Cruel Doubt · Kesha · Cyntoia Brown
Plus a '70s kidnapping and related process-y listening
What did reviewers think of Joe McGinniss’s Cruel Doubt when it debuted? Before I zhuzh the pillows in the time machine for y’all, here’s what inspired this segment. My esteemed colleague, Listen To Sassy co-host and magazinologist Tara Ariano, ran across a 1988 Mademoiselle true-crime book review 1) of, for one, a cringily titled book I’d happened to just have sold at Exhibit B., that was 2) written by Joyce Maynard. Yes, “that Joyce Maynard.” What struck both me and Tara was just how much preamble Maynard was obliged to write in order to orient readers to the true-crime genre, and explain why she’d bothered to write up two true-crime books — we’re talking over a page of “and after Capote, there was Mailer” before she gets into the books she’s actually tasked with reviewing. And on the one hand, g’head and get that dollar a word, Joycie…but on the other hand, because, as Tara put it, “it’s just the water we’re swimming in now” that we come with the references pre-set, man does it drag. (It doesn’t help that Maynard’s prose is stiff and clumsy, either. Or that it’s rendered “Jeffrey McDonald.” If the case is famous enough to cite, it’s famous enough for somebody in copy to catch that IMO.)
“Kill and Tell” isn’t online as far as I can find — feel free to Google on your own and drop a link if you turn it up — but it did get me thinking about what gold we might find in the distant hills of contemporary reviews of true-crime properties we now consider “classics” in the genre. (And of justly forgotten stuff, too, but I elected to start with a bigger fish.) Curious, I decided to go with a lesser McGinniss, although it’s my second favorite of his: Cruel Doubt. Yes, “the D&D/acid one that was a miniseries starring Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow.” In book form, it probably isn’t quite a minor classic, but I consider it one, even though the writing isn’t particularly good — and let’s be real: McGinniss often strained for lofty prose, even in his better-regarded work — thanks to juicy specifics (that ice chip in Angela’s glass; Bonnie’s pet chicken; the scrawny prime suspect being called a “silly little son of a bitch”). But what did reviewers at the time think?
First of all, a reminder that, as genre readers may faintly recall, McGinniss and Jerry Bledsoe both came out with books on the Von Stein case at more or less the same time. (If you need a refresher on the particulars, click here; if you want to avoid spoilers, scroll down, because they’re comin’.) Bledsoe is probably best known for Bitter Blood, and has a long c.v. consisting of a handful of recognizable true-crime titles and several times as many folksy-seeming books about North Carolina culture. That said, McGinniss had had Blind Faith out the same year as Bitter Blood and was the ranking “name” in the field (although as a native Tar Heel, Bledsoe may have had an edge in certain ways). Publishers Weekly called McGinniss’s version a “gripping, understated narrative” that was “somewhat more forceful” than Bledsoe’s Blood Games but still “not entirely successful” in explaining Bonnie and Chris’s relationship, which, welcome to true crime, I’m afraid. “Shitty people do shitty things” isn’t satisfying but sometimes it isn’t more complicated than that.
At least PW isn’t acting like the entire genre is ambulance-chasery that’s beneath everyone’s contempt; the Orlando Sentinel’s Ken Berg seems to find his assignment, and the writing that occasioned it, vulgar:
Ah, the smell of blood.
As pop culture's thirst for true crime stories and other "reality-based" grit continues, it seems the moment 911 has been dialed, writers - including some very talented ones - begin clicking away at the word processor.
Tee hee, “the word processor.” Berg also calls McGinniss’s account “gripping,” as well as “assured,” but also hints that McGinniss’s access to Bonnie Von Stein makes for a “highly subjective” recounting of the crime and investigation, and that that’s per se not good:
The focus is on the crime's effect on the family, and their most intensely private moments are etched in blood-spattered print.
Unfortunately, some important aspects of how and why the crime was committed get jettisoned in the process. Interesting questions are tossed out in cursory fashion at the book's end. Was Angela sexually involved with Bart Upchurch, the convicted killer? Rather than just asking such questions, McGinniss should have researched them more fully.
Okay, whoever jettisoned the editor before “etched in blood-spattered print” could get kiboshed is the real criminal here. But I kid ol’ Kenny! …I mean, except not really because that phrasing is everything regrettable about the genre itself, honestly, but my actual issue with this portion of Berg’s review is the implication that McGinniss skived off investigating alternative explanations for the crime, particularly when the specific example used is…not researchable? McGinniss goes as far as he can possibly go with the idea that Angela was involved in, or at least aware of, the conspiracy to kill her mother and stepfather, but Bonnie is, IIRC, unwilling to fully go there in her conversations with McGinniss or her therapist, and certainly Angela is not going to throw herself under the bus. What exactly would Berg like McGinniss to do, truth-serum the girl?
