An Interview with Jake Anderson
On February 19, 2013, the body of Canadian university student, Elisa Lam, was found inside a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. Her family had reported her missing earlier that month, leading police to conduct an unsuccessful search of the premises. Then, the strange surveillance-camera video was released. In it, we see the victim enter one of the hotel elevators, frantically push all of the buttons, and then – as if hearing or sensing something in the hallway – peer out of the elevator before backing herself into the corner, as one might do to avoid being seen. The video immediately went viral, causing amateur speculation as to the “real” circumstances surrounding the young woman’s tragic final moments.
Even after authorities ruled the death an accident, there were still too many unanswered questions. How did the victim get on the roof without setting off the hotel’s alarm system? What was she doing on the roof in the first place? And how (and why) did she get into the water tank? Was this a case of suicide? Was it, as authorities claimed, an accident? Or, was there something more sinister going on?
In March, around the time COVID-19 began making its way into the Los Angeles area, I spoke to author/filmmaker/journalist Jake Anderson about his new book, Gone at Midnight: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam. In it, Anderson reevaluates the case from the perspective of someone familiar with the victim’s mental health struggles – namely, depression and bipolar disorder – in the process, evoking everything from possible homicide to the hotel’s sordid “haunted” history in an attempt to shed some more light on the case. In the course of the interview, Anderson also elaborated on his years-long fascination with everything from crime stories and gonzo journalism to parapsychology and scientific studies of consciousness.
One of the things I find most engaging about the book is that you approach the subject matter from a variety of perspectives (e.g., mental health, homicide, corporate and police corruption, even quantum mechanics). Was this your initial intention or is it something that evolved during the research?
For the majority of the time writing, I knew there would be three principle, overlapping (sometimes conflicting) narratives: mental illness; foul play (homicide); and the parapsychological/conspiratorial. One of the aspects I found most interesting about the case is the sociological obsession people had with it, wherein the surveillance tape of Elisa in the elevator became a kind of Rorschach test on which everyone projected their worldviews and belief systems. Initially, however, it was the mental illness angle that drew me in on a personal level.
There’s considerable sensitivity shown to the material, and the book never feels exploitative, but were you concerned that it might be received that way? As a work of creative nonfiction, I’d suppose it’s less of an issue than if it were, say, a horror novel or Hollywood movie.
I absolutely was—and still am—terrified of the book being perceived as exploitative. I feel awful for Elisa and her family, who have been through an almost incomprehensible tragedy that was then publicly litigated and caricatured on monetized YouTube channels. Ultimately, what pushed me over the edge to write a commercial book on the subject was my personal connection to the case in terms of suffering some of the same psychiatric afflictions as Elisa, one of which, bipolar disorder, took the life of my aunt and has mortally threatened several close friends of mine. I figured that since there are already so many cartoonish and stigmatizing videos and blogs out there on the case, there should at least be one account that attempts to humanize Elisa and seriously reckon with the issue of mental illness in our society. Since the book was released, I’ve heard from dozens of readers who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder and who have thanked me for sharing my experience and painting a real portrait of those conditions. For me, these reactions make the whole thing worthwhile.
Not surprisingly – considering the nature of the case, the length of time you’ve spent investigating it, and the mental health struggles you share with the victim – there seems to have developed a sort-of bond between you and Elisa. What was more challenging for you to write about, her demons or your own?
Great question. The reality is my own life and the case began to bleed into each other in such a profoundly disconcerting way that by the end I lost almost all objectivity and felt that Elisa—even though I never met her—was as much a part of my life as some of my own friends. One of the reasons for this cross-pollination was the fact that I read hundreds of pages of her blog entries, which was actually more instructive than talking to people who knew her because the sad reality is that she was disconnected from most of her friends—mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, does that. I gained tremendous respect for her as a person, as a writer and thinker, and as a brave young woman who publicly documented in real-time her torturous battles with hypomania, depression, and “mixed episodes” of bipolar disorder. I decided I owed it to her to be transparent and share as much from my own life. The journey did bring my demons out, though. I went through a really rough period while investigating and writing the book in which I split up with my fiancé and had to come to terms with my own psychiatric struggles, in the process discovering (with the help of a doctor) my own coordinates on the bipolar spectrum. Ultimately, it made me a better person, a more emotionally intelligent, empathetic person. This project really did change my life, and in some ways, though it sounds hackneyed, I do feel that Elisa saved me from a slow-moving self-destruction.
Stylistically, the book has elements of journalism and memoir. At times it even reads like a novel. Were there specific writers or journalists to whom you looked for inspiration?
