Christopher Knight skipped gym class for the last four years of school because playing on a team felt like descending into Lord of the Flies. Shortly after graduation, he took himself on a road trip in search of the unnameable thing that was missing from himself. He wound up driving to some lakes in Maine, down a small road, and then down a smaller one, until there were no roads left at all. Without quite understanding why, Knight parked his car, walked down a trail, and never came back. That was 1986. He was 20 years old, healthy, well-educated, with a job and a loving family. It would be 27 years before he faced a human being again.
Knight became a hermit like no other. Thoreau (whose efforts Knight disdains) spent much of his time at Walden Pond writing a book about his semi-seclusion – he sought to share his revelations with the wider world. In fact, almost every so-called "hermit" has a powerful connection to society: from Lao-Tzu to Jesus to Buddha, the tradition of withdrawing has always been a roundabout way of connecting all the more meaningfully with the human race. But not so for Knight. There was no grand mission. He recorded no insights or reflections during his 27 years in the woods. "I can't explain my actions," he later said. "I had no plans when I left, I wasn't thinking of anything. I just did it."
Author Michael Finkel heard about Knight the same way the rest of the world did – in the morning paper. After decades of burglarizing empty summer cottages, stealing food and clothes, the "North Pond Hermit" had finally been caught by Sergeant Terry Hughes one lonely night in the spring of 2013. Knight didn't look like a wizened hermit; nor did he look like the bogeyman local children had whispered about – the monster who breaks into your cabin and steals your candy. He was a plain-looking, middle-aged man, clean-shaven and dressed in decent clothes. When Hughes confronted him during one of Knight's raids of a local camp's pantry, the hermit did not resist or run.
It turns out that Knight broke into cabins in the area about 1,000 times over the years, stealing what he needed, never taking anything he perceived to be overly valuable. It was, in its odd way, one of the biggest criminal cases in U.S. history. One thousand break-ins. The hermit was taken to jail.
Finkel wrote several times to Knight during his prison stay, developing a relationship through writing with a man who found it excruciating to speak out loud. Knight referred to life in jail as bedlam and told Finkel in one letter that more damage was done to his sanity in jail, in months, than had occurred in the woods over the course of decades. Meeting another person was always "a collision" for the hermit. Finally, though, Finkel insists on producing a collision of his own. He flies to Maine and arrives at the prison unannounced. The hermit is brought into a room with a glass partition. The author stares and the hermit averts his gaze.
So begins The Stranger in the Woods, Finkel's stunning account of one man's obsessive withdrawal from society. The reporting alone would make this book worth reading; at times, the story is so richly detailed, so full-immersion, that it borders on becoming a non-fiction novel. More important, Finkel finds a way, in a brief 190 pages, to bring us well beyond the mere facts of the case: The Stranger in the Woods is, ultimately, a meditation on the pains of social obligation and the longing toward retreat that resides in us all.
While the word "hermit" sounds antique, the issues are contemporary. Finkel notes, for example, that roughly a million kids in Japan (called hikikomori, meaning "pulling inward") almost never emerge from their bedrooms. They spend all day reading books or staring at screens; meals are delivered by parents and psychologists counsel them in chat rooms. "The majority," Finkel says, "are males, aged late teens and up, who have rejected Japan's competitive, conformist, pressure-cooker culture."
In a world of easy online connection, the fact of a human body becomes a high-risk encounter, something chaotic and best avoided. Knight, who disappeared long before he had the chance to go online, was perhaps just ahead of the curve. Everyone with a smartphone is, on some abstract level, a hermit themselves, for we burrow into our private worlds and dodge the kind of physical "collisions" that Knight deplored.
I was drawn through these pages in a single sitting – their pull is true and magnetic. By the unsettling conclusion, both hermit and author have wept at the impossibility of the situation: the longing to commune with an unknowable force outside of the rude crowd, the need to connect with something beyond our daily handshakes and trips to the mall. "He was like a refugee from the human race," writes Finkel.
At last, the author must confront a certain treachery he's committed by telling the hermit's story. "He wasn't going to leave behind a single recorded thought, not a photo, not an idea. No person would know of his experience." And yet, now, many will. The beautiful project, in being handled, being known, is tarnished. The book is nonetheless an arresting and poignant examination of such contradictions – the way we each volley, through our lives, between sharing and withholding, between companionship and solitude. It's a haunting story, one that readers won't easily shake. And despite the extraordinary nature of Knight's experience, his tale becomes universal thanks to the expert care of Finkel's writing; the story of a hermit who lived 27 years in a private, forested universe becomes a totem for the rich interior lives that we all, secretly, maintain.
Michael Harris is the author of The End of Absence, which won the Governor-General's Literary Award in 2014. His new book, Solitude, will be published in April.