I generally don’t covet anyone else’s exact career path. You have to take the bad with the good, and I wind up thinking that one or more aspects of that other person’s experience wouldn’t be ideal for me. Like having to be Donald Trump’s daughter, for instance. But I’ve finally found my fantasy job and 61-year-old Gene Weingarten has it. I’ve always enjoyed “Below the Beltway,” Weingarten’s weekly humor column for the Washington Post (the column is syndicated nationally.) He created, and for years also edited, The Style Invitational, the Post’s weekly humor contest. A couple of years ago, he started doing the Barney & Clyde comic strip with his son. But I somehow didn’t know he also wrote serious feature stories until 2009, when the Post published “Fatal Distraction,” Weingarten’s compelling piece about parents who accidentally leave their children in hot cars. (If you don’t have any sympathy for those parents after reading that story, you’ve got a heart of stone.) That story won a Pulitzer Prize the next year. “Fatal Distraction” was actually Weingarten’s second Pulitzer-winning piece. He’d gotten his first Pulitzer for a 2007 article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about Joshua Bell, one of the world’s best violinists, who, as an experiment, played for the morning rush-hour crowds in a Washington Metro station. This weekend, the Post published another serious Weingarten article. This one was about convicted family-killer Jeffrey MacDonald. I was so fascinated by it that, when I got to the end, I immediately reread it. There’s a convoluted and tragic story that led up to the article. Jeffrey MacDonald was an army doctor at Fort Bragg, who, in February 1970, reported that a group of Charles Manson-type hippies broke into his house and slaughtered his pregnant wife, Colette; five-year-old daughter, Kimberley; and two-year-old daughter, Kristen.
Both of Colette’s arms were broken, and she was stabbed 37 times with an ice pick and knife. Kimberley had been clubbed in the head and stabbed eight or 10 times, while Kristen had been stabbed close to 50 times. MacDonald himself had some cuts and bruises, a mild concussion, and what Weingarten calls “small, neat incision between his seventh and eighth ribs, just deep enough to partially collapse a lung.” The army dismissed charges against MacDonald in 1970, but he was indicted by a North Carolina grand jury in 1975; brought to trial in 1979; and convicted of the three deaths after the jury deliberated for a mere six hours. The case was already notorious, but became even more so in 1983 when Joe McGinness published Fatal Vision, a book about the case that became a best-seller and was turned into a television miniseries the next year. MacDonald gave McGinness special access because he thought the book was going to exonerate him; when the book instead depicted him as a sociopath, MacDonald sued McGinness. Then, in 1990, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm accused McGinness of betraying MacDonald — and basically condemned journalistic ethics in general — in “The Journalist and the Murderer,” which started, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” That helped convince some people that MacDonald was unfairly convicted. MacDonald has always declared his innocence. He’s been appealing his three consecutive life sentences since 1979. Others have taken up his cause: In 1997, Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders, a book by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost, criticized the prosecution for poor crime-scene management, mishandled evidence, and confessions from a woman who claimed to be one of the murdering hippies. And this September, filmmaker Errol Morris published A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. I haven’t read the book but I was impressed by the positive reviews because if anyone has impeccable credentials for proving innocence, it is Morris, the director of The Thin Blue Line. That award-winning 1988 documentary secured the release of Randall Dale Adams, who was originally sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison) for a murder he didn’t commit. Morris’s book has fueled the latest round of MacDonald’s appeals, as well as Weingarten’s article. Weingarten is blunt about his intentions:
“I have come to believe that Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his family and injured himself as part of a coverup; I’ve concluded this both because I have researched the case extensively, and because, as a writer, I see exactly how Errol Morris prejudiced his account while shrewdly appearing not to do so. I admire his skill but not his book. I think the media have been careless and gullible in reviewing it, perhaps partially because the story of a grievous, enduring miscarriage of justice presents a more compelling narrative than the alternative.”
Weingarten picks apart the supposed exculpatory evidence, including the “hippie” confession. He points out that Morris’s book spends time on certain hair evidence but not much at all on a broken hair with blood on it, found in Colette’s hand, that couldn’t be positively identified in the 1970s. When DNA technology improved, MacDonald’s defense demanded it be tested … only to discover that it was, in fact, MacDonald’s hair. Unlike Morris, Weingarten interviews a surviving juror. He interviews Morris himself. Weingarten has the prosecutor walk through a convincing scenario of motive and murder, based on blood evidence. He has an effective response to that old “no criminal would be THAT dumb/crazy” argument for innocence:
“Here’s what I think: I think it is not all that nonsensical to imagine that in the immediate, terrifying aftermath of having made the most unwise decision in his life, MacDonald might have made another.”
