The lifespan of a falsehood

>> Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I was snookered the other day. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It was a little thing. Maybe it was a little thing. Maybe it was the tip of something, sticking out.

I should begin at a beginning. Have you heard of Longform? They aggregate longer pieces of writing you can find on the Internet; you can read them there or they have assorted ways you can save the pieces for later; there are apps for the iPad and Kindle, and they're supposed to be unveiling one for Android soon. And if you read Slate, Slate has a partnership and crosslinks Longform entries by theme--the best crime writing, the best pieces about Woody Allen, that kind of thing.

The other day they featured a set of pieces by Skip Hollandsworth. I don't know if you know his work; he writes for Texas Monthly and he's very, very good. Texas Monthly is very good; it isn't something I read very often (I don't live in Texas), but whenever I come across a Texas Monthly piece, I'm usually pleased. And Hollandsworth, like I said, I think he's very good. So I went and read all the pieces Longform and Slate were featuring.

I guess you should know, if you haven't strayed over there yet, that Hollandsworth covers the true crime beat for TM. I don't know if that's all he does, but as far as I know, that's everything I've read by him. Which means his subjects tend to be horrific or depressing or both. There's the piece he wrote about the Naval cadet and Air Force cadet who shot and killed a former high school classmate of theirs in a fit of juvenile jealousy, for instance, or the one he wrote about the high school athlete who shot his abusive dad in the head. (I don't want to just link to every piece featured in the Longform entry, but if you just read one, read "The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob", tragic and funny and the stuff Coen Brothers movies might be made from.)

And then there's "See No Evil", a piece Hollandsworth wrote about Charles Albright, who in 1991 was convicted of murdering a prostitute named Shirley Williams. It's a grisly case, the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a bad thriller, maybe in a midline X-Files episode: the singular fact of Williams' murder and the murders of two other women around the same time (Mary Lou Pratt and Susan Peterson) is that the killer stole their eyeballs: the murderer took a knife and very neatly removed them, removed them so neatly that in two of the cases the excisions weren't noticed until the bodies were inspected by the medical examiner (and in the third case, the removal was only immediately noticed because the first detectives on the scene, suspecting they had a serial killer on the loose, checked under the victim's eyelids before the body was removed for further examination).

There's been some furor over Albright's conviction. It appears the primary evidence against him was forensic analysis of hairs found on the victim, on Albright, in Albright's truck; well, hair analysis is shit. Some witnesses identified Albright, but at least one of the witnesses was--at least from Hollandsworth's version of things--a bit flaky, and that's being charitable about it; most of those in a position to witness anything, indeed, were actual bona fide crack whores. I don't know, I can't say. A jury said he was guilty of killing one of the women; it's only reasonable to suppose that whoever killed one prostitute and surgically removed her eyes killed the other two prostitutes who were killed, who had their eyes removed.

Hollandsworth tells a good story. This is what I like about Hollandsworth's crime writing. "See No Evil" is a chilling little tale, and it's more-or-less (more-or-less) true, which gives it added dimensions of terror and tragedy. An eye-obsessed psychopath could be trolling the streets of your neighborhood right now; I'll admit this self-interested, almost voyeuristic horror is one of the most striking effects, more striking than the sadness of remembering that Williams, Pratt and Peterson were real people, real women, human beings who lived and breathed and had momentary triumphs and sad--ultimately fatal--disappointments and failures. Hollandsworth digs back into Albright's childhood, how he was adopted by a woman who taught him taxonomy--and how to remove the eyes of dead animals when preparing them; how he lived what many took to be a forthright life while in fact he was racking up a series of fraud and forgery charges; how he seemed a decent enough man except for the occasional lapses into rage that left friends and associates dumbstruck. And through it all, Hollandsworth informs us, is a recurring obsession with eyes, eyes, the eyes.

Hollandsworth went and visited Albright in prison, and he asked him about eyes and Albright dodged and weaved and said he didn't know a thing about them. Until, that is, at the close of an interview and the close of a piece--

He [Albright] was confident, he told me, that he would win his case on appeal. Another judge, he said, would see through the lies told at the first trial. He leaned forward in his chair and grinned optimistically. He couldn’t complain about prison life, he said. He was reading two books a week on the Civil War; he was taking notes for a book he wanted to write on the wives of Civil War generals. He was busy working as a carpenter in the prison woodworking shop, coaching the prison softball team, and writing letters to Dixie. He had just sent a request to Omni magazine for a back copy of its first issue because there was a painting on the cover that he liked. He grinned again and told terrifically funny stories about how crazy the other inmates acted. For a moment, it was hard for me to remember exactly what Charles Albright had been accused of doing.

