An interview this week on NPR’s Fresh Air brought back to light the case of “Clark Rockefeller”, the con man who was in reality Christian Gerharstreiter from Germany, not, as he claimed, a member of the Rockefeller clan. That claim came after previous identities adopted over the years including being a British baronet, a cardiologist in Las Vegas, a Hollywood producer, and a bond broker in New York. The interview was with author Walter Kirn, who was a friend of “Rockefeller” for years. Listening to the interview, it seems hardly credible that Kirn would accept the wild stories he was being told: that his friend was a “freelance central banker”, that he had never eaten in a restaurant, that he had attended Yale when he was 14, that he had a master key to the Rockefeller Center, that on successive week-ends he had as house guests Brittany Spears and then Angelika Merkel. It turns out that Gerhartsreiter was not only a con man, but he had brutally murdered a man in California in the 1980’s, a crime for which he was convicted last year and resentenced to prison for 27 years to life.
How was the massive deception possible? Gerhartsreiter was skilled in reading his conversation partner and accurately gauging what stories would be believable. His verbal skills were impressive, given the fact that he was not a native speaker of English. The family with whom he originally stayed on coming to the U.S. as an exchange student (which he fraudulently arranged himself) when he was 18 reported that he experimented with different accents. Eventually, he settled, according to Kirn, on an accent that sounded like Katharine Hepburn’s cousin. But, probably even more important than his language ability, were Gerhartreiter’s non-verbal skills. His bearing, dress, and general appearance seemed to confirm his identity. He acted out his roles with confidence and great self-assurance. His success calls to mind the TED talk by Amy Cuddy in which she discusses the importance of body language and the possibility of adjusting your posture and appearance to convince yourself and others of the identity you want to convey.
Gerhartsreiter’s case also for me brings to mind a concept in modern linguistics: performativity, originally conceived by J.L Austin. The idea of “performance” is that communicative competence is not, as often conceived, a matter of mastering the whole grammar system of a language, but rather of being able to strategically choose what is needed in particular contexts. In this way, according to Suresh Canagarajah, performance “gives primacy to acts of creative and strategic communication motivated by the enigmatic purposes of complex individuals. It draws attention to playfulness, fabrication, strategic negotiations, situationally motivated shifts, multiple identities” (from the forward to Clemente/Higgins, Performing English with a post-colonial accent: Ethnographic narratives from Mexico). Christian Gerhartsreiter was clearly a master of performance in a number of senses.