Paleo Retiree writes:
On June 18, 2013 The Question Lady and I learned that a friend of ours had died in Los Angeles in a very peculiar car crash. His name was Michael Hastings, and he’d been a celebrated war correspondent and investigative journalist.
At the time of his death Mike was just 33 years old. We were friendly with Mike when he was in his early 20s and had just arrived in the New York City media world. I was working for Newsweek magazine at the time, and one day Mike — a new intern — showed up in my office and introduced himself. We had someone in common, Mike’s older brother Jonathan Hastings, whom The Question Lady and I knew via the professor and critic Steve Vineberg. (Jon had been one of Steve’s favorite students.)
I liked Mike immediately. He was wiry, dark-haired, bright and intense, he was full of nutty gusto, and he had an explosive and dirty sense of humor. At the magazine he was doing low-level stuff — unsigned research, reporting and writing — and he was putting in long hours in a quest to out-excel his fellow interns.
For a couple of years Mike and I had a fun friendship. He stopped by my office regularly to blow off steam, to talk about girls and writing projects, and to ask for tips about how the innards of the magazine — its personalities and politics — worked. (Mike was frighteningly — if also amusingly — ambitious.) He’d monologue with great urgency, and often hilarious ruefulness, about the books he wanted — no, needed — to write, and we’d gossip and compare notes about movies. Brazen, hard-working and smart, Mike reminded me a bit of the British journalist Toby Young (who I also like a lot), and he became friendly with The Question Lady too.
Mike’s career soon took off. After Newsweek hired him fulltime, he did more and more ambitious work. Eventually, at his request, he was sent to Iraq; he sent back a lot of first-class frontline reporting from that war-torn country. For Rolling Stone, Mike published a profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, NATO commander in Afghanistan, that resulted in McChrystal being forced to resign. He won a George Polk Award for that story.
Mike was so daring that within a few years he’d acquired near legendary status among journalists and journalism fans. And in 2008, Mike finally did publish his first book: “I Lost My Love in Baghdad,” about his girlfriend Andi Parhamovich, who was ambushed and killed while working in Iraq for the National Democratic Institute. In 2012 he followed that book with another one, “The Operators,” a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan.
By then, The Question Lady and I had mostly lost touch with Mike. For all his brains, talent and irreverence, and despite his roguish charm and spirit, Mike was sometimes reckless in ways that could really startle us. Besides, he was on his way up in a world we had nothing to do with. And meanwhile, The Question Lady and I were growing closer to Mike’s brother Jon, a brilliant pop-culture critic and movie buff.
In the weeks that followed the news of Mike’s death, The Question Lady and I followed developments in the story and raked over our old friendship with Mike. How strange that his Mercedes seemed to have exploded on impact. Rumors were thick: Had Mike been murdered? Were drones and bombs involved? Mike had been doing some dicey reporting on the CIA after all. And how had Mike wound up in L.A. anyway? We were bugged as well by the way a lot of the news reports — and even the memoirs that colleagues of Mike’s published — missed out on dimensions of Mike Hastings as we’d known him.
Then one day we looked at each other and asked, more or less at the same moment, “Why not ask Jon if he’d be willing to do a q&a about his brother for the blog?” Why not indeed? It’d be a great opportunity for us — and for the world generally — to learn more about Mike, as well as a chance to add to the general discussion about Mike and his work.
We contacted Jon and were thrilled that Jon — who’s a, shall we say, close friend of this blog — was willing to talk, and to talk frankly, for the record. I think you’ll find the results very interesting and informative. (The words “unforgettable character sketch” come to mind.)
Here’s the Uncouth Reflections interview with Michael Hastings’ older brother, Jonathan Hastings.
Paleo Retiree: I know we both want this interview to mainly concern Mike as a person. But before we go there, why don’t we start by cutting directly to the headlines?
Jonathan Hastings: Sure.
PR: I know you flew out to check in on Mike just a day or two before the crash.
JH: As I told the police out in L.A., a few days before he died, Mike called me and I got the impression that he was having a manic episode, similar to one he had had 15 years ago which he had referred to in his writing. At that time, drugs had been involved, and I suspected that might be the case again. I immediately booked a flight to L.A. for the next day, with the thought that maybe I could convince him to come back to Vermont to dry out or (less likely) get him to go to detox/rehab there in L.A. When I got to L.A. and saw him, I immediately realized that he was not going to go willingly. I started to make arrangements with our other brother to fly out and help me possibly force Mike into checking himself into a hospital or detox center. I’d thought that I had at least convinced Mike to just stay in his apartment and chill out for the next few days, but he snuck out on me when I was sleeping. He crashed his car before anyone could do anything to help him.
JH: I ended up telling this all to the police on Tuesday morning, as I was one of the last people to see him alive and I was one of the few people who could really put his behavior on that day in context.
PR: How good a job do you feel the cops have done looking into the crash?
JH: I feel that the investigation was pretty thorough. The LAPD was very easy to work with, and I think they did a good job. I certainly have no real complaints about them or the coroner’s office, and I think everyone in my family is satisfied with the report. For the most part, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know or strongly suspect.
PR: Any disagreements with it?
JH: Not really. I think there’s a larger context that it leaves out, but a lot of that stuff seems to me to be out of the scope of a report about a traffic accident.
PR: How have you reacted to the way the press has covered the report?
JH: If I have any problems it’s with how the report was written about in the press. There were a lot of journalists-in-quotes who didn’t seem to have read it very carefully or were, irresponsibly I think, taking things out of context. I guess that’s understandable — I mean, of course the press is going to sensationalize things and play up the juicy stuff. But just because it was understandable didn’t mean I liked it.
