It takes a really well-told story to break me out of my fiction habit. Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, the story of Chris Knight’s 27 years living as a hermit in the woods of Maine, is just that. It’s also well-reported, compassionate and heart-breaking.
No one really knows why Knight, a 20-year-old high school graduate with a vocational degree and a job, abandoned his car at the end of a road trip and spent the next several decades living in isolation. Finkel, through interviews with Knight, who is captured while stealing food, attempts to understand his desire to live alone in the woods and in doing so offers a profound meditation on solitude and the crazy-making nature of contemporary life.
Knight is no saint. He survives by multiple thefts of s food, batteries, propane, and clothes from cabins near his remote campsite, hidden in the deep woods. He’s an infamous legend to the locals, who attempt to thwart him via elaborate security systems, some of them even leaving out bags of food to deter his break-ins. Their children and grandchildren have nightmares about the mysterious thief.
Knight reads voraciously, listens to talk radio, even watches a bit of (stolen) TV. He avoids any deep philosophical explanation for his self-imposed seclusion and has no profound message he wishes to share with the world. He considers Thoreau a lightweight, not a true hermit, who, by writing a book, directed his actions toward the outside world.
The art of this book lies in Finkel’s ability to weave his reporting on the nature of hermitage itself into Chris Knight’s story. For me, with the attention span of a gnat, the factual stuff is too often clunky and dry in much non-fiction. Not here.
Finkel divides hermits into three general groups: protesters (who hate what the world has become,) pilgrims or religious hermits, and pursuers, who seek time alone for artistic freedom, scientific insight, or deeper self-understanding.
We learn of famous hermits throughout history: Lao-tzu, the anchorites of the Middle Ages, the tomb-dwelling Saint Anthony, and India’s estimated 4 million sadhus.
And we get a number of psychological explanations for the intense craving for solitude.
The author admits that he likes being alone, has spent hundreds of nights in the wild, and once did a ten-day silent retreat in India, which he found grueling. He acknowledges: “The ten days were enough for me to see, as if peering over the edge of a well, that silence could be mystical and that if you dared, diving fully into your inner depths might be both profound and disturbing.”
We sense, as he attempts to plumb the enigma that is Chris Knight, that he respects the man perhaps because of rather than despite his refusal to fit into any pattern. What if, he wonders, Knight had never been caught?
“He wasn’t going to leave behind a single recorded thought, not a photo, not an idea…His end wouldn’t create so much as a ripple on North Pond. It would have been an existence, a life of utter perfection.”
And while I’m on the real-life story jag, Recovery Boys, a new documentary on Netflix, puts a human face on the opioid crisis. It’s the story of four young heroin addicts who come to Jacobs Ladder, a recovery program in West Virginia, and their journey through recovery.
Even if your own life hasn’t been touched by substance abuse, you undoubtedly know someone whose has. But beyond that if you’re any kind of feeling human being, you can’t help but be deeply moved by this documentary.
Filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon grew up in West Virginia and knows her subject well. She gets intimate access to these young men—her camera is as unobtrusive as I’ve seen—and it pays off in the emotional connection we feel for these young men and how we root for them.
See this film. It’s important.