April 12, 2013

'North Pond Hermit': Choosing to spend life in isolation

Psychological or social factors could draw a person into hermit behavior, experts say.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

More than a week after the arrest of the elusive North Pond Hermit, it remains unclear what led Christopher Knight to hide in the Maine woods for 27 years and what might become of him.

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This combination photo shows Christopher Knight's 1984 Lawrence High School Year Book senior photo, left, and his booking photo from the Kennebec County jail.

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Christopher Knight's camp site located in a remote stand of woods in Rome moments before Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County Sheriff's deputies inspected the camp Tuesday April 9, 2013. Police say Knight, who went into the woods near Belgrade in 1986, was a hermit who committed more than 1,000 burglaries to sustain himself.

Andy Molloy / Kennebec Journal

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While Knight strived to avoid human contact, he depended on his neighbors in rural Rome and Smithfield, breaking into seasonal camps and cottages to steal food, batteries and other supplies that kept him alive for nearly three decades.

Behavior experts who were interviewed Thursday declined to diagnose Knight's motives or psychological makeup without examining him, but they offered various assessments and possible explanations for the reclusive, obsessive-compulsive and anti-social behavior described by police, neighbors and others.

"He's bright, you've got to give him credit for that," said Bill Thornton, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Maine.

"It's impressive that he was able to go undetected for so long and do the recon to know when people wouldn't be home," Thornton said. "If you took one of my students and dropped them in the middle of the woods and told them to survive, I don't think it would go so well."

Police say they believe Knight committed more than 1,000 burglaries before finally being caught in the act on April 4, while taking food from the Pine Tree Camp in Rome, one of his favorite targets. They say he was carrying a wad of cash that had grown moldy because he never ventured into a store.

Now 47, Knight was 20 when he went into the woods to live in isolation and deprivation, surviving as a petty thief. At the time, most of his peers were heading out into the world, getting jobs, going to college, forming relationships and starting families.

"It goes against what most people consider typical human behavior," Thornton said.

Knight has offered few clues to why he left society. He told police that he had a good childhood in Albion, that he has always been interested in hermits, and that he loved the book "Robinson Crusoe," about a man stranded on an island for decades.

Police say Knight told them he went into the woods after the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union in April 1986. But he remembers the event more to recall his date of departure than to explain his motivation.

Behavior experts said painful social awkwardness, emotional trauma or the onset of mental illness, which can occur in the late teens and early 20s, may have prompted Knight to seek a permanent way to avoid human contact.

"It's possible that he had experiences in childhood and early adulthood that led him to disengage from society," said John DeLamater, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in intimate relationships and communication.

Thirty years ago, society was less tolerant of, and educated about, challenges that crop up in childhood and adolescence, including sexual identity and orientation issues, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders that might lead a young person to seek isolation, experts said.

After several uncomfortable or undesirable experiences, avoiding human contact might evolve from a possible option to an actual objective, Thornton said.

Knight described behaviors to police that might indicate an obsessive-compulsive disorder or an extraordinary ability to focus that is common among people with autism spectrum disorders, Thornton said.

Knight told police that he stayed in his camp fashioned from brown tarps during the day and ventured out only at night, to avoid being seen.

He spent most days reading books that he stole from neighbors or meditating at his well-camouflaged campsite, sitting on a bucket, looking up at the sky and watching eagles. He walked on roots, rocks and stumps to avoid leaving tracks.

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