Indeed, over the time I spent in the Bay Area, it became increasingly clear that many of those closest to Camping had had their doubts about his prognostications, not just inside Family Radio but also inside the Camping family, including, evidently, Sue’s five siblings and all of his 28 grandchildren, such as Sue’s long-haired, skateboard-riding son, who, answering their front door one afternoon, called me “man” and “bro.” One person close to the family speculated that even Shirley, a model of devotion, may have harbored doubts; she betrayed them subtly, the friend said, such as in her tendency, in telephone conversations, to refer to their Sunday-morning fellowships as “church”—a characterization her husband abhorred.
Despite a world now days away from annihilation, the media has largely ignored Camping’s October 21 prediction. There is none of the joking and condescension, the gleeful alarm, the attempts to tie loose strands of human despair into a story of Camping-induced hysteria. Over the summer, in fact, reports in Russia suggested the 14-year-old who hanged herself had already battled depression for years, and had motivations far more complicated than Harold Camping. In the case of the California mother reported to have stabbed her daughters in Rapture-induced hysteria, lawyers on both sides told me there was no indication that she knew Camping’s name (for the record, each girl received about ten stitches before being released into the custody of the state, which is now prosecuting her for attempted murder). The Contra Loma detective who investigated the case of the young man who’d drowned in a reservoir told me that the reporter who’d interviewed her had pressed repeatedly about Camping; she said there was no evidence the man had followed him and felt “misquoted” when she read the subsequent story explicitly linking them, picked up by the AP and distributed around the world.
It’s clear that many of those closest to Camping had had their doubts— even his wife.
Whether Camping is aware of any of this remains unclear. He recently turned 90. Earlier this month, holed up in his house and still undergoing rehabilitation, he recorded what was to have been his last last message to his listeners. In a six-minute “Greeting from Mr. Camping” posted on familyradio.com, he acknowledged, in a slurred voice even slower than usual, his “long ways away from being healed,” but said how grateful he was to God for his recovery so far, especially to be living “again with my dear wife at home, and that has been very, very comforting, and very happy for me.” It all seemed superfluous, if not paradoxical—that he even cared about a future, given the closeness of the end.
“I do believe that we’re getting very near the very end,” he said, repeating that “we’ve learned that there’s a lot of things we didn’t have quite right, and that’s God’s good provision.” He asserted once again that Judgment Day had nevertheless begun spiritually, that God had kept them in the dark in order to “bring about the tremendous event that occurred on May 21 of this year, and which …”
And then Harold Camping did something heretofore unimaginable.
“… And which probably will be finished out on October 21, this coming very shortly, that looks like it will be, at this point, it looks like it will be the final end of everything.”
He used the word probably. He hedged.
As Sue and I were talking in Veterans Memorial Building, a lumbering man in a tie-dyed T-shirt hovered around us. His name was Mark, and he told me he had a feeling when he saw me. He said he needed to tell me his life story. On my last day in California, we met at a Denny’s in Contra Costa.
Mark is 55 and from the Bay Area. In the summer of 1969, when he was in sixth grade, he’d smoked his first joint, followed by LSD, and then methamphetamine. He worked as a mechanic, joined the Bay Area motorcycle gang the Flying Fuckin’ A’s. He and his friends took meth-fueled runs up the coast, holding court in filthy bars where they drugged women and took turns having sex with them. It went on like this for years, all around him: extortion, murder, cooking and dealing meth. One afternoon in 1979, he and his best friend, up for days on end, were speeding home from Lake Tahoe, Mark driving and taking bumps for reassurance. He fell asleep, and when he woke up outside the truck a few seconds later, he saw his friend’s brains in the road.
Things got worse. He was sitting at home one night, wasted, when a commercial came on the radio station he was listening to, and he flipped the dial. “Wel-come to ‘Open Forum,’ ” Harold Camping called out. “What the fuck is this?” Mark said to himself. But for some reason, he kept listening.