On Maundy Thursday I like to remember and to pray for the dearly departed. Family members I have lost, friends who have died or been killed, even pets I miss.
To pray for their souls and that they thrive. Wherever they are and whatever they are doing. It’s a personal thing but it always seems appropriate to me on the Thursday of Mysteries and to commemorate the Last Supper.
Also, I’m gonna take Communion later today. With my family.
Have a Holy and productive Thursday of Mysteries folks!
To obtain a hard copy of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®), the most popular personality test in the world, one must first spend $1,695 on a week-long certification program run by the Myers & Briggs Foundation of Gainesville, Florida.
This year alone, there have been close to 100 certification sessions in cities ranging from New York to Pasadena, Minneapolis, Portland, Houston, and the Foundation’s hometown of Gainesville, where participants get a $200 discount for making their way south to the belly of the beast. It is not unusual for sessions to sell out months in advance. People come from all over the world to get certified.
In New York last April, there were twenty-five aspiring MBTI practitioners in attendance. There was a British oil executive who lived for the half the year under martial law in Equatorial Guinea. There was a pretty blonde astrologist from Australia, determined to invest in herself now that her US work visa was about to expire. There was a Department of Defense administrator, a gruff woman who wore flowing skirts and rainbow rimmed glasses, and a portly IBM manager turned high school basketball coach. There were three college counselors, five HR reps, and a half-dozen “executive talent managers” from Fortune 500 companies. Finally, there was me.
I was in an unusual position that week: Attending the certification program had not been my idea. Rather, I had been told that MBTI certification was a prerequisite to accessing the personal papers of Isabel Briggs Myers, a woman about whom very little is known except that she designed the type indicator in the final days of World War II. Part of our collective ignorance about Myers stems from how profoundly her personal history has been eclipsed by her creation, in much the same way that the name “Frankenstein” has come to stand in for the monster and not his creator.
Flip through the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, and you will find the indicator used to debate what makes an employee a good “fit” for her job, or to determine the leadership styles of presidential candidates. Open a browser, and you will find the indicator adapted for addictive pop psychology quizzes by BuzzFeed and Thought Catalog. Enroll in college, work an office job, enlist in the military, join the clergy, fill out an online dating profile, and you will encounter the type indicator in one guise or another — to match a person to her ideal office job or to her ideal romantic partner.
Yet though her creation is everywhere, Myers and the details of her life’s work are curiously absent from the public record. Not a single independent biography is in print today. Not one article details how Myers, an award-winning mystery writer who possessed no formal training in psychology or sociology, concocted a test routinely deployed by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies, the US government, hundreds of universities, and online dating sites like Perfect Match, Project Evolove and Type Tango. And not one expert in the field of psychometric testing, a $500 million industry with over 2,500 different tests on offer in the US alone, can explain why Myers-Briggs has so thoroughly surpassed its competition, emerging as a household name on par with the Atkins Diet or The Secret.
Less obvious at first, and then wholly undeniable, is how hard the present-day guardians of the type indicator work to shield Myers’s personal and professional history from critical scrutiny. For the foundation, as well as for its for-profit-research-arm, the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT), this means keeping journalists far away from Myers’s notebooks, correspondences and research materials, which are stored in the Special Collections division of the University of Florida library. Although they are technically the property of the university — thus open to the public — Myers’s papers require permission from CAPT to access; permission that has not been granted to anyone1 in the decade since the papers were donated to the university by Myers’s granddaughter, Katharine Hughes. Twice I was warned by the university librarian, a kind and rueful man, that CAPT was “very invested in protecting Isabel’s image.” Why her image should need protection, I did not yet understand.
When I wrote to CAPT in August 2014, I received an enthusiastically officious email from their Director of Research Operations, requesting additional details about my interest in type indicator and a book I was planning to write on personality testing. “Will there be descriptions and historical background about other personality tests in addition to the MBTI instrument?” she wrote. “If so, we would like to be informed.” So began nine months of correspondence with the staff of CAPT, which culminated this April in their request that I become a certified administrator of the MBTI instrument. Certification was a necessary precursor to giving me access to the papers, the director told me over the phone. CAPT would even be willing to consider “possibilities for funding the training.”
This is how I found myself in the company of the oil man, the astrologist, the Department of Defense administrator and twenty other people at the certification workshop, located on the sixth floor conference room of the United Jewish Appeal Federation building on East 59th Street. We sat at tables of five or six, our backs pressed against a smoked-glass wall decorated with etchings of Seder plates, unfurling braids of challah, and half lit menorahs. Each of us wore a name tag with our first name, last name, and our four letter type printed on it in big block letters. It was not unusual for people to lead with their type when they introduced themselves.
I said hello to the woman sitting next to me. Her name tag said “Laurie — ENFJ.”
Laurie2 checked me out and sighed, relieved. “We’re both E’s,” she said. “We’ll get along great.”
The most important part of becoming MBTI certified is learning to speak type,” declares Barbara, our instructor for the next week and a self-proclaimed “clear ENTJ.” Dressed in black, with prominent red toenails and a commanding nasal tone, Barb, as she insists we call her, will teach us how to “speak type fluently.”
“This is only the beginning!” Barb says. “Just think of this as a language immersion program.”
