True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa
by Michael Finkel
The Journalist and the Murderer
A review by Andrew O'Hehir
Michael Finkel can't say he wasn't warned. At some point in 2002, when Finkel,
a disgraced former reporter for the New York Times Magazine, was becoming
friendly with Christian Longo, a man accused of murdering his wife and three children,
he asked a forensic psychologist named Joe W. Dixon to read Longo's letters. In
the prisoner's lengthy and surprisingly introspective correspondence, Dixon saw
a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder. He also saw, in layman's
terms, a pathological liar. People like Longo, he wrote, are incapable of honesty:
"Lying is their nature. Not just their second nature, but their nature. Beware
of their snares."
Dixon's phrasing echoes the old parable about the scorpion that can't help
stinging the frog that's carrying him across a river -- even though it means
they'll both drown -- because it's his nature. This warning made an impression
on Finkel, but not as much as it should have. In Chris Longo, after all, Finkel
was dealing with a guy who had fled the scene of a murder and lived for several
weeks in Mexico impersonating someone else -- specifically, impersonating him.
In his absorbing chronicle True Story, Finkel spends a lot of time chewing
over the bizarre relationship with Longo that flowed from this unlikely coincidence.
But all his rumination and self-scrutiny can't hide the fact that Finkel was
fatally infatuated with a man who was suspected (and has since been convicted)
of killing his entire family. Finkel had a fever that can be as consuming as
love or drugs; he was a reporter with a hot story that he thought might save
his career. He gambled that he could make it across the river with Chris Longo
without getting stung.
Finkel has become an object of fascination for other journalists -- and the
subject of much gossip and innuendo -- because he committed two unpardonable
sins. First, in November 2001, he published a profoundly flawed cover story
in the Times Magazine, a quasi-fictional weave of truth and invention
that purported to be about a young boy trapped in the poverty of West Africa's
chocolate plantations. (Although Finkel's fakery was nowhere near the level
of Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, his name will always be linked to theirs.)
Then, after Longo impersonated him -- and Finkel, as a result, befriended Longo
-- he got a huge, juicy scoop, a story nobody else could have gotten.
Now that Finkel has written a riveting book about his bizarre adventure, you
might make that three unpardonable sins. Not only has he profited from his own
crime (his scoop would not have been possible without his earlier misdeed),
Finkel then had the gall to get back on the horse and establish that he's still
a formidable writer and reporter. So when you read other journalists beating
Finkel up in print, be aware that our contempt for him is equal parts fear and
envy, part "there but for the grace of God go I" and part "why
couldn't that murderer have impersonated me?"
As he explains in the first chapter of True Story, Finkel was sitting
at home in Bozeman, Mont., on the night of Feb. 20, 2002, waiting for the Times
to publish an editor's note on Page A3 that would repudiate his tainted article
and announce that he'd been fired. He had every reason to expect that his career
as a journalist, at least for major and reputable publications, was over. When
a reporter for the Portland Oregonian called him, Finkel congratulated
him on being the first, and assumed the media onslaught had begun. But the Portland
reporter wasn't calling about the Times scandal, which he hadn't even
heard about. He was calling about Christian Longo.
Longo had disappeared from Newport, Ore., a couple of months earlier, around
the time his dead wife and three dead kids -- 5-year-old Zachery, 3-year-old
Sadie and 2-year-old Madison -- were being fished out of various bodies of water
in the area. Longo drove to San Francisco, and a few days later used a stolen
credit-card number to hop a jet for Cancún. He spent several weeks in
and around the Mexican resort before the FBI and Mexican police caught up to
him. He was popular, made a lot of friends and even started a relationship with
a high-spirited young German woman. He told everybody he met there he was Michael
Finkel, a reporter for the New York Times.
Given this supremely unlikely circumstance, I guess any reporter would have
seen an opportunity and leapt at it. For Finkel, who literally had nothing to
lose, the allure of this journalistic kismet -- a unique connection to the leading
suspect in a spectacular murder case -- was irresistible. His mistake, if it
was a mistake, was to be insufficiently cynical. He didn't simply approach Chris
Longo with an eye to a juicy byline, a potentially substantial payday and a
way back into his profession. He saw Longo as a moral and existential challenge,
a gift from Providence, a chance at salvation.
