Sebastian Junger grew up with an unfinished story: In Belmont, during the summer of 1963, Albert DeSalvo, a man who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler, did construction work on a backyard art studio for Junger's mother. During that time, Bessie Goldberg, who lived less than a mile away, was murdered — a murder similar, in some ways, to the Boston Strangler killings.
Here is Junger recounting his mother's words about an encounter she had with Al DeSalvo:
I opened the door to the cellar, and I saw him down there at the foot of the stairs and he was looking at me. And he was looking in a way that is almost indescribable. He had this intense look in his eyes, a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotize me. As if by sheer force of will he could draw me down into that basement.
Roy Smith, a black man who had been hired to clean Bessie Goldberg's house on the day of the murder, was arrested and later convicted of the crime. A Death in Belmont began as an attempt to find out what truly happened that day, over forty years ago. Pursuing the tangled web of all those involved led to a detailed exploration, of, among other things, psychology, forensics, racism, the American justice system, and finally what is ultimately unknowable about the past.
In A Death in Belmont, Sebastian Junger returns with the same nuanced journalism and specific detail that he brought to the fate of the Andrea Gail in the bestselling The Perfect Storm as well as his war reporting from Afghanistan. For a fairly compact book that focuses on one murder, his latest work is surprisingly far-reaching, touching on semantics, Southern history, and our responsibility as voting citizens. The New York Times Book Review called it "riveting," and Kirkus hails it as a "ripping, highly readable drama." Junger spoke to us about his work before his evening reading.
Jill: I was very impressed with both the pacing and the focus of the book. I was interested in how you decided to structure it, as it's not exactly chronological, and moves back and forth between Roy Smith's family history, the history of Belmont, and other variables.
Sebastian Junger: In fact, it was a structural nightmare, in some ways. Originally, I had much longer chapters. They had become ponderous; I realized that they would be off-putting to the reader. I think one of the most important things that a writer needs to know how to do is to gauge the attention span of their reader. Even if you really feel that they need to have this information, if it's beyond their attention span, you can't put it in, because they won't read it. Or, they'll read it and resent the fact that you're forcing them to read another three pages of history, or whatever it happens to be.
What you have to do is figure out the attention span and end before they lose interest in the subject. You can always pick it up again later, but you have to figure out the length of the "chunks" — what is it, three pages, two pages? — that a reader can take in about a topic that they're not necessarily inherently interested in, but need to know about. It's about two pages; it's not very long. As long as you don't exceed that, you can give them information about that subject over and over again, but you have to know when to stop and cut to something else.
Jill: That's interesting to hear; it was something I noticed when I was reading the book — exactly that, that this is the right amount of information given to the reader. How did you decide what to leave in and what to cut?
Junger: I overwrote everything and then pruned it down. I think I had a pretty good sense of the important issues in each subject. For example, I wasn't trained in the law, but when I try to understand the different kinds of murder and homicide — that's interesting to me. I think if it's interesting to me, it's probably interesting to the reader, if I present it in the right way. I follow my own interests. In The Perfect Storm, I was very interested in what happens when you drown. And that turned out to be a section that people really liked. I didn't know that when I wrote it; I wrote it because I was interested in it.
Jill: That section on drowning stayed with me more strongly than much of the book. To imagine yourself drowning, in such detail, definitely leaves an impression.
Junger: I wasn't trying to pull some literary trick there. I actually wondered if people would be annoyed by that section, that it was too detailed and scientific, but I had it in there because it interested me, and I thought, well, it's only going to be a couple of pages, but it's going to be in the book. The analogy with A Death in Belmont is the section about reasonable doubt. I was fascinated by the idea and definition of "reasonable doubt." I only included a couple of pages about it, because you have to have some mercy on the reader. But it needed to be in there. I have a natural curiosity about the world, and I think it's similar enough to other people's curiosity that the things I choose to write about sometimes seem to click with other people.