The comparison is an apt one. There are sixteen types, each made up of a combination of four different letters. Each letter represents one of two poles in a strict dichotomy of human behavior. From the pre-training test I took earlier in the week, I learn that, like Barb, I too am an “ENTJ.” I prefer extraversion (E) to introversion (I), intuition (N) to sensing (S), thinking (T) to feeling (F), and judging (J) to perception (P). It is strange, this tidy division of myself into these alien categories. Initially, I have trouble keeping the letters straight. Strange too is the ease with which people around me speak their types, as if declaring oneself a “clear ENTJ” or a “borderline ISFP” were the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, speaking type is anything but natural. Still Barb’s job is to convince us that this simple system of thought can account for the messiness of many of our personal and interpersonal relationships, regardless of gender, race, class, age, language, education, or any of the other intricacies of human existence. Type is intensely democratizing in its vision of the world, weird and wonderful in its commitment to flattening the material differences between people only to construct new and imaginary borders around the self. Its populism is most clearly demonstrated by MBTI’s astonishing geographic reach: Last year, two million people took the test, in seventy different countries, and in 21 languages. “As long as you have a seventh grade reading level and you’re a ‘normal’ person” — by which Barb means, you are not mentally ill or blithely psychopathic — “you can learn to speak type.”
Across all languages and continents, however, the first rule of speaking type remains the same. You do not, under any circumstances, refer to MBTI as a “test.” It is a “self-reporting instrument” or, more succinctly, an “indicator.” “People use the word ‘test’ all the time,” Barb complains. “But what you’re taking is an indicator. It’s indicating based on what you told the test.”
Although her statement sounds tautological, Barb assures us that it is not. Unlike a standardized test, like the SAT, which asks the test taker to choose between objectively right and wrong answers, the MBTI instrument has no right or wrong answers, only competing preferences. Take, for instance, two questions from the test I took last April: “In reading for pleasure, do you: (A) Enjoy odd or original ways of saying things; or; (B) Like writers to say exactly what they mean.” And: “If you were a teacher, would you rather teach: (A) Fact courses, or; (B) Courses involving theory?” And unlike the SAT, in which a higher score is always more desirable than a lower one, there are no better or worse types. All types, Barb announces rapturously, are created equal.
The indicator’s sole measure of success, then, is how well the test aligns with your perception of your self: Do you agree with your designated type? If you don’t, the problem lies not with the indicator, but with you. Maybe you were in a “work mindset when you answered the questions,” Barb suggests. Or you had become unusually adept at “veiling your preferences” to suit the wants and needs of your husband or wife, your co-workers, your children. Whatever the case may be, somehow you were inhibited from answering the questions as your “shoes off self” — Isabel Briggs Myers’s term for the authentic you.
More cynically, what this seems to mean is that the indicator can never be wrong. No matter how forcefully one may protest their type, the indicator’s only claim is that it holds a mirror up to your psyche. Behind all the pseudo-scientific talk of “instruments” and “indicators” is a simple, but subtle, truth: the test reflects whatever version of your self you want it to reflect. If what you want is to see yourself as odd or original or factual and direct, it only requires a little bit of imagination to nudge the test in the right direction, to rig the outcome ahead of time. I do not mean this in any overtly manipulative sense. Most people do not lie outright, for to do so would be to shatter the illusion of self-discovery that the test projects. I mean, quite simply, that to succeed, a personality test must introduce the test taker to the preferred version of her self — a far cry, in many cases, from the “shoes off,” authentic you.
But Barb doesn’t pause to meditate on the language lesson she has started to give us. Instead she projects onto a large screen behind her a photograph of a pale and bespectacled man in a neat cravat. Peering over us is Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist whose 654-page study Psychological Types(1923) inspired Myers’s development of the indicator. Jung was “all about Freud, the couch, neurosis!” Barb laughs. For the purposes of our training, the relationship between his theory of psychological types and Myers’s commodification of it is a matter of good branding strategy. “Jung is a very respected name, a big name,” Barb says. “Even if you don’t know who he was, know his name. His name gives the test validity.”
Validity is crucial to selling the test, even if it doesn’t mean exactly what Barb seems to think it does. After the certification session is over, the participants will return to work with a 5-by-7 diploma, a brass “MBTI” pin, and a stack of promotional materials that they are encouraged to use to persuade their clients or colleagues to take an MBTI assessment. Each test costs $49.95 per person, more if you want a full breakdown of your type, and even more if you want an MBTI-certified consultant to debrief your type with you. No one questions the sheer ingenuity of this sales scheme. We are paying $1,695 to attend a course that authorizes us to recruit others to buy a product — a product which tells us nothing more than what we already know about ourselves.
Although Barb invokes Jung’s name with pride and a touch of awe, Jung would likely be greatly displeased, if not embarrassed, by his long-standing association with the indicator. The history of his involvement with Myers begins not with Isabel, but with her mother Katharine Cook Briggs, whom Barb mentions only in passing. After the photograph of Jung, Barb projects onto the screen a photograph of Katharine, unsmiling and broad necked and severely coiffed. “I usually don’t get into this,” she says, gesturing at Katharine’s solemn face. “People have already bought into the instrument.”
Yet Katharine is an interesting woman, a woman who might have interested Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem or any second-wave feminist eager to dismantle the opposition between “the happy modern housewife” and the “unhappy careerist.” A stay-at-home mother and wife who had once studied horticulture at Michigan Agricultural College, Katharine was determined to approach motherhood like an elaborate plant growth experiment: a controlled study in which she could trace how a series of environmental conditions would affect the personality traits her children expressed. In 1897, Isabel emerged — her mother’s first subject. From the day of her birth until the child’s thirteenth birthday, Katharine kept a leather-bound diary of Isabel’s developments, which she pseudonymously titled The Life of Suzanne. In it, she painstakingly recorded the influence that different levels of feeding, cuddling, cooing, playing, reading, and spanking had on Isabel’s “life and character.”
Today we might think of Katharine as the original helicopter parent: hawkish and over-present in her maternal ministrations. But in 1909, Katharine’s objectification of her daughter answered feminist Ellen Key’s resounding call for a new and more scientific approach to “the vocation of motherhood.” More progressive still was how Katharine marshaled the data she had collected on Isabel to write a series of thirty-three articles in The Ladies Home Journal on the science of childrearing. These articles, which were intended to help other mothers systematize their childcare routines, boasted such single-minded titles as “Why I Believe the Home Is the Best School” and “Why I Find Children Slow in Their School Work.” Each appeared under the genteel nom de plume “Elizabeth Childe.”
