How Do You Write About A Man Who Doesn't Know Who He Is?

A major mystery in a Burger King parking lot.

NEW YORK ― Here’s a mystery. In 2004, a Burger King employee discovered a naked man lying unconscious near the restaurant’s dumpsters. The police brought him to a nearby hospital in Savannah, Georgia. But when the man regained consciousness, he didn’t know who he was.

There were some clues. He had cataracts and signs of previous physical trauma to his skull, as well as scars on his neck and arms. Yet a database search of his fingerprints and appearance yielded no results. It seemed no one was looking for him. Who was this “Burger King Doe?”

That’s the mystery Matthew Wolfe, a Ph.D. student in sociology at New York University, wrote about in his story “The Last Unknown Man,” which ran in The New Republic in November. The Huffington Post sat down with Wolfe last week to find out more.

Your specialty at NYU is missing persons. Why this case?

I was interested in the subjective experience of someone who is conscious, but unaware of who they are, where they came from or what their name is. I wanted to know what identity is left at that point. What remains?

I also had a more scientific and technological interest. If you can look at someone’s fingerprints or their DNA or hear their accent, can you figure out where they came from?  

Also, his case was just so weird. There was a mystery there. It’s a spine you can hang things on. Readers will stay engaged because there is a central question that needs to be answered. Who was this guy?  

Talk about the seed of the story.

I read an article on “living John Does,” people who were alive but couldn’t be identified. And the most prominent case was Benjaman Kyle [Burger King Doe].

How long did the reporting process take?

I started reporting in February 2014, then continued to work on it until September of this year. When I started reporting, I was working for a private investigator. Not as exciting as it might sound! It was for civil cases involving companies. There was very little slouching in a car with a camera, but I made a lot of phone calls. It’s a great journalistic skill to be able to look up phone numbers and addresses. 

Initially I got in touch with Josh Schrutt, the guy Benjaman was working for in Florida. A few days later, I bought a plane ticket and flew down to talk to him. To be honest, I was suspicious of his story. I thought it was a hoax. But I thought even if it was a hoax, and even if he was lying, there was still the fact that for 10 years people tried to figure out who he was, and they failed. 

A high school yearbook photo of the man known as Benjaman Kyle.
A high school yearbook photo of the man known as Benjaman Kyle.

You’re a freelance writer. Talk about how you pitched the story.

I got very lucky. I ended up having a meeting with an editor at one media organization. He liked the story and greenlit it. Then he moved to The New Republic and the story followed him there.

There was no third act at that point. Benjaman’s identity had not been revealed, but the editor took a chance in hoping that I’d be able to figure out a third act that satisfied the audience even if his identity wasn’t found.

I remember we had a conversation about “Serial,” the podcast, which also didn’t solve the case. If Benjaman’s identity wasn’t figured out while I was working on the story, I’d have to do a “Serial”-like ending where the audience didn’t feel cheated.

The story reads like a mystery novel. Did you turn to other writers for narrative inspiration?

I am a huge fan of David Grann, who is a New Yorker staff writer. He’s phenomenal at constructing narratives the reader wants to keep reading, but he’s also good at using the stories as spines on which to hang other questions. His stories are written in classic New Yorker fashion: There’s a central narrative that holds the reader, but then there are diversions into areas or topics that a reader might not read on their own.

In the case of Benjaman, I had this central narrative about this man whose identity is a mystery, but also an exploration of the history of human identification, retrograde amnesia and biometrics. 

Along with David Grann’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, the other collection I kept handy when writing this piece was David Samuels’ Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Samuels’ stories are extraordinary models for how to make your own personal obsession about a subject compelling and readable to others. 

So much of long-form is just trying to get readers through a huge amount of material so they don’t get bored and keep reading. This is done on the sentence level, the paragraph level, the structure. I also read a bunch of screenwriting books on story structure and how you set up a narrative with a character. I found them enormously helpful as far as figuring out what you need to do to keep the reader reading.  

There was no third act at that point. Benjaman’s identity had not been revealed, but the editor took a chance in hoping that I’d be able to figure out a third act that satisfied the audience even if his identity wasn’t found. Matthew Wolfe, sociologist

How many drafts did it take to get to the finished story?

This story went through a bunch of different drafts. I think a good story, by the end, it looks natural, where it doesn’t suggest the writer had to write and rewrite and restructure a bunch of different times. But my story went through eight or 10 big drafts before it began to look like it looks.  

I also read Story, by Robert McKee, and David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife. Screenwriters do this thing where they do “setups and and payoffs.” It’s like foreshadowing. They’ll drop something in a story and it will come up later on. All good narratives do this. It creates an engine of interest. You have to create the illusion of a universe. If something jumps out of nowhere, even in nonfiction, it can feel unjustified. You have to establish that things exist.

Want to know who Benjaman Kyle really is? Read the story.

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