Karen Reads a True Story!

by Karen Gsteiger

Spoilers, etc. etc.

I had been intrigued by Michael Finkel's True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa since reading an excerpt in Vanity Fair. After a scolding review of the book appeared on Salon, I just knew that I had to check it out; I bought my own copy shortly thereafter.

The premise of this nonfiction book definitely falls into that "stranger than fiction" category: Michael Finkel was a disgraced New York Times Magazine reporter who was fired for creating a composite character for a story on slavery in the Ivory Coast. Just as he was fired, Christian Longo was arrested in Mexico for the murders of his wife and two children in Oregon. While he was in Mexico, he had been partying and impersonating...New York Times Magazine journalist Michael Finkel.

Once Finkel learned that an accused murderer had briefly stolen his identity, he attempted to contact Christian Longo for an interview. Thus began a long and fascinating correspondence. Christian Longo told the reporter his story, and the reporter believed that he had found his journalistic redemption. He also felt strongly connected to Longo; what began as a sense of moral superiority turned into feelings of camaraderie, sympathy, and friendship. Finkel found himself looking forward to his weekly phone calls with Longo. He confided in Longo about his relationship with his girlfriend (soon to become his wife). They promised to always be nothing but completely honest with each other...and both eventually broke this promise.

In a series of letters, Longo weaves a tale of economic desperation and descent into criminality. A member of a strictly devout Jehovah's Witness community, Christian Longo marries MaryJane Baker. They have three children together, Zachary, Sadie, and Madison, and struggle to make ends meet. Longo attempts to run his own business--a post-construction cleaning service but resorts to check fraud and auto theft. These actions, in addition to an affair, cause Longo to be exiled from the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Longo family attempts to outrun their poverty and Christian's pending fraud charges until the bodies of MaryJane Longo and the three Longo children are discovered. Zachary (nearly five years old) and Sadie (three-and-a-half years old) had been dumped in a muddy pond near Waldport, Oregon. MaryJane and Madison (two years old) were stuffed into suitcases and dumped into the waters in front of their condominium.

During this correspondence, Finkel attempts to maintain his neutrality despite the considerable evidence that Longo murdered his family in cold blood. He notes that Longo is presumed innocent before his trial and does not question his increasing intimacy with someone who could have been a monstrous killer. Only until shortly before Longo's trial, when people start to warn him of the killer's ability to manipulate others, does Finkel begin to reflect on the appropriateness of their relationship.

Finkel then covers the trial--including Longo's unbelievable testimony--and comes to the conclusion that (surprise, surprise!) a sociopath has totally played him for a sap. He chooses to end their friendship after Longo is convicted and sentenced to death. He has, however, with this publication, redeemed himself as a reporter and as a writer. He also claims to have told the story exactly as it has happened, insisting that Longo (who eventually tells three conflicting stories of the night of the murders) wouldn't have it any other way.

This book is positively enthralling--I finished it in two days, staying up WAY too late in the process. Even when you know in what direction the book is heading--Longo's conviction, Finkel's disillusionment--it does not detract from the tension and suspense of the narrative. Finkel's naiveté strains credulity at times,and my only real criticism is that he spends so much time seducing us on Longo's behalf that he doesn't really capture the horror of the murders or the tragic loss of the victims. Still, an excellent read for all who are fascinated by the minds of killers.