PR: Have you kept tabs on the conspiracy rumors?
JH: I kind of pay attention because I’m interested in what people are saying, and the fringe stuff really doesn’t upset me. I think it’s kind of strange that there are now “Michael Hastings Truthers” out there, but that just seems to be a side-effect of how the internet works these days. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that there are so many people who are really invested in the idea that he was murdered by the government, but I still think it’s a weird thing for people who didn’t know him to get hung up on. A lot of them seem not to have been familiar with his work before he died, so it isn’t simply a result of grieving fans, or something.
PR: How has the rest of your family reacted to the swirl of speculations?
JH: They’ve managed to mostly ignore the rumors, I think. I don’t think anyone is bitter about them. The government is out of control in a lot of ways, so I sympathize with people who want to turn Mike’s death into some kind of symbol. I just think that his death happens to be a bad foundation to build that case on. I’d much rather see people celebrating the work he actually did. I think that would be more effective politically in the long run, too. One other thing is that by casting Mike’s death as a kind of Robert Ludlum-style conspiracy, people miss out on how the government actually silences and suppresses reporters: through the threat of legal action, or, as in the case of Mike’s friend Barrett Brown, taking actual legal action. I’d like to see a lot of the people upset over a “Michael Hastings coverup” to turn their efforts towards keeping Barrett out of prison.
PR: What are your own thoughts about the cause of death? Do you have any feelings at all that foul play might have been involved?
JH: I really rule out foul play entirely. I might have been suspicious if I hadn’t been with him the day before he died. After all, he definitely was investigating and writing about a lot of sensitive subjects. But based on being with him and talking to people who were worried about him in the weeks leading up to his death, and being around him when he had had similar problems when he was younger, I was pretty much convinced that he wasn’t in danger from any outside agency.
PR: It did seem weird, the way that the Mercedes more or less exploded, and that the engine was thrown so far away.
JH: I think the explosion and everything else can be accounted for by the fact that his car was going really, really fast. That’s a lot of kinetic energy and a lot of fuel involved when you’re going full throttle like that.
PR: How about the cremation? Some people found Mike’s cremation suspicious.
JH: Nothing was done against anyone’s wishes. A reporter took a statement from one of Mike’s friends out-of-context and ran with it. A very clear example of irresponsible journalism.
PR: OK, let’s move on to the real focus of our talk: Mike as a person. And why not start at the beginning? Can you sketch in how and where you and Mike grew up? How many of you were there?
JH: I was the oldest, Mike was younger by three years, and then, two years younger than him, our youngest brother, Jeff.
PR: Who are the Hastings, ethnically and religiously speaking?
JH: The family was, from my father’s side, rural WASP-y, the upstate New York equivalent of rural gentry, I guess — land-owning farmers, and doctors, and lawyers, and teachers; and from my mother’s side upper-middle-class Irish Catholic, though just a generation away from working-class immigrant Irish Catholic. My father was nominally Methodist, but we were raised Catholic because it was my mom who was religious, though she ended up leaving the Church after we had all grown up.
PR: What kinds of jobs did your parents have?
JH: Both of our parents were doctors: they met in college in their pre-med classes.
PR: Was it a book-reading, cultured family?
JH: We were definitely cultured, especially compared to the norm in Malone, NY, which is way, way upstate, just a few miles south of the Canadian border. When we were growing up, both of my parents were always reading, and all of the kids were given an unlimited allowance when it came to buying books and magazines. Both my parents had pretty successful medical practices, and we were definitely prosperous — again, especially in relative terms.
PR: Are your parents the supportive type?
JH: They were warm, with my dad generally playing the warmer, good cop role, and my mom having to play the practical parent on most occasions. But I don’t remember us kids ever needing much discipline, at least until Mike got into high school.
PR: What was Mike like as a kid? What was his role in the family?
JH: He was always the one pushing the boundaries. I’d probably also say he was the squeaky wheel. But it’s more that he was not easily satisfied with standing still and was always looking to get involved in some new hobby or have some new interest.
PR: Was he an outgoing kid?
JH: Mike was always very charismatic and popular.
PR: Brasher than you?
JH: I was definitely more reserved than him: I was shy but Mike was a real leader.
PR: Were there any big disruptions in your childhood?
JH: There were a few disruptions, though not, I think, bigger than usual for any average kids growing up. When I was 14, our family moved from Malone to Montreal, Quebec, so that my mom could go back to school — she wanted to change medical specialities. That was definitely a big change for us. Before, we had been raised out in the country, in a house surrounded by fields and groves, with most of our close friends being other doctors’ kids. It was a treat for us to go to Plattsburgh, NY, which had a mall and a multiplex and a big bookstore and three comic book stores. We went to a tiny Catholic school, and then later I went to the public Middle School and High School, though Mike left town before he had to graduate from the Catholic school. We lived just a town over from the rest of my dad’s family, and we were pretty close to them.
PR: And then, suddenly, the big city.
JH: Yeah. All of a sudden we were going to an exclusive private school, where we were from a comparatively less prosperous family than many of our classmates. We also seemed comparatively less cultured, and I certainly felt the need to play catch-up.
PR: Did you and Mike see and experience your upbringing similarly?
JH: If Mike and I had a difference in our take on our upbringing, it was that, for me, moving to Montreal was a completely positive experience. I had definitely loved living in the countryside and I’d certainly appreciated the luxury of growing up in the outdoors. But in Montreal I really loved all of the cultural opportunities offered by big city life, and I loved being at a school that offered me an academic challenge.
PR: It wasn’t the same for Mike?
