Birnbaum v.

Sebastian Junger

Reporting a civil war in Africa sounds tough, but try investigating a 40-year-old crime in America’s quietest suburb. A chat with journalist Sebastian Junger about his new book on the Boston Strangler.

Sebastian Junger’s day job has undoubtedly been obscured by the success of his international best-selling book, The Perfect Storm, and the movie version starring George Clooney. Junger is a member of a small group of journalists who continue to risk life and limb in the world’s war zones—in his case, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, but he does, however, write books off his chosen beat. In his newest book, Death in Belmont, Junger returns to the quiet Boston suburb of his youth to examine a 40-year-old crime and an odd and personal connection to the infamous Boston Strangler case.

As Junger relates in the chat that follows:

“I go into areas not talked about, and, frankly, a 40-year-old murder case in the quietest suburb in America: That’s not getting talked about. And I thought, “What a perfect place to go into while all my compatriots rush overseas to cover the events. Why don’t I go home and report on the quietest town on the planet?” Frankly, it was so much harder than a civil war in Liberia—you have no idea. As a journalist and as a writer, to take Belmont 40 years ago and turn it into a hopefully gripping narrative, a gripping piece of journalism was incredibly difficult. Child soldiers in Africa, compared to Belmont, is a piece of cake.”

Also, while ostensibly re-examining the murder of a suburban housewife, and oddly connected to that moment’s crime of the century, Sebastian Junger, as you will learn, had something else in mind.


Robert Birnbaum: Is this a book idea that you came upon suddenly or have you had it in the back of your mind for a while?

Sebastian Junger: The story has been in my family since I can remember, the story of the murder in Belmont. Al DeSalvo was at my parents’ house that day. That question mark has been in my family since I can remember but as a book it occurred to me, I wouldn’t say “suddenly,” but it took shape in the late ‘90s. I had been doing some foreign reporting and started to research it a little bit and then 9/11 hit. And I had been in Afghanistan in the fall of 2000 with Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance. His assassination two days before 9/11 was very much a part of what was going on then. And I went back over there and suddenly my experience in Afghanistan felt like it was of some value, maybe. So I went back over and that delayed me starting on the book a little bit. I started about three years ago.

RB: Was it a larger, longer book as a manuscript?

SJ: No, I wrote it exactly as it appears.

RB: I was taken with and moved by your mini-history of lynching, and that is something of a digression from the narrative, and so I thought there were other places you may have waxed eloquent and then restrained yourself at the final cut.

JG: The chapters on the trial of Roy Smith were longer. I feel like I have a pretty good sense of the attention span of the average reader.

RB: [laughs]

Sebastian Junger, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

SJ: My interests sometimes extend beyond that attention span and I feel like I have to be very careful to listen to what my reader wants rather than follow a course that I am purely interested in. But the lynching—you write about a black man from Mississippi born in the ‘20s who is accused and convicted of raping and strangling a white lady in Boston. You sort of have to talk about it. Particularly if during his interrogation the man says, as Roy Smith does, “Listen, I am from the South. I value my neck. I wouldn’t even look at white lady.” If you don’t talk about it, it’s similar to the elephant in the living room, and also, frankly, the things I found out about lynching in the South surprised me.

RB: It probably surprises people that that they were still going on into the ‘60s, in the U.S.A.

JG: Yup. What surprised me was that they weren’t just hangings. They really were public torture sessions. Guys were getting tied to trees and burned alive. They were getting killed with blowtorches. This was not extrajudicial justice [where] a guy gets hung out behind the barn by five guys who decide to do what they think is the right thing. This was a whole town gathering to watch a human being tortured to death. And it happened in my mother’s lifetime, in a democracy, in America. And that just amazed me.

RB: In the latter part of the book, as you try to reconstruct some of the story, was there a clear agenda here? You don’t want to say Smith was innocent although you do everything but say that. You don’t want to make a definitive claim about DeSalvo.

SJ: Right.

RB: In fact, you argue that this kind of factuality is hard to nail down. So what was the starting point for what might be true and presentable?