I wanted the book to be Gonzo True-Crime. That’s the genre I consider myself to be working in. So, there are elements of “gonzo” journalism, philosophy, and socio-political analysis, as well as more traditional elements of nonfiction true crime. But I’ve always been obsessed with story structure, so I designed the narrative, scene beats, and character arcs just as if I were writing a novel. Add to which my publisher very much wanted the book to have a memoir component to it, so it was very challenging keeping the story gravitationally bound. Ultimately I would say the book blends styles and narrative devices inspired by Jon Krakauer, Truman Capote, Ann Rule, and Hunter S. Thompson—and in more abstract ways, I’d say I was inspired by the work of journalists and social philosophers like Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, Naomi Klein, and Barrett Brown.
You’ve been working on a documentary about the Elisa Lam case. What’s the progress?
We’re about 60% of the way done and have some really incredible footage. A couple years ago a Kickstarter campaign allowed us to launch full throttle into an investigation (which helped greatly with my book) and principal photography but unfortunately movies cost a lot to make. Most true-crime docs you see these days on Netflix, for example, have million-dollar budgets. We’re hoping my book will draw in new investors and producers. We will finish it one way or the other, but sometimes projects like this take many years.
Have there been any developments regarding the Elisa Lam case since the book was completed?
The new evidence I lay out in the book is slowly gaining traction in web sleuth communities. A petition has been filed asking for the LAPD to answer questions and for the case to be re-opened. Without the Lam family involved or a major new development, I think it’s unlikely the case will be re-opened. But it’s worth pursuing, as I’m convinced the investigation was botched and involved some degree of criminal activity and cover up. I was hopeful for new investigations into sexual predators at the Cecil Hotel as well, but then the city just granted it historical landmark status, and it’s being renovated to have a pool and bar on the roof where Elisa was found. So, things aren’t looking good on that front. But for me it’s just as important to destigmatize mental illness and humanize Elisa, and on that front, I feel like progress is being made.
Apart from your work on the book (and the case, in general), you seem to have a wide range of interests, from politics to science to pop culture. In addition to the book, what are some of your other artistic or journalistic endeavors?
I do have many interests. Because of the three different thematic narratives running through the book, I was able to explore aspects of these interests, such as criminal justice, neuroscience, socioeconomics, quantum physics, etc. I’ve always been a big film buff, and I write screenplays. I’m a bit of an activist when it comes to fighting draconian laws, censorship, and corporatocracy. I’m also a space nerd and a crypto-currency advocate.
You run a website, The Ghost Diaries, that explores everything from horror films and conspiracy theories to quantum physics and parapsychology. When did you first become interested in these subjects?
I’ve always been a huge horror movie fan (fairly certain I’ve seen every zombie movie ever made), and I’m interested in new scientific theories and studies in parapsychology. I’m also fascinated with the psychology and sociology of conspiracy theories. These subjects, plus true crime stories, are what birthed The Ghost Diaries, which I think of as a running document of all things strange.
Do you think there will ultimately be scientific explanations for such phenomenon as, say, ghost sightings or near-death experiences? There have been some exciting studies done in recent years regarding consciousness, for example. I’m specifically thinking of the AWARE studies conducted by Sam Parnia and the work of Sir Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, some of which you reference in the book.
I definitely think our model of the mind and the role of consciousness in the universe will change. I’m actually more of a skeptic on most notions of paranormal activity, but, after staying at the Cecil Hotel and researching its past, I began to embrace this idea of ‘ghosts’ as informational relics; on a quantum level, consciousness may imprint its environment with trauma (creating ‘haunted’ hotels like the Cecil).
Experiments and studies like P.E.A.R (The Margins of Reality), Orch-Or by Penrose/Hameroff, John Wheeler’s Participatory Universe, and the continuing anomalies in quantum physics suggest the energy of the cosmos on a particle level may be interconnected with a conscious observer. There’s a lot we don’t know about this universe, and while I usually demand some corroborated evidence before going too far down a rabbit hole, I prefer to be open-minded.
What should the world expect next from you?
I’m looking into several new cases right now. I’m researching the West Mesa serial killer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m interested in exploring why serial predators who target marginalized sex workers are so often able to kill with impunity for years before police departments even begin investigating. I’m also investigating violence against sex workers by law enforcement. I’ve spoken with many activists via the Street Safe New Mexico program and they’ve corroborated studies suggesting that sex workers experience more violence from police officers than johns.
Jamie Naqvi is a filmmaker, videographer, and freelance writer based in the Greater Los Angeles area. Born in Pakistan to Anglo-Pakistani parents and raised in San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire, he received his M.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts in 2012. Since then, his films and videos have shown in festivals and galleries internationally, and his writing has appeared in such online publications as Aslan Media and Submittable.