Jill: One of the more arresting and personal moments in A Death in Belmont is your mother's story. Did that story become a kind of family legend as you were growing up?
Junger: Yes, in a way. It was a story I grew up with: Oh my God, the Boston Strangler worked for us, and no one knew he was at our house when the lady was killed down the street. Then there was the incident in the basement — it all ended okay, so it wasn't a scary story, because it ended fine. If anything, it was a story I would tell my friends in school, to impress them with this unusual occurrence.
Jill: Do you think it affects your opinion of whether or not DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, the menace that your mother felt from him that day?
Junger: No, I don't. She absolutely felt a real menace, and he was definitely a sexual predator. He was at least a multiple rapist. That's good enough for me, you know what I mean? That was real, my mom picking up that vibe. The murders are a different issue. There are some very good reasons to think he murdered all those women, and there are some good reasons to think he didn't. What I tried to do in the book is not to lead the reader to a conclusion, but put out the good reasons for and against, and let the reader sort it out, because I don't know. Nobody knows! No one has absolute certainty in this, but there are interesting theories you can explore, in asking questions. Questions, in some ways, can be as interesting as answers.
Jill: You say something in one of the last chapters that sums that up nicely. You write, "Maybe the truth isn't even the most interesting thing about some stories; maybe the most interesting thing about most stories is all the things that could be true. And maybe it's in the pursuit of those things that you could understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense."
Junger: If I somehow had access to the DNA, it would have been in many ways a lesser story. Because I wouldn't have had to pursue all the possibilities to their very end. That's the sense in which I meant that paragraph. Of course, as a journalist, if you have access to the absolute truth, you have to deliver it. But lacking that possibility, pursuing all the possibilities ends up being an interesting inquiry into the world, into the story.
Jill: I was curious about this, and maybe there's an obvious reason that I'm missing for not using this defense, but I wondered why the defense attorney didn't make the point of the similarity of the Belmont murder to the other Boston Strangler murders, when it was obvious that Smith was in prison during the time they were committed?
Junger: I don't know for sure. It may have been negotiated with the judge and excluded as irrelevant. I don't have access to the bench conferences; they don't necessarily record those. Also, the prosecution would probably have claimed, It was a copycat murder. Clearly, Smith was trying to make it look like the handiwork of someone else. I don't know if it would have gone very far.
Jill: The idea of a "compromise verdict" is fascinating and somewhat disturbing. The "compromise" was that Smith was found guilty of the murder but not of the rape, even though it was conclusively proven that the rape happened at the same time as the murder, so therefore he got a lesser sentence. It's a facet of the law that I hadn't heard of.
Junger: Jury nullification. Yes. The jury's request was that he not be put to death. This wasn't my idea; it was a judge who I consulted with who had read the trial. Even though it's a logical impossibility, that Smith could have not raped Bessie Goldberg but killed her, the jurors may have returned those verdicts because they had sufficient doubt about their conclusions that they didn't want to be responsible for killing him. They took the rape out, so the sentence was life in prison instead. It may have been negotiated in the jury room.
Jill: I'd imagine so; what other reason could there have been?
Junger: It is logically inconsistent, it's true. But I can't know for certain, of course. So it's a reasonable possibility, but I'm not sure.
Jill: It's interesting — "sufficient" doubt, but not enough for it to become "reasonable" doubt, to acquit him. The semantics of doubt are fascinating.
Junger: They are, aren't they? It's like a hall of mirrors. You can see endless mirrors, as you're receding into the distance. "Beyond reasonable doubt" — what does that really mean? Something short of absolute certainty, but you can really tie yourself in knots over it. As I say in the book, the courts have tried to define it and they just finally throw up their hands.
Jill: I found a part of Smith's testimony to the cops interesting. When he said, essentially, my home is in Mississippi. There is no way in the world I would hurt a white woman —
Junger: Or even look at a white woman.