It is not surprising that Jung’s work should pique the interest of “Elizabeth Childe,” an aspiring pedagogue who perceived the maturation of her child’s personality as nothing less than an experimental form to be cultivated, even perfected, over the years. Indeed, Katharine first encountered an English translation of Jung’s Psychological Types in 1923, when she was editing The Life of Suzanne to submit to publishers. She found Psychological Types an unwieldy text, part clinical assessment, part romantic meditation on the nature of the human soul, which emphasized the “creative fantasy” required for psychological thought. Katharine took this as an invitation to start thinking of her children’s personalities as divided into three oppositional axes: extraverted versus introverted, intuitive versus sensory, thinking versus feeling. In 1927, she wrote to Jung to express her feverish admiration for his work — her “Bible,” she called it — and her desire to bring a more practical approach to his densely theoretical observations, which her “children … had been greatly helped by.”
“How wasteful children are, even with their own precious, irreplaceable lives!” Jung once wrote to Freud, a letter that might have doubled as his irritated response to Katharine and her request to collaborate. From the outset, it seems that Jung was impressed by Katharine’s brilliance and flattered by her enthusiasm, but skeptical of her eagerness to bring his typology to the science of childrearing. When Katharine wrote to him for advice about a neighborhood child, a young girl in great emotional distress who she believed she could cure through Jungian type analysis, Jung rebuked her for overstepping her bounds as a dispassionate observer. “You overdid it,” he wrote. “You wanted to help, which is an encroachment upon the will of others. Your attitude ought to be that of one who offers an opportunity that can be taken or rejected. Otherwise you are most likely to get in trouble. It is so because man is not fundamentally good, almost half of him is a devil.”
Despite Jung’s unwillingness to help Katharine see beyond the devil in man, some of the more practical applications of his typology appeared in a 1926 article that Katharine published in The New Republic, winningly titled “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box.” In it, she would present Jung’s dichotomies as an elegant paint-by-numbers exercise, in which E/I, N/S, and T/F were the “primary character colors” that each individual could “combine and blend” to form “his own personality portrait.” Even babies, those “little bundles of psychic energy,” had types, and the sooner a mother identified her child’s type, the better it was for his mental maturity. “One need not be a psychologist in order to collect and identify types any more than one needs to be a botanist to collect and identify plants,” Katharine assured her fellow mothers. There was no need to doubt one’s ability to type one’s child.
“Meet Yourself” enjoyed quiet acclaim among parents when it was first published, but ultimately, Katharine’s desire to spread Jung’s gospel to a broader audience would inspire a shift in genre. She would abandon The Life of Suzanne as a parenting guide and turn instead to fiction, which she believed would help her reach a larger and more dedicated audience. Her longest work, written toward the end of her life, was a romance novel inspired by Psychological Types called The Guesser, the story of a love affair between two incompatible Jungian types. It was summarily rejected by ten publishers and two film producers for dwelling too much on Jung, whom no one other than Katharine was interested in, and not enough on love.
Like her mother, Isabel also began her adult life as a wife and mother. She graduated from Swarthmore in June of 1918 — Phi Beta Kappa, an aspiring fiction writer, and a moderately disillusioned newlywed, who had followed her husband first to Memphis, where he was training as a bomber pilot, and then to Philadelphia, where he enrolled in law school. In each city, she made a list of her future goals in a notebook which she titled Diary of an Introvert Determined to Extrovert, Write, & Have a Lot of Children.
Keep complete job list and do one every day.
Housekeep till 10 A.M.
Two hours writing.
One hour outdoors.
One hour self-development—music, study, friends.
Wash face with soap every night.
Never wear anything soiled.
But despite her clear goals and clean clothes, Isabel struggled to find a job. After an unfulfilling stint at a temp agency, she wrote to Katharine to complain about the difficulties of finding meaning in one’s work, particularly as a married woman who was expected to do nothing more than to have children. “I think under the spur of necessity a woman can do a man’s work as well as he can, provided she is as capable for a woman as he is for a man,” she wrote. “But I’m perfectly sure that it takes more out of her. And it’s a waste of life to spend yourself on work that someone else can do at less cost. I’m sure men and women are made differently, with different gifts and different kids of strengths.” In a perfect world, she concluded, there would exist “some highly intelligent division of labor that can be worked out, so everybody works, but not at the wrong things.”
Isabel’s “instinctive answer” to the question of what to do with herself was to be “my man’s helpmeet.” And for nearly a decade she was. Until 1928, she did housework, gave birth to two children, and at night, when the house was in order and the children were asleep, she continued to wonder what was missing from her life. Although a husband and children and a “beloved little ivy-covered colonial house” in the suburbs were “everything in the world that I wanted,” Isabel wrote, “I knew I wanted something else.” That something else was the time and energy to pursue a career as a successful fiction writer, something her mother had never been able to realize. “In the evenings, between nine and three, stretched six heavenly, uninterrupted hours — if I could stay awake to use them,” she mused.
Working at night, but most often with one fitful child or another in her lap, Isabel started and finished a detective novel, which she promptly submitted to a mystery contest at New McClure’s magazine. The winner was to receive a $7,500 cash prize (over $100,000 today) and a book contract with a prominent New York publisher. Katharine, apparently jealous that her daughter was trying to succeed where she had once failed, had little encouragement for her daughter, only what Isabel lamented as some “cool criticisms” of the “novel’s style.” Much to her mother’s surprise, Isabel’s novel,Murder Yet to Come, took first place, surpassing the writing team behind the Ellery Queen novels, among the many other seasoned pulp writers who had vied for the prize.