He also poses a riddle that I won’t give away here, though I’d be very interested to read your reactions to it in the comments. I’d also be interested in comments from people who have read the Morris book AND the Weingarten article. As for me, I’ve got a lot of other reading to do so I’m probably going to leave Morris’s book on my mental bookcase right next to any tomes professing O.J. Simpson’s innocence. Getting back to my original point, I would love to have Gene Weingarten’s career so I could spend the majority of the time writing funny things for pay while miraculously maintaining my credibility and avoiding industry pigeonholing. Then, every so often, I could write a serious story that blows everyone away. (I’d have to find time to design jewelry too in order to make this scenario 100% ideal, but still.) It’s hard to find people who will let you be both funny and serious — ask any actor. Not everyone gets to explore all his or her interests in a professional environment. HOW DOES WEINGARTEN MANAGE THIS? Do you think there are magic powers in his mustache? That must be it, right? Shit! It’s so hard to be a woman.
A story about singer/songwriter Skylar Grey by Christopher John Farley in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal also had me thinking about careers. I don’t have any musical talent so I don’t envision myself in Grey’s shoes but her experiences apply to a multitude of scenarios. Since starting my jewelry business, I’ve become aware that people have a lot of fantasies about career paths, especially related to creative and entrepreneurial endeavors. (And I will deal with all of them in my work-in-progress Bitchtastic Guide to Business™ book. Note to agent Lisa: I’m making progress, I swear!) I’ve explained on this blog, for instance, that fame isn’t the same as fortune. Nor will you succeed just because you’re passionate about something. Another common myth is that if X, Y or Z happens you will “have it made.” Sure, a single big professional triumph — the result of years of unrewarded, draining effort — might catapult you into stardom. But stratospheric success isn’t automatic, guaranteed or easy. It’s not uncommon for a big moment to amount to not very much at all. I bet everyone can think of a few one-hit musical wonders and/or actors who never got a decent role again after winning an Oscar. Yet, people always assume a single fashion-magazine product shot leads to huge sales (which it hasn’t for anyone I know personally, including myself) or that a small speaking role in a movie is going to mean a starring role next time. I thought things like that myself until I learned first-hand that success comes from a cumulative process, not an overnight one. The Wall Street Journal story on Grey story begins, “Skylar Grey aims to make the most of her latest chance to make a first impression.” Farley writes that Grey (née Holly Brook Hafermann) started out as a folkie, doing independent albums with her mother, until 2006, when she put out a pop-ballad album under the name Holly Brook. After it sold only 4,000 copies, she wound up doing odd jobs — including editing pornographic movies — to get by. She remade herself as Skylar Grey and wound up writing the hook for “Love the Way You Lie,” 2010’s monster hit by Eminem and Rihanna that has sold 5.7 million digital copies, according to the story. Grey told Farley that after that, “… my whole life changed.” But not to the extent one might imagine: Last year, she released a pop ballad called “Invisible,” that sold only 46,000 copies (one to me). That’s better than 2006, but doesn’t compare to the Eminem/Rihanna collaboration. Fortunately, Grey was savvy enough to keep that Eminem connection and — even more importantly, maybe — rebrand herself again. As a result, Eminem is now executive producing her next album, Don’t Look Down, which is scheduled to come out in the spring. A video for her song, “C’mon Let Me Ride” came out today. The song is raunchier than Grey’s previous work. The video makes fun of popular culture in a very Eminem-like way, and the rapper himself is on the song, singing a Queen lyric and doing his PeeWee Herman laugh. A big change of pace from her moody ballads of the past. The Wall Street Journal article says:
“Ms. Grey said she isn’t concerned about whether or not people will think that her musical makeover is authentic. ‘I think only time will show people that,’ she said. ‘I think when people hear the whole album and live with it for awhile, they’ll realize there’s a real person in all of that.'”
I hope it works out for her; she’s definitely trying all the angles and I respect that. You see? It’s the opposite of what the common assumption is. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that when you do a job you love, it’s not even work. The people who’ve said that to me (a) have had no relevant experience or (b) have totally relevant experience, but are now so successful it’s smooth sailing and the struggles seem romantic in hindsight. The truth is that for a long time, love makes you work harder and you feel every bit of it. Love might make you sacrifice your name, years of your life, day job, home, health, credit score and relationships to get where you want to be. If you’re a musician, love might make you literally change your tune. Love is no magic mustache, and you can quote me on that.
