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

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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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He usually gained weight in the fall so he could eat less during the winter and avoid making treks for food that would leave footprints in the snow. He spent freezing winter days wrapped in layered sleeping bags, rather than start fires that might draw unwanted attention.

"To be that hyperfocused is extremely unusual behavior, and he's apparently very good at it," Thornton said. "It's important to find out what was going on 30 years ago and before that. There had to have been something going on in middle school and even grade school."

Experts acknowledged that it's not unusual for people to seek social isolation. Some people have little social interaction other than in the workplace and the grocery store. But extreme examples such as Knight's are rare, said Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Olds recalled an Asian student at an American university who was so ashamed of his failing grades that he hid in the rafters of a church for more than seven years, surviving on food from the church's kitchen, rather than return home and face his family.

Given the extended period that Knight separated himself from humans, including family members in Albion, Olds said she would worry about his state of mind.

"When you're that out of touch with people for that long, you can get carried away with crazy thinking," Olds said. "Human interaction is what keeps us all reined in."

Facing burglary and theft charges, Knight has an uncertain future. His current stay at the Kennebec County jail could be especially difficult for a man who has kept his own schedule, lived outdoors and avoided people for most of his life, Thornton said.

Trying to resume a lifestyle sustained by stealing likely would prove troublesome. At the same time, working a regular job could be difficult for someone who considered fishing and hunting too taxing.

Knight's options might include living in a halfway house and having occupational training for low-intensity jobs such as stocking store shelves at night, Thornton said.

Experts said they hope he is being evaluated and supported by mental health professionals who will help him transition back into society.

"It's going to be a big step to get him to confront whatever he's been trying to avoid for 27 years," Thornton said. 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writers Craig Crosby and Betty Adams contributed to this report. 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

 

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