The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
Idealized and almost idolized when first discovered, Christopher Knight was an "invisible man" who lived in the Maine woods for an astonishing 27 years, plundering local cabins and campsites for provender, without being caught or even sighted.
When finally apprehended, as described in author Michael Finkel's fascinating portrait, Knight revealed that in all those years he had spoken only one word to any fellow human being --- "Hi." His voice was understandably rusty, he was not excited by the prospect of a reunion with his family, and he readily, some would say unguardedly, confessed to the thousands of thefts that had plagued the region all those years. Call the thefts petty, but they involved breaking and entering, after careful surveillance by Knight to make sure no one would be at home. What he stole --- food, handheld computer toys, and almost any reading material --- was as wacky as the man himself...until police saw, finally, his hideout, a tent built on a platform of "bricks" made of stolen magazines held together with electrical tape.
"THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS is notable for the author's earnest attempts to learn more and his elusive subject's clear desire to reveal less."
Though labeled a "hermit" by the press in the uproar that followed his capture (no fewer than five songs were written about him), Knight disavowed that label, and all labels, as inaccurate. Speaking, when he could be inveigled into it, about his voluntary disappearance, he simply averred, "I understand I've made an unusual lifestyle choice." Though never officially diagnosed, the possibility of Autism Spectrum Disorder loomed. The theory that such a syndrome might be genetic seemed borne out by the extreme privacy that his family insisted on when they learned of his reemergence. Didn't they worry that he was dead? Why didn't they look for him? His brother deflected the author's questions about his own feelings with a short "That's personal." In jail (eventually serving seven months of incarceration followed by one year of legal oversight), Knight refused to let his mother visit, for fear, he said, of putting her in an embarrassing situation.
Finkel draws on many parallels, as might be expected --- everything from St. Anthony to Gautama Buddha to Thoreau (whom Knight dismissed as a "dilettante") --- to explain the Christopher Knight phenomenon. But in totality, many puzzles about Knight admit of no solution: how he survived the extreme cold (he never lit a campfire), how he dealt with boredom (reveling in the silence), what he ate (mostly prepackaged mac and cheese). But more compellingly, the author and the reader will continue to wonder about the why: why Knight avoided all human contact, and if, now that he is released, he will disappear again and, as he suggested to Finkel in an unusual moment of candor, let himself die of exposure.
Thought-provoking, especially for the armchair hermits among us who like to imagine they would enjoy total solitude for a few days, but probably not for years, THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS is notable for the author's earnest attempts to learn more and his elusive subject's clear desire to reveal less.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on March 17, 2017