Jill: ...because I love my neck, the cop says, this is the North, not the South.
Junger: Yes. Only a white cop could have imagined that there was a real difference. There is a different kind of racism. The racism in the South was more overt. There were no lynchings in the North, at that time. But there was still racism in the North; it was just more camouflaged. In one sense the cop was right: you're not going to get lynched here, but in another sense, that's not the issue. The issue is, I don't want to go to prison for life, so why would I kill the lady that the state sent me to work for? That would be a stupid thing to do.
Jill: I grew up in the South, and when I moved to Boston, I was surprised at the racism that still does seem to linger, more subtly, in the Northeast.
Junger: What's strange is that Boston is less integrated than the South.
Jill: It is. It's far less integrated, because there is a such an economic and class segregation, whereas in the South, until more recently, more of the whole region was poor all around, so everyone just lived together and went to public school together.
Junger: That's right. You don't get that in Boston, it's true.
Jill: How much of a factor do you think race played in Smith's arrest and conviction? Would he have been convicted if he was white?
Junger: That's complicated. I think if Bessie Goldberg's, say, financial advisor showed up in a suit with a briefcase at a quarter of one and left at 3:05, bought a pack of cigarettes, and went about their business the way Roy Smith did, the cops would definitely want to talk to him, because he would be the last person known to have been there. I'm not sure that just his presence there would have resulted in an arrest warrant. I mean, they issued an arrest warrant for Roy Smith before they even found him or asked questions. He was there, and then he was wanted for homicide. I'm not sure a white guy in a suit would have had that happen.
That said, I think in the trial, as it unfolded, they had a strong case against Smith. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to his guilt. We know because of DNA that you can have a strong circumstantial case against you and still be innocent. That's something we know for certain; it's happened some two hundred times. But Roy Smith's trial wasn't like a Southern lynching. They had real reason to suspect that he was guilty, and they did quite a fair thing with the rape verdict. So I think the conviction wasn't a racist conviction, but you do have to ask, would he even have been in the docket, if he were white? Or would they even have arrested him?
Jill: That plays into issues of class, too. If he's a white financial advisor, that's one thing, but if it was a white man sent to clean the house, from the same agency, that's another.
Junger: Yes, certainly. But I think probably not quite as bad as a black guy.
Jill: Particularly in Belmont in 1963.
Junger: That's right. It's different degrees of presumption of guilt.
Jill: You say that at some point, you started to resent Roy Smith for not making better choices, for drinking so much, driving without a license, and his other petty crimes. It would seem to me that must come with writing journalistic nonfiction, with exploring these unknowable gray areas. That the characters don't necessarily conform to the way you start out seeing them.
Junger: Yes, that's right. It flew in the face of the myth that I grew up with, which was, This black guy is innocent. DeSalvo might have committed the murder. And that was the launching point for my inquiry. But then I kept finding things that made Roy Smith look guilty, and some of it was his past behavior. So there was a kind of disappointment, which was interesting because that then corrected a journalistic imbalance. As a journalist, you are not supposed to have an agenda. You're just not. You might have an idea, you might have a question, but it can't be an agenda. What I found was corrective about that process was that I noticed that I was resenting Roy for "failing" me. And that was when I realized, oh, wait a minute — you're not being clean here. You are trying to lead the story in a particular direction, if only unconsciously. You've got to back up.
I imagine marriage counselors never want to take sides between a husband and wife. In a way, I felt like I was gravitating towards the wife, to one side. So no, you've got to back up; you must be absolutely impartial. That was one of the things that tipped me off. I can't have an emotional investment in Roy's guilt or innocence one way or another. And you work through it, as a journalist you work through it, and by the end of the book I had worked through it, and now I truly don't know whether he was innocent. In some ways, I truly don't care. I felt I brought out everything that I could about this case. But there definitely was a progression in my relationship with Roy. It was an interesting progression; it evolved. And it evolved, I think, ultimately towards absolute impartiality.
