Sad News: Greg Laden Departing

Many of you know that Greg Laden and I are good friends. He has asked me to make an announcement.

I met Greg some years back at a cultural anthropology conference I was attending out of curiosity. He and I hit it off immediately, and became great friends. I loved his stories of life among the Ik, the Mountain People of northern Uganda, and he liked my stories of working with cowboys and mule packers in the mountains of California.

I lost touch with him after he moved to Washington state. The last I heard was that he was doing fieldwork with a physical anthropologist colleague, Gideaon Oliver, studying a tribe of Pacific Northwest Neo-Primitives.

We got back in touch some years later when I saw him at another conference. Surprisingly, he didn’t remember me at first, but I soon discovered that he’d suffered a bout of Lyme disease and lost some of his memory. We caught up on old times and eventually he started remembering – sometimes even recalling details from my childhood I didn’t remember telling him!

Speaking of childhood, now I have to tell you about someone else I know, a guy I grew up with in East Texas, Richard “Sticky” Johnson. Sticky was the younger brother of another guy, my best friend at the time, Bilbo Johnson. Sticky seemed always to be covered in peanut butter and jelly, or melted chocolate, or something else, well, sticky, so he ended up with the nickname. It may even have been me who first started calling him that.

The Johnson family should have been heirs to the Howard Johnson family fortune, but their father had made the mistake of falling in love with, and marrying, an actual Gypsy while traveling in Romania, and came back home to his father’s extreme anger, which resulted in him being disinherited. They wound up in a poor part of town on the north side of Houston, Texas, a half block from where my parents lived, and settled down to family life, producing Bilbo about the same time I was born, Connie a couple of years later, and Sticky about 5 years after that.

Bilbo and I rode bikes, we climbed trees, we walked down to the city park for swimming lessons, with Sticky determinedly tagging along at every opportunity. One day when Bilbo’s parents were gone with the two younger children, Bilbo and I discovered we could jump from the peak of the Johnson house into a nearby gum tree, landing on the springy limbs and bouncing wildly. We spent a fun afternoon doing that. Of course we weren’t foolish enough to tell his parents we’d been leaping from a 20-foot-high roof into a spindly tree, but we did share it with Connie and Sticky.

Of course Sticky had to try it. Being smaller, he missed the jump and tumbled through tree-limbs all the way to the ground, breaking his collarbone. His mother Maria blamed it on Bilbo and I, his father defended us, and shortly after that, Maria moved back to Romania with the kids. I never saw Bilbo, Connie or Sticky again.

Or so I thought.

Unbeknownst to me, Sticky grew up and moved back to the U.S, possessed of a considerable package of sharp skills learned from his family back in Romania. Sticky was … well, an accomplished con man.

In the 1990s, Sticky was pursuing a scam as a real estate developer in Seattle, Washington, when he happened to meet Greg at a hotel bar. Greg was deep into his study of the Neo-Primitives, but had taken a weekend off to attend a professional conference at the Seattle Convention Center.

The weird thing was, the two of them might as well have been twins. Sticky and Greg looked exactly alike. Never one to pass up the possibility of a good con, Sticky started reading everything about Greg, his biographical information and published papers, delving into his educational history, everything he could find out about him.

Greg, meanwhile, had gone native. He learned to hunt deer with a handmade bow and arrow, trap rabbits and gut them with his teeth, carve whistles out of willow branches with flint knives, and tame wolverines as pets. He went so far as to fall in love with a pair of beautiful twin sisters named Sahara Moonbeam and Mojave Thistlefluff.

After saving the two of them from a band of marauding coyotes, Greg was inducted into the tribe for his “warrior heart,” and given the tribal name Guardian Whiteheart. Part of the tribal mandate was that every adult male warrior should take at least one wife from among the unmarried females, and Greg chose both Sahara and Mojave.

This was where things went bad. Part of the marriage act for this particular tribe was an elaborate 3-day-long circumcision ceremony. As I found out recently, Greg died during the process.

Fearing legal repercussions for their still-struggling tribe, the Neo-Primitive council decided to conceal Greg’s death. Somehow, though, Sticky Johnson found out. He conned the two sisters into thinking he was the vengeful ghost of Greg, demanding Greg’s wallet and ID. He stepped right into Greg’s life.

He began writing papers on the tribe, and gained a reputation as a thorough researcher with surprising insights. Research grants began rolling in. He traveled to Africa and studied tribal life there. He lived among the primitive Canadians in Montreal, and even spent considerable time among the enigmatic and little-known Mexicans, learning their tongue and overhearing their until-now secret conversations.

After years of studying, speaking and traveling, he wound up here. Blogging. He’d heard about FreethoughtBlogs through me, and joined at the first opportunity. You see, he had a new research project in mind – the study of atheists.

As he recently told me, after years of study he’d finally gotten everything he needed. The Reason Rally was the capper on his decade-long project, and he is currently finishing up the writing on a thousand-page book to be titled simply “The Atheists.”

He and I met for drinks a few weeks back, and deep in his cups, he told me everything. How he was really Sticky, and he and I had known each other since childhood. How he had taken over Greg’s identity. How much pleasure he had discovered in living Greg’s life, living honestly and with respect after decades of one con after another.

Mainly, he described how he was undergoing a personal evolution that demanded perfect honesty. And how he hoped the anthropology and archeology communities would forgive him for the imposture, and recognize the value of his own work – the work of Sticky Johnson – in this groundbreaking study on atheist culture.

So there you have it. “Greg” is leaving FreethoughtBlogs to further pursue his career. Worse, the guy leaving is not the real Greg, but none other than Sticky Johnson, con man and imposter.

I tell you, I don’t know what to make of it.

If you like, you can read Greg’s own take on the matter.

Non Sequitur, With Prominent Thumb
Short Stack #23
One Billion Atheists: Two Additional Ideas
Dawkins in Boston, Oh Yeah

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