sex and murder

helter skelterThis spring I ended up reading two books on eerily similar topics. Well, the fact that the subject matter — accounts of spectacular criminal trials — overlapped is not that much of a surprise, since I love true crime. Both proceedings, 40 years apart, garnered excessive media attention because of the suggestion of sex-fueled ritual murder.

Recommended by a friend of a friend, Helter Skelter is the story of what has come to be known as the Manson Family murders. The title refers to the Beatles song from which cult leader Charles Manson derived the harrowing philosophy of racial warfare that led him to order the killing of at least 11 people in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 1969.

The book was penned by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who managed to get Manson convicted of all of the murders committed by Manson’s cult — even though he wasn’t present at any of them. Bugliosi indicted Manson on charges of conspiracy, a legal technicality that allows for co-defendants to be convicted of crimes that any of the group did; he just had to convince a jury that Manson had control of his disciples.

That turned out to be easier than you might think, because Manson wasn’t reticent about the power he cultivated and wielded. He never admitted outright the command to kill, but he told Bugliosi plenty about his “Family,” the term Manson used for the followers that he assembled, lived with, and directed in orgies at a ranch in the hills west of Los Angeles. And the Family members were equally frank about their slavish loyalty to the man they considered “G-d,” or “Jesus Christ.”

Bugliosi didn’t take any chances, though, and he tells with fastidious, fascinating detail how he shaped the case that put Charles Manson behind bars, where he remains to this day. The thoroughly compelling account is only slightly marred by the fact that Bugliosi writes himself as the only competent character on both sides of the legal team; the LAPD detectives in particular come across as buffoons, while Bugliosi saves the day (by doing their work as well as his).

Overall, though the book is great, one of the best non-fiction accounts I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it — though perhaps not, as I read a good deal of it, alone, late at night, in a house that backs up to a wooded expanse. The Manson Family, as it turns out, selected their victims pretty much at random, and I was irrationally sure I was next.

waiting to be heardThe other book I tackled was not of the same quality. But that wasn’t really the point: As soon as I heard the release date for Amanda Knox’s book (April 30, timed to coincide with her first post-prison interview), I went to the Brookline Public Library’s online catalog and requested a copy. I got it on May 7, and I had read it by May 9. Like many, I followed the infamous case — the four-year journey of a murder conviction that was ultimately overturned — partly because it was portrayed as so lurid, and partly because I just love the genre.

Waiting to Be Heard is not great literature, but it is a good read. In November 2007, 20-year-old Amanda Knox had been in Perugia, Italy, for just five weeks when her British roommate was found brutally killed in the villa that the two shared with two other Italian women. Knox and her boyfriend of one week were later arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder — which conviction was overturned in 2011, leading to their release. The book is the story, told with help from a ghostwriter in a voice that I can only imagine actually approximates Amanda’s own, of those years.

The narrative is marked from the beginning by her defensiveness about almost every action that led to her arrest, somewhat understandably since they were all, to a one, used against her in the trial. And they were the actions of an immature young woman, just barely not a teenager anymore. Knox is as staggeringly naive as Manson was creepily controlling. I can understand a college student with no conception of police tactics or criminal investigations, leading to wince-inducing efforts to cooperate with an increasingly hostile prosecutor. However, Knox also expresses shock — shock! — that the family of her murdered roommate seems angry at her when she first encounters them in a courtroom after her arrest. The police, the media, fine — but the victim’s family thinks I’m guilty, too? And it’s not entirely clear that her years in prison did much to disabuse her of that naiveté. But maybe that’s a blessing. I was genuinely disturbed, when, before the verdict her retrial, she wrote a list of things to do if she received a life sentence: stop writing letters homeask family and friends to forget mesuicide? But the end of book makes clear that Amanda Knox will find her way again.

Since I always do in my true crime stories, I’ll weigh in here, too. Manson: guilty; Knox: not guilty. Manson in all likelihood was precisely the monster he was made out to be, while Knox simply couldn’t have been the sex-and-drug-addicted femme fatale as she was portrayed.

joseph anton

Joseph Anton, you must live until you die.