Jill: It's like a scientific experiment. You can't want the outcome of the experiment to be any one particular thing.
Junger: Exactly. It's only human to want an outcome — we want to impose order on the world. We want to know. It's only human. But that's part of the trick of being a journalist, which is that you start with what's human, and then you censor it with a journalistic protocol and objectivity. That's just part of the job.
Jill: Were you always interested in journalism? Did you ever think about writing fiction?
Junger: I wrote a little bit of fiction when I was in my early to mid-twenties. This was in the heyday of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and writing short stories — that was it, the thing to do, and I was definitely seduced by that. But I always wrote journalism as well; they existed side by side. I think I briefly considered fiction a higher calling, and then — it's so frustrating and I was so bad at it, that I just stopped.
Jill: Fiction's often been portrayed as a higher art than nonfiction.
Junger: Yes; I was sort of immature — I was still young. And now journalism is really what I love. I can see writing fiction some day, but not right now.
Jill: You have a wonderful knack for a telling detail which reveals a central part of the personality of a character — an accent, or the way they move their hands, or the rhythm of their voice in a courtroom. It's something I've noticed before in New Yorker writers, as well. Is that something that has been honed by journalism?
Junger: Yes. It is the New Yorker style of reporting, a particular kind of literary journalism. John McPhee was the classic example. I grew up reading John McPhee; he's a god to me. As far as I'm concerned, he's God. He's it. We're all some lesser version of John McPhee. The thing about McPhee, basically, is that he's a master of that detail, among other things. He is a master of explaining how things worked, without boring you. He is a master of making the world an interesting place. Among some other things, my journalism was an outgrowth of my wonderful experiences reading him, starting as a teenager.
Jill: What, if anything, gives you the most pause about Al DeSalvo's guilt? He does, as you say, fit the textbook profile of a serial killer: childhood history of abuse, torturing animals, and so on, and he is obviously a sexual predator.
Junger: The errors that he has in his confessions. I did find a possible explanation for them in the concept of dissociation, but some of them are really grave errors. I'm not an expert in psychology, and so I don't quite know at what point you really can't explain it away by dissociation. I was much impressed by the fact, for example, that someone like Larry Schwartz could run barefoot through the snow for half a mile after killing his parents and have no memory of it whatsoever. That was pretty impressive. But DeSalvo's errors do give me some pause.
Jill: Much of DelSalvo's testimony is absolutely chilling.
Junger: It is, right?
Jill: His anger and rage, the idea of these women as a symbol for all women. Did working on A Death in Belmont affect you emotionally, or affect your outlook on the world at all?
Junger: Working on this book was very depressing. I've covered a lot of wars, and I wouldn't say that's depressing, oddly enough. War is strangely impersonal. There's something assembly-line-like about how war is waged. And there's a way in which you can be mentally healthy and wage war, be a soldier and wage war. The violence I was reading about in these murders was so ghastly and so personal and so ugly. It really got to me. Some of the books that I was reading on forensics and police investigation procedure, which I list in my further reading section — the photos in there were so disturbing, I felt as though I should put a warning label on them, as in "Don't buy this book without thinking about it," because there were photos in there that were stuck in my brain for a month. The whole thing was just so ghastly, and it took a while to flush it out of my system.
Jill: How was the process of research different for A Death in Belmont and The Perfect Storm?
Junger: There was almost nothing in this book where I could just park the car, walk around, and take notes. During The Perfect Storm, I lived in Gloucester, the bar was there, if I wanted to describe the bar, I just walked in and got a beer and wrote down what I saw. Or what I heard. It was current day. In the new book — forget about the legal research, and all those other research nightmares — the scene-setting itself was hard. For example, describing the bar Dan Stack's in Brookline, which is roughly the equivalent of the Crow's Nest in The Perfect Storm. Dan Stack's is gone. The whole neighborhood has changed dramatically. The owner of Dan Stack's is dead. I found his son. His son referred me to his brother, the other son, who lived in Maryland, so I drove down to Maryland. He showed me some old black-and-white photos of the bar and told me some stories. That's for two paragraphs in my book. And what did it take, a week?