JH: I always got the impression that Mike kind of resented my parents for moving. Later he would explain it me as if my parents had taken him away from a place where he was doing really well and put him in a situation that he felt was harder for him to handle, although, objectively, he was probably at least equally successful, academically, socially, etc. in both places. But he still griped about it. I think he felt that there were just too many distractions for teenagers in a big city and that small town life was healthier and more wholesome. Although I suspected that was a bit of a case of the grass always being greener.
PR: When did the family wind up in Vermont?
JH: They moved there in 1996. I was already in college by that point, at Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. My brothers were in high school, and, though I think having to be uprooted again was a bit tough on them, they both ended up liking Vermont a lot. Even though Mike was at his new high school in Burlington for only two years, he was voted class president and gathered a group of friends around him pretty easily.
PR: Did you and Mike have a generally good brother/brother relationship?
JH: We got along, mostly, growing up: we were part of the same group of friends once we were both old enough to do stuff together, such as playing Dungeons & Dragons, watching sci-fi movies, etc. Later on, after I was out of college, we lived in NYC together and had a very close relationship. But we definitely butted heads on many occasions.
PR: I’ve never known brothers who didn’t.
JH: It only came to actual blows once or twice. The time I remember most clearly is when we were playing Marco Polo, and he kept making fun of me. So after I asked him to stop and he wouldn’t, I hit him in the nose. He could definitely be a disruptive force when he wanted to be, and though I was the leader based on age, he was funny and charismatic, and he was also more willing to ruin everyone’s day.
PR: So he was one of those kids who’d be willing to kick things into a higher gear?
JH: Yeah. That’s what sticks out when comparing his temperament to mine. I tended to be more easy-going, while he was apt to be disruptive. I don’t mean to make out that he was a bad kid, at all, but when he wanted to be disruptive he was really disruptive.
PR: What were some of his interests as a kid?
JH: He was into a lot, and in general he moved from one thing to another. The things he stuck with were often things that I stuck with. Some examples: we all played baseball as kids; he ended up playing some football in middle school; we were all into role-playing games (like Dungeons & Dragons), although while I continued doing that stuff, he didn’t; we were all into watching movies, though, again, he was never as hardcore into movies as I was and still am. Actually, that was the way it worked with him for a lot of nerd interests: he kind of tagged along on my interests, dipped his toes in, but never really went the whole way like I did.
PR: What was an example of that?
JH: I was a huge comic book fan — reading just about every type of comic I could get ahold of — but Mike just liked following one or two characters, Daredevil and The Punisher, mainly. He dabbled in a bunch of hobbies that I never got into, although he never really pursued them very deeply, and that became a bit of a “thing” in the family, that Mike would be into something for a week or two and then that would be it — i.e., model railroading, miniature wargaming, such as the Warhammer games. When he was older he even took pilot lessons for a while.
PR: Did he have any abiding interests?
JH: The only thing he really stuck with on his own as opposed to because of me or because of his friends was military history and war reporting. He was huge into reading about war — especially the Vietnam war — from when he was in middle school on. I think his interest in reading about Vietnam is one of the few threads that really reaches back into his childhood and then connects with his interests as an adult. I was definitely not into military history like he was.
PR: What was Mike like at school?
JH: I’m a little hazy on the specifics of Mike in school. I know that he got good grades, in general, and, at least up until high school, he was a good student. However, a lot of that had to do with him being very smart rather than him being particularly studious. All three of us had the best time as students at Lower Canada College, the private school we went to in Montreal. It was a K-12 school. I was there for high school, Mike for junior high and a little high school, and Jeff for grade school and junior high. All of us, when we were there, really worked hard on school projects and were engaged by the teachers, whereas at our American schools, we all basically coasted on smarts alone.
PR: What was it like for Mike, school-wise, when he finally transferred to school in Vermont?
JH: As far as I remember, he continued to do well and work hard in English and History and other subjects that really interested him.
PR: I remember clearly that he had a competitive streak. Did that translate into enjoying sports?
JH: He played lots of sports up until the family moved back to Vermont. He played Little League in Malone, as we all did, and he played football and basketball at Lower Canada College. At LCC sports were more or less mandatory — you had to be on some kind of team. I was on the curling team.
PR: Did he have a musical gene?
JH: I know he did school band for a little bit, maybe a year or two, and he bought a trumpet because he wanted to learn to play it, but he never really pursued any of that very far.
PR: Did he write for any of the school publications?
JH: He did do the school newspaper at LCC and at the Catholic high school in Vermont that he had transferred to, but he didn’t do the yearbook. The stuff he wrote in Vermont was already in homage to Hunter S. Thompson — which gives a hint that a Catholic school probably wasn’t the best fit for him.
PR: Hard to imagine Mike being a terribly respectful student.
JH: By high school he definitely felt school was a crock, although I don’t think he ever thought LCC was a crock. My guess is that in some ways LCC spoiled him for going back to a kind of run-of-the-mill rural-ish American Catholic school. But, you know, high school in America is a crock. So I don’t think what’s exceptional about Mike is that he perceived it to be a crock so much as that he really acted on it.
JH: While he always kept up his grades, once he got back to school in Vermont he was always a little on the disruptive side. For instance, he showed up at his first day of school with his hair dyed green — which was against the rules of the dress/appearance code. He did not try to keep his head down. He wanted to shake things up, and he got a kick out of flipping the bird, metaphorically or otherwise, to the authorities.
PR: Did you know his circle of friends much?
JH: His friends were nice kids, although I think he tended to hang out more with kids who were more into hanging out than they were into being good students. That may be an unfair characterization on my part, though.
PR: What were his early romances and relationships like?