Yet there was plenty of reason for Katharine, ever the devoted scholar of Jung, to appreciate how she had inculcated her daughter into speaking — or, in this case, writing — type. Unlike other detective stories of the time, which often pair a brilliantly imaginative sleuth with a more literal minded sidekick, Murder Yet to Come features a team of three amateur detectives: an effeminate playwright, his dutiful assistant, and a brawny Army sergeant. Unburdened by crying children or any other domestic responsibilities, they set out to solve a gruesome murder. Each member of the team possesses what Isabel, in her letter to her mother, described as “different gifts and different kinds of strengths.” The playwright has the “quickness of insight” to uncover the murderer’s identity, the sergeant takes “smashingly, effective action” to apprehend him, while the assistant makes “slow, solid decisions” that protect the family of the victim from scandal. None of the detectives “works at the wrong things.” Like today’s slick police procedurals, in which there are the people who investigate the crime and those who prosecute the offenders, every character in Murder Yet to Come is designed to maximize the efficiency of the team.
As a mystery story, Murder Yet to Come is decidedly second-rate; the villain predictable, his motive commonplace, the detectives flat and uncharismatic. But as a testing ground for the Myers-Briggs type indicator, the novel is a remarkably direct receptacle for Isabel’s ideas about work, right down to its crude division of gender roles between the feminized playwright and the hyper-masculine military man. Strengths and weaknesses are distributed in a zero-sum fashion; the character who possesses a keen eye for sensory details reverts to a slow, stuttering imbecile when asked to abstract larger patterns from his observations. Friendships and working relationships are always invigorated by personality differences, never strained by them. And for death-defying detectives, the characters are all unusually self-aware, each happy to accept his personal limitations and cede authority to others when necessary, like cogs in a well-oiled machine. Reprinted by CAPT in 1995, Murder Yet to Come showcases characters who are “beautifully consistent with type portraits,” according to the forward to the new edition. “Those readers who know type will enjoy ‘typing them’ as the mystery progresses.”
CAPT’s website, where I purchased Murder Yet to Come for $15.00, claims that the novel was Isabel’s “only sojourn into fiction” before she shifted her attention to the type indicator. This is incorrect. The company has not reprinted Isabel’s second novel, Give Me Death (1934), which revisits the same trio of detectives half a decade later. Perhaps this is due to the novel’s virulently racist plot: One by one, members of a land-owning Southern family begin committing suicide when they are led to believe that “there is in [our] veins a strain of Negro blood.” Despite their differences, the detectives agree that it is “better for [the family] to be dead” than for them to be alive, heedlessly reproducing with white people.
Give Me Death is more explicitly about the preservation of the family, but saddled with a far more sinister understanding of type: Type as racially determined. There is talk of eugenics. There is much hand wringing about the preservation of Southern family dynasties, about “honor” and “esteem.” That the novel was written in the years when laws forbidding interracial marriage were increasingly the target of ACLU and NAACP protests makes it all the more reactionary, and thus all the more unsuitable, from an image management perspective, for reissue today. One would hardly enjoy “typing” these characters.
If Isabel had started her life as her mother’s experiment, she had quickly grown into Katharine’s student, her apostle, and even her competition. Fiction had presented one way for her to unite her mother’s talk of type with the intelligent division of labor, ordering imaginary characters into a rational system with a profitable end: bringing criminals to justice. After World War II, the emergent industry of personality testing would give Isabel the opportunity to organize — and experiment on — real people.
The second rule of speaking type is: Personality is an innate characteristic, something fixed since birth and immutable, like eye color or right-handedness. “You have to buy into the idea that type never changes,” Barb says, speaking slowly and emphasizing each word so that we may remember and repeat this mantra — “Type Never Changes” — to our future clients. “We will brand this into your brain,” she vows. “The theory behind the instrument supports the fact that you are born with a four letter preference. If you hear someone say, ‘My type changed,’ they are not correct.”
Of all the questionable assumptions that prop up the Myers-Briggs indicator, this one strikes me as the shakiest: that you are “born with a four letter preference,” a reductive blueprint for how to move through life’s infinite and varied challenges. Many other personality indicators, ranging in complexity from zodiac signs to online dating questionnaires to Harry Potter’s sorting hat, share the assumption that personality is fixed in one form or another. And yet the belief of a singular and essential self has always seemed to me an irresistibly attractive fiction: One that insists on seeing each of us as a coherent human being, inclined to behave in predictable ways no matter what circumstances surround us. There is, after all, a certain narcissistic beauty to the idea that we are whole. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of his greatest creation, Jay Gatsby, in the same year that Katharine fell under the sway ofPsychological Types. Learning to speak type means learning to link the quotidian gestures of life into an easily digestible story, one capable of communicating to perfect strangers some sense of who you are and why you do what you do.
Yet the impulse to treat personality as innate is, in no small part, a convenient way of putting these gorgeously complete people in their rightful places. Just as each one of Isabel’s three detectives serves a unique purpose in her novels, a way of moving the plot forward that follows from his innate “gifts,” so too does the indicator imagine that each person will fall into their designated niche in a high-functioning and productive social order. This is another fiction — to my mind, a dystopian fiction — that most personality tests trade in: The fantasy of rational organization, and, in particular, the rational organization of labor. “The MBTI will put your personality to work!” promises a career assessment flier from Arizona State University, a promise that is echoed by thousands of leadership guides, self-help books, LinkedIn profiles, and job listings, the promise that underwrites such darkly futuristic films as Divergent or Blade Runner. To live under an economic system that is not organized by personality, thinks the heroine of Divergent, is “not just to live in poverty and discomfort; it is to live divorced from society, separated from the most important thing in life: community.”
Or as a trainee belts out in the middle of an exercise, “Team work makes the dream work!”