I did appreciate the contrasts Berg drew between McGinniss’s closer-in take on the case, and Bledsoe’s “sometimes plodding” but thorough research into the timeline and the “twisted trio” at its heart; people are allowed to want different things out of a true-crime narrative, and in the case of “l’affaire Von Stein,” readers have options. It’s interesting for me to see the ways Berg takes into reviewing the two options here, and how he talks about the genre during what I would call perhaps an interregnum — after its dawn, certainly, but well before its primacy, or before it wasn’t handled with tongs and a wrinkled nose, anyway.
And speaking of topics to handle with tongs and a wrinkled nose: Alessandra Stanley, ladies and germs! Stanley’s storied record of upfuckery as the Times’s chief TV critic has receded into the mist of memory, but the internet is forever, and Stanley was truly terrible. (And probably still is; remind me and Eve to fact-check links from Air Mail.) I don’t think I knew that she’d reviewed books during her Times tenure, but if I didn’t suspect that I was in for whatever the opposite of a treat is when I saw the byline, the lede confirmed it:
In the annals of crime, there are serial murderers, and then there are the serial authors. Perhaps there was a moment when Joe McGinniss, the author of "Fatal Vision," the grisly story of an Army doctor who brutally killed his pregnant wife and two daughters, and then "Blind Faith," another grisly story about a brutal wife-killer, felt like scrawling across his bathroom mirror, "Stop me before I write again." If there was, it passed.
And what’s your excuse, ma’am? At least McGinniss knew when the moon landing was, and don’t think that mirror reference makes you cute, because it doesn’t. Stanley’s piece is less a review than a hit job on McGinniss’s process — one which, ironically, relishes cataloging corrections to the text by some of Cruel Doubt’s key figures, implying that McGinniss made shit up (although not, interestingly, in the graf devoted to his book on Ted Kennedy, at that time still in progress), and stopping just short of saying outright that the kuntry kops of the North Carolina SBI were too easily impressed with City Joe…not to mention the near-gleeful mention of McGinniss’s legal battle with Jeffrey MacDonald over Fatal Vision. It isn’t a review of the book; it’s a review of the author, and it winds up telling us a lot more about Stanley than it does about McGinniss.
I know I can come off like the late McGinniss’s lawyer, so I’ll reiterate that he wasn’t the best on the sentence level, that he could get tangled up in his own self-importance, that that Ted Kennedy book was disastrous (I have read it; it’s entertaining, but…yeah) and that Never Enough was bloated in a couple of ways — BUT I also think that this general take on him, typified by Stanley’s write-up, has persisted to this day among people who share, or shared, this general take on true crime as a genre, that it’s a trashy irritant that keeps belching within earshot of the grownups’ table. And it’s not entirely off-base! McGinniss is a mixed bag, for sure. But it’s a diverting thought experiment to look at old reviews of his work and his working, and see what has and hasn’t come out in the wash in 30 years’ time as the genre has evolved. Berg, I think, eventually lets himself take the texts seriously and offer an even assessment of them, alone and comparatively, but it does start out with A Tone; Stanley’s is only that Tone, and I get the sense that she offered at the assignment because punching down is so much easier to do on a deadline than taking a thing for what it is. (Evidently she’s IRL friends with Maureen Dowd, which might explain the Dowd-y snotty impatience in the Stanley piece.)
I’d still recommend reading Cruel Doubt (or watching the miniseries) if you never have. If you have other oldies-but-possibly-not-that-goodies you’d like me to hunt up old reviews for, leave ’em here. — SDB
A limited series based on the life of Cyntoia Brown is headed for Starz. I’m intrigued by this for two reasons: 1) Starz is doing some great work in the nonfiction space the last few years; and 2) I had pretty serious issues with the Netflix doc on Brown (now Cyntoia Brown-Long), a sex-trafficking victim later convicted of murder while she was a minor, that came out around this time last year — one of which was that it should have been a series. (The Independent Lens joint on Brown-Long that came out in 2011 is the best of what’s available, IMO, but it looks like it’s not available through conventional means at the moment.)