Longo's story, Finkel writes, "was the journalistic equivalent of a winning
lottery ticket." From the moment the Oregonian reporter had called
him, Finkel felt "a vague sense that the beginnings of my redemption, both
professional and personal, might somehow lie with Longo ... And I thought that
if I were able to be truthful with Longo -- an accused murderer and a possible
con man; a person who might easily forgive deceit -- then I'd demonstrate, at
least to myself, that I'd moved beyond the dishonest behavior that had cost
me my job."
True Story is Finkel's chronicle of his quest for redemption. Along
the way it seeks to plumb three mysteries that, as is only fitting in this tale
of human deviousness and deceit, remain resolutely unplumbable. In the fashion
of a suspense novel, Finkel bounces between three fractured narratives that
don't so much interlock as cast reflected light on each other.
One is the story of Longo, a handsome, charismatic and strikingly intelligent
man with no history of violence who becomes the leading (and indeed only) suspect
in a senseless and shocking crime. The second is the story of Finkel himself,
a successful globe-trotting journalist who writes a feature story about the
chocolate plantations of West Africa whose main character does not exist. The
third is the story of Finkel and Longo's oddly deepening friendship, as they
gaze into each other and begin to recognize an essential kinship -- a careless
egotism, a facility for falsehood, a consuming desire to appear successful at
almost any cost.
By far the cleanest and clearest of these narratives is Finkel's own. He faces
his failings bravely and never tries to blame anyone else for the pile-of-crap
Africa story he published. (Unlike Blair or Glass, he otherwise had written
genuine and fully fact-checkable journalism, as a Times internal investigation
confirmed.) There were indeed extenuating circumstances -- he was stressed out,
overtired and writing to a crazy deadline; he was abusing drugs; and, one could
argue, he was hemmed in by the aggressively stupid conventions of magazine journalism,
which values easily summarized, high-drama "human" stories over honesty
But as Finkel gradually reveals the roots of the faked story and how he convinced
himself to write it and file it, he refuses to hide behind excuses. His editor
at the Times Magazine wanted a story that focused on one young boy who
worked on a chocolate plantation. After trying and failing to dredge a single
case history from his notes, Finkel took numerous real quotes from his reporting
and attributed them to one invented character, convincing himself his story
was truthful in spirit, even if it didn't follow the rules.
When the story began to unravel, thanks largely to a Canadian researcher for
Save the Children who sent aid workers to track down the boy Finkel claimed
to be portraying, he had a total meltdown. He wrote a series of deceptive e-mails
to Save the Children, trying to drive the organization off the scent. He imagined
draining his bank account and flying to Toronto to bribe the aid worker. He
attempted to forge notes, using the same blue ink he had used in Africa. As
humiliating as these details are, Finkel states them clearly, without prevaricating
or passing the buck.
"I knew what I was doing," he writes. "I had the power to stop
myself at any time, but I decided not to. It was the stupidest thing I have
ever done. It's something that causes me pain every day; it's something for
which I will never fully forgive myself." Those are the words, to use the
language of Finkel's ancestors, of a mensch. But here's the thing: Finkel also
becomes aware that his act of journalistic fakery was not an entirely isolated
act. It revealed a side of his personality that was arrogant, that told pointless
lies at parties, that dumped girlfriends without explanation. And the therapy
he sought for this condition, for reasons that seem more deeply buried than
the roots of his phony African-chocolate story, was friendship with Chris Longo.
Finkel became Longo's confidant and indeed almost his only contact with the
outside world; Longo used his one hour per week in telephone privileges exclusively
to talk to Finkel, and they wrote each other voluminous letters. (Longo's first
ran 78 pages, written in golf pencil, the only writing implement he was permitted.)
They shared the mundane details of their lives, their romantic and family histories,
innermost thoughts and fears, and reflections on the misdeeds that had gotten
them in trouble. (In Longo's case, that meant previous cases of embezzlement,
check fraud and theft -- he never directly discussed the murders with Finkel
until his trial was over.)
Longo, it turned out, was an aspiring writer, with an autodidact's large but
uneven vocabulary; he had chosen Finkel's identity to assume because he read
magazines voraciously and knew his work. Finkel bought him a high-end dictionary
and a subscription to the New Yorker, and sent him books by his favorite
writers. (Longo especially liked David
Foster Wallace.) Finkel was smart enough to see the pitfalls that lay in
getting involved with a fan, but was powerless to avoid them.