JH: It’s hard for me to say. I wasn’t around enough to know who he was dating in high school and when he started his college. I do think that he really wasn’t about chasing women, though.
PR: What do you mean?
JH: He always seemed to want to be in a long-term, supportive relationship. Having said that, he was pretty impulsive, so he’d tend to jump into things very quickly. Too quickly from my POV, but I tend to be more cautious in general than he was. It often seemed like he was always doing things like inviting brand new girlfriends out to dinner with our entire family, which might have given the girlfriends the impression that they were going to be around for a long time. But this was more him being impulsive than him wanting to date a lot of women. He knew he was happiest when he was in a long-term supportive relationship.
PR: Despite how bright he was, Mike never struck me as terribly interested in ideas — not nearly as much as you are.
JH: I would say he was much more action-oriented than sitting-and-thinking oriented. He was always interested in getting my take on things, and I think he liked talking to intellectuals. But he was a practical guy. He liked ideas inasmuch as he could use them to provide some kind of grounding for his writing, but he seemed less interested in ideas-for-their-own-sake.
PR: So you were the intellectual older brother. How did Mike take that?
JH: It wasn’t something that bugged him, but it was something we both noticed. At LCC, especially, because we were all in the same school, and he ended up having some of the same teachers that I had had. Also, in the tradition borrowed from British boarding schools, everyone went by their last name there, so since I was already “Hastings,” Mike was called “mini-Hastings” by upperclassmen and even some teachers. But he did as well as I did in the subjects he cared about, so I don’t think he ever felt that I had set some standard that he had to live up to or anything like that.
PR: What was college like for Mike?
JH: He went to Connecticut College for a year, and I got the impression he partied a lot. And that led to him leaving school and the beginnings of his mental health issues.
PR: Was he ashamed of it?
JH: That’s a tough question. On the one hand, he was open about it, referred to it in his writing, and he even wrote a memoir all about it. He wasn’t afraid of people knowing — he wanted people to know, but, of course, he wanted people to know on his terms and from his POV.
PR: When and how did the mental difficulties come on?
JH: The summer after his first year he had a really bad manic/delusional/paranoid episode. It was probably brought on by drug use, but by the time he was in the middle of it, it was going on its own power. He ended up in detox/rehab for most of the summer, and he didn’t go back to Connecticut College.
PR: Was he generally unstable when he was young? Did he cause the family some anxiety as a kid?
JH: He was definitely a worry even before his college breakdown. He partied in high school, and I guess everyone does. But he had come close to being expelled and getting into serious trouble a few times. There was some relief from my parents when he went off to college. But that environment turned out to be really bad for him. He started using all sorts of drugs and it triggered a kind of manic episode. When he went home for summer after his first year of college, he wasn’t in good shape and ended up crashing a car, getting arrested, and going to detox/rehab. Though later he told it as a kind of gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson-style adventure, it was a really traumatic experience for him and my family. But he was always looking for risks: even after he sobered up and got his life on track and had his career underway he still wanted to push the envelope, such as having himself assigned to Newsweek’s Iraq bureau.
PR: What did he finally do for his degree?
JH: Once he got sober he took some continuing ed. classes around Burlington, at UVM and at the local community college, and then he finally moved to NYC with me and finished his degree at NYU. Once he got sober, he was a really conscientious student. It helped that he was only taking classes he was interested in — journalism, writing, media studies, video editing, etc.
PR: Once he’d made it into the New York City media world, how did he react to it?
JH: He met many writers and editors he admired. But he also was frustrated by the entire machinery of the media.
PR: What kinds of things irked him?
JH: One of his big complaints — which he was pretty vocal about — was that he knew a number of people in the media who he believed had been publicly pro-Iraq War, even though they were privately skeptical or even anti-war but who had, according to Mike, gone along with the pro-war sentiment for the sake of their careers. That became a big sticking point with him later on. I think it was really an influential experience for him — an important negative example — in terms of how he decided to approach the role of a journalist.
PR: How did he react to life at Newsweek specifically?
JH: He liked Newsweek at first but got frustrated there after a while. I think he thought a lot of the folks there were hypocrites. I know that after he left he didn’t do too much fond reminiscing about the place.
PR: What do you think of this Peter Goldman appreciation of Mike?
JH: I think Goldman gets Mike from a professional side better than anyone else I’ve read. He gets, for example, that Mike was very worried about what Goldman thought of him. Goldman doesn’t quite connect the dots, though. Mike was a risk taker and a rebel, but he was also always kind of surprised and hurt when people would push back against him. But Goldman gets that he was ambitious and that he really wanted to be a writer, not just a reporter or a working journalist. And I think Goldman is smart about the “branding” stuff. Which is kind of backhanded of Goldman, but I’d tend to agree with him.
PR: So Mike felt generally positive about his time at Newsweek?
JH: I think so: overall I think he felt he got a lot out of the experience.
PR: How did Mike react to life in New York City?
JH: He ended up really not liking NYC very much, and he wanted to get away to someplace quieter. Specifically Vermont. I think his ideal would have been spending half the year on the road, or overseas, and the other half of the year writing up in the woods in Vermont. When he was actually writing, he didn’t want to be around people, and he wanted as few distractions as possible.
PR: What did being a foreign correspondent and a war reporter mean to Mike?
JH: He was a self-proclaimed war junkie. He loved reading about war — as I said earlier, that was one of his major interests as a kid. He and I played all sorts of war games growing up: playing “Army” in the field across from our house, later on playing highly-detailed strategy boardgames that recreated historical battles. One of Mike’s favorite role-playing games was RECON, in which players take on the roles of soldiers in the Vietnam war. He was interested in this stuff very early on.