Of course, I didn’t have a scripted series in mind, but the résumés of the production team are convincing:
Power franchise executive producer Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and La La Anthony, who has been a long-time supporter of Brown-Long's cause, will executive produce the drama, titled The Case of Cyntoia Brown. Santa Sierra (Power Book III, Vida) will write and executive produce, and Brown Long and her husband, Jamie Long, will consult. …
The limited series will trace Brown Long's life beginning when she was a teenager and sex-trafficked by a boyfriend. At age 16, she was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery for killing a man who paid to have sex with her. She maintained it was an act of self-defense but was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole until she was 67.
While in prison, Brown Long earned associate's and bachelor's degrees and served as a mentor to at-risk kids. She continued to advocate for her release, and her case attracted high-profile support from the likes of Anthony, LeBron James, Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna. She was granted clemency and released in 2019.
We’ve got a ways to go before The Case takes any kind of predictable shape, but I’m glad the story is getting a more extended medium in which to unpack everything in the case, and that when it’s time to review it, presumably we won’t have Brown-Long’s disavowal of the project to contend with. — SDB
Yes, Kesha is still wrangling with “Dr. Luke” in court, and yes, it’s an unbelievably complicated set of cases — but Vulture has a “complete history” of Kesha’s attempts to get some justice and get out of her contract. Setbacks for Kesha in recent days vis-a-vis Dr. Luke’s claim that she defamed him in texts to Lady Gaga (…yeah, seriously) may have had you, as they did me, muttering, “Wait, that poor kid’s still going through it with this douche?” She is. And she’s not winning, and she hasn’t been, but she’s hanging in. As I kept reading down the lengthy and detailed timeline of claims, counterclaims, suits, and countersuits, I was struck by how familiar Dr. Luke’s and various judges’ responses were: how the default position of both the alleged abuser and the courts is, apparently, “Let’s just wait her out, and if she gets ruled against enough times, she’ll either run out of money or run out of emotional gas.” There’s almost a condescending “you don’t get to fight back, little one” feel to the whole thing.
As you know, I don’t have a law degree, and I don’t actually see anything egregious in various judges’ findings, except in the fact that it’s obviously in everyone’s best interests to put an end to all of these various proceedings by whatever means necessary, and yet rulings keep coming down that will keep these people handcuffed together indefinitely, like, what is this for? To discourage people from coming forward with “unprovable” accusations? Whatever else you think of Kesha’s assertion that Dr. Luke assaulted her (I believe her), it’s clear she’s not going to back off it, and he’s probably gotten all the legal satisfaction he can expect in that regard after the defamation countersuit went his way. Isn’t the play, if you’re this guy, even if you didn’t do anything, to let her go and stay out of her way?
Unless you aren’t shit without her, so you have to keep funneling your cut of her work product into a Roth IRA until she finally finds a judge who’s like, “Enough with this,” and voids the contract. And/or you’re compelled to perform outrage because you totally did it. I know how it looks to me. — SDB
Contributor Margaret Howie tipped us to this “brilliant piece on a forgotten kidnapping” in The Atlantic. And she’s right, “A Kidnapping Gone Very Wrong” is pretty great: a diplomat taken during Nixon’s Watergate embattlement (on my first birthday, in fact); the FBI keeping secrets from local law enforcement; an attorney general accidentally leaking the story; accusations of “self-kidnapping”; and how frumpy ransom disbursement always ends up being, somehow:
The ransom money, consisting of $50 and $20 bills stacked inside Girl Scout cookie boxes, arrived at the Arizona border motel well past dark on March 23. Andra took a taxi into Mexico and checked in at the Hotel Fray Marcos, a mere block away from American soil.
The next morning, Andra waited for the phone to ring; outside, more than two dozen FBI agents tried to remain incognito. Hours passed, yet no one came looking for the money. By lunchtime, the FBI and the State Department concluded that the payoff wasn’t going to happen, and that Andra should return to Hermosillo by car at once.
Later, there’s a poolside McDonald’s bag “filled with cash”…and a Vietnam POW civilian (…you’ll see) whom nobody took much notice of when he came home on the same transport plane as John McCain. Intrigued? Here’s that link again…
…and if you want to know more about Brendan I. Koerner’s process in writing it, great news: Margaret also let us know that the Ringer’s Press Box podcast interviewed Koerner about that very thing last week (that bit starts at 36:30). If you like doing 360s on longreads sometimes, like I’ve done on Frédéric Bourdin (more than once, in fact), this is just the thing, so thanks, Margaret! — SDB
This week on Best Evidence: Between Black and Blue, the aftermath of perjury, and even more longreads.