SJ: Originally when it was learned that DeSalvo has been at my parents’ house—when he confessed to being the Boston Strangler, it was learned [that] on the day of Bessie Goldberg’s murder he was at my parents’ house, in the same town, two miles away. Police investigators decided to explore the possibility that DeSalvo could have killed Bessie Goldberg, which would mean that Roy Smith would be innocent. That was the starting point of my book—to continue their efforts at probing that question. Ultimately my agenda, if that’s the right word, would be to turn the reader into a jury, to give readers the experience of being on a jury. Which would mean that I would play both prosecution and defense—both concerning Roy Smith and then concerning Al DeSalvo. And that idea came from an experience I had on a criminal trial in Manhattan. It was a corrupt cop, a cop accused of corruption, and I was just amazed: When the prosecutor was talking, the guy was guilty; when the defense attorney talked, he was innocent.

RB: [laughs]

SJ: In my mind it went back and forth all day long for a week. And I thought, now that offers the possibility of a dramatically interesting book, which is also absolutely truthful because any book about this case, a person who claims to know the absolute truth about this case is deluding themselves.

RB: I would think many people in any trial would quickly make up their mind. You are suggesting an openmindedness that I am skeptical is in place.

I start to feel like I am in a really important debate about honesty—frankly, about the honesty of the accuser. These accusations are incredibly dishonest.

SJ: That’s the brilliance of the jury system. It’s that you do have jurors who make up their minds immediately, in both directions. And that’s what gets hashed out in the jury room. And you do get a sort of wisdom of averages. They did a wonderful experiment—and I am quoting from memory—roughly it was this: They took a big glass jar, a water cooler jar, and filled it full of marbles. And asked about a hundred people to guess how many marbles were in there. And then they asked four mathematicians, without counting, but to try to calculate by whatever method they had of doing estimates, the number of marbles, and the mathematicians were wildly off. The average of the hundred people’s guess, the untutored, uneducated non-mathematicians, was almost exactly on the nose. That’s where you get wisdom of the crowd.

RB: What if you asked a hundred mathematicians using whatever methodology? They might have gotten the correct answer.

SJ: Right, but you are still getting the wisdom of the average. Also there is something to be said for not having too much methodology involved. And the thing about a jury is that people say the average American is, “Oh my God, I hate to be judged by the average citizen.” The thing is, if you get a very smart person, a dumb person, a very educated person, a guy who’s a worker, a corporate guy, and a housewife, all this even unconscious bias starts to cancel out. And you do get a weird kind of wisdom.

RB: Reminds me of FDR telling his disagreeing advisers to lock themselves in a room until they could agree in something—so if you lock 12 people in a room—

SJ: That’s right. That’s what I wanted to do with my book. And now my book is out and people are reading it, and at book signings I am saying to people, “Innocent or guilty, what do you think?” And I am getting a variety of answers, which is exactly what I was looking for.

RB: In 1960s terms, did Roy Smith get a fair trial?

SJ: Yes, he got a very fair trial.

RB: Then you ask a prosecutor to review the case and he says he isn’t sure he would have gotten an indictment on the evidence—as he backtracked through the forensic evidence.

SJ: That’s right but it’s a slightly different issue. The law has evolved. So he is talking about 2006 law. This is 1963—things like the rules of discovery were very, very different. The defense didn’t even get the autopsy report. He had to petition the court for it. Now all the information is shared and you don’t convict someone, as one judge says, by playing hide-the-ball, by ambushing someone with facts. Then I read the trial transcript—it’s 3,000-something pages. And I am not trained in the law, so I sent it to a judge, David Myer, and to an appellate attorney, a wonderful guy in Boston named Ronny Spear, and had them read it and explain it to me. And by “fair trial,” I mean I don’t believe that there was any overt racism in the jury, even though it was all male and all white. I don’t think the prosecutor had a hidden agenda. He is a very dignified gentleman and he wasn’t hiding exculpatory evidence. There wasn’t any of that sort of unfairness in the trial procedure. But the infuriating and fascinating thing about the law is that you can be truly innocent but found guilty in an absolutely fair trial. And that’s where you get some of the tragedies that happen, unfair convictions later reversed by DNA evidence.

RB: I was impressed with your very empathetic description of Bessie Goldberg’s husband’s life after her murder. Given that, why are some of the family [daughter Leah Goldberg and nephew Casey Sherman] upset?

SJ: Both of them—Leah understandably, I don’t understand Casey Sherman as well or maybe not even at all. Leah certainly has an emotional right to an opinion about this book. She lost her mom. Neither of us can imagine what that’s like. And there is no book I could have written that would have been OK for her.

RB: Meaning anything was intrusive.

