by Jenna Orkin
Mike left us an abundance of gifts, not least of which was his story. As an investigative journalist, he loved a good story even more keenly than the next man. And perhaps the one he loved most (as we all do, or would like to) was his own.
It was indeed a fascinating story, which goes some way to account for his thousands of friends and followers around the world, both "Facebook" and otherwise. Whether uncovering dirty dealings between politics and Wall Street that even Matt Taibbi wouldn't touch or enduring the flip side, "I'm done in; I'm about to jump off the roof," the Mike Show was a production which a certain kind of reader - a thinking man's action junkey - yearned to be part of.
It is left to us now to piece together that story and it's an obligation which his friends and admirers are undertaking with a thoughtfulness that would make him proud. Some of the insights on the net, particularly at Rigorous Intuition, http://www.rigorousintuition.ca/board2/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=38031&start=30 are as illuminating as Mike's detractors during his lifetime were maddening. (Beyond a few snarky headlines about the "conspiracy theorist's" suicide, the latter have been lying low this week, no doubt biding their time.) By pooling recollection, we may come to understand better how he could be such a hero to one group of people while at the same time appearing to another as a lunatic. This in turn may lead us to recognize how the whole concept of "hero" is a dangerous drug, not only for the "Leader" who becomes infused with his own importance and deaf to the insights of others but also for his followers, who sell their birthright of independence of thought.
In fact, no one was better acquainted with his "lunacy" than his inner circle. We got the hard-to-deal-with side of his personality in our face as long as he stayed close. I believe this is one reason he moved so often, living with no one person for much longer than a year, a trait he and I shared, by the way. His marriage, to a woman almost two decades younger, lasted eighteen months; his sojourn in my apartment, fourteen. My marriage lasted twelve years but shouldn't have.
He had long since outstayed his welcome in my one bedroom, but he was even more desperate to leave than I was to go about my business without worrying about his disapproval (as I would with anybody.) Not, I hasten to add, that we often argued. There were one or two blow-up fights but mostly, in spite of profound differences of taste - (he hated New York on principle; the machismo of the West, where he felt most at home, left me cold,) - we got along smoothly, frequently slipping into a George and Gracey domestic routine complete with New York accents. Mike was a razor-sharp impersonator and I wish someone had taped his Russian, French and German personas.
Re Mike's story, reading Wesley Miller's account of how Mike came by the gun with which he shot himself is one fascinating piece. Another is Charlton Wilson Cht Ccht's description on Mike's Facebook page of Lakota traditions of giving one's body "for the children" as Mike said in his suicide note to his friend and landlord, Jack. "[I]n Native ways, we don't have money or animals or whatever to give. we have our flesh and our blood." If Mike is going to be cremated as some recent reports said were his instructions, I don't get how the earth will benefit and will be watching for clarification. Anyway, Mother Earth receives our body no matter when we die; in the modern society in which Mike lived, however deploringly, hastening the process doesn't help anybody. But since he was not Lakota by birth or upbringing, though he revered Native American culture and became steeped in it once he moved out west, and since, as shown at Collapsenet.com, he'd been suicidal for years, a psychologist might opine that the Native American references were a cover for a longstanding suicidal drive.
Here's another piece of the Mike puzzle:
He was born DOA, "dead" on arrival. The doctor who delivered him told him when they met 25 years later, that the medical team had done everything possible to revive him but to no avail. Mike's mother had already had one stillbirth so a second was not much of a surprise.
As Mike was being carried to the morgue, he cried. The rest, as they say, is history...
One morning a few weeks after he'd settled in to my apartment in Brooklyn, Mike said, "Honey? I'm having a hard time this morning."
He was supposed to call his therapist but the prospect was causing him such anxiety, he broke down in tears. I comforted him until the storm abated - at which point he said, "Would you make me breakfast?"
Is that what this was about? An appeal for pity so I'd make him breakfast?
"Why?" I asked suspiciously. I provided the first B of B&B since he was otherwise homeless, and the ingredients for the second since he was living on donations from his long-time followers. But why in God's name should I have to make it? Was he seeing how much he could get away with?
Mike's lifeline was honesty. A legacy of AA, it was what had bought him his sobriety from which flowed his connection to other people, their affection and help, his sense of belonging, his credibility, his integrity.