"There is perhaps nothing more dangerous to a writer's common sense,"
Finkel writes, "than encountering an enthusiastic reader of his work, even
if he's calling collect from county jail." This combination of rueful self-scrutiny
and what sometimes seems like painful, blazing naiveté, is what makes
True Story so engrossing and so maddening. Despite Finkel's claim that
he only wants to prove to himself that he is capable of honesty, he clearly
craves attention and affection from Longo; he longs to like Longo and wants
Longo to like him. During his first phone conversation with Longo, in April
2002 -- an experience he compares to an awkward first date -- the first thing
Finkel wrote in his notebook was "A v. nice guy."
On one hand, the situation Finkel found himself in was so unexpected and so
dramatic that it's hard to know, in the abstract, what you or I or anyone else
would have done differently. In my own career as a journalist, I've been lied
to with great sincerity (I think) by a man who was guilty of attempted murder
(I think). It's a disorienting experience. We all want to believe that other
people are telling us the truth, and reporters want to believe it most of all.
And the question Finkel asked himself was real: Had his capacity for honesty,
as a human being and a writer, been eaten away by his deception?
That said, there are a dozen points in True Story, or a hundred, when
I wanted to reach into the book and slap Michael Finkel. What I wanted to say
to him was this: Chris Longo apparently tied rocks wrapped in pillowcases to
the ankles of his sleeping son and daughter, and then threw them into a muddy
pond in rural Oregon, where they spent the last seconds of their lives terrified,
trapped, freezing, drowning. (They were recovered wearing only underwear, with
no signs of trauma, looking almost as if they were still asleep.) I can imagine
facing the bitter fact that even this man is a human being, and that no one
could do something so horrible to people he supposedly loved without suffering
some kind of grievous pain. But you, buddy -- you became his best friend. You
sat by the phone with a pot of tea every Wednesday night, waiting for him to
call. Were you completely out of your fucking mind?
Finkel and Longo repeatedly vowed to be totally honest with each other, and
after a bit of cat-and-mouse, they struck a deal: Longo would communicate with
no other journalists, and Finkel would reveal nothing about their letters and
phone calls to anyone until Longo's trial was over. As with his first-date quip,
Finkel seems partly aware that their relationship had a highly charged, almost
romantic intensity. I don't mean to suggest that there was a homosexual attraction
between them; they only met a few times, and then only through the glass walls
of a prison visiting room. In fact, what I mean is that the danger of homosexuality
was removed from the relationship -- since Longo was almost certainly never
going to see the outside again -- which set them free to pursue a level of intimacy
almost unknown between two heterosexual men.
Furthermore, their narcissistic attraction to each other had a curious, borderline-erotic
quality. Longo literally wanted to be Finkel, and seemed to think that with
the right education and the right breaks, he could have been. In one letter
Finkel quotes, Longo remembered his Mexican charade wistfully, as a period spent
"half daydreaming of what the real life of Michael Finkel must be like.
I've learned enough in life to realize that no life or career is as fantastic
as you might imagine, but I couldn't help picturing how my life would have been
if I had taken whatever steps the real Mr. Finkel took to attain the position
that he now held."(In his letters to the murder-groupies who wrote him
mash notes, Longo would sometimes steal phrases or sentences from Finkel's writing,
and pass them off as his own sentiments.)
For his part, Finkel almost seems to wish he could be the version of him that
people in Cancún had enjoyed so much. Longo is the well-built, all-American,
people-pleasin' type, and apparently quite a chick magnet. His Mexico sojourn
involved several late-night naked swims with Norwegian and Swedish women he
met at parties (although he says he resisted all sexual overtures before meeting
the German photographer). "I can state with certainty, and some sadness,"
the real Mr. Finkel writes, "that any time someone answering to the name
Michael Finkel has been skinny-dipping with Scandinavians, I was nowhere around."
At one point in True Story, Finkel and Longo talk frankly about the
fact that their relationship is based on self-interest. Finkel is using Longo
to write a story that will resurrect his career, and Longo is using Finkel --
as the latter realizes rather late in the game -- to help him craft a defense
to the seemingly insurmountable case against him. It's an invigorating, almost
frightening moment, but it doesn't tell the whole story. No one had been better
than Longo, Finkel tells him, "at exposing and analyzing my moral flaws."
The accused murderer responds: "I'm keeping the connection with you. It's
not just a connection on the surface. I think it's deeper than that."
Longo sometimes seems like the more perceptive of these two, frankly. He's
right, there is a fundamental connection between them: Neither of these guys
is capable of seeing beyond their own egos. Other critics have observed that
there's a conceptual link between the invented child in Finkel's Africa story
and his apparent lack of empathy or compassion for the children Longo murdered.