So Salman Rushdie tells his alter-ago – the psuedonym, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, respectively, and how he is referred to by his British protection officers – as he embarks on what turns out to be a 13-year journey under a death sentence decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on Valentine’s Day in 1989. In this book full of irony, it’s no small irony that the man whose fatwa called for the killing of the London-based Indian expat – for blaspheming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses – died a few years later while the writer lived on.

First, a confession: I’ve never read anything of Rushdie’s until now. I read an excerpt from this book when it was published in The New Yorker in September, and I was hooked. I tried to read Midnight’s Children a few years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it. It might be time to try something again.

The memoir of his life under the fatwa – with digressions into his child- and young adulthood – is told in the third-person, which is jarring at first but quickly becomes natural. The choice reflects Rushdie’s alienation from himself during this trying period of his life. He is forced to chose the cover name so that the members of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police (in charge of personal protection in the United Kingdom) who are his constant companions during the first nine years of the fatwa can refer to him without raising suspicion about his identity; to his extreme dislike and irritation, the men on his detail shorten the name to Joe. Rushdie in other ways ceases to become Salman: He is denounced as Rushdie the apostate (by a large part of the Muslim world), Rushdie the self-aggrandizer (by one of his ex-wives), Rushdie the ungracious (by the British press). His life almost ceases to become his own — and is certainly no longer his intellectual property, as plays and movies and articles and books and stories are written about him and the fatwa. And his new world narrowly circumscribed by what he is “allowed” to do.

Rushdie writes movingly of the pain of those years. Two marriages collapse under their weight, as well as numerous friendships and relationships with colleagues. His interaction with his then eight-year-old son is severely curtailed. For the first few years, he must move every few months, and he is constantly in search of new accommodations. He is almost always afraid – less for himself than for the risk he poses to his loved ones and colleagues. While none of his family is harmed, a foreign translator of The Satanic Verses is murdered and another is almost fatally shot. His publishers face death threats, bookstores carrying his books are bombed. It is for these casualties that Rushdie feels unrelenting guilt.

But Rushdie himself has more than his fair share of trials. Support for free speech — the main issue at hand, as he sees it — does not always come from where he expects, and he feels the betrayal of his colleagues acutely. But he is not always able to confront his accusers (whether erstwhile colleagues or new enemies), which leads to the intermittent, unsent, and often hilarious letters that appear in the text. “It was a time,” Joseph Anton reflects, “where comedy had to be found in dark places.”

The British government in particular is upsetting in its silence and its general inaction on the fatwa. Under house arrest, Rushdie feels like a prisoner, and the resulting depression leads to long periods of writer’s block. His second wife, whom he married just before the fatwa, is breathtaking in her betrayal. But lest the reader began see the author of The Satanic Verses as martyr (another mistaken identity), Rushie is also unflinchingly honest about his own shortcomings: the tactical errors he made in his own defense, the affairs he had (he cheated on three of his four wives).

salman rushdie with the satanic verses in 1992

History plays a large role in this part of Rushdie’s life. He had the misfortune of being targeted by Iranian extremists when U.S. and U.K. citizens were Hezbollah’s hostages in Lebanon; both countries ask for his silence at various times out of fear for their safety. On the other hand, as Rushdie notes at the end of the memoir, he had the fortune of not being this target in the internet age, when the more rapid spread of information might have raised the risk of his detection. (One of the more interesting motifs throughout the book is the development of technology: It begins with him composing drafts of his work on a typewriter and ends with his purchasing of a laptop. The scene of his first encounter with a cellphone is hilarious.)

The book also brought up for me, as a future clergy member, the danger of being on the wrong side of history: For various reasons, stakeholders who by all rights should have been vociferous defenders of free speech were   In addition to politicians and writers, many religious leaders condemned The Satanic Verses on the basis of “offense to Islam,” including the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Immanuel Jakobovits, who went even further, declaring that “both Mr. Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.” In one of his impossible letters, Rushdie rightly condemns his “making false moral equivalences.”

For indeed as Jews well know, in the words of Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books they will in the end burn people too.”

riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

the unlikely disciple

In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)

Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.

I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.

I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).

I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.

As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.

liberty university, lynchburg, va.

There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.

Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.

And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.

As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”