Hastings moved to Los Angeles in February. The idea was to cover Hollywood for BuzzFeed, and he rapidly ingratiated himself in the progressive community there, lunching with documentary producer Greenwald, meeting Tom Hayden. At a salon at Oliver Stone’s house, he was thrilled to meet Ron Kovic and tell him how influential his book Born on the Fourth of July had been for him. “He seemed a little stressed,” Stone told me in an e-mail, “but nothing out of the ordinary in our culture.”
Hastings took to the L.A. lifestyle, getting into skateboarding and boxing and leasing the Mercedes, but he was also busy to the point of being spread thin. In addition to his BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone gigs, he’d become a paid contributor to The Young Turks. And he was brimming with thoughts about the future. The week before his death, he told Cullen he was close to a deal to write a big book about Hollywood. He’d just finished a screenplay treatment based on another Rolling Stone piece he’d done, called “The Spy Who Cracked Up in the Cold,” and his co-writer, Justin Kremer, spoke to him at eight o’clock the evening before he died. “He’d heard from his agent and was ready to go, and he was excited about portraying that world as he’d seen it onscreen,” Kremer says.
“I’ve deliberately rammed my truck into a stationary object to seek some quietus,” says Farwell, who’s written about his own post-Afghanistan struggles with PTSD, “and I know the emotional state he was in, and he was not in that state.” Jeff Hastings agrees: “One thing I will say with as much certainty as one person can have: He did not commit suicide. Mike wasn’t planning on dying.” But Jeff also said something echoed nearly verbatim by several other friends I spoke to: Hastings wasn’t the least likely person they knew to die the way he’d died.
In high school, his drug use had been conventionally experimental, but at Connecticut College, Hastings seemed to take literally the Bret Easton Ellis and Hunter S. Thompson books he’d become enamored of. There was booze, pot, Adderall, cocaine, crack. Asked to leave the school before the year was over, Hastings moved home to Burlington, to his parents’ basement, and took a job at a coffee counter in a supermarket. “Getting kicked out, and leaving after your first year, is pretty tough,” Jeff Hastings recalls. “You think you’re a high-flier with high ambitions—then coming back to live with your parents, it is not obviously the best thing.”
Without ever going into much detail, Hastings would seed his writing over the years with elliptical references to that period, such as the time he “ended up in a county jail with only boxers on, a navy-blue blazer, a pair of Nike sneakers, and a restraining order against me.” Elsewhere, he mentioned “rehab,” and told Peter Goldman, who oversaw him on a project at Newsweek, that he’d enlisted in the Marines for five days.
The story told by Burlington Police Department records is less high-spirited than sad. Close to 3 a.m. one night in June, after his father told him to turn down his stereo, Hastings fled the house in a white Buick and drove it into a pole. When police showed up at his house, his father, a doctor, told them Hastings “suffered from mental illness.” When they interviewed him on the porch, he smelled of alcohol but denied that he’d been drinking. “While speaking with him he would make rambling statements, would laugh, become angry, was verbally abusive to his father and constantly move around the porch,” one officer reported. After he failed a dexterity test and blew a .138 on the Breathalyzer, Hastings was arrested. “All the way to the station he chanted, sang, hollered and made remarks.”
Less than a month later, at 3:46 a.m., Burlington police responded to a call about a drunk person who refused to leave the apartment of some acquaintances. The officer who arrived eventually sprayed Hastings with pepper mace, but not before Hastings “told me to shoot him” and “reached aggressively within his shirt.” On the way to the police station, Hastings “continued to threaten to shoot me, talked of making bomb threats, and being shot himself.”
That August, Hastings was arrested a third time, for stealing a turntable from a store on Main Street. Hastings’s father told police that his son “has not been well mentally for the past several months”; he “has an ‘unofficial’ evaluation indicating M. Hastings had a Manic Depressive Disorder (Bipolar)” and “was a risk in harming himself, being harmed by his actions or harming family members.”
Everyone around Hastings knew that he had quit drinking when he was 19, and even ten years on, when he was with McChrystal’s team in Paris, he repeatedly turned down proffered beers; he told a McChrystal aide he hadn’t been drunk in more than a decade.
Just a month later, he was no longer able to say that. His three-day sexcapade in Room 1725 of Atlantis, the Palm in Dubai was booze soaked, in Hastings’s telling. Though he would later resume the stance of teetotaler—on The Colbert Report, he declined the whiskey shot the host pushed toward him—he fell off the wagon again during his Obama-campaign travel. “The trail is a terrible place to clean up or stay clean,” Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox says. “The hours are terrible. When you’ve been on the road the whole time, there’s the hotel bar; it’s easy to try to unwind.” Hastings, who also took Adderall during the campaign, would later describe himself as having been “caught in the full destructive force of a campaign-induced relapse.”