SJ: That’s right. Frankly, when you write as a journalist, if you write about tragedy, you are intruding. If you write about 9/11, you have 3,000 families who are going to feel some of that pain all over again. If you write about a 40-year-old murder, likewise. The alternative, which is to never touch those topics, is unthinkable, because we need to examine these things. What it means is that people who have a strong personal agenda or relationship to this book are not going to be able to evaluate it purely rationally. That is why you keep people off juries who know the defendant or know the victim, an obvious thing. So in that sense I would say that I absolutely respect and understand Leah’s feelings. But she is not really an objective person for the jury for the book, if you will. Casey Sherman, I am really quite puzzled by. His big thing is that DeSalvo didn’t kill his aunt. And it’s very possible, and I don’t say anything to the contrary, so he really is puzzling to me with his article in Boston magazine [attacking Junger’s journalistic competence and/or integrity]. I was appalled by his article. It’s not journalism, basically.

RB: I contacted the editor for a comment and got no response.

SJ: We never got a response, either. Considering he never interviewed me and the article is filled with quotes, I am taking umbrage. Leah, I completely understand. And my heart goes out to her.

RB: I was amused that in your letter to him you pointed out basic Balkan geography—

SJ: I was in both those wars, you know, but you don’t have to have been in the wars to know who was fighting. It was all over the newspapers. An amazing mistake in an article about supposed errors in journalism.

RB: I saw a mention of an unfavorable Wall Street Journal review—

SJ: You could say that. A guy named Josh Marquis, who is a prosecutor and also high up in an association of district attorneys. And it was not a review. It was a reported piece. And he dodged calls from my publisher for two weeks, who wanted him to talk to me, suspecting that if he spoke to me every single assertion in that article [would be proven] false. Seriously, the whole thing was erroneous. And if you talk to someone and they defend themselves coherently, there is no article. And Casey Sherman is nothing compared to Mr. Marquis. It was absolutely revolting.

RB: When all is said and done, do these things not hurt a book?

SJ: Maybe not, I don’t know. I am not really in the publishing business. I am a journalist. My reputation as a journalist is so important and sacred to me—I am in love with the profession. And any unfair accusation that—listen, let’s face it. All of us get some things wrong and the New York Times has a corrections column. And that’s part of journalism. But any suggestion that I would ever as a journalist have intentionally distorted a fact or tried to shape a story, to me is so loathsome, that in that sense I could care less about book sales. I really start to feel like I am in a really important debate about honesty—frankly, about the honesty of the accuser. These accusations are incredibly dishonest.

RB: Book reviews have become degraded and so has much of literary journalism. I had asked Richard Reeves about the state of journalism—he teaches at U.S.C—but mostly I was spouting off about the careerism and sad state of the profession.

SJ: It’s very disheartening to me. My experience with journalists, frankly, is overseas in war zones. And there, everyone in a war zone, every reporter, they want to be there and they are living their fantasy dream life as a journalist, and there is an incredible fraternity there, and we help each other. We would certainly never stab each other in the back. Almost without exception. We share sources, we share car rides, we share translators, and we share flak jackets. That’s my understanding of what a journalist is—and then you come back to this country and you encounter some of the issues you mentioned—the degrading of journalism in America, and it’s really shocking and disturbing and makes me want to go back overseas where the journalists are together and not sniping at each other.

RB: Why have your books been domestic and your reporting is international? Why no book about Afghanistan?

SJ: Everyone’s writing a book about Afghanistan now. Journalists with more experiences than I, writing books I would like to read if I had time. I feel my strength is to go into areas in the world that are not being examined, so I was in Afghanistan in 2000. I was in Sierra Leone before that phase of the civil war kicked off. I was in Liberia. Sword fisherman in Gloucester [The Perfect Storm]—I go into areas not talked about, and, frankly, a 40-year-old murder case in the quietest suburb in America: That’s not getting talked about. And I thought, “What a perfect place to go into while all my compatriots rush overseas to cover the events. Why don’t I go home and report on the quietest town on the planet?” Frankly, it was so much harder than a civil war in Liberia, you have no idea. As a journalist and as a writer, to take Belmont 40 years ago and turn it into a hopefully gripping narrative, a gripping piece of journalism, was incredibly difficult. Child soldiers in Africa compared to Belmont is a piece of cake.

RB: There is a wonderful novel by Uzodinma Iweala [Beasts of No Nation].

SJ: I know the book. I haven’t read it. I am intrigued.

