* He didn’t mean to be rude. He didn’t mean to create chaos in other people’s lives. He was just moving through the world in the only way he knew how. The cost this implied for others simply never entered his calculations. With him it was never personal. If he stood you up, it was never on a whim, or the result of thoughtlessness. It was because he’d done some math in his head that proved that you weren’t worth the time. “You’re always going to be apologizing to different people, and you’ll do that every day,” said Natalie.
He’d occasionally surprise her with some kindness — for example, after he’d met privately with President Clinton, and asked him what the United States might do if China invaded Taiwan. Whatever Clinton had told Sam had prompted him to seek her out afterward and suggest that she move her parents out of Taiwan.
* “My mom is working full – time on the effectiveness of political campaign donations, and my brother is in DC with policymakers,” Sam said, returning Anna Wintour’s face to his laptop. “We’re doing a decent amount to see just how hard we can make it to steal an election. It’s sad that’s the forum we have to fight in, but it is.”
For a surprisingly long time, Sam’s spending on American elections had flown under the radar. Back in 2020, he’d sent $5.2 million to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign without anyone asking or even thanking him for it. He was Biden’s second – or third – biggest donor, and yet the campaign had never even bothered to call him. Since then, Sam had tossed tens of millions more dollars at one hundred different candidates and political action committees (PACs), in ways that made his identity difficult to detect. It was yet another game — How to Influence American Politics — that he was learning by doing, and it was pretty fun, especially when you had the special power of invisibility. But then he “fucked up,” as he put it. He let it slip in some interview that he was thinking of hurling a billion dollars into the next presidential election. That remark had awakened the beast.
* Natalie Tien was prepared for Anna Wintour’s people to be disappointed when she told them that Sam wouldn’t be there. It was their outrage that surprised her. “They called and shouted and said Sam will never set foot in fashion again!” said Natalie. So much for pulling more women into crypto. Natalie didn’t understand why the Met Gala was such a big deal. Sam’s last – minute decision not to go would not create anything like the havoc caused by some of his other internal calculations. CEOs had flown to the Bahamas under the mistaken impression that Sam had agreed to buy their companies. The World Economic Forum had to scramble to fill a stage and cancel media interviews after Sam decided, the night before he was meant to deliver a big speech in Davos, not to. Sam had failed to fly to Dubai to give the keynote at Time magazine’s party for the world’s 100 Most Influential People, even after Time had named him to their list and flattered him in print. “In a crypto landscape ridden with scams, hedonism, and greed, Bankman – Fried offers a kinder and more impactful vision brought forth by the nascent technology,” Time had written, the week before Sam stiffed them. Tyra Banks and will.i.am and all the rest of the world’s other most influential people were treated to hastily prepared remarks delivered by a not entirely sober FTX employee named Adam Jacobs, who was bewildered to be standing in for Sam. “I’m like, What is the head of payments doing giving this speech?” said Jacobs. “Why am I drinking with will.i.am?”
But the people at Time magazine hadn’t made a stink. No one except Anna Wintour’s people did: the general rule of life as late as May 2, 2022, was that Sam got to be Sam.
* When I’d asked Sam for a list of people who could describe what he was like before the age of eighteen, he’d taken a deep breath and said, “That’s slim pickings.” He suggested his parents, Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried. He mentioned that he had a younger brother, Gabe. Apart from that, he said, he had no early relationships that would cast any light on him, and there were no experiences in his childhood that mattered much. “I’m a little confused about my childhood,” he said. “I just can’t figure out what I did with it. I look at the things I did, and I cannot successfully add up to twenty – four hours a day. I daydreamed some. I read some books. I played some video games, but that wasn’t until high school. I had one or two frien ds I’d hang out with now and again.” The names of those friends, with one exception, would not ever spring to mind. He was happy to supply me with his date of birth: March 5, 1992. Beyond that, he didn’t have much to say, and didn’t think his childhood had anything to say about him — which struck me as odd, as he had spent roughly two – thirds of his life in it.
