By Jeanne McKinney
The real Dr. Mark Whitacre, subject of the film “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon, told his incredible story on Jan. 24 at a luncheon sponsored by the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF) at Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa. The meeting room was packed with friends and supporters seeking knowledge and hope for loved ones suffering from this diverse and often stigmatizing mental illness.
Whitacre’s brilliant career unraveled as the high-level corporate executive turned whistle-blower for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the infamous 1990s Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) price fixing investigation. The stress of playing such a serious game fueled his undiagnosed bipolar condition to a meltdown.
Muffy Walker, IBPF president, spoke first at the event. “The International Bipolar Foundation was founded six years ago by four mothers [including Muffy] who have children with bipolar disorder.” They were having difficulty navigating local resources and thought about the hundreds of thousands of other struggling people and their families. Since June 2007, their nonprofit organization has gone global. “Our mission has remained the same,” Walker said. “We work towards finding a cure for bipolar disorder through the advancement of research, enhance care and support services, and educate the public regarding stigma and discrimination against those with mental illness.”
Diagnosing his bipolar condition took 38 years for Whitacre, who, looking back could see the warning signs at age 18. At that time, bipolar worked to his advantage. After a mere two semesters and taking Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), academic advisors at Ohio State told him, “You’re finished with your bachelor’s degree. You’re starting your master’s degree tomorrow.” Whitacre said, “I walked out of that room thinking, I’m a really smart guy. I’m going to make millions with this intellect.” At Cornell University, he was told, “Mark, you’re the youngest guy we’ve ever seen get a Ph.D. in biochemistry.”
Because of all the rewards and accolades he’d received Whitacre said, “That set me on a track that I was going to be the youngest and best at everything.” He signed up for correspondence courses, and night and weekend classes — getting an MBA, a law degree, a masters in law, a Ph.D. in both psychology and economics — in total nine degrees, six of them doctorates. “I only needed three hours of sleep – I could study all night. My wife [Ginger] never understood.”
His manic behavior brewed into the perfect storm. At age 32, he became the fourth highest ranked and youngest divisional president in the history of Archer Daniels Midland, the 56th largest Fortune 500 Company in America. ADM was the biggest grain producer, with revenues (then) of $70 billion. “I went from obsessed with education to obsessed with my job,” Whitacre said.
Whitacre was rising to the top in ADM when he was caught up in flawed corporate ethics and an illegal price fixing conspiracy with foreign competitors. Prices were fixed artificially high and productivity low, cheating consumers of billions of dollars. Ginger spurred Whitacre to tell the FBI the whole story and he agreed to become an informant – in exchange for the FBI’s protection.
“I met the FBI agents every morning at 6 a.m. for three years. They shaved my chest and strapped a microphone on it. I couldn’t take off my jacket Monday-Friday all that time.” He had three different recorders documenting conversations and meetings all over the world. “All those years, I didn’t know who I was — ADM executive or FBI informant. You add bipolar on top of that and it took me to the psychotic and delusional level.” Keeping secrets and telling lies became the norm.
Wife Ginger knew something was desperately wrong as stress ballooned. “As fast as the leaves were falling, I found Mark outside blowing leaves in the rain at 3 a.m.,” she said. She encouraged Mark to get back to his family and back to God. Whitacre claimed he had no need for God – that he [Mark] had all the power.
The FBI’s key witness recounted his next obsession, shocking his FBI counterparts and jeopardizing the entire case. While still working as an untrained informant he worried about the repercussions for his family and future and began embezzling millions into his own bank accounts. “I had a greed problem and I had bipolar and it was about to become a train wreck.”
It wasn’t until after his undercover years, when Whitacre tried to end his life twice, that he was finally diagnosed, just before he entered federal prison for fraud and tax evasion. He lost everything and spent nine years in a 10 x 10 cell with a locker, with limited treatment. “I never saw a psychiatrist in nine years, but it was OK — it was a very controlled environment. You either come out bitter or better.”
Empathy in the IBPF luncheon room was palpable. Dr. John Reed, co-chair on the Scientific Advisory Board for IBPF, stood up and said, “Bipolar is a guessing game. It can take up to five different medications and then nothing may work. There’s not just one bipolar disorder.”
“I don’t know if I could have lived without my family staying with me,” Whitacre’s voice crackled with emotion each time he mentioned Ginger. “My wife put a whole new meaning into standing by her man. I sure didn’t make her life easy.” Additionally, Whitacre said, “The divorce rate is 99 percent if you serve five years or longer [in prison]. Mine visited 20 hours every weekend with my children. We’re celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary this year.”
Billions in anti-trust fines have been paid to the U.S. government since Whitacre first blew the whistle in 1992. Dean Paisley, former FBI agent who worked the ADM case, said, “Mark Whitacre is a national hero. He wasn’t recognized for the biggest anti-trust case in the country. That’s wrong.” Because of him, Whitacre says the FBI has improved methods. “They don’t let anyone wear a wire longer than a year and every quarter they have the informant get psychological and psychiatric assistance to help them deal with a double life.”
Whitacre said, “Second chances really do happen in America.” Twenty-four hours after he left prison he had a job offer. He’s now COO at Cypress Systems, Inc., a biotechnology company. “The best thing is I became a Christian in prison. What God has done for me is help society forgive me. I speak all over the world – people wouldn’t be bringing me in if they didn’t trust what I said. I find it very rewarding that God has put me on a good track.”
Bipolar treatment is a lifelong endeavor. Whitacre’s main objective of the day was, “That you walk out of this room with more passion than you’ve ever had about removing the stigma of mental illness.”
For more information on the International Bipolar Foundation: https://www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org/