PR: How serious was his interest in the stuff? More as games? More as preparation for reality?
JH: He was just really into the military. The idea of him being in the military for real wasn’t something we thought of, simply because he didn’t like authority. But he was definitely into warrior culture and badass soldier types. So it made sense that once the Iraq War started, he wanted to go see what it looked like up close.
PR: The thought of war makes me want to get as far away from it as possible.
JH: Have you seen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”? There’s a scene where Tom Cruise’s kid decides that the Martian invasion is the Big Thing of his life and that he really needs to run away so he can see what the battle looks like. Mike was like that kid.
PR: How did the family feel about him heading to the mideast?
JH: We tried to talk him into not going. And after Andi died, we tried to tell him not to go back. But he was always dismissive of any concerns, and if you pressed him too hard he’d just cut you off. He really wasn’t interested in anyone else’s advice, or at least our advice from within the family, because he felt he knew best about this stuff.
PR: Let’s talk a bit about your relationship with Mike as adults. What did Mike look to you for?
JH: Mike definitely looked to me for advice about certain issues. We rarely talked about personal stuff, but he’d talk to me about work-related matters and when he needed information/analysis of some subject he was writing about. He never asked for advice about the writing itself, but he’d often have questions about what books he should read on the subject, etc. I think he saw me a bit as an authority figure in these kinds of intellectual/scholarly arenas. I don’t feel that he ever really rebelled against me. He wasn’t interested in the same kinds of things I was, but I think that was a genuine outgrowth of his own personality and drives.
PR: As adults were you in constant close touch?
JH: I was in close touch with him when he started at Newsweek. He was definitely a hard worker. At Newsweek and beyond, he was only satisfied when he could devote the bulk of his day to working/writing.
PR: What kind of impact did his growing fame have on your relationship?
JH: Mike had been in Afghanistan when the McChrystal piece was published, so I hadn’t been in touch with him in a few months. However, when he got back, his career really started to take off, and we definitely started to slide out of touch.
PR: Out of touch?
JH: We never really got back to our regular pattern of phone calls and discussions, although it wasn’t until a few months after that that he really stopped returning my e-mails, etc. Right at the beginning, he invited me with him when he was a guest on the Colbert Report, and that was kind of fun. Even though he never bragged, I could tell that he was really happy with the attention he was getting. He was stressed about it, too, though.
PR: Sorry to learn about that.
JH: It was definitely a messy relationship. We were very close when we were young — he was involved or included in almost everything I did. And then we grew apart when he was in high school and I was in college. Then we were close again, and stayed close for years, but then we drifted apart when his career really took off. I think he got very, very busy. His success led to a lot of opportunities for him, and he wanted to take advantage of as many as possible, I think. He was always a workaholic and always needed to have several projects or potential projects going on at once.
PR: How did Mike meet Andi, about whom he wrote the book “I Lost My Love in Baghdad”?
JH: I’m pretty sure Mike met Andi when she was working at Air America and he was trying to get on the radio more.
PR: When did you meet her? How’d she strike you?
JH: I forget exactly when I first met her — maybe when she came back to have Christmas with our family that first year they were dating. She was kind of reserved and shy around us. But I gather that she was not like that in her professional life. She was a really sweet girl, though. I didn’t get to know her as well as I would have liked to, although she became very close to my parents.
PR: Did she fall for Mike the bad boy, someone to tame?
JH: I don’t think Mike was quite the bad boy at that point. He was at Newsweek, working really hard, and I don’t think he had much going on in his life aside from work. So I think maybe she saw him more as someone who was similarly very career-focused. I don’t think he seemed like someone to tame, at that time.
PR: How did your family feel about her decision to follow Mike to Iraq?
JH: We definitely had misgivings about her going to the mideast. The last time I saw her my parents and I had just had dinner with her. Mike was already back in Iraq, and she was waiting to hear back about whether or not she had gotten the job with NDI in Iraq. I told her, in all seriousness, that I hoped she didn’t get the job. I also talked to Mike about her going and said that I didn’t think it was a good idea. I don’t think HE thought it was a great idea either, but he said that ultimately the decision was up to her — which was true.
PR: How did her death affect him?
JH: He was a real wreck. My parents — my father especially — got him through the first part of all of it.
PR: How did you feel about Mike’s book about Andi? Did you ever talk with him about it?
JH: We never really talked much about much about it after he had written it. We talked about some of the reviews, but we never really talked much about what was in it. It’s still kind of a hard book for me to talk about.
PR: It must have been a big relief for your family when Mike returned from the war zone.
JH: Yeah. By 2013, I figured Mike had dodged all the major bullets. He was back from overseas and couldn’t do the same kind of war reporting he used to do. The McChrystal story had made that too difficult for him logistically. And who expects someone to survive Afghanistan and get taken down by Hollywood? Well, now that I mention it …
PR: Where did Mike think the journalism biz was heading?
JH: Mike thought that when it all shook out, there’d be the New York Times, AP, and Reuters doing the actual grunt work of journalism, and the only other way to be a real journalist would be to write long form non-fiction of the kind he wrote for GQ or Rolling Stone, or the stuff you see in the New Yorker. But he did think journalism was a special calling, even if he thought the business of it was sinking.
PR: He did?
JH: He could be very romantic about the duties and responsibilities of journalists, which contradicted his Norman Mailer, it’s-all-for-me ideas. I don’t think he really had a coherent take on his motives — but then who does? I’d argue with him about the journalism-as-special-calling thing, because I didn’t think it was, really. But he didn’t budge on it. So I don’t think he thought of it all as entertainment, though he did think he’d have to go to Hollywood if he wanted to get the kind of money he wanted for his writing.