But then I’d lock on the image of an eyeless young woman lying faceup on a neighborhood street. Why would such a kindly, lighthearted man want to cut out a prostitute’s eyes? Why was he so plagued by eyes, that potent and universal symbol, the windows to the soul? In the ancient myth, Oedipus tore out his own eyes after committing the transgression of sleeping with his mother. Did Charles Albright, a perverted Oedipus, tear out the eyes of women for committing the transgression of sleeping with men? Perhaps he removed their eyes out of some sudden need to show the world he could have been a great surgeon. Maybe he dumped that third body in front of the school to show his frustration over never having become a biology teacher. Or maybe a private demon had been lurking since his childhood, when the eyes were left off his little stuffed birds. Just as he long ago wanted to have a bagful of taxidermist’s eyes, maybe he decided to collect human eyes for himself.

"Oh, really, I have never touched an eyeball," Albright declared again, for the first time becoming indignant with me. "I truly think--and this may sound farfetched--that the boys in the forensics lab cut out those eyes. I think the police said, 'We want some sort of mutilation.'" Almost cheered by his reasoning, he returned to his psychologically impenetrable self. Whatever secrets he had would remain with him forever.

Weeks after that conversation, I remember Albright’s comment about wanting the first issue of Omni magazine. Intrigued, I went to look for it at the library. I opened a bound volume to the cover of the first issue, which was published in October 1978. There, staring out from the center of a dark page, was a solitary human eye, unmoored, as if floating in space. The eyelid slid down just to the top of the eyeball; the eyeball was lightly shaded; the eyelashes were curved like half-moons.

It was, I thought, exactly the kind of eye Charles Albright would wish he had painted.


And I felt a shiver when I read that. Who wouldn't? And of course I had to know. And I was reading this on the Internet, of course, that vast storehouse of human knowledge and porn. The great expansion of human consciousness and memory. And when I went and looked up the first issue of Omni magazine, October, 1978, this is what I found, right here, right next to this paragraph.

That's a fence, isn't it? Red taillights of a car on the left-hand margin of the page, parked. Blue on blue on black. Fiction by Asimov, Sturgeon, Goulart (not a bad collection, there). An interview with Freeman Dyson, physicist, futurist, dreamer of spheres. A couple of headlines hinting at Omni's obsession with weird or alternate--i.e. (let's be blunt) pseudo--science. But here's what I don't see: I do not see eyes. Or an eye. Or an eye unmoored and floating in space, eyelid folded upon it, eyelashes "curved like half-moons." Not unless you want to be figurative about a set of glowing taillights. Not unless that car has red, red eyes looking out at the reader, the fence.

There are Omni covers featuring eyes. There are a lot of them, too many, really, to link to or embed here. Pictures of single eyes, pairs of eyes, eyes in space, electronic eyes, cyborg eyes, alien eyes, human eyes, photographed eyes, painted eyes, eyes in an array of hues (including shades borne by no mere, ordinary eye). None of those issues are from the October of 1978, collector's issue, featuring these stories, this interview, fiction, fact, fact-like.

The idea that Charles Albright wants the first issue of Omni because he likes the eye is a good story. It just isn't, as far as I can make out, true. At all. If there's a version of the first issue with an alternate cover, it isn't to be readily found on the Internet. Not even on an Omni obsessive's fan page.

This is a minor thing, yes. But it bothers me. More than I'd like it to. Because now I am wondering how much of the piece is true. I am wondering if Charles Albright's foster mother liked taxidermy, or if he really told Hollandsworth about having a conversation with a forensic examiner about the part of the eye socket a nerve runs through. What else might have changed? I have doubts, now. It's still a good story. Oh, gods and monsters, it remains a good story. Does it matter if it's true, if it's still a good story? Do I need it to be true, or do I somehow feel cheated by the fact that maybe it isn't? I read a Stephen King story, I don't sit there miffed that he made the whole damn thing up. And Hollandsworth didn't make the whole thing up about Charles Albright--there is a Charles Albright; he just made up the part about a magazine cover.

Just that one part. Probably just the one part. Maybe just the one part.

