60 years later revisiting Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in Papua Part III: A twin’s grief and whether Savage Harvest proved Michael’s disappearance

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An Asmat carving at the Asmat Museum in Agats. Photo credit: Si Gam, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

IO – It was on the 17th of November 1961 that Michael Rockefeller disappeared in Papua. Yesterday, that would have been exactly 60 years ago. Both his parents have died during the interim. The one person still alive today who was probably most affected by Michael Rockefeller’s death was his twin sister Mary Rockefeller Morgan who accompanied her father to Papua when Michael first disappeared.

After his disappearance Mary went through years of repressed grief and trauma. Before Michael left on his trip to Papua or the Netherlands New Guinea as it was still known then, Mary already had a premonition that he would die. When she first heard the news of his disappearance, her reaction was that he was dead. Later, flying low in a plane with her father over 150 miles of Papuan shoreline and jungle she realized the enormity and sheer unlikelihood of his survival. In Papua, she went through the first phase of grieving which is a sense of numbness. Reaching home in New York, she rushed to her mother’s embrace but her mother who was herself suffering tremendous shock and grief told her that the one thing they could not do was to cry. Mary says that her mother probably felt that she would not be able to hold things together if they began to cry.

Beginning with the End (2012) by Mary Rockefeller Morgan. Photo credit: Amazon.com

Unfortunately, crying which is an expression of grief is also nature’s way of healing the psychological wounds of great loss. Forbidden to cry, Mary went into 27 years of denial, trauma and pain which culminated with a nervous breakdown. Then followed years of therapy which ultimately brought her healing. As a result, she herself became a psychotherapist who specializes in twin loss and bereavement, for what she discovered during her own healing process was that twin loss is different – not exactly the same – as sibling loss. Later, she formed a special twin bereavement group for the 12 twins who lost a twin during 9/11 and afterwards wrote a book about her experiences called ‘Beginning with the End: A Memoir of Twin Loss and Healing’ in which she shares her healing journey and moving forward to new beginnings in her work helping other twins in bereavement.

Mary says, “I wrote the book for people who had this sort of deep personal loss using my story as a sort of magnifying lense,” and adds, “With twin loss there really are two issues that make twin bereavement unique. The first one is the twin bond: from the moment of conception the tiny embryos are growing in relationship. New sonographs show that at 14 weeks, twins are already reaching out to each other in a kind of primitive relationship. That is extraordinary. So by the time they are born, that little “I”-that sense of who you are as a person is already framed in a “we” and that is the key to understanding twin bereavement.”

Mary then goes on to explain, “Until I really got a sense of myself as an individual and felt safe with my identity as an individual, it was very hard for me to let go of my brother in terms of really coming to grips with the fact that he was gone-he was dead-and that the physical manifestation of him in my life had to be let go. It’s important for therapists to know that the first identity step needs to be taken… So, we (the twin suffering loss) need to start listening to who we are and where we are.

…Twins are so used to talking to the other twin before they really know what they even think about something – so, you have to get used to saying to yourself, “What do I think about what that person just said?” You have to learn to form a new relationship to yourself so that your own sense of the “I” can really come forward in your life.”

Mary found that the second issue that needs to be dealt with in twin bereavement, is that twins need to claim their right to that healing process because as in the case of the Twin Towers disaster, support was given to the spouses, parents and children of victims but not their twins when in fact usually, the twin relationship is the most important relationship in a twin’s life.

When Grief Calls Forth Healing (2014) by Mary Rockefeller Morgan. Photo credit: Amazon.com

In 2014 she came out with a second book on the subject entitled, ‘When Grief Calls Forth the Healing: A Memoir of Losing a Twin’. Although it took her many years, Mary Rockefeller has managed not only to find healing after Michael’s tragedy but also managed to use it to increase knowledge about twin grief and help other twins in bereavement.

Nevertheless, the question of what truly did happen to Michael Rockefeller, persists even 60 years later. In 2014 Carl Hoffman’s book ‘Savage Harvest’ argues that he was killed and cannibalized by the Otjaneps. The book was a bestseller and many people have accepted his view but the Rockefellers have not –not publicly anyway. In an interview with Jim Axelrod at the New York Explorer’s Club, Hoffman declared, “I’m absolutely convinced that he was killed by the Asmat. I’m 100 percent convinced. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

During a talk at the Indonesian Heritage Society in 2016 Carl Hoffman told his audience that he did not understand why the Rockefeller family would not meet with him and speak with him about what had happened to Michael. In an interview with Axelrod, Mary Rockefeller explained, “To many who read this book, it’s a sensational whodunit about a wealthy, famous family whose twin is portrayed as being killed and cannibalized. To us, Michael’s death is traumatic and real.”

That sums it up very well. The first two chapters of Savage Harvest are purely Hoffman’s imagination about what might have happened to Michael. In chapter two he goes into gruesome detail about how Michael might have been killed, beheaded and cannibalized. He writes as though this is what truly happened and it reads like a horror story.

Carl Hoffman’s book about Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

Even if Hoffman had indisputable proof that this was Michael’s fate, would Michael’s family really want to read that? Hoffman seems unable to put himself in their position. During the sixty years since Michael’s disappearance they would have come to terms with what must have been an enormous trauma for each of them. The Rockefellers, especially his twin Mary went through what must have been a horrendous grieving process and after many years finally managed to continue their lives. One can well imagine that reading Hoffman’s book could reopen many old wounds and traumas – and for what? What Hoffman has theorized in Savage Harvest is not impossible. It may have happened but he does not actually offer any concrete proof that this is what actually did happen to Michael Rockefeller.