In 1948, a man was found on a beach in South Australia. The mysterious circumstances of his death have captivated generations of true-crime fanatics. Today, one amateur sleuth has come close to solving the case — and upended his life in the process.
By Graeme Wood
Photographs by Claire Martin
Illustrations by Evah Fan
By the time anyone noticed that he hadn’t moved in at least five hours, the man on Somerton Beach must have started giving off fumes. It was about 6:30 a.m. on December 1, 1948, at the beginning of the Australian summer, and he did not look like the kind of man to sleep in the sand.
He was in his mid-40s. He wore a nice suit, with a necktie whose stripes slanted down from right to left. The labels had been removed from his clothing. His leather shoes were molded to his irregular feet, which one man who saw the body called “wedge-shaped.”
No one who came to the morgue to view the dead man could identify him. In his pockets, the coroner found a packet of cigarettes (Kensitas brand, though the packet that contained them was Army Club), two combs, and public-transportation receipts indicating that he had come by bus from Adelaide’s railway station the day before he was found.
The man had unusually developed calf muscles, with a pronounced bulge near the knee. The coroner said these were characteristic of a dancer or someone who wears high heels. His teeth were odd: His sharp canines had grown in right next to his front teeth; his lateral incisors were missing. The medical report noted that his liver was full of blood and his spleen enlarged, but his official cause of death remained undetermined. The pathologist wrote “probably caused by poison” on the initial report, and a local expert suggested two readily available and undetectable poisons that could have killed him. The death was investigated as a possible murder.
Only weeks later did the coroner’s office search the man’s clothes more thoroughly and find, in a small inner pocket of his waistband — some characterized it as a secret pocket — a tightly rolled piece of paper printed with the words Tamám Shud. Within a few days, the police figured out that these words appear untranslated at the end of the Edward FitzGerald translation of the Rubáiyát, by the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyám. In the poem’s original Persian, they mean It’s Finished, or The End.
In July, a local businessman told the cops that around the time of the man’s death, he found a copy of the Rubáiyát in the back seat of his car. Someone had tossed it through an open window — and, yes, the last two words had been raggedly excised. More intriguing, though, were the scribblings on the book’s back cover —
— and, with them, a phone number.
The letters resisted decoding, but the phone number led the police to the doorstep of a young nurse-in-training named Jo. They asked whether she knew a missing man, and when she said no, they asked if she had given away a Rubáiyát recently. She had, but the recipient turned out to be alive and well. They prevailed upon her to visit the morgue anyway. When she saw a plaster cast of the man’s body, which had by that point been buried, she nearly fainted. She maintained that she didn’t know him, and she refused to speak of the incident again.
Another line of evidence stemmed from a suitcase left at the luggage counter of the train station on the day of the dead man’s canceled bus ticket and never collected. Inside were neatly folded clothes, a stencil kit, and thread that matched a small repair on the man’s suit. The suitcase contained a few days’ worth of clothes — again with the labels ripped off — but no socks.
Someone looked at the stitching and determined that the machine used was not yet available in Australia: The man had probably traveled to America or at least owned clothing from someone who had. Speculation ensued. Not far away was the Woomera Range, a secret missile-testing site. The dead man could have been Soviet or American — but probably not Australian, because the case had quickly gone national, and someone would have seen his picture and recognized him. Soon he was widely suspected of being a spy.
Nearly 70 years after the body of the “Somerton Man” was interred at West Terrace Cemetery, the case has become part of the Australian national mythos. It is still a mystery, like the identity of Jack the Ripper in England or the fate of Jimmy Hoffa in the U.S. Tabloids in Australia take note whenever some amateur sleuth comes up with a new theory, no matter how crazy, and would-be detectives around the world take turns trying to solve the case. One by one, they examine the clues and, like Arthur with the sword in the stone, jiggle the puzzle’s hilt. Most give up and assume it will be stuck forever.
“BY NOW THEY might know me,” Derek Abbott said, glancing around the Somerton cemetery for the groundskeepers. On December 1, 2014, 66 years to the day after the Somerton Man’s demise, Abbott, a physicist and engineer at the University of Adelaide, was taking me to his grave. For years, someone had placed flowers on it; some said it was the nurse. The original letters on the gravestone had become loose, and a few had fallen on the ground. We picked through the pebbles in the blazing sun, finding chunks of alphabet that we plugged back into the small headstone until it read: here lies the unknown man who was found at somerton beach 1st dec. 1948.
Of all the amateur detectives who have dedicated themselves to the mystery — including a postman in New South Wales who has claimed the Somerton Man was a Russian spy, another man who thinks he is the American big-band leader Glenn Miller, and a number of internet oddballs who specialize in magnifying the letters of the code and seeing micro-writing that isn’t really there — Abbott is the most devoted. He has become a celebrity among followers of the case — his Reddit “Ask Me Anything” last year yielded nearly 500 questions and answers — and sees his role partly as keeping wilder speculation in check. “As a scientist, you’re taught to be dispassionate,” he told me. “You’re not supposed to get crazy when your pet theory turns out to be unlikely.”
But some of Abbott’s fellow investigators think his obsessions and celebrity have led him astray and turned him into a Pied Piper of true-crime nerds. “Abbott is like a dog with a bone,” says Gerry Feltus, a retired Adelaide homicide detective who is his main rival. “If he weren’t such an educated man, he’d make an excellent busker.”
Abbott, 55 years old and with thinning dark hair, is gainfully employed, although over several days in Adelaide, his free time to discuss this case appeared almost limitless. He drove me around in hissuv, which had multiple child car seats fastened in the back for his three young children. (He also has two grown daughters and a son from a prior marriage.) Obsessions tend to find Abbott. He has, by his own account, been happily consumed by them since he was a child in London. Many were scientific: At the age of 10, he says, he requested a copy of theBritish Pharmacopoeia, a technical manual of pharmacology. At 15, he began traveling all over London and researching the history of old lampposts and letter boxes. His demeanor is distinctly professorial, though not in an absent-minded way. He talks slowly, with an engineer’s precision, and favors nice suits over tattered tweed, even in the Australian summer heat.
