In 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight abandoned his life in Massachusetts for a hidden camp deep in the woods of rural Maine. Knight kept his existence a secret until he was caught burglarizing a nearby summer cottage, twenty-seven years later.
Author Michael Finkel’s new book The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit is an account of what one man was willing to do to escape society for good, and what happened after he was forced to return. We recently spoke with Finkel about Knight, and how sanity truly may be in the eye of the beholder.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: I had heard the story of Christopher Knight’s disappearance into the woods years ago. I wasn’t sure what to call what he did then, and I’m still not sure today. How would you describe it?
MICHAEL FINKEL: That’s a good question. I don’t think anyone has asked me that. Religious people would call it a retreat, hermits would call it a hermitage. I would call it an escape from the world. He escaped everyone else.
PRH: I think a lot of people, myself included, wanted to project all kinds of qualities on him. I was immediately sympathetic to his story and had this idea of him being this kindly man. It’s not quite that way, is it?
MF: Chris Knight, as he would be the first to say, is no angel. Not only did he break into homes to feed himself, he probably committed more than a thousand break-ins, each one of which could be punishable by up to ten years in jail. He was one of the world’s most secluded human beings — possibly in history. In order to remain completely secluded in such a difficult environment, he resorted to stealing food and breaking into second homes. You can admire things about him, as Chris Knight himself would say, and you can despise things about him.
What makes this story interesting is not only Knight himself as a fascinating outlier of an individual, but how people react to him. The reactions of people who lived in the woods where he committed his crimes and hid out for twenty-seven years ranged from hatred to jealousy. People told me that Chris, this hermit in the woods, was the worst thing in their life. Others told me that they wished they could escape into the woods.
I think you told me that you could project on to him. It’s funny: When I talked to psychologists and autism experts, every single one of them had a different opinion about Chris Knight, and I find that part of what makes this story so compelling. Not only is Chris Knight a compelling individual, but people’s reactions to him say as much about who they are as it does who Chris Knight is.
PRH:Let’s talk about projection a little more. You mentioned talking with psychologists and autism experts. Does this speak to our need to categorize people we don’t understand? Is it valid to look at Knight as a person with mental illness?
MF: I think that it’s human nature to categorize and label things. That’s generally the way that the medical and psychological professions work. You look at elements of what you have and you are able to categorize it and then you can cure it. That’s generally what works. Now, Chris Knight, fortunately or unfortunately, is such an outlier that what works for most people doesn’t seem to work for him. As many psychologists pointed out, no real categories seemed to fit. This guy went into the woods at age twenty, and never received advice from an older person for the rest of his life.
Just stop to think about that for a second: No advice from anyone older than you from age twenty onward. That’s just incredible. I would have gotten myself killed within months. The guy is extremely intelligent. When I encounter Chris Knight, and I met with him many times in the jail, he had this daunting intelligence where I knew I was in the presence of someone smarter than me, which is really an odd feeling. I wasn’t going to try to trick this guy: He would already be a step ahead of me in the chess game.
I wasn’t jealous of him. It shows that you can actually be too smart for the world. All of us are running around with our noses in our cell phones and trying to do seven things at once, and we’re trying to diagnose what’s wrong with Chris Knight. Not to belabor the point, but there were a lot of times when I was working on the story that I wondered if it wasn’t Chris Knight who was insane: that it might just be the rest of us.
PRH: He did say that, right?
MF: He implied it. He didn’t say it in those exact words because he’s sort of a polite person and doesn’t really care about the rest of us, but as he pointed out in his own way, he sat there in his tent and looked at the trees, and that’s considered being lazy, but if he had gotten an axe out and cut them all down, he would be considered a very enterprising individual. He found it crazy that if you spent eight hours a day locked into a little cubicle typing on a screen, then that was really acceptable, but if you spent that amount of time living in a tent thinking beautiful thoughts and living in nature, then that was crazy. He was confused by that labeling, and I found myself nodding in agreement more often than I can even admit.
PRH: I found it surprising that he considered Thoreau a dilettante. I had jumped to Thoreau as a comparison, but Chris thought that he wasn’t on his level.
MF: Before I started this project, I had not read Henry David Thoreau since I was maybe in high school. I remembered it being difficult, but I’ve got to tell you upon reexamining it as an adult, he was a beautiful writer. Chris Knight had such a negative reaction to Thoreau that I almost thought that they were similar enough that he considers him a competitor.
Chris never hesitated to denigrate Henry David Thoreau. He thought that two years in a cabin made him a dilettante, and even more, what was the reason that Henry David Thoreau went to his cabin on Walden Pond? According to Chris Knight, it was to write a book, and that was certainly not being a hermit. What does a book do? It says, “Hey world, here’s what I think. Look at me.” That was anathema to anything Chris Knight did. He had no interest in advertising himself to the outside world. In fact, he did everything in his power to avoid everyone else.