RB: Are you a thrill junkie? War junkie?

SJ: No.

RB: No one ever is who I have talked to. Who are those people?

SJ: Most of the journalists in war zones know who those guys are and stay away from them. The guys who are there for a thrill, not only are they doing dangerous things but also they have an agenda other than the story. Part of their agenda is their own experience in the story, and that immediately warps the work you are doing. And it’s downhill from there. So look, no one wants to die. I have been in situations where I thought it was quite possible I would be killed, and you come out of a situation like that thinking, “I never want to have that feeling again, even for a second.” It’s a very disturbing feeling.

RB: There is some aspect of that excitement factor in what you do?

SJ: There is. Being in a situation where you are possibly about to be killed, there is nothing nice about it. Being in a situation that is dynamic and dramatic and unfolding before your eyes and has worldwide consequences—that, you can get addicted to. So I was in Macedonia in 2000 and there was a near-coup, a crowd of soldiers, there was an Albanian insurgency within a few miles of the capital and the right wing really rose up and attacked the parliament building and the soldiers joined them, and there was heavy machine-gun fire in the town square right outside the hotel. A journalist was beaten by the crowd and almost killed, right in front of the hotel. I was holed up in the bathtub, afraid of the gunfire. But I also saw a coup and one that would have had profound implications in the region and the world, and I thought, my God, I don’t think I am in real danger here, and look at the front-row seats here. And that’s what journalists get addicted to. To the civilians it looks like an addiction to danger. That’s not what it is.

RB: Is the group of foreign correspondents a constant number? Expanding, diminishing? It seems like the last outpost of honorable journalism. Where are these people coming from?

SJ: There’s always network news people that gallop around the world and they are really tied into the corporate world of television news more than into the foreign reporting world. I don’t know what’s happening with that number. I know that when I go to a school to talk, there are any number of young future freelancers who want to know: How do I go to war zone and start working without having a job? That’s how I did it. I went to Bosnia with a bunch of notebooks and pens and flew to Zagreb and started. There will always be those young people. And I encourage them. My answer is save up a few thousand bucks and just go.

RB: That was a point Richard Reeves made: There was a time when you didn’t need credentials, you just needed the will to do the story. And if you did the story, you were a journalist. Now you apparently need a degree from a journalism school. The Central American wars of the ‘80s gave a lot of people a start.

Being in a situation where you are possibly about to be killed, there is nothing nice about it. Being in a situation that is dynamic and dramatic and unfolding before your eyes and has worldwide consequences—that, you can get addicted to.

SJ: Yup, they got their ticket stamped in Central America and then in the Balkans. And now Baghdad, except it’s just too dangerous.

RB: What’s the next hot spot? Iran?

SJ: I would be very surprised if we tangled with Iran in any real way. For a hot spot it has to be any open conflict. Nepal, if they don’t resolve fast—

RB: Africa has an endless supply.

SJ: Yes, that’s right, although Africa, in the eyes of many people in the world, sort of doesn’t matter. Compared to the Balkans and even compared to Nepal. You get the Orange revolution in the Ukraine, now, that’s front-page news. And the same situation in Africa isn’t.

RB: In the ‘80s I was irate because although there was some attention paid to Central America, as soon as Serbia became a problem, no one seemed to care about Nicaragua or El Salvador. My take on it was that white people were seemingly more valuable.

SJ: I was in college in the early ‘80s and I am a liberal politically and Central America was the big leftist cause—human rights, bring peace to El Salvador—that shaped me in some ways [and] was the point of my journalism. I sort of continue with that idea. And very interestingly, when you get into the ‘90s, the intervention Clinton led into Bosnia to stop the genocide and into Kosovo to stop the horrors, those were in keeping with liberal ideas of human rights and justice and democracy, and they were denounced by the left, and what I realized was that there is some element of the left that hates the U.S. military more than they love human rights. And that to me—and I am speaking about my own party which I love, and want to change for the good—that to me is an inherent failing of the left. That they are still stuck in a Vietnam-era view of the military.

RB: Apropos of nothing, your father is Russian but Junger is a German name?

SJ: Austrian, and my father is a mix of a lot of things—a little Austrian, Italian, and Russian, and Spanish.

RB: [laughs] That explains it. Normally real-crime stories aren’t appealing—except one called Swordfish—I don’t really have any interest in the Boston Strangler but I found the Roy Smith story compelling.