“It’s a bit like Phoenix,” Abbott said, a little apologetically, as we drove through his city. When the beach isn’t in sight, the comparison feels about right: Adelaide and its environs are mostly flat and arid, with the suburbs giving way to desert. Even its urban grid recalls the American Sun Belt, with orderly streets characteristic of a place whose city fathers left nothing to chance. Unlike other areas of Australia, Adelaide was settled exclusively by free British colonists, not by convicts. When planning the city in 1837, its founders didn’t bother to set aside space or resources for a jail, reasoning that it wouldn’t be necessary for a population of honorable women and men.
But to understand the Somerton Man case, Abbott told me, “you do have to know that Adelaide has a reputation for these things.” Ruth Balint, an Australian cultural historian, put it more bluntly: “It’s a city of churches and of weird, sick murders.” When Salman Rushdie visited Adelaide in 1984, he called it “the ideal setting for a Stephen King novel, or horror film.”
Adelaide’s homicide rate isn’t abnormally high, but what it lacks in volume it more than compensates for in creepiness. The city has become known as Australia’s “murder capital,” the site of a string of gruesome serial killings and mysterious disappearances. In 1966, three young siblings disappeared and were presumed kidnapped after a trip to Glenelg Beach, near Somerton; they were never found. In the 1970s and 1980s, a shadowy group of upstanding, professional citizens of Adelaide, known as the Family, drugged, sexually abused, and murdered young men; those crimes were never fully solved either. Last year, police in South Australiaannounced $13 million in reward money for information about the murders or disappearances of 18 children between 1966 and 2000.
In 2003, during the investigation of another grisly set of killings known as the Snowtown or “bodies-in-barrels” murders, local detectives approached Abbott and asked him to examine the unusual characteristics of one of the 12 victims’ hair. The detectives had found tiny bubble-shaped articulations at the tips, and they wanted an electrical engineer to determine whether the deceased had been electrocuted. “I tried electrocuting samples of my own hair,” Abbott said, “and I found that the only thing that would do that is heat.” The body had been cooked, not electrocuted.
Thrilled by his small contribution to the prosecution’s case, Abbott remembered an article he’d read about the Somerton mystery in 1995, in a magazine he picked up at a laundromat. “There’s something in this that stuck in my mind — something haunting,” he said. He was, in part, troubled by the inconsistencies and contradictions. “There were so many loose ends. And there was something sad about it — something desolate about a man dying alone,” without anyone to mourn him or even to confirm that he ever lived.
In 2007, Abbott began investigating the case. He eventually turned to Facebook and like-minded obsessives around the world to track down facts that in previous eras might have taken Holmesian knowledge or resourcefulness. Take the necktie. The direction of the stripes turns out to be significant because Commonwealth tie makers and American tie makers slanted their stripes in different directions: The Somerton Man wore an American tie, a rarity in Australia at the time. Other clues have led Abbott to look up, say, the record-keeping habits of laundry services in mid-size Australian cities in 1948 or the price of various tobacco brands. Sometimes this information yields faint clues to the Somerton Man’s story. Most often it reveals how far from the truth Abbott remains and produces only more questions. Someone suggested that the Rubáiyátwas a book cipher — a spy codebook — setting in motion an eerily difficult quest to find an identical copy and test it against the code. (The cops threw away the original at some point during the 1950s.) No identical copy could be found. It appeared that the Somerton Man’sRubáiyát was unique and published by a company in the habit of issuing, for obscure reasons, one Rubáiyát at a time.
On the hunch that the Rubáiyát was being used as a book cipher, Facebook group members combed Australian newspapers for stories about other men who died unnaturally, accompanied by a Rubáiyát. Incredibly, they found one, an immigrant named George Marshall who poisoned himself with barbiturates and died with a Rubáiyát next to him in Sydney. It was not the same edition as the Somerton version. Instead, it was identified as a seventh edition published by Methuen, a London-based press. The interest would have ended there if Abbott hadn’t tried to find a Methuen seventh edition of the Rubáiyát and discovered that the company never published any edition beyond the fifth.
Abbott’s code-breaking efforts, for which he initially held high hopes, stagnated. He tried to solve the code by treating it as a substitution cipher, in which every letter stands for another. He has tested that theory with computational models and conclusively ruled it out. He tried to determine if the letters were random, and even at one point had his students drink beer and write down random letters in progressive stages of inebriation to see if the letters resembled the patterns of those in the code. They did not.
So far, he has excluded, with mathematical certainty, a whole range of standard code types — 40 types of known cipher. Recently he’s been testing another theory, first put forward by Navy cryptographers in 1949. The frequency of occurrence of letters on the Rubáiyát’s back cover fits unusually well the frequency of occurrence of the initial letters of English words. Abbott now thinks that the code is not a code at all, but a series of letters someone — perhaps the Somerton Man — wrote in order to commit something to memory. The first five letters — wrgoa — could, on this hypothesis, have just been a reminder to buy watermelon, rice, grapes, oats, and artichokes. Abbott tested the initial-letter hypothesis against samples of text from more than 30 languages, and English repeatedly surfaced as the best statistical fit. But of course, to know what the letters stood for, we’d have to ask their author.
FOR YEARS, the person roundly suspected of knowing more than she let on was Jo, the nurse. But she said nothing. The news stories around the time of her questioning did not name her, declining to sully the reputation of a respectable young woman by associating her with the corpse of a drifter. But the story of her swooning has interested everyone who has looked into the Somerton Man mystery. Gerry Feltus, the retired cop who wrote a book about the case, interviewed Jo before she died in 2007 and is sure she knew something. He says she was “evasive” under questioning and went to great efforts to avoid attention. “Every time this case had a big blast of publicity, she either disappeared on holiday or changed addresses,” Feltus says.