"I want to feel taken care of," he said, but it was not so much an explanation as an admission. The question had brought him up short and he was retreating with the grace that marked his many apologies, both public and private.
We sat down with our respective breakfasts, obtained by our respective selves.
"How does it feel to be taken care of?" I continued, veteran analysand that I am.
"Loved. Indulged. Worthy."
"Those feelings may come more readily to those of us whose birth was not met ambivalently by our parents," I commented.
"My parents weren't ambivalent about me; they wanted me. My father did, anyway. My mother may have wanted me in order to please him."
On another occasion, Mike had said that he believed his mother married his father in order to escape her own father.
"They'd tried for a long time to have a child," he went on now. "I was two months premature. My mother spent the two months before that in bed.
'I was pronounced dead at birth. I cried on the way to the morgue."
It was my turn to cry now.
"Who are you crying for?" Mike asked.
"Your mother... I don't know." I believe that in addition to losing a baby before Mike, she also lost one after him.
"I met the doctor who delivered me when I was twenty-five.
'He remembered it. I had no pulse. I was blue. They tried to get my heart going. Then he handed me over to the nurse and I cried."
As he put his dishes in the dishwasher he continued, "Some spiritual people have said I'm a take-over, a soul waiting for a body to enter."
Perhaps it was this entry into the world, or at least his awareness of it, that accounted for his upset when we once happened upon a news article about terminally ill newborns.
"My dad had a great life," Mike said one day. "War hero in two wars. Fought in one; was a [I didn't catch the term] in the other. Made money. Died taking a shit, which he loved. So do I," he added, with a defiant smile. "But what did he do to make the world better? Paid his taxes; took care of [his second wife.] He just kept the system going."
On another occasion: "My dad was so in control, even after he had a cerebral hemorrhage while taking a shit, he managed to get himself to his favorite chair."
A major reason Mike worked so fiendishly to finish Crossing the Rubicon in 2004 was that he wanted to present it to his father before he died. (The other reason was that he hoped to sway the 2004 election.)
He succeeded with the first goal and got the satisfaction of watching his father's entrenched Republican views transform into an acceptance of Mike's. And he got to bask in the pride his father felt about his achievement.
"He did love me, though," he reflected.
"When I was five, I had my first eye operation. When I woke up, I had a patch on my eye. And next to me on the pillow was a teddy bear with a patch on his eye. I think the doctor put the patch on.
'My father did do some things when I was very young. We went to a Baltimore Orioles game. He took the cub scouts to something.
'That lasted 'til I was ten. He abandoned me to my mother. He was never there; he couldn't stand it. He was always traveling. I thought if I was just good enough, he might come and get me." His father only showed up, he said, when Mike had won something and Dad could preen.
One night at a party, Dad gave Mike, who was in his teens at the time, a drink. Under the influence, Mike told an anecdote which ended, "And then Dad beat the shit out of me."
His father was furious.
"He gave me a drink, then got mad when I acted the way people act when they've had a drink."
From the diary I kept during the period Mike stayed in my apartment:
January 21, 2007 This morning, he awoke with a start from a nightmare that black-clad guys in jackboots were coming to get him. This had followed two other dreams in which his father was beyond reach.
In a fourth dream, Mike was going on a trip, leaving his wife, Lindsay, with their two daughters, ages five and nine, who were in the bath. He had chosen that moment to leave so the children wouldn't make a fuss.
In discussing the dream, he said that his father used to leave that way when he went away on business, without saying good-bye, and leaving defenseless ("naked") Mike in the hands of his mother.
Long time Ruppert aficionados may remember Lindsay Gerken as the plaintiff in a sexual harassment suit against Mike which she would eventually win. However, she was never able to collect. More on this (though it's not worth much time) later.
"He was a war hero; he worked hard, made a lot of money. But he didn't do his duty by me."
"Not only that," I added. "He left you to do his duty." (In many ways, some of them unhealthy, Mike took over his father's role in the household.)
"Son of a bitch." He looked towards the ceiling. "Dad, you're fired. That son of a bitch. I used to have a shrine to him in my office in Ashland, with all his war medals. It's time we execute my Dad."
