That was the best I could come up with as a reason for why he might allow me to hang around. But then over time, this happens with all my subjects, usually after two or three months…you just become part of the furniture. They kind of wonder where you are when you’re not there. And there was a conversation that started to take place that was two-way. This also happens with all the subjects: In some way they find it useful, almost like an outside consultant, just to get eyes on their world. But to be honest, I think he might’ve forgotten what the original purpose was. And then after it all collapses, I think he thought, Well, this is someone who at least has some context for what happened. I might as well let him hang around and document the rest. How much worse can it be?
Do you think he was using you in some way?
I think he thought he was using everybody. That’s putting it too cynically. But there’s a character in the book who says, “He doesn’t understand why people don’t trust him, when all you have to do is look at him to see he’s like a board game.” I felt that right from the beginning. He doesn’t hide it. I never thought, like, Oh, Sam loves me. That’s why he wants me around. I never thought that. But all I wanted was to be around.
How much does it matter to you what your subjects believe your relationship is, or want out of you?
I never show anybody anything. But other subjects are much better at getting stuff out of me than he was, because he didn’t seem to care. That was strange about him. I mean, if you were following me around for a year, not only would I want to get a sense of what you were doing, or why, but I would also want to know you. Sam never asked me a single question about me. You’re talking to a man whose daughter had died in a car crash four months before I met him, and never once did that come up. Never mentioned it. It was like he was in this little bubble and I was just this category: “Well-Known Author,” or whatever. And that satisfied the curiosity.
You write about how socially dysfunctional Bankman-Fried is, how he actually has to train his face to simulate basic human expressions, because he doesn’t experience the emotions that he’s supposed to. You are obviously very socially adept, but are there any ways in which you relate to that?
Sam was so different to me. That he had to put a mirror in front of his face to figure out how to smile…this kind of stuff was alien to me. But here’s the closest I can get to the lack of empathy, the unusual lack of feeling, he had for other people: It’s actually when I’m writing about them. When I’m sitting down and writing, I don’t think until I’m done, What effect is this going to have on the people I’m writing about? I just get into the story, and I write the story, and then afterwards I go, Uh oh. What effect will that have?
And what happens then?
Oh, I usually get shouted at. Everybody I’ve ever written a book about has been pissed at me when it came out.
Does it bother you?
I don’t like it. But they all get over it. They get over how I’ve portrayed them because the people around them say, “He didn’t get it wrong.” That is, “We still love you.” But I don’t regard it as a negotiation. I regard it as my job to describe, as best I can, how I’ve witnessed you. And my obligation is not to you; it’s to the reader. That might be the closest I get in my mind to the way Sam Bankman-Fried moves through the world.
There’s another thing I was thinking of. I’ve heard you say, several times, something to the effect of “If I were a better person,” such and such development in a story you’re working on—like the collapse of FTX—would bother you more. Do you actually feel that way, or just think you should?
I’ve always thought that the best way to respond to a bad thing that happens is to try to turn it into a good thing, rather than just cave to the badness. In this particular case, I was sitting there thinking about this story and this story took a remarkable turn, and I got excited for the story. So shoot me for that.
I won’t. But there’s this critique that your excitement gets in the way of you being more judgmental about the systems you’re writing about.
You would rather me be more judgmental.
I suppose I’m asking if your delight ever takes over for a kind of moral compass.
Well, whatever. I don’t think it blinds me to, like, It’s bad to lose people’s money. It’s bad! But I guess I don’t do moral outrage very well.
Leaving aside the current legal situation surrounding The Blind Side, is there anything about that book that you would write differently now that it’s over 15 years later?
No. And the legal thing is really important. Michael Oher accused the Tuohys of stealing his movie money. It’s shocking to me that he did that, because I know it’s not true. And it’s heartbreaking because I did move into Michael’s life. I spent lots of time with him, and he felt loved and he loved them. And I don’t know what happened. These aren’t novels. The people continue to live. And so that’s the story I wrote, and it feels like it’s embalmed and bottled and captured in time. It’s what happened. And Michael Oher was really happy with it. He didn’t like the movie, but the movie is different than the book. Have you read the book?
I just did, yes. I can imagine how Oher might feel more than one way about it. Like, sometimes happy, sometimes something more complicated.
I don’t have a problem with his being upset with the movie. I can understand him being upset with the movie. I have a problem with him accusing people of stealing money from him when all they did was give him money. He’s really upended these people’s lives who really never did anything but mean him well and love him and take care of him. And I just felt like they needed defending because nobody else was doing it.
Do you think that Oher got the full benefit of the bag of tools you use to give your other characters such interiority and texture?
I tried. I tried so hard. It was of no benefit to me to minimize him. He was a tough interview when he was 17 and 18 years old. He was certainly traumatized. But he did enable me to get into his life by introducing me to his family and his mom and the place he’d grown up in. And I felt I kind of got to know and understand him.
In The Guardian you seemed to suggest that his current position might be the result of a football-related brain injury.
I got pushed and I said something in anger that I probably shouldn’t have said. I don’t know what’s going on. I just don’t know. It breaks my heart though.
Let’s talk about the one business figure that you do make an unequivocal judgment about in the book: Kevin O’Leary, the Canadian mogul and Shark Tank investor who Bankman-Fried paid $15 million to promote FTX.
My judgment is that I can’t believe anybody pays him $15 million to do what he did! Like virtual lunch and some tweets and that stuff. I can understand Tom Brady at $55 million. People listen to Tom Brady. I didn’t have the impression they listened to Kevin O’Leary. It sure seemed crazy to me.
Do a little risk calculation of your own for me. What do think you have on the line with the contrary position you’ve taken on Bankman-Fried?
I’ve always viewed this as just a really interesting story and a window into the world we live in. And that’s not going to change no matter what happens to Sam Bankman-Fried. My contrary position is that I’m withholding judgment and letting other people do the judging. If I have to change my mind and judge, I’ll judge.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Brett Martin is a GQ correspondent. The 10th anniversary edition of his book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution is out now.