PRH:You touched upon something in the book that I wasn’t aware of: There is a hermit culture — online, no less.
MF: You remember that book Quiet that came out by Susan Cain? It was a mega bestseller. That book touched a nerve. Something like twenty percent of the population considers themselves, or could be labeled, introverted. They really prefer to be alone or in a quiet situation. Modern society really drowns out these people. There have always been hermits: people who want to get away from other humans. Literally, some of the first extant books and poems found in Mesopotamia and China mention people living alone in the woods. It’s this primal fascination that exists across all cultures and all times.
There are people today, hermits, who live by themselves and really don’t want interaction. In an odd sort of way, the computer and the internet is the hermit’s ideal form of communication. You don’t have to see anyone. To send an email, you don’t have to talk to anyone. You can just send it and they’ll read it on their own. The internet has been really good for hermits. I actually expected Chris Knight to join the online community, but I’ve seen no evidence of it. There’s a hermitary website. I love it. I have no affiliation with it, but I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s this storehouse of every hermit story you could imagine, and there are discussion groups. I think that there are about a thousand hermits there, but you have to qualify to join. You have to prove to the administrator that you are a hermit.
PRH: It seems like the best way to prove you’re a hermit is not showing up in the first place.
MF: I know, it’s very funny. If you have to ask if you’re a hermit, then you’re not.
PRH: Chris’s camp was a cold camp, was it not? During the winter he didn’t light a fire. People didn’t believe that he could have survived out there.
MF: I spent most of my youth in Montana where there are long, cold winters, but Maine has the coldest winters you could imagine. Not only are they long, not only does it snow, but it gets really damp. It’s a wet cold with a lot of wind. If you spend a night out in winter, it’s a pretty decent job. If you spend a week out in winter, it’s really impressive. Now, imagine doing that for an entire winter times twenty-seven, and not lighting a fire. One of the dozens of odd things about this book was that the people who know Maine the best, the ones who lived closest to where Chris Knight spent his time, believed it the least.
When I went around interviewing people, there were a list of things that people said were just not possible. It’s impossible to spend that much time out in the winter, especially not lighting a fire. It’s impossible to spend twenty-seven years without seeing a doctor. It’s impossible to have a camp in the woods where you store food and not have animals come and rip it up. It’s impossible to have had a man out there in the great ice storm of 1998 and for him not to have frozen to death. It’s impossible that a man who had not spoke in twenty-seven years could suddenly start speaking again in eloquent sentences.
I gathered all of these points of disbelief and confronted Knight with each and every one of them. He was very calm, and answered each one in a completely understandable way. I tried my hardest to catch him in any sort of lie or misstatement, and there was absolutely nothing. His story, as hard as it is to get your head around, is absolutely true.
PRH: One of the reasons that people hated him was that he disturbed the sense of tranquility that they had in the woods.
MF: Although I’m sympathetic to Chris Knight and his plight, you can’t forget that to go into someone’s home is one of the most unsettling trespasses you can possibly do. In a couple of states, it is legal to shoot someone dead who comes into your home uninvited. That’s how much society loathes a break-in.
Certainly, he may have only stolen books, magazines, flashlights and hamburger meat, but the fact that he intruded into people’s personal space was extremely unsettling. Like I said, each time he did it could have resulted in ten years in prison: It doesn’t matter what you take. One of the things I like about this story is that it’s not a black and white story. He’s not a hero, and in fact, it’s totally legitimate to think of Chris Knight as a villain. No one’s reaction is wrong and everyone’s opinion seems to be different and quite strong.
PRH: One of the things that enabled you to build a rapport with Chris is that you had your own troubles in the past. You’ve managed to turn a mistake into an incredible strength by getting stories from people you would not have ever gotten.
MF: Back in the year 2000, I was fired when I was working for the New York Times magazine for combining a bunch of interviews into one and making a falsified character. It was really humiliating, and I wondered if my writing career was over. I had no other skills except for waiting tables. I think what something like that does is humble you.
I think some reporters, and I’m not thinking of anyone in specific, have a little bit of a holier than thou attitude. I know I am a flawed and completely human person. I don’t pretend to be any better or worse than most other people. When I write or get in touch with other people, I tell them about getting fired and being humiliated. I think most people see that as understandable, and really human. In some weird way I think it can make them more comfortable that I’m not pretending to be this flawless person standing on some stage.
It’s something that I wish had not happened at the New York Times, but I don’t hide from the fact that it did. I’m a flawed human being and I have a black mark on my record and I’m very open about that. It’s been really interesting that people have responded to that by saying that they’re flawed too, and let’s talk.