PR: What did you see Mike’s near future looking like?
JH: I thought that he’d work in Hollywood for a year or two, get frustrated being there, and then head back to do his journalism thing on the east coast. Maybe he’d keep writing, and maybe even start teaching — he liked being around young people who looked up to him.
PR: Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about how Mike got into writing.
JH: He wanted to be a writer from pretty early on, at least the beginning of high school, although I’m not sure we in the family pictured him actually doing that. He had so many interests that it was easy to imagine him trying just about anything. Maybe because of his charisma, at times we thought he might be a lawyer or a politician … although we were at least half-joking about that.
PR: How much of a passionate reader was he?
JH: Mike definitely loved reading, though I don’t think he loved book-learning in the way you may mean it. He was more self-directed in that way. I always got the sense from him that he read just enough of a book to get the gist of it, and then he moved on. It was a common sight in his room from when he was in middle school for there to be dozens of books laying around, all of them having been read about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through, which you could tell because he always dog-eared the page he was on.
PR: When did he start writing with some sense of purpose?
JH: Mike was seriously writing stuff by the time he was in high school. I’m not sure what kind of writing he did when he was in that first year of college, but when he was living in Vermont again, he was writing all the time in journals, etc. He actually ended up writing a memoir about this whole period. I’ve never read it and he couldn’t get it published. Then he started writing again for his classes. This is actually the only period in his life where he ever asked me for writing advice or I ever really took a look at his work with the eye to giving notes/critique.
PR: What was his youthful writing like?
JH: He was writing very much in a Hunter S. Thompson-style gonzo voice. He was also very big into Philip K. Dick at this time, so he was writing a lot of sci-fi type stuff. I’m not sure if this is well known, but he wrote quite a few pieces of sci-fi over the years, short stories, a novel, etc., none of which he could get published.
PR: What were Mike’s efforts at fiction like?
JH: Well, they were very Philip K. Dickian: centered around a neat idea, not much plot, lots of social satire. The one that I remember best was about an old “Star Wars”-style missile defense satellite which had been rebuilt into an orbiting brothel for the world’s elite. Later on, he wrote a longer sci-fi novel — an alternate history about Al Gore winning the 2000 presidential election. But I never read that.
PR: Was publishing fiction a big dream of his?
JH: He did want to write fiction, but I wouldn’t call it a big dream of his. Certainly he was hoping his sci-fi novel would find a publisher, but he had other unpublished pieces of non-fiction, too, and I’m not sure that he felt any differently about the unpublished fiction.
PR: How did he react to your writing?
JH: He was always complimentary and supportive of my writing, although he never gave me any specific comments. My own stuff is mostly movie and comic book criticism, and I don’t think he was ever much into reading criticism in general. Though he did like to talk to me about what OTHER movie critics were saying about movies we liked.
PR: You guys collaborated on a few projects, didn’t you? What was that like?
JH: We wrote two screenplays together. That was a pretty easy and enjoyable process. He’d always be the one at the keyboard typing and I’d be walking around the room. He was definitely better at the dialogue than I was, while I had a better sense of how movies work. I ended up focusing more on the big-picture issues and him on the details.
PR: Was working in the movie business a big dream of his?
JH: Apart from the screenplays we wrote — and we wrote them back when he was just starting at Newsweek — I never got the sense that he really had Hollywood on his mind until much later, when “The Operators” was published and it looked like there was interest from Hollywood. But, at that point, I think it was less a case of following a Hollywood dream and more a case of him feeling that he couldn’t afford to pass up that kind of opportunity. He was very concerned with keeping a bunch of projects going — more journalism, working on screenplays, more books — because I think he felt that was the only way to really make a living as a writer nowadays.
PR: What did he dig about his writer models?
JH: I think what he liked about guys like Thompson or Dick or Norman Mailer was that their writing was really about their voice: it was about them having a very distinctive voice that came through regardless of what they were talking about.
PR: With Thompson and Mailer at least, they were also writers who weren’t just writers.
JH: Yeah. He liked that they were action-oriented guys themselves. Mike thought it was a writer’s job to go out and have experiences and then tell people about them. A lot of the writers he read the most — and read the most fully — were all along these lines.
PR: Did he have favorites among the big-name war correspondents?
JH: The war correspondent types who I remember him liking were guys like Ryszard Kapuscinski and Robert Kaplan — guys who had their literary side but who really went out there to see what was going on. And he loved David Halberstam.
PR: How much fondness did he have for fussier, more aesthetic kinds of writing?
JH: He liked the more artistic stuff, but he didn’t have the same kind of patience for it. He started reading more contemporary lit fic than I ever have, but I think I ended up finishing more novels than he did. He did like Philip Roth, though. Mike was very interested in the idea of how a writer presents himself — how he turns himself into a character in his own work. Likewise with more intellectual writing generally. He read a lot of history, especially military history — though I think it was less a case of him reading anything through fully and more where he’d read to get the book’s general idea and go back for more detail if he needed it for his own research.
PR: Did he admire much popular-type writing?
JH: Pop fiction-wise, he loved Stephen King. He also liked some sci-fi, especially what I would characterize as the liberal strain of military sci-fi: Joe Haldeman’s “Forever War,” John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War.” As I mentioned, he liked Philip K. Dick a lot, too, in his case for the ideas more than anything else. I don’t know that he ever finished reading too many of Dick’s novels, but the PKD vibe was important to him. But I’d say that the writers he and I talked the most about over the years were: (1) Stephen King, (2) Norman Mailer, (3) Philip Roth. Although that was probably because I didn’t have too much to say about Hunter S. Thompson … and he didn’t really need to talk about Thompson.