SJ: What I wanted to do in the book—I said, “Look, everyone in it is dead. It doesn’t really matter. But this can be a way of talking about some important things that do endure.” How do we reach a decision on some things that can’t be known with absolute certainty? Juries have to do it every day, and the stakes are very high. We put people to death because of jury decisions. But even on a broader level, we went to Iraq because we thought, but didn’t know for sure, that there were WMDs. I mean countries, societies, all the time have to act on incomplete knowledge. And they have to come to conclusions, and what I wanted my book to be is a sort of between-the-lines meditation on doubt. Like, why do we believe what we think we believe?

RB: One of the arguments run in Iraq was the fact that we couldn’t find WMD was proof that Iraq had them. [laughs]

SJ: That’s right, and it can turn into semantic word games.

RB: Is the sense you get of the reception of Death in Belmont [is that] it’s not a rehash of an old crime?

SJ: I have been getting some incredible reviews. And the really good reviews focus on the idea of how you write about uncertainty. This book is about uncertainty. Can you make that a worthy topic of discussion? That was Alan Dershowitz’s review, which was really quite positive, except for the puzzling digression he went into where I had a paragraph that I really worked hard on about the limits of what you can know as a journalist. And essentially I am saying there are points when you have to love the questions, because you know you are not going to have an answer. And I think he completely missed that point. But most people get it. And it’s very gratifying to hear it said.

RB: There was some nitpicking about you failing to be clear that you asked Myers to look over the case.

SJ: That was bizarre. Who else would I have asked? I was trying to keep myself out of the book but he suggests there is some nefarious reason—as a journalist you use your name as little as possible. Even in the Times they’ll say, “A reporter knocked on the door.” They never say their name and that is awkward, but it has a sort of elegance to its awkwardness, and that was what I was doing there. And his response was just puzzling.

RB: Maybe he had to fill a word count. So you are here in the U.S. for a while, I take it, working on the book publicity. What’s next?

SJ: A little break—I have been working really hard the past few years. And I finally get a chance this summer to take a break, and then after that, I am going back overseas. I don’t know quite where. I was in Afghanistan last December, embedded with the U.S. military, which was an amazing experience.

RB: Do you know Saira Shah, the British-Afghan journalist?

SJ: I know her, I couldn’t remember the name—I never met her.

RB: Afghanistan is claimed as a victory for the U.S. But I think the facts on the ground belie that. The Taliban is back and the drugs are being dealt as before.

SJ: There was a victory in 2001. That was absolutely a victory. We overthrew the Taliban and the Afghans loved us. I was literally getting hugged on the streets because I was an American. Imagine, in a Muslim country. Amazing, right? Where did that go? Interestingly, most of the Afghans I talked to, and I even read a poll that said 80 percent of the Afghans support the U.S. presence there. In some ways it’s the war that Bush thought he was going to get in Iraq, he had on a platter in Afghanistan, and he put in 18,000 troops, 5,000 [of which are] actually combat troops. There are 40,000 cops in New York City alone. So it’s not going to work. The American military is so unbelievably competent. They are so good at what they do, that though 5,000 troops are a finger in the dike, as long as they are there, the dam won’t overflow. They are there putting out fires. The insurgency is running around and they are running after it, trying to squash it. It’s all coming from Pakistan, and ultimately, the origin of the problem is our schizophrenic relationship with Pakistan—on the one hand, they are our ally in the war on terror, and the other hand, they are actively aiding the insurgency, which crosses the border and attacks American soldiers. As long as that’s happening, we will have to be there and American troops will have to die in that war.

RB: Any feelers on this book as a movie?

SJ: I was told people in Hollywood who read it, loved it. But they didn’t see how they could make a movie out a book without a conclusive ending. In some ways that was gratifying to hear. It showed to me that even in Hollywood, they got it. I proved to myself that I had written a book that succeeded in what I set out to do, which was not to come down on one side or another, which makes Leah Goldberg’s critique so puzzling in some ways. She thinks I do, and I haven’t found anyone else who thinks that—

RB: I could see someone writing the script with you in the movie, a la Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief.

SJ: It might work if it was a dual-track movie. Part of it takes place in ‘63, maybe in black and white, and part of it takes place in 2005, and it’s in color—maybe that would be creative and interesting. But I would never sell the rights for a movie that claimed to know who killed whom. No negotiations on that.

RB: Thanks.

SJ: Thank you.