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True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa Hardcover – May 24, 2005
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In True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, disgraced New York Times writer Michael Finkel recounts the story of the murderer who assumed his identity and examines the reasons for his own fall from journalistic grace, in a memoir that is gripping, perceptive, and bizarre. In 2002, Finkel, a rising star at the Times, was fired for fabricating a character in a story about child laborers in Africa. Just as the story of his downfall was about to become public, he learned that a man named Christian Longo, arrested in Mexico for the murder of his wife and three small children in Oregon, had been living under an assumed identity: Michael Finkel of The New York Times. Sensing a story--and an opportunity for redemption--Finkel contacted Longo, initiating a relationship that would grow increasingly complex over the course of Longo's trial and conviction.
Finkel makes no excuses for his actions. Nor does he deny his own narcissism--a narcissism that allowed him to rationalize his own lies as surely as Longo rationalized his crimes. Ultimately, Finkel says, his year with Longo taught him "how a person's life could spiral completely out of control; how one could get lost in a haze of dishonesty; and how these things could have dire consequences." The lesson, Finkel need not add, applies as much to the disgraced writer as it does to the killer. --Erica C. Barnett
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In 2001, Finkel fabricated portions of an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine. Caught and fired, he retreated to his Montana home, only to learn that a recently arrested suspected mass murderer had adopted his identity while on the run in Mexico. In this astute and hypnotically absorbing memoir, Finkel recounts his subsequent relationship with the accused, Christian Longo, and recreates not only Longo's crimes and coverups but also his own. In doing so, he offers a startling meditation on truth and deceit and the ease with which we can slip from one to the other. The narrative consists of three expertly interwoven strands. One details the decision by Finkel, under severe pressure, to lie within the Times article—ironic since the piece aimed to debunk falsehoods about rampant slavery in Africa's chocolate trade—and explores the personal consequences (loss of credibility, ensuing despair) of that decision. The second, longer strand traces Longo's life, marked by incessant lying and petty cheating, and the events leading up to the slayings of his wife and children. The third narrative strand covers Finkel's increasingly involved ties to Longo, as the two share confidences (and also lies of omission and commission) via meetings, phone calls and hundreds of pages of letters, leading up to Longo's trial and a final flurry of deceit by which Longo attempts to offload his guilt. Many will compare this mea culpa to those of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, but where those disgraced journalists led readers into halls of mirrors, Finkel's creation is all windows. There are, notably, no excuses offered, only explanations, and there's no fuzzy boundary between truth and deceit: a lie is a lie. Because of Finkel's past transgression, it's understandable that some will question if all that's here is true; only Finkel can know for sure, but there's a burning sincerity (and beautifully modulated writing) on every page, sufficient to convince most that this brilliant blend of true-crime and memoir does live up to its bald title. 4-city author tour. (June)
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Top Customer Reviews
I knew parts of the Michael Finkel story. I also knew parts of the Chris Longo story. I definitely remember reading about him spending time in Mexico on a beach with a German woman. But like so many stories that get filtered through a media lens, the stories were somewhat distorted. I didn’t think very highly of a reporter who was fired for falsifying a story. And my initial thoughts about that same reporter writing a book about a supposed connection with an accused murderer seemed too convenient. I was wrong on both accounts. I found both stories fascinating.
Not long after his ignominious departure from the Times, Finkel learned that an accused murderer was using his identity while on the run in Mexico. Thus began a relationship between Finkel and the man who stole his identity, Chris Longo. While Longo awaits trial for the murders of his wife and three small children, Finkel visits Longo in prison and the two begin exchanging letters. Slowly a portrait of a psychopath emerges. Longo has only a high school education and no skills, but he has a family to support. He can’t stand the thought of failure. So, he invents success through lies and deceit. He writes bad checks because he needs money for his family and his failing business. He steals an SUV because his wife always wanted one and he wants to be seen as a good provider. Finkel tells Longo’s story while at the same time reflecting on his own indiscretions and the mistake that cost him his job. Here’s how Finkel sums up Longo’s story. “My year with Longo made me see how a person’s life could spiral out of control; how one could get lost in a haze of dishonesty, and how these things could have dire consequences.”
Throughout the book Finkel leaves Longo’s guilt or innocence in question. This part memoir, part portrait of a psychopath, is also a murder mystery. You want to know hat happened and why. As it turns out, Longo gives three different versions of what happened to his family. And since Longo is the only one who knows the truth, you’re left to decide on your own which version is correct.
However, it is also a very difficult book to read because of the story it told. I had to put down the book and go to do something else to clear my mind a bit. I did not know this case before I picked up the book. While I was reading it, I wished the whole thing was fictional. It showed how easily a person could be pushed over the edge, and how easily one little mistake could grow so big that a person just maybe runs out of options. It is certainly easy to judge as a person who observed this whole thing from the outside. And thinking how stupid it was to choose to go down to that path. But sometimes I wonder if, any of us stuck in those moments, would be able to see or think outside of the box and find the right way?
As for the honesty - the true major character of this novel, if you are willing to give the author a second chance, just read the words that he spilled onto the paper, maybe you could see something or learn something for yourself. Being open and completely honest is a very hard thing to do, in private or public. It takes courage to look at the mirror and really see yourself. I always believe that this is the key to writing a good, powerful book. I admire what the author has done in this book.
Other reviews have doubted the truth of this account. If they are correct, I would still consider this book a worthy piece of fiction.
At the end, I choose to believe the author.
Longo's struggles to be a decent human being did not come through this story - what you hear is a story developing as does his non-existent character. Because Longo is devoid of any human characteristics. He is nothing more than a pathological liar that decided to rid himself of his family - killing those poor children and discarding them into the murky waters boarding the Oregon Coast so that he may start a new chapter in his life.
I find the relationship between Finkel and Longo to be similar, but Finkel uses the illustrations as a way to apologize for his actions working for the New York Times, and I understand the stress he put himself through plagiarizing his story. The connection is there, and at times made me sick to my stomach.