In 2009, Abbott began hunting down Jo’s acquaintances and surviving family members — at first just to find out whether she confessed anything, but later to see whether they could offer any clues at all. In time, he was able to construct a year-by-year — and sometimes month-by-month — chronology of her life: where she lived, whom she knew, what she talked about, and what she avoided.
Jo was born Jessica Harkness in 1921, outside Sydney. About her childhood little is known: She cut off ties with her parents and rarely spoke of them. She took up with a car salesman, Prosper Thomson, and had a child, Robin Thomson, in 1947. She and Prosper hadn’t yet married — he had recently divorced his previous wife, and Australian law didn’t permit remarriage until a cooling-off period had passed — but they wed in 1948. She raised their two children through the 1950s, then began work as a nurse.
Her association with the Somerton Man has led some to speculate that she was a Communist spymaster posing as a housewife. One friend claimed she spoke Russian. Abbott dismisses these allegations. She was “a free spirit,” he said, “a slightly airheaded, arty type.” She and her husband seemed mismatched in some ways, with Prosper obsessed with cars and his wife interested in art, and some people I spoke with, including Abbott, suspected that they were not physically intimate, though they remained married until Prosper’s death in 1995.
Abbott didn’t focus on the Jo angle until after both she and her son, Robin, had died. But he hunted Robin’s story down with almost as much fervor as Jo’s — even though Robin was only a year old when the Somerton Man died — and learned that Robin had likely lived his whole life unaware of his mother’s role in the mystery.
Abbott fixated on one detail of Robin’s life: When he was a small boy, his mother signed him up for dance lessons. Robin took to dancing naturally and flourished — first as an amateur and ultimately as a member of the Australian Ballet. Abbott reminded me: “The Somerton Man had those oddly shaped calf muscles — so bulbous and defined that the coroner marveled at them.” Abbott stressed their dancer-like definition. One effort to identify the man even focused on looking for missing Australian dancers.
Was Jo pushing her son into the Somerton Man’s line of work? To Abbott, this coincidence was irresistibly suggestive, and he now believes a theory that might propel the Somerton mystery into the realm of solvability: that the man was Jo’s secret lover, and Robin Thomson their son. Another fact that Abbott cites as support for this idea is that Robin had a rare anatomical abnormality: He never grew lateral incisors, so his canine teeth, like the Somerton Man’s, abutted his front teeth.
Abbott cautiously tested this theory by writing a letter to Roma Egan, a dancer in the Australian Ballet who was married to Robin Thomson from 1968 to 1974. Abbott enclosed a picture of the Somerton Man and asked if she knew any dancers who looked like him. Roma wrote back saying that the corpse resembled her ex-husband. She also told Abbott, darkly, that her ex-mother-in-law had been a woman with secrets, and that Jo — like the young Abbott — had an obsession with pharmacology.
Abbott convinced Roma of his theory and enlisted her support in a legal crusade for permission to dig up the Somerton Man’s body and test his dna. By adding the dna to a few databases, they might even be able to find a distant relative and, working backward, identify the Somerton Man. (Robin Thomson had one younger sister, Kate, who opposes Abbott’s exhumation campaign. She declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Abbott has twice petitioned the government of South Australia to discuss exhuming the Somerton Man and twice been denied, on the grounds that obsessive curiosity does not justify disturbing human remains. He plans to resubmit his request.
ABBOTT WARNED ME not to tell Feltus, the ex–homicide detective, that I had been meeting with him. “He hates my guts,” Abbott said, accurately. They both spend vast amounts of time tracking the same clues, collecting the same Rubáiyáts, and scrutinizing the same grainy photos. But the two do not speak. Feltus regards Abbott as a grade-A pest and a bane of serious investigators. “If this were a different era, I could see him in a chuck wagon going through Indian territory, selling moonshine, and being left alone because he’d look half-crazy,” he told me.
Feltus, who’s 72, grew up in the countryside outside Adelaide. Before retiring in 2004, he was one of the city’s top murder investigators. He has an easy, earthy Australian vibe, more open and informal than Abbott, and the mottled complexion of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors. He had heard of the Somerton case as a young boy, and after years on the force he investigated it as a hobby, despite warnings from colleagues that it would lead only to madness.
Part of what irks Feltus about Abbott is his amateurism. Feltus spent 40 years hunting murderers and solved dozens of cases, whereas Abbott, he says, “came in in a blaze of glory, saying he was going to crack the code, solve a murder, and identify an unknown man.” One gets the sense, talking with Feltus, that acquaintance with death has made him reluctant to treat the dead as intellectual puzzles.
Consider the flowers left on the Somerton Man’s grave. Abbott had implied to me that they might have been Jo’s doing or that of some other mysterious figure who knew secrets. When I raised this theory with Feltus, he sighed. “If you spend much time in cemeteries, you get to know the graves around the graves of your loved ones, and you do your part to keep them respected,” he says. His own daughter died of an illness in her 30s, he told me. Her grave is near that of Megumi Suzuki, a Japanese exchange student who died in Adelaide. In 2001, Feltus found Suzuki’s body hydraulically compressed into a bale of trash, and he sent her murderer away for a life sentence. “If I’m going to the cemetery, I’ll sometimes place a flower on her grave, too,” he told me.
The gap between the two men’s approaches comes down to a difference in worldview. After decades of bearing witness to the evil that men do, Feltus seems to have accepted the investigative consequences of the Second Law of Thermodynamics — that the universe tends, over time, toward disorder. He knows that some cases cannot be solved. In his book about the Somerton Man, Feltus meticulously logs every interview, every piece of evidence gathered from police records and contemporary accounts. But he reaches no conclusion. Taken as a whole, the book is a striking documentation of one man’s bafflement.