He’d gone to school for thirteen years with other children. He’d been admitted to colleges, which would have required teachers to write him recommendations. His parents were well – known professors. Most Sundays, I’d learn, Joe and Barbara hosted a dinner that guests remember fondly to this day. “The conversation was intoxicating,” recalls Tino Cuéllar, a Stanford law professor who would go on to become a judge on California’s supreme court and then head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Fifteen percent of it was what was going on in your life, fifteen percent was politics, and the rest was ideas. How we thought about what we thought about — aesthetics, music, whatever.” Sam had been at those dinners but could not think of any one of their guests who’d be worth my talking to. Pressed, he suggested I call his brother, who was now employed by Sam to distribute Sam’s money to political candidates. Gabe, three years younger, told me that I was wasting my time. “We weren’t close growing up,” he said, when I reached him. “I don’t think Sam liked school that much, but I don’t really know. He kept to himself. I would interact with him as another tenant in my house.”
Sam’s parents were only a bit more helpful. Sam had been their first child, and so it had taken them longer than it might have to figure out that there was no point in parenting him by any book. “Childhood was a funny thing for Sam,” said Joe. “He was never comfortable with kids, or with being a kid.” They’d briefly attempted to inflict upon him a normal childhood before realizing that there was no point. The trip to the amusement park was a good example. When Sam was a small child, his mother had located a Six Flags or Great America park. She’d hauled him dutifully from amusement to amusement until she realized Sam wasn’t amused. Instead of throwing himself into the rides, he was watching her . “Are you having fun, Mom?” he asked finally, by which he meant, Is this really your or anyone else’s idea of fun? “I realized I had been busted,” said Barbara.
By the time Sam was eight she had given up on the idea that his wants and needs would be anything like other children’s. She remembered the instant that happened. She had been at Stanford for over a decade, a frequent contributor of difficult papers to academic journals. “I was walking him to school, and he asked me what I was doing,” recalled Barbara. “I told him I was giving some paper, and he asked, ‘What’s it on?’ ” I gave him a bullshit answer, and he pressed me on it, and by the end of the walk we were in the middle of a deep conversation about the argument. The points he was making were better than any of the reviewers’. At that moment my parenting style changed.”
To their friends who came to dinner on Sunday nights, Joe was always light, Barbara more serious. Joe was funny, Barbara trenchant. Gabe was a bright and cheery little kid whom everyone loved. Sam was always a presence, but he was quieter and more watchful and less accessible than his little brother. To their dinner guests it seemed that Joe and especially Barbara were both a little afraid for, and of, their elder son. And that they were concerned about how he would ever fit into the world. “We worried that Gabe’s light was going to shine, and Sam would hide his under a bushel,” said Barbara.
Sam himself took a bit longer to recognize the gulf between himself and other children. He didn’t really know why he didn’t have friends the way other kids did. Between the ages of eight and ten, he was sideswiped by a pair of realizations that, taken together, amounted to an epiphany. The first came one December day during the third grade. Christmas was approaching, and a few of his classmates brought up the critical subject of Santa Claus.
The Bankman – Frieds weren’t big on the usual holidays. They celebrated Hanukkah but with so little enthusiasm that one year they simply forgot it, and, realizing that none of them cared, stopped celebrating anything. “It was like, ‘Alright, who was bothered by this fact? The fact that we forgot Hanukkah.’ No one raised their hand,” Sam said. They didn’t do birthdays, either. Sam didn’t feel the slightest bit deprived. “My parents were like, I dunno, ‘Is there something you want? Alright, bring it up. And you can have it. Even in February. Doesn’t have to be in December. If you want it, let’s have an open and honest conversation about it instead of us trying to guess.’ ” Sam, like his parents, didn’t see the point in anyone trying to imagine what someone else might want. The family’s indifference to convention came naturally and unselfconsciously. It was never, Look how interest ing we are, we don’t observe any of the rituals that define so many American lives. “It’s not like they said, ‘Gifts are dumb,’ ” recalled Sam. “They never tried to convince us about gifts. It didn’t happen like that.”
None of what the Bankman – Frieds did was for show; they weren’t that kind of people. They just really thought about what they did before they did it. In his twenties Sam would learn that his parents had never married. In silent protest of the fact that their gay friends could not legally marry, they’d joined in a civil union. And they never said a word about it to their children, or to anyone else, as far as Sam could tell. Later, Sam understood that “they were clearly being driven by a different underlying belief system.” As a small child he knew only that there were things other children took for granted that he did not.