“Mary’s response to what she thinks happened to her brother has been, “I don’t know – I mean, honestly I could not tell you for sure, but I think it would be an extraordinary feat for a young man, for anybody, to swim approximately 10 miles in that choppy water and that current.”

What she says makes sense. The area around the mouth of the Eilanden River leading to the Arafura Sea where Michael disappeared was considered one of the most dangerous areas in the world. It has large and ferocious salt water crocodiles that are considered even more dangerous than fresh water crocodiles. At the mouth of the river and in the surrounding sea beside the crocodiles there are also very large sharks as well as sea snakes and box jelly fish, both of which can be quite venomous. Powerful tides and currents would also have been pushing Michael through choppy waters with mud banks and energy sapping eel grass. Although not impossible, it is difficult to imagine that somehow defying all the difficulties at sea Michael made it to shore.


On the shore there are plains of flat, muddy mangrove swamps that are extremely difficult for a person to travel across, especially for someone alone, ill-equipped and unfamiliar with the area. Rivers meander through these swamps to the sea. These flat mangrove swamps around the shores of Papua are the largest alluvial swamps in the world. Here are crocodiles, gray nurse sharks and sea snakes as well as land snakes and huge monitor lizards. The Otjanep village lies on the banks of the Ewta River which is many miles, far upstream from where the Eilanden River meets the sea where Michael would have come ashore. It would be a really enormous coincidence that at that precise moment a party of Otjanep warriors just happened to be where Michael came ashore – so very far from their home village.

Carl Hoffman the author of Savage Harvest in 2014. Photo credit: Slowking, GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org /licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html), via Wikimedia Commons

Hoffman bases his proof on his interviews and the reports made by a few Dutch missionaries who were in Asmat at the time and claim to have been told by several Asmat that the Otjaneps found and killed Michael. They reported this to their superiors who reported it to the Dutch government. The Church was told to keep the matter secret and the documents in Catholic Church archives and Dutch government archives were kept from the public because the Dutch were involved in a struggle to keep Papua and needed to show the United Nations that they had eradicated headhunting, cannibalism and tribal wars. Hoffman told Axelrod, “We’re not talking about my opinion; the documents show there was a cover-up. The docs say, ‘Don’t tell Nelson Rockefeller about this. Say nothing. Mark it secret.”

A cover-up is not proof however, that the Otjenaps did in fact kill Michael Rockefeller. Hoffman’s proof is all anecdotal. There is no concrete evidence that that is what happened. Money was offered and the Asmat produced a skull. Just not Michael Rockefeller’s skull. Money was offered and glasses were produced, Just not Michael Rockefeller’s glasses.

The Asmats are not stupid. They would have realized that Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance was a happening of major importance. They certainly know it now. If the Asmat tribes, especially the Otjenaps themselves knew that the Otjenaps had killed him, they would also know where his skull is but that has never surfaced. No concrete evidence has.

Perhaps, something that Max Lapre wrote in his report about the Asmats and that was in a sense also echoed in the Dutch missionary, Gerard A. Zegwaard’s article about the headhunting practices of the Asmat, can shed some light on all these reports and claims. Max Lapre wrote, “…the Asmats have a fine sense of humour and in general a friendly character.

One of their greatest handicaps is what they refer to as their jispaaratakam or a fondness for exaggeration or bombast which often causes misunderstandings in their lives. This characteristic has unfortunately, the consequence that they are not too careful with the truth, so that the jispaaratakam can quite easily turn into lying or what they call soe-atakam. This is why it is often difficult to obtain accurate information or results from them.”

Gerard Zegwaard describes a ceremony known as the dewen atakan where the achievements of the headhunters are called out. They boast, “I killed a big man on such and such a river; I killed another man…”. He says that it is the general attitude of the Asmat to cope with a frightening situation by overawing the forces behind it by bragging about themselves. According to Asmat tradition even after death the deceased will, at his arrival at the realm of souls tell hair-raising stories of wars in which he was the hero. He describes them as inventing and spreading lies and using tricks against their enemies and in situations to their advantage.

Mary Rockefeller in Papua in 1961. Photo credit: Gouvernements Voorlichtingsdienst Nederlands Nieuw-Guinea, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons. org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Common

At the end of the day Mary Rockefeller is right. Michael may have drowned or been killed by sharks or crocodiles or by the Otjaneps. We do not know what happened to him. The only possible evidence to emerge was a red petrol can found by the Dutch navy out at sea a few days after his disappearance which was presumably one of the cans he tied to himself – it may however, have been some other red petrol can that somehow exactly at that time found its way to the sea.

Mary Rockefeller sums it up best when she says that the manner of her brother’s death has so overshadowed who he was “when in fact his short life had tremendous meaning, to his friends and his family; his short life also has tremendous meaning to so many others. His papers, his beautiful photographs, and his amazing art collection shows respect for the Asmat people, who are so much bigger than this idea of cannibalism. That is his legacy.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy by the same writer:

Part I: https://observerid.com/60-years-later-revisiting-michael-rockefellers-disappearance-in-papua-part-i-in-defence-of-max-lapre/

Part II: https://observerid.com/60-years-later-revisiting-michael-rockefellers-disappearance-in-papua-part-ii-the-rockefellers-role-in-the-acceptance-of-primitive-art-as-fine-art/