Statement From Mary R. Morgan
Re Michael Rockefeller’s Disappearance
It is very painful for my family and for me, as Michael Rockefeller’s twin sister, to have to revisit the traumatic scenarios of how Michael might have died off the southern coast of New Guinea over 51 years ago.
After the recent speculation about Michael’s disappearance, the fact remains that there is not now, nor has there ever been, any material or conclusive evidence of how Michael died. We will never know what happened to him in 1961 after he left his capsized catamaran to swim the approximate 10 miles to shore.
In trying to heal from this deep personal loss, we, as a family, are asked to make peace with the not knowing. In doing so, we have come to see that Michael is bigger than his death and we are able to receive the precious gift of his whole life that lives on in us. Michael loved the Asmat people and their art and wanted their extraordinary sculpture to be understood and appreciated as one of the world’s great artistic traditions. For all his family and the larger world, Michael’s writings, photographs and superb Asmat art collection, housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, have become his legacy.
An Excerpt from When Grief Calls Forth the Healing
about Michael’s Disappearance and My Experience of Loss
I walked through those grim days in the Asmat disconnected from myself, running from the fear of the searchers not finding Michael, running from the fear of what shape he’d be in if they did. One memorable experience, however, breaks through the pervading sense of numbness and isolation and presents itself with great clarity. This memory has stayed with me throughout the years, sometimes bringing tears and always warming my heart.
It comes to me from the first trip we took on the Catalina flying boat, the Australian chartered seaplane that carried out the search from the air along the rivers of the Asmat and the many miles of jungle shoreline. News had come to us before we left on that trip that a searcher had picked up a red gasoline can floating near the shore. It was similar to the type of can Mike used as a water wing. Father made plans to comb that area with the plane, stopping at a couple of villages that lined the riverbanks not far from the sea. We boarded the Catalina from the dock, climbing up transportable metal steps onto the wing of the plane to reach the door of the cockpit. Two large pontoons held the plane’s body above the water. When we took off, they slid along the surface of the ocean, sending sheets of spray up against the windows. During our flight Father and I sat together in two of the narrow seats on the coastal side of the plane. I did not focus on who came with us. I moved close to Father, to the comforting smell of his rumpled white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and stayed next to his solid shape, trying to regain the closeness I used to take for granted.
We landed in the water next to the small village of Amanamkai, which consisted of a row of thatched dwellings raised on stilts lining the muddy riverbank. Trees in dense formation framed the village, and a symphony of squawking, twittering, and flutelike sounds emanated from their branches. Michael had visited this village during his first collecting trip, getting to know the people and making a careful visual and written record of their sculptors’ finest work. When we climbed down from the seaplane, which had been pulled next to the dock, the indigenous people who greeted us seemed to have stepped from the pages of Michael’s letters.
I tried not to stare, never having seen a community of naked people before. After letting go of my embarrassment, I realized how completely comfortable they were in their bodies. The darkness of their skin allowed me to take in the whole of their shapes. A few of the men wore tattered shorts, and one, an ancient pair of pants. I saw with Michael’s eyes how these garments appeared out of place and even seemed to diminish the men’s dignity. The climate did not ask for clothes. We were told the Asmat men began to cover themselves after the arrival of the Western missionaries, and now, as Michael had written to Father, “had begun to doubt the worth of their own culture and crave things Western.”
A long, narrow, steeply curved, and beautifully carved wooden canoe approached the dock shortly after we arrived. The canoe and the ten men who paddled it appeared as one flowing shape. Water dripped from their paddles in thin sheets, and the sun shone off rolling shoulder muscles, their rhythmic movements merging into a vision of power, pride, and graceful relationship. In a second I understood Mike’s excitement and the sense of connection he had described. I recognized a people who lived in harmony with the water and the trees and the sky and the muddy banks of the river. Until then, my Western eyes had taken in this liquid jungle as a forbidden, alien land. But that projection no more fit the moment than the tattered shorts fit the few Asmat men who wore them.
Turning to follow Father and the others in our party leaving the dock, I found myself facing a tiny woman. She stood simply and quietly before me. She allowed me to take in, without hesitation, her naked, old, and wrinkled shape. We looked into each other’s eyes. She stretched out her hands to take hold of mine. Silently, she wept.
In the moment of loving kindness that I received from her gaze and her gesture, she offered me a safe passage through my fear and pain surrounding what might have happened or be happening to Michael. She offered me a way to think of him there, for I had now taken in a reality from his experience. My heart had received the love he must have felt for and from the Asmat people. Those two experiences became a gift, offering a tiny opening, a hand to hold on to when I was feeling my heart close and the connections break to much of what I understood and loved.
We stayed in Merauke for a total of ten days. I know this because I read it in the newspaper accounts. The length of time holds no relevance. How many seaplane journeys did we take along the river and the shoreline? How many meetings did I attend? How many maps did we pore over, and how much waiting time was there without any word? It all blurs together. My fairy tale vision of finding Michael, the wonderful reunion of the king and his daughter with the valiant son-prince—this shimmering myth—had burst in the air like a soap bubble the day we arrived. And the gallant, enthusiastic, problem-solving father had been replaced by an increasingly silent, weighted-down man, his blue-gray eyes barely visible, his strong jaw and mouth etched in grim, downward lines.
At some point Father decided, along with the Dutch government, that the search should end. There was no evidence of Michael or his whereabouts, only the one rusted, red gasoline can. Rumors and stories of Michael’s having made it to shore—of his having been found, captured, and killed by headhunting Asmat villagers—have persisted for more than forty years. Even today, those conjectures fuel the imagination and help to line the pockets of storytellers, playwrights, filmmakers, and the high-adventure tourist trade. None of them have been substantiated by any concrete evidence. Since 1954 the Dutch government had enforced a ban forbidding tribal warfare and the resulting headhunting that would avenge the death of an important tribal figure. In 1961 we were told that tribal warfare and headhunting had not been eradicated but were rare. All the evidence, based on the strong offshore currents, the high seasonal tides, and the turbulent outgoing waters, as well as the calculations that Michael was approximately ten miles from shore when he began to swim, supports the prevailing theory that he drowned before he was able to reach land.
At the end of our trip, Father made his thank-yous. He gratefully acknowledged the vast and complicated network of support that had contributed to the search for Michael. I was not involved. Looking back, I am aware of how little I helped his efforts. I functioned on the trip as a sheltered, naive, well-mannered twenty-three-year-old, supportive to my father and acting under the auspices of his protection and guidance. It did not occur to me, nor was I given any direction or opportunity, to play another role.
Father made his plans to go home alone. He had requested and received permission from the Secretary of the Navy for my husband, Bill, to be given a week’s leave of absence from his ship. I would stay at the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay in the Philippines until Bill was able to come and meet me. I left Father in Manila. There I departed for Subic Bay, and Father began his long journey home.