Most of the time my mom and I are a secret team, keeping secrets from my dad. She tells me we’re going to take the city bus because her car is getting fixed and this sounds like a great adventure. We take the bus to her friend’s house in Providence and she leaves me there in the living room, where I watch television until the room begins to darken.
I am good at keeping secrets. I am good at telling lies. I’m so good that years later, when I’m an adult trying to find out more about my mother’s life and death, I’ll have trouble with my own memories: Did I know we were on the bus buying drugs? Did I understand the danger we were in? Did I really believe we were in this together?
Another time, Mom drives me in Grandma’s car to a small house with long steps leading up to the front door from the street. She takes the keys from the ignition and tells me to wait in the car. She leans over and pats the space beneath the dashboard, telling me to get down there and stay until she comes back. “I’ll lock the doors,” she says.
In the real world, my mom’s body will remain off the side of the highway, undiscovered for five months.
At The New York Review of Books, James Fenton reports from the night shift in Manila, giving us a glimpse into the war on drugs in the Philippines, from “buy-bust” undercover operations to EJKs (extrajudicial killings).
An EJK I covered went like this. It was the middle of the night and the family was asleep. Masked men barged in. “Where is Fernando?” said an intruder. A woman answered: “There’s no one called Fernando here.” At this point, an eight-year-old girl woke up her father, Ernesto. As he awoke, Ernesto said, “Oh.” He was shot immediately in the middle of the forehead. The intruders escaped.
They nearly always escape. At one such scene in the north of Manila, a man had been shot in a warren of a building, where the passageway was almost too narrow for two people to pass. And there was only one exit, a set of awkwardly constructed steps. I was examining these steps and thinking what confidence it showed on the part of the killers, to choose a place that was so difficult to get out of, for their planned murder. Then I was told what the neighbors had said. They had said: When the shooting began, we all closed our doors.
Of course you would. You would close your doors and wait. And the killers would know you were going to do that. And when we say “doors” here, you mustn’t imagine anything more than an old piece of repurposed plywood, ill-fitting, no doubt. One such front door, in another poor home, had a gap on either side, through which the killer was able to fire into the house. The second shot found its intended victim. The first shot killed his six-year-old son.
You open your eyes. Your son is dead. Then you’re dead next. This is an EJK.
In the Oxford American, John O’Connor searches the Everglades for the facts within the folklore of sugar cane farmer and outlaw E.J. “Bloody” Watson. Locals killed Watson in 1910 for routinely shooting his black and Indian farm workers on payday. If the legend is true, then Watson’s fifty-three murders make him one of the worst serial killers in U.S. history. Peter Matthiessen’s historical novelShadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legendhelped birth a Watson tourist trade and now functions as a de facto biography, but so much of Watson’s life remains disputed. In a sense, O’Connor went searching for sasquatch, and that’s part of what compelled him. What is real? What’s still out in the swamps waiting to be discovered? This sense of possibility, of the unexplored and unknowable, suggests that America’s once vast frontier lives on in the branches of mangroves and between blades of grass. It’s an exciting read, and a story even people from Florida have never heard:
In the morning I call a number Lynn gave me. A man answers, says his name is Alvin Lederer. Says he’s the official spokesman for Watson’s kin. Says don’t bother, they won’t talk to you. Says he keeps a photograph in his wallet of Ed Watson instead of his parents. Says he has spent twenty-five years researching Watson and knows a thing or two, like the identity of a man whose father found Leslie Cox’s body on Chatham Bend back in 1910.
“Name was Ed Smith,” he says. “I knew him when he was seventy. He told me that after the hurricane his father had come across Leslie Cox’s body with a bullet hole in his head. He was hung up in the mangroves. His father said not to tell anyone.” Alvin lets this sink in. “Ed Watson killed Leslie Cox just like he said. Had him in his boat. Shot him in the head and he fell overboard, then his body washed ashore.”
Alvin, it becomes clear, runs a kind of one-man Watson Innocence Project, contesting Watson’s guilt for anyone who’ll listen. Although he has never been to Chatham Bend nor seen the river country where Leslie Cox roamed, he has iron springs from Watson’s bed and shards of glass from his windows. He knows Watson’s great-granddaughter, Edith, he says, who lives nearby and “has a head of red hair like E. J. Watson.” His tone is exasperated, not curt, but lawyerly, like he’s dead tired of explaining to folks what is self-evident, and he tends to punctuate sentences with a declarative “Yessir.”