PR: That’s a lot of big-name, big-ego writers.
JH: Some of Mike’s other favorite books were John Updike’s Bech series. I’m not sure if you’ve read them, but they’re romans a clef about Updike’s contemporaries and competitors. Mike was very into inter-writer feuding. He loved those those Mailer articles where Mailer would piss on all the other writers of his generation. I think that’s a big thing that drove, Mike — his reputation as a writer. He was very into keeping score like that.
PR: How did he do with feedback? Some can take it, some can’t.
JH: For the most part, he was never really interested in getting any notes, advice, etc.
PR: He didn’t like to share his writing with anyone?
JH: I know that he shared his work with his serious girlfriends, and, then, his wife, too. But I think his biggest reader was our mom. He always gave her advance copies of his big pieces, his books, etc. But he seemed to be more interested in getting support and encouragement, rather than advice.
PR: How was he at taking feedback from you?
JH: Usually he wanted my opinion to see if something he was writing sounded like something someone else had written, and not because he wanted any notes on the actual writing/content/ideas themselves. For the most part, he wouldn’t even show me stuff until it had gone past the point where he could make any changes. Or sometimes he’d talk to me very early in the process to make sure that he wasn’t saying something someone else had already said, or to pick my brain for other stuff to read that would help him with what he was writing. But the actual writing was something that he didn’t need my input for. And when he started getting serious about his classes at NYU, he stopped showing me his writing before it was finished at all.
PR: Was that to the good? To the bad?
JH: I definitely felt that him not having more critical eyes on his work was sometimes a problem. There are a couple of things he wrote that I think might have benefited from some distance, but by the time I ever read any of them they were already published or about to be published. I probably wouldn’t have said anything anyway, because I tended to avoid confrontations with him: he could be very prickly.
PR: He was sensitive?
JH: He had a bit of a short fuse, and he was pretty sensitive. He generally wasn’t interested in listening to criticism, especially about his writing.
PR: Despite the hero-like status he achieved, on a personal level I always had the impression that Mike was driven less by political principles and more by a raw desire to be a star. Shitty of me to entertain that thought?
JH: I don’t think it’s shitty of you to have thought that. I think he was more driven by the idea that he could become a great writer, a la Mailer or Thompson, than he was by any specific political agenda. And I don’t think he would have really denied it too much himself: he had read “Advertisements for Myself” too many times.
PR: What were Mike’s politics, come to think of it? I never really knew.
JH: Hard to say, overall. I’ve sometimes thought that his only politics was anti-authority. That’s mostly true, but not quite. After Andi died he really did become passionately anti-war, whereas before he had been much more ambivalent about the Iraq War. He’d kept open the possibility that it was a good idea, just one that had been badly executed. In general, though, I don’t think he was especially political. Such as they were, his politics were very libertarian. The only politician whose ideas he supported was Ron Paul, though he was very against Rand Paul, whom he seemed to feel made too many compromises with mainstream Republican/conservative politics.
PR: Was Mike a political person generally?
JH: Apart from the war, which he had a personal connection with, I’m not sure that he really cared deeply about any causes. He wasn’t liberal in the conventional sense of the word. He was extremely anti-PC about a lot of things. But he definitely wasn’t conservative either. I remember we went to an anti-war demonstration right after the initial invasion of Afghanistan, and his POV was definitely one of an observer/outsider. His main reaction was that it was stupid to have an anti-war demonstration that was so inclusive of every other leftist cause. He looked at it from the POV of how effective the message was, not so much about the content of the message.
PR: Was he fascinated by political people? The whole personalities-and-power end of things?
JH: He liked macho, powerful guys regardless of the politics. Going into his famous McChrystal piece, for instance, he actually liked McChrystal. He thought McChrystal was a badass warrior, and Mike admired badasses. That was also why he liked Obama too. He thought Obama was just a naturally great politician, someone who commanded respect and attention when you were around him.
PR: So he was able to make a distinction between the politician and the politician’s politics.
JH: He remained a supporter of Obama-the-Leader-Figure even after he started really tearing into Obama’s policies. And he’d always argue against any of my anti-Obama comments or any time I suggested that Obama was kind of an empty suit. He thought the only reason you’d be anti-Obama is if you were a racist on some level. But, again, I don’t think he cared that deeply about racism as such and was more going on his awe and admiration for Obama-as-Leader.
PR: So as well as being a driven guy himself, he was a connoisseur of other driven types.
JH: He wasn’t, naturally, a political crusader, although I think it was a role that he liked to play, and that gave him the opportunity to stand out. Which isn’t to say he didn’t believe in the anti-war/libertarian causes he was most passionate about, but, as I said, I think he was always about how the message was delivered more than the content.
PR: Did his accomplishments give him a lot of satisfaction?
JH: I think he would have been happier if he was less driven in those ways, but he never really got to a point where he felt he could settle. Part of it, though, was that he thought the only way to make it in journalism, which he saw as a dying field, was to BE a star. He didn’t see much future for himself as a worker-among-workers in the media biz, because he felt that the days where you could make a living doing that were over.
PR: During the couple of years when Mike and I were friendly, I was constantly struck by how much he craved attention. Was he ever a performer type?
JH: He was definitely showboating, even as a kid. He wasn’t a theater kid in the traditional sense, but he loved to be part of talent shows and get up in front of people to speak. Regular theater, though, was I think too geeky for him in a way. As class president in high school, for example, he would read the morning announcements over the school’s PA system — and he ended up getting suspended because he used the word “shagadelic” to describe an upcoming event.
