“Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

“You made a deal with the Shadowman?!”

“He was very charismatic!”

-The Princess and the Frog

We all have different ways of dealing with trauma, betrayal, or the complete upheaval of something we fundamentally believed in: mine usually involves crying to my mom and truly ungodly amounts of chocolate. Then, once the initial emotional outburst has passed (however long that might take), we have to come to terms with what has happened, and incorporate it into our new, permanently altered worldview. Blood Will Out is Walter Kirn’s attempt along those lines: to reconcile a long-believed fiction with the devastating truth, and to figure out how and why he could be so grossly deceived, rebuilding his own self-image in the process.

In short, the book is the story of Kirn’s friendship with the man the world knew as Clark Rockefeller (real name: Christian Gerhartsreiter), and the aftermath of the revelation that his friend of nearly a decade was not only a fraud and a con artist, but also a murderer. It’s not an account of Clark’s life, or of his crimes and trial, but a dual exploration into the natures of and the relationship between the two men, and an attempt to exorcise personal demons. The book is about Kirn as much as it is about Clark, as the author explores the roots of their friendship, and reflects uncomfortably on his own susceptibility to Clark’s deceptions. I sincerely hope that writing this, putting his experiences into words, was cathartic for Kirn – I honestly cannot begin to imagine the what all of this meant to him, or to the others who knew and were fooled by Clark in any and all of his incarnations. The guilt, shame and bewilderment he feels is made all too clear when he describes himselfas the perfect mark: not just a victim, but a collaborator in Clark’s crime, complicit by his very silence and failure to challenge his friend’s contradictions and absurdities.

He’s not alone in that, considering the sheer number of people taken in by Gerhartsreiter (or whatever you want to call him – how do you refer to someone with no real identity?) over the years; we meet several of them in the book, as witnesses during Clark’s 2013 trial for the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus. It’s … strange, really, strange and ultimately dishonest, the sense of smug superiority that even the most gullible of us (me included!) initially and automatically feel when reading about the exploits of a con artist. We fool ourselves, thinking, oh, I could never fall for that. Deep down inside, however, we have to acknowledge upon further reflection, that oh, yes, I would – Clark would have taken us in just as easily. Kirn is in the unenviable position of not even having the superficial fiction to comfort himself with; instead, he is forced to accept and come to terms with his own credulity. The only difference between himself and those on the witness stand is that he doesn’t have to admit in open court, on the record, exactly how he was deceived.

In his quest to understand, to find out the how and the why, Kirn paints Clark as an evil parasite, using some truly lovely descriptions to conjure off someone maliciously leeching off everyone around him: he is “a brain tick. He crawled into your hair and fed on your life through a puncture in your scalp”; he was “worse than a murderer… a cannibal of souls.” Nothing about Clark is original – everything is lifted, borrowed or stolen from someone else, or even works of fiction. He transforms himself, becoming a character, someone from a book or a movie, playing a role out in real life; literally as well as figuratively, since almost every aspect of the Sohus murder was stolen from classic film. During the trial, Kirn even hosts his own private “2013 Clark Rockefeller Film Festival” as he plows through Hitchcock and other movies, finding horrifying similarities between the defendant and the screen at almost every turn.

In plugging Clark into fictional settings (and encouraging others to do so) and deconstructing his inspirations, it’s as if Kirn is trying to find some way to categorize him, to explain him and render him understandable and recognizable, less alien and more familiar. To an extent, he is successful, learning far more about Clark from his private film festival than he did in all their years of acquaintance, or sitting in a courtroom, listening to the parade of evidence. It’s a method familiar to me, and I found myself doing the exact same thing as I read; as regular readers may have surmised by now, that’s how I approach any book, drawing wacky comparisons that really only make sense in my somewhat addled brain. It’s the Miss Marple method of crime-solving; once you figure out how an individual reminds you of someone else, someone you knew well, you can begin to predict behavior, assign guilt and prove innocence. My parallels were a bit less lofty than the ones Clark drew from and that Kirn discovered through his research (Terry Pratchett, Disney, and the Anastasia pretender Anna Anderson, among others), but the principle is the same. Once you put a name and a label on something, can recognize it and categorize it, it becomes less terrifying; it’s comforting and reassuring to know that my mind isn’t the only one that operates along those lines.

Ultimately, however, in spite of speculation, theories and interviews, Clark Rockefeller is never made less enigmatic and puzzling. It’s impossible to know what is going on inside his head – everything else is guesswork and surmise. He’s a liar, who never speaks honestly, never defends himself but with another falsehood. There’s simply no way to know how accurate Kirn’s analysis is, whether he’s right on the money or way off base. No one knows, or likely will ever know, the real Clark Rockefeller, Christopher Chichester, Chip Smith or evern Christian Gerhartsreiter … if such an individual can even be said to exist.




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2 responses to ““Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

  1. Pingback: “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin | Alabama Booksmith Blog

  2. Pingback: “The Stories We Tell” by Patti Callahan Henry | Alabama Booksmith Blog

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