The following excerpt appears courtesy of Verso Books. The passage—the book’s opening chapter—details a single terrible crime, which Rodriguez Nieto uses as an inroad to discussing Juárez’s emergent culture of crime. Verso writes:
Sandra Rodríguez Nieto was an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper El Diario de Juárez for nearly a decade. Despite tremendous danger and the assassination of one of her closest colleagues, she persisted. She didn’t want the story of her city told solely by foreign reporters, because, in her words, “I know what is underneath the violence.” This book traces the rise of a national culture of murder and bloody retribution, and is a testament to the extraordinary bravery of its author. Among other things, The Story of Vicente is an account of how poverty, political corruption, failing government institutions and US meddling combined to create an explosion of violence in Juárez.
A warning: the excerpt below contains graphic violence.Read more…
In 1982, mere weeks before leaving Hawaii, author Linda Spalding had been summoned to serve as a juror on the murder trial of Maryann Acker. She ran five minutes late on the day the jury convened to reach a verdict; the judge promptly dismissed her and an alternate took her spot. Acker was found guilty and has spent the next 30 years in prison.
In this piece from Brick Magazine, Spalding reflects on memory, her own quixotic quest to help reverse Maryann’s conviction, and the outsized effect complete strangers can have on each other’s life.
A few months later, I spent three afternoons with Maryann behind the razor wire and chain-link fence at the California Institution for Women,where she had spent twenty-two years of her life. Because of the murder conviction in Hawaii, the California parole board considered her a serial killer, and with a life sentence they could hold her indefinitely. During those first visits I told her she had seemed frozen as she sat in our courtroom all those years before, never shaking her head or wiping her eyes. Never shouting. Never bursting into tears or insisting on her innocence. Even so, I had identified with her then, and now I watched her closely, trying to decide if my belief in her innocence had been justified.
This wasn’t Beirut. Mardiros put in long hours. He tweaked the menu; his mother tinkered with the spices. It took a full year to find a groove. The first crowd of regulars brought in a second crowd, and a buzz began to grow among the network of foodies. How did they make the chicken so tender and juicy? The answer was a simple rub of salt and not trusting the rotisserie to do all the work but raising and lowering the heat and shifting each bird as it cooked. What made the garlic paste so fluffy and white and piercing? This was a secret the family intended to keep. Some customers swore it was potatoes, others mayonnaise. At least one fanatic stuck his container in the freezer and examined each part as it congealed. He pronounced the secret ingredient a special kind of olive oil. None guessed right. The ingredients were simple and fresh, Mardiros pledged, no shortcuts. The magic was in his mother’s right hand.
Many people say the 1960s ended at Altamont, when the Hell’s Angels fatally stabbed an eighteen year-old black man named Meredith Hunter during a huge, Woodstock-like music festival. The Rolling Stones were playing “Under My Thumb” during the murder, just feet away. In Slate, Jack Hamilton writes about the album the Rolling Stones recorded after Altamont, Sticky Fingers, and why many people consider it one of rock’s greatest:
The Stones may have failed to meet expectations, but they did so in the band’s greatest fashion: defiantly and beautifully. Sticky Fingers was a misdirection, in hindsight the only livable option for a band outrunning its own Mephistophelean hype. The album’s cover—a close-up of a tight-jeaned crotch with a working zipper, designed by Andy Warhol—appeared to offer entry into a world of leering male sexual prowess, but instead offered entry into a world of something more honest and more interesting: male vulnerability. Written and recorded in the long wake of Jagger’s breakup with Marianne Faithfull and the early years of Richards’ torrid relationship with Anita Pallenberg, Sticky Fingers was a relationship record, an album about affection, pain, desire, loss, about loving people you’ve hurt and people who’ve hurt you.
The Jinx—a six-part documentary miniseries about alleged murderer and real estate scion Robert Durst—aired its final episode this past Sunday, a day after Durst’s real life arrest for the murder of his close friend Susan Berman. Berman was killed in 2000. In 2002, Ned Zeman profiled Durst (and his alleged crimes) for Vanity Fair. The excerpt below offers a window into Durst’s early friendship with Berman:
The second influence was Susan Berman. Acerbic and lively, talking a mile a minute, controlling the room, Berman was, by almost any standard, an exotic. She had shiny, black Louise Brooks-style hair, and she had stories. She’d spent her childhood in Las Vegas and Hollywood, where her classmates included Liza Minnelli and Jann Wenner. Her late father, Dave Berman, had run the biggest hotels on the Las Vegas Strip—the Riviera, the El Dorado, and, most notably, the Flamingo, where his only daughter’s portrait hung over the reservation desk. That Dave Berman had been a confederate of Mob bosses Meyer Lansky’s and Bugsy Siegel’s—that, in fact, he was a notorious gangster whom one detective called “the toughest Jew I ever met”—was Susan’s obsession. Bobby was fascinated. They’d both lost their mothers. They both had paternal issues. They became fast friends. He doted on Susie, as he called her.