* Sam had heard of God too. “God was like a thing on TV,” he said. “God came up. But I didn’t think anyone actually believed in God.” It told you something not just about Sam but about his upbringing that he could live for almost ten years inside the United States of America without realizing that other people believed in God. “I never asked myself, ‘Why does God come up if no one believes in it?’ ” he said. “I had never gone through that process before. I hadn’t drilled down into ‘Do people believe in it?’ ” Now Henry was telling him not only that he believed in God but that his parents did too. So did lots of other grown – ups. “And I freaked out,” recalled Sam. “Then he freaked out. We both freaked out. I remember thinking, Wait a minute, do you think I’m going to hell? Because that seems like a big deal. If hell exists, why do you, like, care about McDonald’s? Why are we talking about any of this shit, if there is a hell. If it really exists. It’s fucking terrifying, hell.”
This was Santa all over again, only worse. God — or rather the fact that anyone believed in him — rocked Sam’s world. Just sideswiped his view of other people and what was going on inside their minds. He tried to confront adults — mainly friends of his parents’ who came to dinner — about God. He always found it easier to talk to grown – ups than to children and had always been better at it than other children — a fact he attributed to the idiotic childishness of other children. His parents’ friends were at their dinner table every Sunday, and available for inspection. “I’d ask them, ‘Do you believe in God?’ They’d equivocate — like, say something about a Being that started the Clock of the Universe. And I’d think, Quit fucking around: it’s a binary question. Just yes or no.” He didn’t understand the unwillingness of even really smart grown – ups to get the right answer to this question. “It was weird to me,” he said. “I never understood why people bothered pretending about this shit.”
* In some deep way, he sensed, he remained cut off from other human beings. He could read them, but they couldn’t read him. “There were some things I had to teach myself to do,” he said. “One is facial expressions. Like making sure I smile when I’m supposed to smile. Smiling was the biggest thing that I most weirdly couldn’t do.” Other people would say or do things to which he was meant to respond with some emotional display.
* He felt nothing in the presence of art. He found religion absurd. He thought both right – wing and left – wing political opinions kind of dumb, less a consequence of thought than of their holder’s tribal identity. He and his family ignored the rituals that punctuated most people’s existence. He didn’t even celebrate his own birthday. What gave pleasure and solace and a sense of belonging to others left Sam cold. When the Bankman – Frieds traveled to Europe, Sam realized that he was just staring at a lot of old buildings for no particular reason. “We did a few trips,” he said. “I basically hated it.” To his unrelenting alienation there was one exception: games. In sixth grade Sam heard about a game called Magic: The Gathering . For the next four years it was the only activity that consumed him faster than he could consume it.
* In their day jobs, his parents continually wrestled with the tension, in American law, between individual freedoms and the collective good. Both identified, broadly speaking, as utilitarians: any law should seek not to maximize some abstract notion of freedom but rather the greatest good for the greatest number. They never pushed their views on Sam, but Sam of course heard them. And his parents mostly made sense to him. Around the time he stopped reading books, he turned to utilitarian message boards on the internet. He might not have felt connections to individual individual people, but that only made it easier for him to consider the interests of humanity as a whole. “Not being super close to that many particular people made it more natural to care not about anyone in particular but about everyone,” he said. “The default wiring I had was, ‘Yeah, there’s not anyone who doesn’t matter. So I guess I should care the same amount about everyone.’”
* Sam would later explain:
“When I was about 12 years old I was first becoming politically aware and started to think through social issues. Gay marriage was a no brainer — you don’t have to be a hardcore utilitarian to see that making people’s lives miserable because they’re completely harmlessly a little bit different than you is stupid. But abortion was nagging me a bit. I was pretty conflicted for a while: having unwanted kids is bad, but so was murder.”
Then Sam framed abortion as a utilitarian might. Not by dwelling on the rights of the mother or the rights of the unborn child but by evaluating the utility of either course of action.
“There are lots of good reasons why murder is usually a really bad thing: you cause distress to the friends and family of the murdered, you cause society to lose a potentially valuable member in which it has already invested a lot of food and education and resources, and you take away the life of a person who had already invested a lot into it. But none of those apply to abortion. In fact, if you think about the actual consequences of an abortion, except for the distress caused to the parents (which they’re in the best position to evaluate), there are few differences from if the fetus had never been conceived in the first place. In other words, to a utilitarian abortion looks a lot like birth control. In the end murder is just a word and what’s important isn’t whether you try to apply the word to a situation but the facts of the situation that caused you to describe it as murder in the first place. And in the case of abortion few of the things that make murder so bad apply.”
* He’d always just thought that he’d wind up being some kind of professor, like his parents. “I had sort of implicitly assumed that academia was the center of morality,” he said. “It was where people were at least thinking of how to have the most impact on the world.”