You begin to think, okay, maybe you don't need to describe the bar, but you drop out too many of those things and suddenly you don't have a book where the reader feels like they're in the middle of a real story. It's turned into a legal treatise, instead. The reader needs to think, I can picture that bar. Even if it's irrelevant to the conclusions of the book, you do need to have a feel for what it looked like and smelled like and felt like. That was difficult to do with a story that was over forty years old now.
Jill: In discussing the larger implications of our legal system and trial by jury, you write, "The ability of citizens to scrutinize the theories insisted on by their government is their only protection against abuse of power and, ultimately, against tyranny." That's a powerful and resonant summation of our legal system, particularly after detailing how the jury has such responsibility to create order in the world.
Junger: Yes, I feel that very strongly. We as voters are in a huge jury, and we're judging our government. Are they good or are they bad, for us and for the world? The most important thing is that that judgment has to be made rationally. The tendency is to make it emotional, but it can't be, because if it's an emotional judgment, we risk doing the wrong thing as a nation. You know, we're in a very contentious time right now, politically. Frankly, I think both sides, the left and the right, both sides are quite flawed in their thinking. They indulge in emotional thinking; both sides do.
Jill: Both sides are encouraged to rely on it, in many ways, to get votes.
Junger: That's right! I think that would stop working if voters decided to treat these issues the way a jury is instructed to treat them, which is in a purely rational way, not an emotional one. Therein lies our protection against the inherent deceit of government. They all do it; Clinton was just as bad as Bush who is just as bad as Nixon. And we're no worse than any other country in the world, so I'm not even picking on George Bush. It's just inherent to government.
Jill: Or power?
Junger: Yes, exactly. It's easier. It's like parents lying to their kids. "Why can't we go to the park today?" "Because I have to cut the grass." It doesn't have to be true; it's just easier. I think governments do the same thing. The jury, the voters, need to be aware of that, or they will be led step by step into situations which will cause them and others tremendous pain.
Jill: What's your opinion of the death penalty, given the work of the Innocence Project and other exoneration agencies that you mention in your book?
Junger: Oh, I'm completely against the death penalty. I don't see what it buys us. It's irreversible. It doesn't benefit society in any way that I can see. It's more expensive than having someone in prison. There's always the chance of error. I just don't see the gain from it. It's puzzling to me that it can sometimes even be implemented against the wishes of the victim's family. In those cases, the government cannot even say, well, we're doing this to give the victims' family a sense of finality. The justice system is to serve society; it's not to serve the interests of any particular person. It serves what is best for society. If putting so-and-so to death gives another person some sense of finality, that's fine — except that the justice system is meant to not serve only that person, it's meant to serve society. Suppose the victim's husband would feel finality and fulfillment by torturing the person to death? Is that okay? If our only concern is the victim's family here, what's wrong with torture? Where do you draw the line, you know? But that's not what the justice system is for, and it's a bad deal. The death penalty is a bad deal morally, financially — we're not getting much back from something that costs us quite a lot, in many ways. I don't see any pros about it at all.
Jill: What's something you haven't been asked about the new book on this tour that you think is important for people to know?
Junger: Actually, I hadn't yet been asked about that paragraph that you just mentioned, about the protection of citizens against a deceitful government. No one's brought that up, somewhat to my surprise.
Jill: It does resonate strongly right now.
Junger: Yes. It is in there intentionally that way; I was thinking about current implications. And no one has brought it up, so thank you.
Jill: What are you reading at the moment?
Jill: I loved that book.
Junger: Is it good? I've just started it; I've only read a couple of pages. I've never read him before. It seemed a good one to read on a book tour.
Books mentioned in this post