so strongly that I had this odd sense we were fated to communicate.

Knight wrote you five letters, then stopped. So you took a wild chance and flew to Maine to try to visit him in jail. What did you think the odds were of Knight allowing you to visit?
I’ve been a journalist for more than a quarter-century, and one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s always best to show up in person. So I did. And Knight, despite long odds, agreed to meet with me.

What most surprised you about Knight during your first visit? Did subsequent visits get any easier?
I was most surprised by Knight’s wonderfully poetic way of speaking and his dry sense of humor. But he was not easy to spend time with—he put up with me but was never happy to see me—and the visits never really got any easier. Still, Knight accepted every one of my nine visits to the jail.

"I am certain that Knight wishes he could return to the woods. But I have a feeling he will not go back, at least not so intensely. I can envision him living in a small shack on his family’s land. But I believe that for the rest of his life, he will pine for his campsite on Little North Pond, his personal Eden."

Knight certainly seems to lament being captured. Did he ever acknowledge that as he got older, his life in the woods was becoming increasingly difficult?
Living outside, especially in a place like Maine, with its brutally cold and long winters, demands a great deal of energy and strength. And like an aging athlete, Knight—despite his incredible outdoor skills—found himself in a position where surviving was becoming more and more difficult. His eyesight was failing him. Cuts and bruises did not heal as swiftly. He became less and less confident that he’d be able to survive each winter. And yet he was not willing to quit his isolation.

Knight’s story is ultimately very sad. From your description, he seems highly intelligent and simply unable to fit in with society. Do you think he will ever return to the woods or wishes he could?
I am certain that Knight wishes he could return to the woods. But I have a feeling he will not go back, at least not so intensely. I can envision him living in a small shack on his family’s land. But I believe that for the rest of his life, he will pine for his campsite on Little North Pond, his personal Eden.

Knight once told you he wants to return and let hypothermia claim his life. Do you still worry that he might do this?
Yes. Every psychologist I spoke with about Knight’s case said that suicide is a distinct possibility. He lives by his own rules, and if he gets to a point where he feels that he has no other path to freedom other than suicide, he may opt for it. I certainly hope he will not choose this exit, but my worry remains, and probably always will.

Are you concerned that some readers of your book might be tempted to go to Knight’s hometown to try to catch a glimpse of him, or speak with him—both actions that he would despise?
I believe that one of the reasons Knight shared his story with me was specifically to prevent others from asking. Anybody reading this story who concludes that it would be a good idea to try and disturb Knight is making a grave and cruel error.

At what point did you decide to write a book about Knight? Does he approve of your project?
Though I wrote a magazine article about Knight, for GQ, I understood early in the reporting process that to adequately tell Knight’s story would require a book-length piece of writing. Knight himself indirectly approved of the project. He knew, from my first letter, that I was a journalist, and I took notes right in front of him. He even referred to me, in the end, as his “Boswell”—a reference to the Scottish writer James Boswell, the author of The Life of Samuel Johnson, one of the most famous biographies in all of literature.

Did you find any of your historical research into the subject of hermits especially intriguing or surprising?
Humans have been writing about hermits since writing was invented—it’s a primal fascination. I became obsessed with reading hermit stories, and devoted the better part of a year to historical research. I was continuously surprised that so many of the religious, scientific, philosophical, and artistic successes throughout history were the result of someone spending a significant period of time alone. People who have been compelled to seek alone time have dramatically shaped human history. Three examples: Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha.

You write that you enjoy being alone, although you once went on a 10-day silent retreat in India, only to find it "grueling." During the writing of this book, did you come to any new realizations about your own need for solitude versus socialization?
The process of writing a book inevitably demands a great deal of time spent alone. While I love socializing with my friends, and I live in a frenetic house with a wife and three young children, while working on this project it became clear to me that, in order to maintain a content life, I need to spend a significant period of time each day by myself.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Stranger in the Woods.

A condensed version of this article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Christopher Anderson Magnum Photos.

Get the Book

The Stranger in the Woods

The Stranger in the Woods

By Michael Finkel
Knopf
ISBN 9781101875681

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