Reprinted from the Sunday Oregonian
By NANCY ROMMELMANN/Special to The Oregonian
The relationship began with Walter Kirn agreeing to drive a crippled dog from Montana to New York, to be adopted by self-professed dog-healer Clark Rockefeller. It ended 15 years later in a Los Angeles courtroom, with Rockefeller (born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in Germany in 1961) on trial for homicide, and Kirn learning that the man who passed himself off as an international art dealer, financier and member of the Rockefeller dynasty; a man Kirn had considered a friend, was a fraud and a murderer. Kirn, a journalist and author of the novels "Up in the Air" and "Thumbsucker,"wrote an account of the relationship, "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade."
On a recent visit to Portland, Kirn stopped by The Oregonian and discussed how he spent years rationalizing away doubts about Rockefeller, and the disturbing truths one learns through intimate interaction with a sociopath.
You wrote, of your relationship of the man you knew as Clark Rockefeller: "I'd worked as hard at being conned by him as he had been at conning me. I wasn't a victim. I was a collaborator." When did you realize he was a con man and a liar?
Only when he was arrested, disavowed by the Rockefellers and named a suspect in this murder trial did it come home to me that he'd been lying. That he was a complete artificial being. The time that I knew him as Clark Rockefeller, I thought that he was a lot of things: a braggart, an eccentric; insecure, patronizing; a narcissist. But I never thought that he was a fake.
You never investigated which branch of the Rockefeller family he was from. Did you put your journalist's hat to the side?
Oh, totally. I wasn't getting to know him as a journalist. I was getting to know him as a person. Often when you're a writer or a journalist, there are people who feel uncomfortable around you. You have to make clear to them that you're not on the job when you're at their dinner party. I was actually concerned that he know I was not a spy, not acting as a reporter when I was with him.
The one sense in which I was not seeing through him but not completely genuine when I knew him, was that I felt like he was my window into a kind of being; into a kind of society and experience that I might not get otherwise ... My big mistake, finally, with him, and I think the mistake all people make with psychopaths, is we project our own humanity onto them. We keep on in this fantasy that they have some resemblance to us. In his case people say, "Oh, but I think he loved his daughter," or, "Oh, but he loved animals." He got this animal because an animal that's crippled and draws oohs and ahs from people is the perfect cover for a person who has no empathy and has no feelings and who's trying to masquerade as a human being. I've come to learn that the determined and gifted and genuine sociopath has far more power to deceive than we realize.
Did you always sense there was something odd about him?
Yeah, I thought he was a very strange person who had personality defects that might be the result of growing up in a completely sheltered and unreal fashion. But, I really didn't. All cons are completely transparent in retrospect. When you are inside (the con), you are being worked on by somebody who's constantly monitoring your signs of doubt. They're on the alert for skepticism constantly, and when they see it growing in you, they make another move that wins you back.
He was able to read you faster than you were able to read him.
Absolutely — because I'm not sitting there reading him. I'm sitting there having a drink in a club with him, or trading stories. I'm not on a double track on which I'm seeking to manipulate and take advantage and gather intelligence. It's like being with a spy, you know? The Russians will send over one of these beautiful female spies who will seduce a hundred men, all of whom think that she liked them, yet in retrospect it's all so clear that it happened quickly, they came on too strong; they feel like a fool.
The reason con artists get away with what they get away with is, their victims are ashamed of their own blindness and their own gullibility, and they tend to just quietly go away. People don't tend to tell the story that I tell in this book, and for a good reason: it seems to make them out to be foolish or selfish, greedy, perhaps. I knew going into this story that I was revealing a point of view, that of the dupe, that isn't very well represented in literature, fiction and nonfiction, because it's so unflattering to the human mind and ego to think it can be played in this fashion.
For the writer, seeing people as possible subjects becomes reflexive; their stories get in your blood. Does the title of the book reflect this?
Well, in a way, yes. It's the nature of a journalist, the nature of a writer, to want to tell stories and want to describe characters. And I finally was allowed by circumstances to be allowed to do that. I consciously stopped myself when I (first) got to know him. I thought: this guy's obsessed with his privacy; he fears for his safety. He's being very open with me about his goofiness. I could make him look terrible, but I won't do that.
He knew how to give you what you needed to not write about him.
Yes. Yes. People ask me, how did he get you to trust him? And my answer is: he pretended to trust me. He would tell me things that were sort of crazy and maybe not that flattering, and I thought, wow, I have to be worthy of the fact that this person is being so unguarded with me by not burning him. I was excessively deferential, excessively empathetic, excessively concerned with his comfort. And not just because I was afraid he would not like me. I felt, as I often have, this assumption that as a writer I was someone who would exploit any personal relationship. In the end, I'm not as good as I wanted to pretend I was, because when it became clear that I was free to write him; that he was a fraud, that he was a murderer; that I owed him nothing, I was delighted by the fact that I didn't have to restrain myself in a way that I thought I had to.
Was meeting Rockefeller your good fortune or your bad fortune?
As a writer it was my good fortune. As a person it was my bad fortune. As a writer, it gave me insight. But no one would voluntarily spend this time with a psychopath. No one would voluntarily let their life get enmeshed with a murderer or someone capable of chopping up a body and burying it. It was truly traumatic to realize I was somebody whose weakness for a good story and whose ability to tell a story to himself, really put himself in danger.
When we learn how deeply sociopaths dupe people, and sometimes murder people they've made a show of caring for, we can very badly want justice. I've written stories where I imagined strangling sociopaths who, in some cases, were already dead.
I can tell you, as I sat there in that courtroom, next to the sister of one of his victims, and I saw Clark looking up at the bones of his victim on a screen with his little glasses, peering at them as though they're some archeological dig that he's got an academic interest in, I was as angry and disgusted with another human being as I think I ever have been. If the judge had said, "Does anybody want to come up and strangle this man?" I might have wanted to put my hand up and say, "Right here!"
The man you knew as Clark Rockefeller was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Is revenge sweet?
No, it isn't sweet. It's satisfying in a sense that you do get a feeling of completion. Not many people who've been lied to and played for the fool get to see the person convicted for murder and put in jail. But what I learned about myself, and what I learned about other people, and the presence of the sociopath in our society, was so unsettling I kind of wish I could have gone through life without knowing it. I got to see a story through to its end. For a journalist, a writer, that's satisfying. But as a human being, I got to find out just how evil operates in our world, and I got to find out that there are people among us that we might try forever to understand through the prism of our own experience, but who will always remain alien, predatory and dangerous.
Nancy Rommelmann's "Destination Gacy: A Cross-Country Journey to Shake the Devil's Hand," about her trip to interview serial killer John Wayne Gacy on the eve of his execution, will be released as an ebook in May.