Part 4; Friends
Mike's father's job with the Air Force required the family to move so often that Mike changed schools virtually every year. It's notoriously hard to make friends under those circumstances and it left him lonely and angry, especially after "Dad" started staying away from home for longer periods. He took out his frustration on the family dog, kicking and abusing it. When Dad returned, he immediately got the lay of the land, understanding he was the root cause of the problem. But he also realized that for everyone's sake, the dog had to go. I always felt that Mike's yearning for a "dawg" was partly to make amends to that childhood pet. He needed to prove to himself that he could care for a dog since, as no one questions, he loved them so much.
One day shortly after the family moved to Denver, a kid in Mike's class said, "Hey, Mike! We're all down by the pool. Love it if you could join us. Bring some cookies!"
Mike got excited - Could it be he would finally have some friends?
"I said, 'Ma, quick - get some cookies!'" he remembered.
"She drove me down there. They just wanted free cookies. They laughed at me..."
As he relived this story, Mike looked like the miserable kid he had been that day.
This is the background to the pride that shone from him in recent years when he would say with awe, "I have 5000 Facebook friends!
When Mike first arrived in Brooklyn from Canada, he was still shell-shocked by the death of Fromthewilderness and by his failure to obtain asylum in Venezuela. He was physically unhealthy and, as he had been for several months, obsessed with thoughts of suicide.
Sensing that he needed a break from this endless cycle of horror but that he'd be unwilling to venture too far from familiar territory, one day I asked him about his childhood; specifically, what he'd wanted to be when he grew up.
"'Til I was twelve and found out how bad my eyes were," he said, "I wanted to be an airline pilot." That was what Dad had been and what accounted for his war-hero stature. "But I didn't have any depth perception."
(Eyes were still a source of some anxiety; he needed treatment for a cataract, which he got and loved. He couldn't comprehend why I wore glasses of lesser strength than the doctor prescribed [because I didn't want my eyes to get lazy] and he couldn't stand it if they had smudges on them.
"But what if you have to drive?" he exclaimed.
"I don't have to drive; I take the subway."
When he couldn't take it anymore, my glasses received a polish worthy of the Hubble telescope.)
"After that, I didn't know," he went on, "except that I didn't want to be a businessman. Law? Nah.
'Then when I was seventeen, a captain came to my high school and talked about police science."
"You mean fingerprints? Things like that?" I asked guilelessly.
"No. You're being a girl. About being a cop. The badge and the gun. The camaraderie. The humor. I knew that was what I wanted to be."
Ah... Friends at last; even a fraternity.
His years at LAPD have been written about extensively but some events are not so well known. He never killed anyone, he said, even when, on one occasion, doing so would have earned him a commendation. (The perpetrator turned out to be more crazy or high on PCP than criminal.) But he did once break a prisoner's skull when the guy, also high on PCP and being carried on a stretcher, bit Mike on the testicle.
After leaving LAPD, he had a series of low-level positions: Selling guns (he loved guns but not the job;) putting together amplifiers; working a UPS route where he met a man who became his hypno-therapist.
"I don't like thinking about my past except for the years of FTW, LAPD. The rest was just so much loneliness and poverty."
He also acted as a security guard at the Oscars, escorting Vanessa Redgrave the night she gave her controversial acceptance speech for Julia.
When he recounted that episode, I mentioned that she was doing a one-woman show on Broadway, in Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking." We bought tickets and Mike left a copy of Rubicon for her at the stage door with an inscription saying how they had met and how her speech that night had given him courage to write the book.
Her assistant called the next day to say that Ms. Redgrave thanked him and would definitely like to meet. But we never heard further.
I didn't let Mike smoke in the apartment when I was home so he would go downstairs in front of the building and talk to the doorman or tenants walking their dogs. But when it was too cold for that (he was a California kid after all,) he simply slipped into the stairwell.
One night, after returning from his last cigarette before retiring, he said, "When I was out in the hall, all I could think about was men in jackboots kicking the door down and taking away everything. I think it has to do with Denver."
Of all the moves Mike had had to go through as he was growing up, none had hit him so hard as Denver. For the first time in his life, he'd established roots. He was on the football team and he had friends.