This isn't something that I'm just thinking about out of the blue, I have to say. This--I mean the idea of what's true in a piece of nonfiction--has been on my mind because, as you may have heard, there's this new book out called The Lifespan Of A Fact that deals with this subject. I haven't read it, I probably won't, because thinking about it irritates me; okay, it interests me, yes, but it still annoys me, too. There was also a thing about it on NPR several mornings ago. This book is ostensibly a document of a sort of battle between a freelance writer who did a piece on a teenage boy who killed himself in Las Vegas, and the fact-checker The Believer assigned to the article (after it was rejected by Harper's, which seems a not-incidental thing to point out, although I'm not sure we know why Harper's turned it down). The writer, it seems, took some artistic liberties, which appears to be a euphemism for playing fast and loose with facts, making things up, compressing things, linking unconnected events, making a hash of reality in search of some kind of capital-T Truth that cannot be sufficiently conveyed by simply telling the reader what really happened in a stylistic, empathic fashion.

And this is tricky, you know. Because if I pick up a "nonfiction" book by David Sedaris, I don't necessarily assume David Sedaris is telling me the truth, capitalized or not. I assume that David Sedaris is a funny man, and (being a funny man) is prone to exaggerate. This is a long and noble tradition among raconteurs, that it's okay to be flexible for the sake of the tale. And yet that isn't really the standard--or at least not my standard: if I pick up an issue of Harper's (which, again, rejected the "artistic" Vegas suicide story) or Texas Monthly, I'm expecting not Truth or truthiness but simple, good-old-fashioned facts presented in an informative and well-written way. I'm not actually sure, when I think about it, whether there's really a rational basis for me to draw a line; maybe I ought to be gravely disappointed in David Sedaris, or perhaps I ought to be cutting Skip Hollandsworth more slack instead of feeling vaguely betrayed and even a little heartbroken.

Maybe, possibly, it's a matter of expectations. I didn't open up "See No Evil" thinking I'd be getting a yarn; I thought I was opening up a well-told accounting of terrible things happening out in Texas.

Indeed, I have to admit: one reason I justify reading these kinds of things is that I expect to be the one perhaps spinning yarns. I pretend I'm a writer, you may have noticed. I like to write awful fictions about monsters and things, even if I never seem to finish them these days. And so I read about an eye-stealing serial killer thinking, perhaps unjustifiably, that it isn't just prurience, but research: I might use that, I think, I might be able to do something with that. He steals eyes, you say? Why, that could be interesting, yes, I think it could. But then it shouldn't matter that I don't know how much of the story is true, not if it inspires me; except, then, there's also the question of whether or not Skip Hollandsworth beat me to the punch if I do decide to try something with it; he made up the part about Omni magazine, it appears, so perhaps he made up something else, something more meaningful--how neatly the victims' eyes were removed, perhaps. Or how charming Charles Albright seemed to be, for instance.

I don't know. I don't want to stand opposed to literary art. But I also can't quite accept that literary art automatically trumps--well, honesty. A publisher in the NPR story on The Lifespan Of A Fact says truth is subjective; well, sort of, sometimes, maybe. But the first cover of Omni either had an eye on the front of it or it didn't.

And it didn't. And now I don't know whether to believe anything else I've been told, either.




11 comments:

Warner Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 9:23:00 AM EDT  

Possibly unrelated item on the eyes. About the time of the trial John Sandford wrote a piece of fiction (actually two novels) on a serial killer obsessed with eyes. Eyes of Prey is the first of the two (and I think the third in the series).

Under his real name, John Camp, he has a Pulitzer

timb111 Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 11:51:00 AM EDT  

I think there's a huge difference between literature, editorials and reporting. When reading the first two you expect opinion, satire and fiction. It is awesome when reporting is so well written that it reaches the level of literature, but when the reporter steps outside what s/he thinks is the truth then there's a problem. It is now simply deception.

This is why I have difficulty reading historical fiction. You never really know what is tru to the period and what the author simply made up to advance the plot or character development.

I read Hollandsworth's The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob. Wow. He's a great story teller. I read it as fiction.

Warner Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 1:26:00 PM EDT  

McKinley Kantor's historical fiction of the Civil War, Andersonville includes a Bibliography (he also explains which characters are real, and which are not).

That is the level most historical fiction has to be for me to enjoy it.

timb111 Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 1:37:00 PM EDT  

@Warner that sounds like a good way to do it. I'd try one on my upcoming vacation, but Amazon doesn't have any McKinlay Kantor Kindle books.

Nathan Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 8:41:00 PM EDT  

If something is offered to me as non-fiction, I expect it to be completely non...uh...fictional? If someone is telling me a really cool true story, I expect it to be true. All of it.