A short piece published in BBC Magazine explored the science of whether murderers are born or made. A British neurocriminologist named Adrian Raine has made a career out of studying the brains of violent criminals. Raine was the first person to conduct a brain imaging study on murderers, and has since scanned the brains of numerous homicidal individuals, looking for similarities. Raine’s brain scanning studies found two similarities in the brains of nearly all his participants: 1) reduced activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which means less emotional impulse control, and 2) over activation of the part of the brain that controls our emotions, called the amygdala. According to the BBC, Raine’s study suggests that ” that murderers have brains that make them more prone to rage and anger, while at the same time making them less able to control themselves.” Childhood abuse could be a factor because of the damage it can cause to the brain, particularly to the pre-frontal cortex. But, as the BBC put it, “only a small proportion of those who have a terrible childhood grow up to become murderers,” which brings us to the next possibility: genetics. Are there genetic factors that predispose us to crime?
A breakthrough came in 1993 with a family in the Netherlands where all the men had a history of violence. Fifteen years of painstaking research revealed that they all lacked the same gene.
This gene produces an enzyme called MAOA, which regulates the levels of neurotransmitters involved in impulse control. It turns out that if you lack the MAOA gene or have the low-activity variant you are predisposed to violence. This variant became known as the warrior gene.
About 30% of men have this so-called warrior gene, but whether the gene is triggered or not depends crucially on what happens to you in childhood.
The research in question was conducted by Han Brunner, a Dutch geneticist working out of a teaching hospital in the Netherlands’ oldest city. Brunner’s research was first published in Science in October 1993, and that same month Sarah Richardson wrote about it for Discover magazine in an article entitled “Violence in the Blood.” Richardson’s piece is fascinating, especially in its explanation of how the geneticists used different clues to determine the origin of the aggressive behavior. This is how it begins:
One day in 1978 a woman walked into University Hospital in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, with a problem: the men in her family. Many of them–including several of her brothers and a son–seemed to have some sort of mental debility. Gradually, as the clinical geneticists who counseled the woman got to know her and her family, the details of the strange behavior of the woman’s male kin emerged. One had tried to rape his sister; another had tried to run his boss down with a car; a third had forced his sisters to undress at knife point. Furthermore, the violent streak had a long history. In 1962 the woman’s granduncle had prepared a family tree that identified nine other males with the same disorder, tracing it as far back as 1870. The granduncle, who was not violent himself–he worked in an institution for the learning disabled–had apparently come to suspect that something was terribly wrong with his family.
Three decades later, and 15 years after the woman’s first office visit, geneticist Han Brunner and his colleagues at the Nijmegen hospital think they’ve figured out what that something is. Some of the men in the woman’s family, they say, suffer from a genetic defect on the X chromosome- -a defect that cripples an enzyme that may help regulate aggressive behavior. If Brunner and his colleagues are right, it would be the first time a specific gene has been linked to aggression. That means their finding cannot fail to be controversial.
In a piece for the Financial Times John Paul Rathbone wrote about the murder of Glauco Villas Boas, one of Brazil’s best-known cartoonists. Glauco was a leader of the Céu de Maria church, one of the many churches in Brazil that treat hallucinogenic ayahuasca tea as a sacrament. The young man charged with murdering Glauco had partaken in the religious rituals of the church, and the murder provoked a heated national debate about the dangers of ayahuasca. While reporting the story Rathbone took part in an ayahuasca ceremony at Céu de Maria, which is described in the excerpt below:
Beatriz pointed me to a seat near the front and rang a captain’s bell to announce the start of the service. The congregation filtered in, some 200 people chatting easily among themselves. There were all types: young, old, fat, thin, black and white. Some looked like pirates, their faces etched with poverty; others like bank managers with the complexion that only a good diet brings. I was impressed by the social mingling and sense of community, so rare in Brazil, one of the world’s most unequal countries.
Beatriz nodded. To her left, four guitarists and a flautist, all men, began to play; to her right, a choir of women began to sing. The rest formed a queue at the back of the church where the tea was served in shot glasses. I knocked back an acrid brown mixture that tasted of rotten leaves and sat down again. The songs continued and a gentle lassitude filled my limbs. Two hours later we drank another glass. Some of the congregation sang; most sat quietly, absorbed in inner states. Occasionally, someone would go outside and I would hear vomiting. All the while the singing continued.
“I have had a dream,” comments Bottom when he awakes in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” I remember a feeling of waves. Around midnight, Beatriz had handed me a book of songs that Glauco had composed. The room suddenly seemed to fill with energy and joy. A drum began to sound, joining the guitars, flute and falsetto voices of the girls, and I remembered a phrase of St Teresa, the Catholic mystic: “Words lead to deeds . . . They prepare the soul, make it ready and move it to tenderness.” I heard the music as if listening to stereo for the first time, and the high chorus of a song penetrated me with its words: “I pray to my holy Father with extraordinary joy, extraordinary joy . . . ”