"When we left Denver," he elaborated, "my dad didn't explain, didn't ask how I felt. He just said, 'Get your stuff ready; we're leaving for Los Angeles in two weeks."
"The way you left Ashland," I observed.
From conception to realization, that plan to close up shop after the computers were smashed and flee the country for the terra incognita of Venezuela where again, he knew nobody, had taken all of eighteen days. And like the move from Denver, it involved divesting himself of everything he held most dear; leaving family heirlooms, which I will not describe, for his closest friends, with the stipulation that in the unlikely event he should return, (see his article, By The Light of a Burning Bridge) they would be restored to him. (For the most part, they were.) One of the signs of suicidal intent is giving away one's possessions.
"That's true," Mike said in wonder. He was not accustomed to the insights of psychotherapy. "But why would I want to repeat Denver?"
"That's one of the weird things about the psyche. We repeat old behavior because it's comfortable and fulfills predictions; we're not taken by surprise. It may suck but it's a case of, 'The devil you know is better than the one you don't.
Also, we may want to get it right this time.'"
I'm sure this was one reason Mike never stayed in one place very long: After leaving his home of Los Angeles, he moved to Ashland followed by Venezuela, Brooklyn, Los Angeles again, Sebastopol, Colorado, (where he must have been thrilled to return,) Calistoga.
Like anyone else who'd been close to Mike, I assumed the men in jackboots taking away everything to be government thugs. It's only in rereading this account that I see that they also represent his father. But in the end, they became Mike himself.
The morning of July 12, 2006, Carolyn Baker called.
"Are you sitting down?"
"Yes." Then I did.
"Mike's in Venezuela. He got there this morning.”
Email to Mike, August, 2006:
When carolyn told me where you were, i was shocked but not surprised. you had left a trail of breadcrumbs: the line, "there are few things that could make me think of leaving this country but the loss of internet independence is one of them." i knew from the very denial that you were thinking of leaving this country. it was a snap to figure out where you would go; you'd mentioned it at petrocollapse [the first Peak Oil conference in New York City, which I'd moderated) in october.
but there was no way i could have known this was all happening at that moment.
i cried "no" nine times. (a pesky sense of rhythm keeps track of such things.) i thought that even if you survived (as you obviously had) you were saying, "i'm making a new life, turning my attentions elsewhere." [That was indeed what he was saying.]she described your final days here. i was with you in your garden of gethsemane (on your porch with michael and carolyn, complete with wine.) [Despite the ironic turn, I now cringe to read the groupie-like idolatry of this. And it gets worse...]
i cried for three days, the chorus in this greek drama. the hero acts. the chorus moans, "woe. oi weh." would your life be an orson wells movie in which you play the joseph cotton role in a panama hat, pursued down nightmare alleys?
would i see you again? would you think of me in the past tense? [Yup. Sure would.]she said that you had said, 'i want you to think of me as dead."
having passed thru the valley of the shadow of death you have been reborn on a brave new continent. the ultimate calvinian tumble down the hill, tada!
you will thrive there. you will finally be appreciated by the powers that be and financially secure.you may want a child.fantasy: in a few years i come to venezuela. your wife refers to me as 'esa mujer.' i sing the fishy song with your child. (boom boom diddun daddun wannum - choo.) your wife and i bond.
The fourth day i threw up all day on an empty stomach and thought, "so this is the origin of the word 'wretched.'" i have never before thrown up for emotional reasons, not even during the 17 months my father was dying of a brain tumor.
the gods of vomit were not appeased by my exertions; they wanted work product so i drank some tea which helped...
I adjusted to Mike’s being on another continent - one I’d never been to - particularly after Carolyn, his liaison at the time to his past life, said that once he got settled, he planned to make a place for his closest circle.
I oriented myself to moving there too, by brushing up my self-taught Spanish. Learning a foreign language was a more familiar task than trying to build a house out of grass (a pastiche of the sort of advice that was given to people worried about Peak Oil.) I watched Spanish-language soap operas and religious programs as well as a stream of Surreal movies in the tradition of Don Quixote, El Greco and Dali.
Mike’s leap into the unknown seemed an act of either the greatest courage or nuttiness. I didn’t know him well enough to understand the impulse but trusted that he knew what he was doing. It wasn't so crazy for him as it would have been for anyone else to think the Chavez government would welcome him. Within a couple of weeks, he had a radio interview with Chavez advisor Eva Golinger.
