''Crockefeller'': the story just keeps unfolding

by Diane Duane

(EDIT: Scroll down to the bottom of the posting for video of the August 11 press conference with Rockefeller / Gerhartsreiter’s attorney.)

I’ve continued to follow the “Clark Rockefeller” / Christian Gerhartsreiter story over the past few days as it just keeps getting more convoluted, and as the subject’s apparent/alleged pathway between Germany and the USA starts getting clearer. (With some surprises along the way. Today’s bizarre revelation: “Rockefeller” may have to give back his $800,000 divorce settlement, because it appears that he and the woman in question may not have been legally married.  Get this — )

The 48-year-old suspect married London-based based management consultant Sandra Boss in 1995 during a small ceremony in Nantucket, Mass. But there is no official record of the union in Massachusetts, and it’s unclear whether the couple provided a marriage license during divorce proceedings.

“They weren’t legally married,” Rockefeller’s lawyer Stephen Hrones said. “How can you divorce when you’re not legally married?”

(Boy, somebody missed something there. How did this piece of data not emerge during the divorce proceedings?? How do you get a divorce without producing proof that there was a marriage in the first place?)

Meanwhile I continue being fascinated as more data slowly adds itself layer on layer to the situation, and other people start to ruminate on where the truth of the case lies (mostly the question seems to be boiling down to: Is he crazy, or is he a con man, or both?) And on the first count — for a former psych nurse, at least — the temptation to play the Diagnosis At A Distance game is tough to resist.

The most interesting factor for me at the moment is Rockefeller’s / Gerhartsreiter’s purported memory loss. His attorney claims he doesn’t remember anything prior to 1993, except for fragments (“a Scottish nanny” , a “childhood visit to Mt. Rushmore in a station wagon”) — though if he is Gerhartsreiter, this would have taken place during a period when he had never yet left Germany). So is this real memory loss, or something else?

There’s a phenomenon known as “confabulation” in which the mind fabricates memories to fill in spaces it feels or knows “need filling”. Are these memories confabulation? Impossible to say at this distance, and without expert psychiatric evaluation and possibly also an MRI (some concrete physical causes for confabulation have been discovered).

The attorney elsewhere describes his client’s memory as “shattered”. It’s an interesting word. I’ve seen various internal crises produce this kind of spotty-memory result in patients, temporarily or over long periods — and sometimes the crises in question aren’t at all obvious, sometimes not even detectable. But then we have perhaps too much mythology in modern popular culture that suggests you need some kind of blatant, major trauma to cause an amnesic response (or similar broad-based mental unhinging).

The thing to remember is that the mind’s major priority is keep itself running as well as it can, and otherwise to preserve its own status quo, usually along the lines of the basic human existential position, “I am blameless!” . And I’ve seen parts of people’s brains run all kinds of just-forget-about-this numbers on other parts of their brains to keep them away from the dangerous, sometimes unbearable realization that they’ve failed, or done something wrong. Sometimes the wrongdoing / failures are surprisingly minor: sometimes very major indeed. But memory does sometimes fail, in small spots or big swathes, as a result of a prolonged imbalance or slow buildup of chronic issues rather than anything sudden — so that no other human being but the one most intimately involved may ever be aware of the event that starts the process of leaving the mind “overdrawn at the memory bank”.

(As of August 12, however, Rockefeller / Gerhartsreiter’s recall seems to be improving. His attorney reports that he now remembers some details from his 1990’s California life, including the couple from whom he rented the San Marino guest house, though he says he “hardly knew them”.)

What Rockefeller / Gerhartsreiter claims to be experiencing could indeed be real. The problem is that when criminal law starts getting involved, a certain amount of cynicism starts to intrude itself into the diagnostic process. In this case in particular, where there seem to be multiple aliases involved, a certain amount of intelligence and cunning, and a fair amount of manipulation (vide today’s story about a woman who claims the man married her strictly for the purpose of getting a US “green card”, then dumped her*), it’s hard to avoid the idea that this “shattered” memory is very convenient. (Scroll down in this article for more details about what he claims he can remember.) Especially when it seems likely that at least some aspects of the criminal proceedings surrounding him are going to involve the determination of his (mental) fitness to stand trial. …Though this may of course be just me getting the wrong end of the diagnostic stick — as is all too likely when working at thousands’ of miles distance and with fifth– or twelfth-hand data. So, verbum sap., caveat emptor, and other similar cautionary adages.

But what keeps bringing up the cynic in me particularly strongly is the fact that some aspects of the man’s history as now presented make him sound like a fairly in-control scammer who also has (or has been developing over time) a medium-strength dose of something like narcissistic personality disorder, with maybe a dash of one of the other so-called “cluster B” / “dramatic-erratic” disorders, like borderline and histrionic personality disorders. A lot of the news accounts I’ve seen over recent days — especially some of those coming out of the man’s (apparent) hometown in Germany — particularly suggest that he has routinely displayed some of the major traits or symptoms of NPD. People who housed him or knew him describe the self-importance and haughty attitude, the spinning of elaborate and grandiose origin stories about royalty or otherwise important and monied people in the family background, and the unpredictable on-and-off charm, coupled with an underlying sense among the people around “Rockefeller” that they were being manipulated — a sense that grew so strong over time that many of these people seem to have been glad to have the relationship dissolve.

(ETA: And now we have the August 12th revelations, which complicate matters.Iis this reported “improved recall” genuinely the slow recovery of lost or trauma-buried memory which is slowly being stimulated by questions about something the person hasn’t thought about, or wanted to think about, for years? Or are we simply seeing a man trying to keep a decades-long, consciously built “house of cards” of false identities from coming down all at once, by surrendering it a little at a time?…)

…(shrug) At the end of the day, there’s still no telling where the case may go. (Like any other CSI fan, I’m wondering when someone will suggest DNA testing, and how long it will take to meander its way through the labyrinth of legal barriers that will doubtless be involved.)

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens…

(BTW, fellow CSI fans: how many bets that something like this turns up in the next season of one or another of the series? Their writing staffs will be breaking out ‘09 script ideas in the story rooms just about now…)

*ETA: some more detail has turned up about this —

The woman who actually married Christian Gerhartsreiter, Amy Jersild Duhnke, 49, of Milwaukee, was unavailable for comment. In a telephone interview Friday, her husband, Eric Duhnke, confirmed that the marriage took place, but he said it lasted only a day. Public records obtained by The Associated Press indicate Amy Duhnke waited 11 years before filing for divorce from Gerhartstreiter.

Eric Duhnke promised to issue a clarifying statement Friday, but it never materialized.

(Below is video of the August 11 press conference with Rockefeller / Gerhartsreiter’s attorney.)

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