I'm not saying people aren't allowed to make any errors in their reporting, but I expect them to care enough to at least try really hard. If they care more about a "cool story" than they do about getting the facts right, I kinda write them off. There's too much stuff out there to read and I don't have time for the ones who play fast and loose.

OTOH, I happen to love fiction (including historical fiction). Make up as much shit as you feel like and I'm totally good with that.

timb111 Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 11:43:00 PM EDT  

@Nathan, that's why you believe a West Virginia town was transported back to 1632.

Anonymous,  Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 10:38:00 PM EDT  

I would not be annoyed by creative nonfiction if it were identified as such.

I guess for me, reading fiction, or Sedaris type non-fiction, or O'Brien type memoir, the agreement to suspend reality while the storyteller tells his story is consensual. The type of creative non-fiction which masquerades as journalism (and occasionally science writing) and relies on the reader not knowing the author is not trustworthy is non-consensual, and akin to fraud. It also appears to be depressingly common, it just hasn't been feasible for the average reader to fact-check things like "What was actually on the first cover of Omni?" for themselves until very recently.

Nathan Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 2:31:00 AM EDT  

Wait a minute. You mean there wasn't a West Virginia town transported back to 1632?

timb111 Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 11:46:00 AM EDT  

See that's my point exactly. The town was really transported back to 1633, but Flint moved it to 1632 for plot purposes.

John the Scientist Friday, March 16, 2012 at 2:12:00 AM EDT  

Well, I think it could also be editorial laziness - is it possible he meant "one of the first issues" and it got edited out? That cover's not even a painting.

Eric Friday, March 16, 2012 at 10:15:00 AM EDT  

John, it's possible but improbable. First, because he was very specific about it being the October, 1978 issue of Omni, in fact the first issue. And second, because the nearest thing to "one of the first issues" would be the March, 1979 issue, the sixth issue published; as you can see at the link, the issue in question is a poor match for Hollandsworth's description, starting with the date and ending with the fact that March, '79 depicts a human face, half hidden, one eye visible--not a "solitary human eye, unmoored, as if floating in space...."

In fact, the first issue I can find with a cover depicting an eye unmoored in space is the July, 1980 issue, in the third year of Omni's run.

You can see nearly all of the covers of Omni here, by the way; the site proprietor is only missing one or two covers (I think). (His use of frames is the reason he hasn't been my primary source of links in this comment or the main post.)

Given the specificity of the description, my suspicion would be that Hollandsworth looked up the first issue of Omni after talking to Albright (and gods only know what Albright saw in the cover--I don't think much of the October '78 cover, myself), and as he was thumbing through the covers he saw several that depicted eyes--eyes hatching from egglike satellites, eyes in mysterious human faces, eyes in pyramids--and thought something along the lines of, "Wouldn't it have been interesting if Charlie Albright wanted a picture of an eye while he was in prison?" and later that's how he tells the story, figuring it makes for a better yarn and it isn't like anyone's going to care enough to call him on it.

As Anon. at 3/14/2012/10:38:00 PM EDT writes, it';s only recently that an average reader could readily fact check this kind of thing. And I didn't even set out to fact-check Hollandsworth: I just wanted to see the eyeball magazine cover Albright was obsessed with; I was so flummoxed by the result, my first instinct was actually to check my own Google-fu (maybe there was another version of the cover, maybe I'm looking at the wrong date, etc....). It wasn't until I'd double-checked myself that I realized this was probably much like the situation with The Lifespan Of A Fact and a topic I'd been thinking about since reading about that book in Slate and hearing a piece about it on NPR.

I think a lot of my attitudes mirror Nathan's: if you label a story as "true" I kind of expect it to be true (at least within the margins of error and accounting for subjective experience), because if I wanted "creative nonfiction" or outright "fiction based on/inspired by true events" there's plenty of that already out there I'd like to get around to. I don't necessarily mind Truman Capote taking a lot of license when I know going in that In Cold Blood is a "non-fiction novel" (and that this is defined, really, as a work of fiction with some truth in it, even if you slice it the other way per the Wikipedia definition at the previous link). I guess I'm disappointed that Hollandsworth's work in Texas Monthly doesn't seem to be clearly labeled in a similar fashion; I suspect that I'll keep reading his work, but in the way Timb read "Cowboy Bob"--as outright fiction. And I suspect I'll be a little leerier than I was about it when I do, which is kind of sad to me.

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