However, there were more things in Heaven and certainly earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy...
However, there were more things in Heaven and certainly earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy...
As mentioned above, before Mike left the US, he disbursed his worldly affects among his loved ones, his FTW (Fromthewilderness) colleagues who were the closest thing he had to family, with the stipulation they be returned to him should he ever come home again; and that for the most part, they were.
The exception was me. My gift, which Mike never asked me to return, was, to all appearances, a small envelope of the size to hold a key, with the imprinted legend, "Thank you - It has been a pleasure serving you;" then, in Mike's scrawl, "For Jenna. Two diamonds." I smiled uncertainly when the gift arrived in the mail, thinking it was an obscure joke. But with this envelope was another one from Carolyn marked, "Please read first."
Carolyn explained that the two diamonds enclosed, which, having no idea of their worth, she'd insured for $1000, were from Mike's father's wedding ring.
It was a while before it occurred to me to look at the diamonds but I knew what they meant: Not real love; he didn't know me well enough for that. But when he fled the US, he needed to feel he was leaving behind someone to whom he was truly close. I fit that role at that moment. The gift was an expression of what might have been.
Like everything else he'd ever known, I had receded into his past while he set about to remake himself as a hero of the Bolivarian Revolution.
If anyone could pull that off, it would be Mike. But one day, I sensed, his past would catch up with him.
Email to Mike:
"what you leave behind will not sink in 'til you've established new roots. a joke will occur to you which no one around you will appreciate. or you'll see a favorite American movie dubbed into Spanish and you will be overcome. by the waters of the Orinoco, you will sit down and weep as you remember us.
'but you are home. it is we who are homesick."
That moment by the waters of the Orinoco came sooner than I had anticipated. During the radio program with Eva Golinger who acted as both interviewer and translator for the show's two hour duration, Mike finally broke down in tears when a call-in came from his Portland buddy, reknowned blues singer and bass player, Lisa Mann.
Email from Mike: 9 - 10 - 2006
I couldn´t function for hours after that interview... I had a serious crush on [Lisa] for a while and she is very, very special. She didn´t even know that [[his fiancée] and I didn´t get married or why.
Months later, at my apartment in New York, we were talking about the Venezuela episode.
"Why didn't somebody stop me?" Mike asked, in wonder.
First of all, because almost nobody knew. But of those who did, there was at least one effort to take Mike through what such a move might mean, step by step.
"Carolyn tried to slow you down but you brushed her off," I said. "You weren't in the mood to listen to anybody."
"Yeah," he agreed. "I knew that as soon as I asked the question."
Despite his growing recognition of what he'd lost by burning his bridges, Mike's spirits must have risen when a reporter from an influential US newspaper flew down with the idea of doing a feature on him. But emotionally, the conversation itself seems to have been a precursor of the movie, Collapse:
" [S]even hours with the [newspaper] reporter yesterday. I´m writing a seperate [sic] email which you´ll get. It was in detail and he was serious. [Mike had been burned by mainstream features before, as a colleague was reminding him] but it went back through all the most painful parts of my life. At the end it was like someone had stuck a vacuum cleaner in my ear and all the tastes and smells got tasted and smelled all over again.
Not only that, but he'd gleaned that some of his colleagues weren't handling the press the way he would have liked.
"Could people please stop saying, 'Mike can be a real asshole but...?'" he pleaded. "Because otherwise, that'll be the lead of the story."
On the political asylum front, too, his needs were meeting with obstacles followed by false hopes and setbacks. And then there was the barren solitude of his living arrangement. Advised to keep a low profile while his case was pending, (hard to do when, with his Germanic coloring, he stood out in a Venezuelan crowd) he remained virtually confined to his hotel room.
9-24-2006 ...Life is very unhappy. Three days ago two drug dealers staying at the same hotel I am were gunned down on the street a block away. I´m in an upscale neighborhood where stuff like this never happens.Funny thing is, I pìcked them out for drug dealers the moment I laid eyes on them three days before that. I don´t have time to elaborate but I am getting indications that [an American pundit] may be actually trying to prevent me from getting asylum. That´s not for publication.
