An Initiation into the Reality of Evil
How Walter Kirn's encounter with psychopathy changed his worldview
For twenty years German immigrant Christian Gerhartsreiter pretended to be a Rockefeller. He befriended novelist and essayist Walter Kirn, who ended up writing a memoir about their friendship, and how it all fell apart: Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, published in 2014.
I hadn’t heard of the story until watching this interview with Kirn:
When talking about Gerhartsreiter, he says something very revealing. It’s an experience many have upon an encounter with evil. When the psychopathic mask falls, when you get a glimpse of the reality behind the carefully crafted PR image, it can change your worldview. Kirn shifted from what we might call a “common psychological worldview” into one more objective, more in line with reality in all its complexity—and with hints of the “supernatural.”
I’ve transcribed the relevant segment in full (but I recommend watching the interview if you have the time—Kirn is a fascinating guy and recently wrote a column on the day he spent talking with UAP whistleblower David Grusch):
Kirn: It’s the greatest story ever. It’s the story of my real life friendship with this conman who pretended to be a Rockefeller and who I thought was an actual Rockefeller. He was based in New York City at first and turns out to have been a serial killer, basically, maybe not quite a serial killer, but he killed two people in cold blood. Cut one of them up, buried him in his yard. He’s certainly what they used to call the thrill killer, kind of a Nietzschean person who decided to kill to show his strength and moral superiority— or amoral superiority.
Interviewer: “I’m the main character, and here’s how I’m gonna prove it.”
Kirn: Exactly. So anyway, I think I know where you’re going with this. This guy who was named Christian Gerhartsreiter, but pretended to be Clark Rockefeller, was as close to a demonic being as I’ve ever encountered. And as I examined him, once he came out, once he was caught for these murders and then tried, and I went forensically back through our relationship and back through his life, studying him, trying to figure out who he was, why I believed him, how he appealed to people, how he pulled off the con, I probably couldn’t have come up with a better thesis than “this guy is possessed,” you know, possessed maybe by emptiness, maybe not by an affirmative spirit of evil, but by a absolute vacuum of good.
So when when you spend your time studying a character like that, the notion that there are beings that can possess the human, evil forces and so on, gets a lot more more credible. The psychological model of evil breaks down. You find out— You know, when I would give readings from this book people would say to me, “What do you think happened to him when he was a kid that that caused him to become this coldblooded killer who could cut people up, bury him in the ground, and then throw a party on the mound?” Which he did. And I said, “Nothing happened to him when he was a kid.” You know what he did as a kid? He used to blow pepper into other kids’ eyes for fun. He used to go around the town where he lived and switch out the road signs so people would get lost trying to find the next town. He was always that way. He was born that way.
Interviewer: I mean it’s incredible … What I think really separates this book from … true crime is the way that you wrestle with how easily you were deceived and how that kind of relationship between the demonic and the deceptive (Kirn: Yeah.) is so powerful. Even when you know, it’s not like you feel the spirals developing in your eyes and you feel yourself being sort of overpowered, but it can really be insidious and just kind of pull you in. You’re not even realizing what’s going on until it is maybe too late.
Kirn: Well, I mean, Silence of the Lambs I never thought was a documentary until I met this guy. I remember after he was convicted of murder and I went to see him in the downtown LA men’s lockup, I’d known him as Clark Rockefeller, now he’d been tried for murder, found guilty, we knew that everything he did was a fraud, and he comes in to the other side of this plastic window and I’m going to see him for the first time knowing who he really is, having last seen him literally in like a New York or a Boston club room—
Interviewer: This is a big movie scene, like the big moment.
Kirn: Exactly, and he comes up and he’s got his prison gown on, his orange jumpsuit or whatever it was, and he sits down on the other side of this plastic window and we both pick up these heavy phones, and the meeting is timed so the phones are on for exactly 30 minutes, and when he picks up his and I pick up mine, there’s still not a connection, so we’re just staring at each other through this glass. And he’s a little mousy-looking guy, let’s put it that way, squinty eyes, not particularly friendly looking, and the minute the phone comes on he says, “Hello, Walter. How are your children?” And I was just, wow, you know, is he imitating evil or has he been watching movies? Could he be any scarier?
And I think that in that moment and in moments I spent interacting with them afterwards, I moved to a whole new thesis about human evil, which is that it is an affirmative thing. It’s not just the lack of goodness. There are people who— beings who actually want to frighten, want to control, have inverted every ethic and moral principle such that they have taken on this kind of power, and to describe it as demonic is probably not inaccurate.
And finally, talking to Dave Grusch about NHIs [non-human intelligences], he really affirmed to me that at least in many cases they seem to resemble psychic beings, ghosts, interdimensional entities more than they do tall, thin, big-eyed, bug-like creatures. That was a weird thought.
Interviewer: I mean, we have an elite that will not take seriously and will not talk publicly about satanic anything, demonic anything. It doesn’t exist. And then you look at what’s going on in the countryside, what’s going on with ordinary people— I mean, people can’t get enough of this content, whether they’re mystified by it, horrified by it, the presence of evil in American life is just really a resonant topic. And it’s just the gulf between those in charge and those who are ruled on this topic, it seems so vast.
Kirn: So another funny story about Clark Rockefeller. One of the friends of one of his victims had grown up to become a Space Command officer, Army Space Command, before there was Space Force. And I took him out to dinner. He testified at the trial about his friend who’d been killed. The friend was a JPL, jet propulsion laboratory, Explorer Scout, and the friend had died, and this guy had gone on and sort of lived the Star Trek life, become an officer, maybe he was a colonel in the Army’s space program.
And I said, “So what do you think of Clark Rockefeller? What do you think of this killer?” The guy had had a couple of drinks and he said, “Everything that needs to be explained can be explained in a Star Trek episode somewhere. And this guy resembles ‘Jack the Ripper’ character in a Star Trek episode who is a sort of formation of energy that travels through the universe and coalesces in various evil characters throughout history and then, after he’s committed his murder, he disperses again only to incarnate somewhere else.” And this was a scientist, a military man, and his best explanation for the nature of this murderer was that he was some incorporeal demonic entity who had taken physical form. So even even among elite thinkers, people of power, the notion that we’re dealing with something other than psychological dysfunction exists.
Interviewer: Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean this kind of thematic stuff pops up in Twin Peaks, too, of course. (Kirn: Right!)1 The Air Force guy who’s sort of one of the heroes, and has the secret info. Yeah, I don’t think this stuff is going away anytime soon. So how do you keep a smile on your face?
Kirn: Well, you keep a smile on your face by aligning yourself with the other powers. I remember when The Exorcist was a big movie and I was a child. I was afraid to watch it, and there were all these stories of people fainting and becoming possessed themselves and so on. I talked to a priest who lived in our small town, and he said, “Well, you know, you just have to pray, you just have to be a good person, you have nothing to fear from these forces.” And I think that’s still true today. Evil exists in the world, we’ve been seeing it everywhere this week, we’re seeing it on our phones, we’re seeing a kind of evil being played out in the Middle East that is Medieval at best, and how do we keep a smile on our face? Well, by clinging to the better angels.
In a weird way, if you know evil exists it gives you a motive to really seek out the protection of the good and of the best and to cling to the highest principles you can find. I don’t think that just living a completely secular life, a completely scientific and, I don't know, rationalist, positivist life, is an option anymore for us. I mean it may be for some people, but the idea that we’re just in some kind of terrible social psychology experiment in which some people act out and other people are more functional doesn’t seem to describe the situation anymore. I think that the dark and light battle is starting to be very easily perceived and it requires you to line up.
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Right here these two just became best friends of mine.