PR: How did your family account for his love of showing off?
JH: I’m not sure that we in the family really ever felt the need to explain it, really. We just knew and accepted that he liked to show-off, and that he liked to push people’s buttons.
PR: Having someone like that in the family can be a lot of fun but can also have its costs.
JH: It did take its toll. My parents were always on Mike’s side and they had to spend a lot of time putting out fires. One of the things that I thought was kind of funny was that Mike liked taking risks but he was very sensitive, too. So it would really hit him hard when he’d push someone’s buttons and they’d push back.
PR: Funny how that works.
JH: He got a lot of support from our family through all of this. Mostly from my parents, in terms of unconditional support and a lot of building him back up. An example was the “shagadelic” episode. Though the school certainly overreacted, my parents weren’t really able to directly bring it up to him that maybe he should have been a bit more restrained while making announcements at a Catholic school. If they had done so, I think, Mike would have felt that they were betraying him.
PR: Was his combo of showboating-and-sensitive anything that took a toll on you?
JH: It wasn’t too big a part of my life personally until after he had his breakdown in college. At that point I tried to help him through the initial stages of his recovery, spending time with him, inviting him to live with me in NYC when I went to grad school so he could finish his degree at NYU, and then talking to him a lot about his professional concerns when he was first starting out. With Mike there was less necessity for swooping in to help, and more for having his back and offering support.
PR: Did you have any sense of what the attention-seeking was about?
JH: I wasn’t sure exactly, but fame was definitely one of the things he was looking for. He wanted his voice to be heard. I think he had that drive that many writers have to make their mark. One of the things we used to argue about was Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself.” I’d argue against Mailer to a certain extent, and suggest that some writers at least write out of more than just ambition to be noticed. Mike would argue that that kind of ambition was always there even it wasn’t consciously acknowledged. I still don’t completely buy Mailer’s and Mike’s argument, but I think it was true for them in a lot of ways.
PR: Tell me if you think I’m getting out of line, and apologies if I am, but … The Question Lady and I both sometimes think that Mike had a bit of a death wish, as many daredevil types do. Fair? Not fair?
JH: No worries — I’ve certainly thought and speculated along those lines. Mike had a lot of good qualities, but also a lot of troubling ones, and some of the latter are part of what made him successful. In fact, I’m really glad to have the two of you to talk with about Mike. You guys knew him from way back, and I think people who just met him or really got to know him in the last two years or so, since the big Rolling Stone article, have a very different take on him. They only saw him when he was on top. I’ve been thinking about whether he really had a death wish, though, and I don’t think he did. In a Human Development class I took recently, they talked about how teenagers don’t underestimate risk so much as they vastly overestimate rewards. It reminded me of Mike.
JH: From my POV it wasn’t that Mike had a death wish and more that he thought being the next Hunter S. Thompson would be so great that it was worth going to Iraq and risking getting blown up.
PR: So the excitement was definitely a factor?
JH: Mike was definitely some kind of junkie — he wrote about being a “war junkie.” He needed some kind of high, otherwise I don’t think he found life really worth it.
PR: He almost sounds hypomanic.
JH: He was probably hypomanic, although a lot of those labels can get fuzzy very quickly.
PR: You’re very clear-eyed about your brother.
JH: I’ve had a lot of time to think about this stuff. Also, that’s just how my mind works: trying to figure out what’s really going on, analyzing what goes into why people act they way they do. Human behavior is fascinating!
PR: Mike was nothing if not fascinating, in both positive and negative ways.
JH: As we’ve gone-back-and-forth, sometimes it’s been easier for me to be appreciative of Mike than others. And I’m still not sure how this will read to outsiders. I’m somewhat worried that I might be coming off as trying to take him down a peg, and that’s not true. I do feel that I want to puncture the whole myth of the bad-ass, lone wolf, heroic writer that I think he tried to cultivate, because (a) it was really quite a bit of bullshit and (b) I think it’s a dangerous myth to believe in. If I were being melodramatic I’d say that “it killed him,” and, while that isn’t strictly true, I don’t think it helped — and I’m not sure that having a bunch of people around him who believed it about him helped either.
PR: Any ways other than the ones we’ve already talked about that Mike’s life has affected you and your family?
JH: Without sounding too self-serving … Seeing how Mike lived, how hard he had to work, how precariously his career seemed to be at times, how much — even with all the hard work he did — luck played a role in getting him ahead … All of this helped reassure me that I hadn’t made some huge mistake by not pursuing a writing career, or a career in media in general. Also, I think dealing with Mike shaped the way all of us in the family deal with squeaky wheels. One thing’s for certain: Without him, life certainly would have been a lot less dramatic.
PR: Hmm, let’s see: Mike was charismatic, a demanding friend and relative, full of himself yet easily hurt, determined at all costs to make a mark … Would it be out of line to say that he was a narcissist?
JW: I wouldn’t say that. “Narcissist” is an all-encompassing word, and it’s also very subjective. I think he often behaved self-centeredly, but he was also sweet and generous. And in terms of the political and social importance of his work, I think he was definitely on the side of the good guys. I think he was definitely troubled — that he felt uncomfortable in his own skin a lot of the time and that led to a fair amount of prickliness. Which is really, really sad to me, because even when he was alive I don’t think he ever really got the chance to enjoy what he had accomplished in an uncomplicated way. That’s really what breaks my heart.
Many thanks to Jon Hastings. Jon tells me that he’ll be stopping by the blog, so if you want to ask a question or share any thoughts, please do so in the comments and Jon will respond.
- Check out our Interviews page and enjoy some more q&a’s done by the Uncouth Reflections team.