In a phonecall, he named two other men (activists I'd met and had never taken seriously) who, he said, should be investigated if anything dire happened to him in Venezuela.
Every day I long for death because I just don´t see how this current limbo is ever going to end. I just keep waking up and going through motions. I wrote a new article today and start another tomorrow. I do miss the US and especially my loved ones but I know I can´t ever go home. That would betray my moral decision and put my life at greater risk than I feel it is here. I may wind up being the writer that no country wants. Then what? Sigh. I´ve been doing the anger thing, especially at those close to me who betrayed me so deeply. That´s what´s really taken the heart out of me.
He signed off with a forlorn, perfunctory, “Love you”
An email of 9-4-2006 reinforces this sense of alienation on both the cosmic and comic levels:.
"This seemingly endless limbo vis a vis the gov´t is a real drag and the tiny beds in my little fleabag suck big time."
La Hojilla, a popular TV show that is Chavez' favorite, invited Mike on but when the appointed day arrived, the show was postponed.
The next day on which he was scheduled to appear, he was pre-empted by a baseball star. Or so he was told. Two friends who watched the show said the baseball star didn't appear either.
Finally, he reached the conclusion he'd never get in to see anyone who could arrange for asylum. "I'm a bargaining chip," he sighed. At the end of the day, Mike was a gringo from a CIA family whom Chavez would have had a hard time justifying to his people, regardless of Mike's street cred.
Part 10: Burundanga
Mike had burned his bridges in haste; now he was repenting in sorrow. With the exception of phone-calls to FTW colleagues, he was reduced to approximately one conversation a week in English. To save money and avoid explaining his status as asylum-seeker to inquiring strangers, he cooked his meals on an electric burner in his hotel room. At night, the car horns honked incessantly.
Not only that, but he'd learned that Chavez had made statements implying he wasn't sure that an actual plane had hit the Pentagon.
Mike had tried to warn the government against adopting this widely-touted but easily refuted conspiracy theory (as opposed to conspiracy fact.) Over 130 eye-witnesses had confirmed that what they saw was a plane rather than a missile. To focus on a debatable theory is to draw the attention away from actual smoking guns.
He'd had it; he was throwing in the towel. One night, with a "Fuck it," attitude he went out for a drink.
And then things started going sideways.
The following excerpt is from a confidential email Mike wrote on 9-26-2006 to a few colleagues:
I could not sit alone in the room one more night with Spanish TV.
I went to a night club and had a few drinks. I was soon approached by two women. What happened after that is both a blur and a mystery. There’s no doubt I got intoxicated but I suspect that something was put in my drink. At about 6 AM the next morning I came to in my hotel room. All of my pocket cash was gone and there were a number of credit card receipts strewn around. I have no idea how much was run on the credit cards that night.
Remember that current tensions between Venezuela and the US are very high. I am obviously a “gringo” in a city where fleecing gringos is something of a pastime. Because of the intense pain and other symptoms I believe that something was put in my drink. Maybe a “roofie”. They are here too I’m told.
I don’t know if I got laid or not. For all that I certainly hope so.
There are those in Ashland who know (as do all of the pre-Ashland FTW staff) that I spent 21 years in AA and resumed normal drinking in March of 2004. The uninformed backyard gossip, the ignorant, and those who achieve superiority by taking other people’s inventory, will quickly assert that I am just an alcoholic who went out, went into a blackout and is now trying to make excuses.
But Ken, Carolyn, Mike, Stan and Jamey have all seen me drink moderately, without cravings or any aberrant behavior for more than two years. There are people who leave AA and do resume normal alcoholic consumption.
However, it is largely because of what I learned in AA that I am writing this 10th Step. I have never stopped practicing AA’s steps or the deep spiritual program I acquired through 21 years of intense work.”
We later learned that Mike's symptoms were consistent with the ingestion of burundanga, "an extract of the brugmansia plant containing high levels of the psychoactive chemical scopolamine." While not impairing some cognitive functions, (Mike retained a dim memory of going to the ATM and withdrawing money, then doing it again until his account was depleted,) the drug does seem to remove "free will," whatever that philosophical enigma might be.
The lapse was to have what the British call "knock on" or ripple effects.