- “A matter of conviction,” by Gene Weingarten, Washington Post.
- “A New Name, and Eminem’s Help, Give Skylar Grey a Fresh Debut,” by Christopher John Farley, Wall Street Journal
- “C’mon Let Me Ride,” by Skylar Grey featuring Eminem.
Miss Cavendish says
I teach _The Journalist and the Murderer_ with sections of _Fatal Vision_ every spring in the ethics section of my journalism class. It’s fascinating how McGinnis paints MacDonald as a vain playboy and how Malcolm, in her book, takes the same characteristic and interprets them differently. And the final paragraph of Malcolm’s book gives me goosebumps every time I read it . . . Going to print out Weingarten’s story right now!
Let me know what you think!
Amber of Butane Anvil says
Oh, I do so love me a WendyB thinky-post! Superb! Range and flexibility and mustache-power FTW. Off to read Weingarten, those articles sound fantastic, and to check out Skylar Grey, thanks for the recommendations!
I bet you’re going to be singing that song to yourself…I am!
“If you got a sweet tooth, C’mon taste my watermelons” I’m gonna use that on my hubby tonight 😉
He won’t be able to resist!
Nola Rice says
I came looking for jewelry porn and instead spent the afternoon reading about the fascinating MacDonald case. I’m off to the library for Fatal Vision and once again The Widow of The South, I think I have 50 pages left in that one. Thank you for an interesting change of pace this time of year.
Let me know what you think of the book!
I read the Fatal Distraction story and literally wept. Thank you for sharing as I am completely new to Gene Weingarten, surprisingly.
I cried too.
I always learn something new from you, I never knew about either.
Lynne DeVenny (@ExpertParalegal) says
One of my close friends from junior high forward was featured in Weingarten’s story “Fatal Distraction,” and even knowing what had happened and having seen much of the aftermath, I still couldn’t stop crying while reading the article. I don’t think any of us can understand the punishment of living forever with the guilt, even if it was simply a tragic accident. I know my excruciatingly shy friend has chosen to tell her story in public as a cautionary tale and continues to participate in opportunities to educate the public. I hate to say it, but she lost so many so-called friends that didn’t have her back and didn’t even try to understand. I hope some of them read Weingarten’s articles and were able to find some smidgen of empathy they never could before.
People do have tragic accidents. Other people want to pretend to themselves that it can’t happen to them… So sad.
Susan Partlan says
Weingarten’s work is so awesome. “Fatal Distraction” really choked me up at the time. There but for the grace of God, go I is what came to mind re-reading it just now. As a young busy parent juggling too many balls I once locked my 3-year-old in the car with the engine running, to keep her warm and safe while I ran into a convenience store to quickly buy something, realizing a split second too late, after the automatic locks made that thunk noise that I now didn’t have my keys to get back in the car. I had to phone Dad, at work, and we waited, my daughter and I, 45 minutes for him to arrive, she snug in her snow suit in the warm car, me standing outside aping funny faces and gestures and pointing down the road while saying “Daddy is coming!” over and over again. Your mind plays tricks on you when you’re stressed and rushed. My heart goes out to those parents.
The new piece is stunning. I haven’t read Morris’s book. I don’t think I would want to after reading Weingarten’s article.
The riddle was hard to get. I still didn’t get it after reading the answer. It took a few minutes. It’s really hard to conceive of a mind that would get it right without needing to think about it.
You’re already both funny and serious — you don’t need a magic moustache. As for what it’s like doing what you love, I figure it’s a lot like parenting, making sacrifices for a greater good.
Susan! I totally forgot that when I was little, my mother was loading groceries into the car and the door blew shut, locking me in. At first I thought it was a terrific game of peekaboo but then I realized things were wrong and started to cry. I think the police had to be called but someone sprung me with a hanger before they arrived. I have to check with BarbaraB on this.
Susan Partlan says
You must have been scared. That’s why I was making the funny faces, so my daughter wouldn’t be scared. It must have worked because she didn’t even cry. But as soon as we got her out of her car seat she wanted to untie the hood of her snow suit. It must have been hot in there!
My mother was totally traumatized of course! That’s the only reason I know the story.
Doesn’t every child ALWAYS want to get out of a snow suit? LOL. I love how kids look complete immobile in them.
Susan Partlan says
I bet your mother was traumatized! Stories like these are the ones that endure for generations.