One of these days I’m going to write about the book by Richard Feynmann that actually has the title of this post. That’s a truly great book about a truly great genius, who absolutely and positively refused to be guided by other people’s opinions.
This book, though, is about someone, actually two someones, whose whole lives were bound up in caring about what other people thought of them. While there is indeed a murder and a mystery in this book,
the real interest for me is in the masquerade part: how one guy, the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller, convinced some very smart people, including the author, that he was indeed a wealthy aristocrat, and what psychological forces were at work in the people he fooled. And there’s an even deeper question: Why would a person want to commit himself to living a lie? He’s not doing it for any higher purpose; he’s not a spy, for instance. He just decides while he’s still a teenager, living in a little Bavarian town, that he wants to go to America and pass himself off as someone else. And he actually does it, moving through a succession of aliases and claims to various careers. He ends up marrying a successful businesswoman and having a child by her; when she finally wakes up and smells the coffee, the divorce proceedings uncover the fact that he isn’t a Rockefeller after all.
For me, the author’s unwillingness to question Clark (I’ll just call him that for simplicity’s sake) was a somewhat painful reminder to me of that many times that I’ve let others snowball me out of a fear of being thought foolish or overly suspicious. Kirn’s first dealings with Clark concern his cross-country trip to deliver a disabled dog to the supposed animal lover. Clark tells him that he can’t send his personal jet to pick Kirn and the dog up, as his wife is using it on a trip to China. Yet when Kirn arrives in New York after an unbelievable odyssey (the dog is partially paralyzed and has to use a sort of back-legs wheelchair, which makes the simplest actions extremely complicated), there’s the wife. She’s not in China after all. Does Kirn question this? No. Has he established a fee for the trip beforehand? No. When Clark surreptitiously hands him an envelope, Kirn tucks it into his pocket without opening it, because, after all, it’s so utterly gauche to be concerned about money. When he finally looks at the check he sees that a) it’s written on Clark’s wife’s account, and b) it’s for the princely sum of $500, an amount that doesn’t even cover Kirn’s expenses for the trip. Does he confront Clark? No. He’d rather take the loss (which he can ill afford) than seem like a money-grubber. The fascinating thing about this situation is that at any point the masquerade could have been revealed, if only someone had been willing to ask the right questions. But Clark is a master manipulator and his victims are master . . . manipulatees? Clark seems to be able to sniff out those whose insecurities will allow him to take advantage. He’s a living embodiment of the principle that you can get away with anything if you act confident enough.
In the end, Clark is convicted of custody kidnapping (he goes on the run with his daughter, Snooks, from his failed marriage, the only person he seems to truly care about) and ultimately of a long-ago murder. Kirn goes to visit him in prison, hoping for some sort of long-delayed openness and admission of guilt from his erstwhile friend, but Clark is unrepentant and supercilious. When Kirn asks him about the art collection Clark had showed him, the con man says, loftily, “All fakes, my dear Walter.” The subtext of his answer is, “How stupid you were, to believe what I told you!”
I hope, as I enter my 65th year of life, to be more Richard Feynman and less Walter Kirn. Stories about the convolutions you can get yourself into by your fear of confrontation are funny, true, just as stories about how you got into a mess because you procrastinated about an event are funny. But these stories aren’t funny to live through. As I say in my book, “If I don’t have any funny stories to tell about my scrambling to get something done on time, won’t I be boring?” Well, no, I won’t be. And if I don’t have the stress of the scrambling, maybe I’ll be more entertaining. Anyway, who cares? It’s not my job to be the class clown.
So I’m trying to ask more questions, to be more direct, to nail things down ahead of time instead of assuming that everything will be all right. (Jim and I would have been so much better off if we’d confronted the guys who were supposed to remodel our basement and gotten the straight scoop from them, but we both felt hesitant about it, with the result that we had to pay a significant amount of money to get the work done correctly and with the proper permits. We didn’t want to look foolish! Sigh.)
Are there questions you should be asking but aren’t out of a misplaced fear of what other people will think of you?