To Abbott, the idea that the answer might be lost is unacceptable, and Feltus’s comfort with uncertainty unnerves him. “Every time we met, one of his favorite jokes was to say, ‘It would be a real shame if the Somerton Man is identified because it would spoil a great mystery,’” Abbott told me. “He’s more wedded to the mystery than to the solution, and I’m the other way around.”
Feltus’s perspective is aided by age. As someone who was alive during the Somerton Man’s last years and remembers the upheaval of postwar Australia, he does not see the Somerton Man’s anonymity as unusual or mysterious. “There were lots of displaced people around,” Feltus says. “People were jumping ship, changing their names, becoming a whole new person.” Wartime rationing was still going on, and black marketeers had good reason to sneak around without identification.
Balint, the cultural historian, concurs. “[The Somerton Man] cuts a lonely figure, and people want to rescue him,” she says. “But we had lots of people like him: returned soldiers with shell shock, people who came back and were strangers to their own families. Some of them would just get up, disappear, and go on walkabouts.” Feltus’s hunch is that the Somerton Man was not a spy, but one of the thousands of socially isolated immigrants who drifted like tumbleweeds around Australia during those years.
That, he says, is where the trail must end. He has known victims’ families and has an aversion to disturbing the dead — either physically, by exhuming their remains, or spiritually, by speculating about the dramas that consumed their living days.
ABBOTT SPOKE GARRULOUSLY about his investigation. But he was also guarded. I came to wonder how his obsession with the Somerton case affected his work at the university or, for that matter, his home life. The child seats sat empty in the back of his suv as he drove me from site to site, yet he never mentioned his kids or their mother, nor how they felt about his all-consuming project.
Only after I’d left Adelaide did another question present itself: If he succeeded in extracting the Somerton Man’s dna, what would he compare it to? The whole point was to prove that the man was Robin Thomson’s father, but Robin is dead. Did he have living descendants?
Robin did, it turns out, have one daughter, with Roma Egan. Rachel Rebecca Egan had appeared with Abbott on television in 2013, endorsing the exhumation effort, but he had never mentioned her to me. I looked her up.
Rachel was born in 1967 in New Zealand and put up for adoption by her parents, who were touring with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. She reconnected with them as a young woman, eventually settling in Brisbane with Roma. On Facebook, her likes included various ballet-related pages, the work of a Brisbane painter, and a store for baby clothes. There were also some photos, which have since been removed, including a series of Rachel, with the same round, blond-ringed face as her mother, holding a baby. Standing next to her in one of the photos was a bemused-looking man wearing a proud paternal expression: Derek Abbott.
I blinked. Abbott had been generous with his time and, it seemed, information. But this detail — his having possibly tangled his own dnawith the Somerton Man’s — was a noteworthy omission. I reran all our conversations in my head, preparing to press him if he tried to evade the topic.
But when I called Abbott, he immediately and sheepishly confessed. In June 2010, he said, he’d mailed Roma, then living in Brisbane, his letter asking about dancers she might have known who resembled the Somerton Man. When he went to interview her, he met Rachel, who was living with Roma and working as a schoolteacher. Rachel was completely unaware of her father’s Somerton connection, Abbott said, and was at first skeptical of Abbott’s theory. To Abbott himself, however, she was immediately attracted. “We just hit it off, I guess, and it all happened from there,” he said. They married about four months later and, in the four and a half years since, have had three children. Rachel and Roma moved to Adelaide, and now Abbott’s crusade to dig up Rachel’s presumed grandfather has become a family affair.
Rachel, 47, says she still finds all this “surreal” and is not sure how an idea she first wrote off as one of her mother’s conspiracy theories has led, in less than five years, to her being a married mother of three — with the Somerton Man “playing cupid from beyond the grave.”
Abbott also seems flummoxed by the development, his normally analytical mind stuck in neutral when pressed to explain. “It was a whirlwind marriage, and we’re still trying to process all this and figure out the consequences,” he told me. “I haven’t psychoanalyzed myself.” When I asked why he hadn’t told me about his personal connection to the case, he said that he and Rachel both worried about the Australian tabloids fixating on their young family.
As he spoke, uncomfortable as the investigated rather than the investigator, questions clamored in my mind. Did he marry the woman or the mystery? Was there not at least a touch of the uncanny — a secret love in Adelaide, six and a half decades after the Somerton Man’s own possible covert romance, with the woman Abbott believed to be the Somerton Man’s granddaughter? Had his obsession burrowed so deeply into his brain that he had subconsciously written himself into the mystery?
But Abbott was uncharacteristically blank, for once unwilling to speculate. “I didn’t want it to look like I married some chick just so I could exhume a body,” he said. “I really do love her.”
Feltus, of course, delights in this. “Abbott is a strange bird, with a sick sense of humor,” he told me. “He would think that would be a great joke, wouldn’t he?”
This case’s final irony is not lost on either Abbott or Feltus. We may never know what happened to the Somerton Man, not because witnesses have died and evidence has disintegrated, but because knowing would require an understanding of his inner life, something that cannot be deduced.
“When I look at the case,” Abbott told me, “I think, ‘If only [Jo] behaved normally and told the police everything, we wouldn’t have this mystery.’ But then I wouldn’t be married. Maybe that’s just the way it’s all meant to happen.”
Abbott still wants to dig up the Somerton Man’s body, extract his dna, and prove his theory once and for all. “But in a sense it doesn’t matter,” he admitted. “The Somerton Man has given birth to three children for me, and he will always be their great-grandfather in some way. That, I suppose, gives a sense of closure.”