Finkel expresses genuine contrition for his faked article; he understands that
he violated the norms of journalism and irreparably damaged his career. But
he seems unable to grasp why others would be horrified at his boy-crush fascination
with a man who killed small children in cold blood.
It seems clear that Finkel and Longo's friendship was real, that both men saw
it as simultaneously instrumental and therapeutic. Both believed, I suspect,
that total honesty with a fellow narcissist -- one likely to spot lies and evasions
-- might heal their respective pathologies. But both were liars, one writ large
and the other writ small. One was a murderer and the other was a journalist,
and in the end they couldn't escape those roles.
The relationship between any reporter and his or her subjects is an endlessly
slippery affair. New Yorker reporter Janet Malcolm, the profession's prosecuting
demon (who knows something about the relationship between journalists and murderers),
has described it as a "special, artificial exercise of subtle influence
and counterinfluence, with an implicit antagonistic tendency." Most of
the time, she writes, "both subject and interviewer give more than is necessary.
They are always being seduced and distracted by the encounter's outward resemblance
to an ordinary friendly meeting."
Yet doesn't that "outward resemblance" to friendship carry with it
some degree of mutual responsibility? In the introduction to her influential
collection "Reporting," Lillian Ross, a pioneering New Yorker
reporter of an earlier day, expresses an opposing conclusion: "As soon
as another human being permits you to write about him, he is opening his life
to you, and you must be constantly aware that you have a responsibility in regard
to that person ... Anyone who trusts you enough to talk about himself to you
is giving you a form of friendship ... A friend is not to be used and abandoned;
the friendship established in writing about someone usually continues to grow
after what has been written is published."
This is the central dilemma of reporting, at least insofar as it involves writing
about other human beings: We appear to become people's friends, and to some
extent the appearance becomes reality. Michael Finkel found himself impaled
on the horns of that dilemma. He befriended a pathological liar -- seeing echoes
of his own falsehoods in the man -- and then professed himself horrified when
the liar told him lies.
For a long time, Finkel and Longo willfully avoid the details of what happened
on Dec. 17 and 18 of 2001, when Sadie and Zachery wound up in that pond and
the third Longo child, Madison, along with her mother, MaryJane, were packed
into suitcases and thrown in the Pacific Ocean. Finkel asks leading questions;
Longo responds cryptically. Longo drops ambiguous hints, which Finkel reads
as oblique admissions of guilt; Longo later claims they were meant as proclamations
of innocence. Like so many murder suspects, Longo never talks about the murders
directly in his letters, using passive constructions like "a tragedy that
has recently taken place" or "the terribly unnecessary demise of the
lives of a wife and three beautiful children."
When Longo finally testifies in his own defense at his 2003 trial, his story
about how the killings happened is so incredible he later tells Finkel he didn't
intend it to be believed. (You have to read the book to get the full effect.)
He tells Finkel yet another story in private, a revision of his outrageous testimony,
and Finkel finally understands that he has invested a prodigious amount of time,
energy and emotion in a guy who can't tell the truth and who -- at least in
the case of this violent, dissociated act -- may not even know what the truth
For Finkel, this is the last straw; he throws up his hands in self-righteous
indignation and declares that he now hates Longo. The reader may be forgiven
for staring in blank disbelief. Finkel doesn't hate Longo for having murdered
four people, since it was obvious all along he had done that. Finkel hates him
solely for the injury Longo did him -- he hates him because Longo could never
tell a convincing and enlightening story that would provide a great ending for
a true-crime, mea-culpa potential bestseller.
As I said at the beginning, Finkel had been warned, and didn't quite appreciate
the personal significance of the warning. Like the frog ferrying the scorpion
across the stream, he expected Longo to transcend his own nature. He's a literary-minded
guy; he might also have reflected on Nietzsche's famous admonition that if we
gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes into us.
There is not the remotest moral equivalence between what Finkel and Longo did.
No small children were drowned because of Finkel's bogus magazine story. But
the too-strange-for-Dickens connection between them seems more like fate than
randomness; they were high-functioning narcissists who reached a catastrophic
breaking point. And the fact that Chris Longo could never escape his lies raises
the uncomfortable question of whether Mike Finkel will forever be trapped by
his. They were best friends, after all. It's easier to forgive Finkel for his
bad journalism than for that.