All summer I've been manacled to my desk writing a book about a former friend of mine, the impostor and convicted killer known to the world and the media as Clark Rockefeller. For almost ten years, between 1998 and 2008, when he kidnapped his noncustodial daughter and was unmasked as a German national, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, and a suspect in a gruesome cold-case murder dating back to 1985, I took "Clark" at face value—his own inflated face value. When it came out that every single story he'd ever told me about himself was fraudulent, I made a rash decision (which I'm now paying for in the form of depressing, sedentary hard-labor) to investigate all the ways in which he fooled me, with special attention to his methodologies.
I couldn't have chosen a worse few months for such a paranoia-inducing task. Since the end of my old friend’s murder trial in April—a proceeding which taught me a lifetime's worth of lessons about manipulation and deception—the news from the world of government and politics has been unremitting in its spookiness, a serial ghost story from the Age of Terror. The Summer of Lovecraft, I’ve decided to call it. Snowden. PRISM. Secret courts. The death of Michael Hastings. That program, just outed, that allows the DEA to substitute spurious investigative trails for the ones it actually uses to track suspects. The only winners here? Literature professors. Orwell, Kafka, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick we hardly knew ye, it turns out.
But now we’re getting to know ye much, much better.
For me, the most disturbing revelation came just the other day in a story about a so-called ‘Persona Management’ program developed by a defense contractor. Persona Management is an art and science that my old friend Clark was skilled at, and so, it turns out, is the National Security State. PM allows the scary powerful people to generate, en masse, simulated people on social media with plausible seeming profiles and biographies. Why these ghostbots are needed I don’t want to know, although I can guess, thanks to personal experience. One of Clark’s tricks was to approach his dupes as invented cyber-personages. He’d win their confidences, mine their info, and use it to exploit them later on. In one case that I know of, he employed one fictional alter ego to give a character reference for another. The victims didn’t uncover the ploy until I alerted them to it fifteen years later, and they only believed me when I pointed out that the Managed Persona they’d been scammed by bore the name of a villain from a popular novel.
Tomorrow morning, per my daily ritual, I’ll spend a few minutes reading the headlines before I buckle down to work. I already know what’s in store for me, unfortunately: I’ll learn yet again that what I’m writing about on a small and personal scale is happening in some form on a grand scale.
That much I can trust.