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.