Why become a hermit?

A Maine State Police photo shows the makeshift camp site of Christopher Knight in Rome, Maine, taken following his arrest on April 4, 2013.
Courtesy of Maine State Police
A Maine State Police photo shows the makeshift camp site of Christopher Knight in Rome, Maine, taken following his arrest on April 4, 2013.
Posted April 12, 2013, at 6:51 p.m.

Speculation has abounded this week about what drove Christopher Knight to abandon society and live as a recluse in the woods of Rome, Maine.

Some assume the man, now widely known as the North Pond Hermit, suffers from a mental disorder. Others have applauded the 47-year-old as a folk-hero figure who bravely withdrew from a frenetic, hyperconnected society.

Until Knight reveals more about his mental state and his decision to live in seclusion, the public won’t know what kind of “hermit” he really was.

Others throughout history who have taken to the woods range from Henry David Thoreau, who still contributed to society with his writings from Walden Pond, to Ted Kaczynski, the American terrorist and Unabomber, whose hatred for society led to extreme violence, said Joseph Tecce, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College.

Tecce was skeptical of Knight’s statement to law enforcement that his only human contact in nearly three decades was a brief greeting with a hiker in the mid-1990s.

“Thirty years without talking to somebody? I don’t know,” Tecce said. “I think he bumped into folks now and then, maybe a few other Christophers. Christopher 2, Christopher 3, Christopher 4, we don’t know.”

Knight shares some similarities with another hermit who was discovered near Tecce’s campus at Boston College in the mid-1980s. Bill Britt, a one-time insurance agent who set up camp in the posh Chestnut Hill neighborhood after his marriage broke up, rose to national attention after he refused to leave his lean-to on state-owned land.

Both men lived in seclusion as hermits, a practice known formally as “eremitism.”

Britt, however, appears to have had more interaction with society, including his battles with state authorities, said Tecce, who vaguely recalled news coverage of the “Hermit of Chestnut Hill.”

Withdrawing from society as an adolescent and avoiding human contact for decades, as Knight did, would almost surely stunt development, said Todd Farchione, a research assistant professor in the psychology department at Boston University.

While Knight reportedly kept up with current events by listening to talk radio, that kind of social engagement falls far short of personal interaction with others, Farchione said.

“He might have knowledge, but he’s not going to know what it feels like to lose his first job or lose his first love, or make a mistake or suffer the pain that comes with living. He has not been living in many respects, not in a normal, socially acceptable way.”

While he has never met Knight and didn’t want to comment about the man’s mental state, Farchione said some people who avoid society are diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder, a condition in which people lack the desire for social relationships.

Knight also may have experienced a trauma that drove him to seclusion in the woods, said Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker in Lincoln. Traumatized individuals who have lost trust in other people may feel safer living alone, she said.

In fact, a neighbor of the Knight family speculated Thursday that the death of Knight’s cousin Dana Nelson, which occurred shortly before Knight disappeared, might have had something to do with his desire to get away from society.

“Anybody that chooses to do that, there’s certainly something going on,” Morin said. “If you started out mentally healthy, after 27 years I think most of us would get depression and anxiety and have some social anxiety being around people again.”

Knight is being held in a single cell by himself at Kennebec County Jail on theft and burglary charges. A jail official described him as polite and articulate, and said Knight has had no visits from family or friends.

After decades of isolation, Knight has now been thrust into the media spotlight and close quarters with jail inmates. Tecce likened the experience to a child heading off to their first day at school, stressed by the newfound unpredictability.

“He has not practiced the art of interacting with people,” Tecce said. “He’s a social child entering into first grade and saying, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen today.’”

Knight likely would be comforted by having someone, even a stranger, sit with him as law enforcement officials and others press him for information about his life, Tecce said. He’ll likely feel overwhelmed, and another person’s presence at his side could offer relief, Tecce said.

Some people have returned to relatively normal lives after prolonged social isolation, but Knight will need an advocate, he said.

“I think there’s hope … The first two months coming out of jail, he needs a pal,” Tecce said.

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