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The Best of the Best
A Guide to Joan Didion’s Books
Ms. Didion was a prolific writer of stylish essays, novels, screenplays and memoirs. Here is an overview of some of her works, as reviewed in The Times.
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By Tina Jordan
‘ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ’ (1968)
Didion’s “first collection of nonfiction writing, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem,’ brings together some of the finest magazine pieces published by anyone in this country in recent years,” wrote our critic, Dan Wakefield.
‘ Play It as It Lays ’ (1970)
John Leonard wrote of Didion and this novel, “She writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it, and yet the characters go on bleeding afterward.”
‘ A Book of Common Prayer ’ (1977)
“Like her narrator, she has been an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time, a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing; always in control.” — Joyce Carol Oates
‘ The White Album ’ (1979)
“All of the essays — even the slightest — manifest not only her intelligence, but an instinct for details that continue to emit pulsations in the reader’s memory and a style that is spare, subtly musical in its phrasing and exact. Add to these her highly vulnerable sense of herself, and the result is a voice like no other in contemporary journalism.” — Robert Towers
‘ Salvador ’ (1983)
“It is difficult to deny that everything she writes grows out of close observation of the social and political landscape of El Salvador. And it is quite impossible to deny the artistic brilliance of her reportage.” — Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
‘ Miami ’ (1987)
“A new novel by Joan Didion is something of an event. Since her first one, ‘Run River,’ she has gathered a quiet following with her nonfiction pieces that were collected under the title ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ and published to critical enthusiasm in 1968. It was interesting to wonder what sort of fiction Didion’s beautiful writerly skills would now make of her clear-eyed and anguished perception of our time.” — Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
‘ After Henry ’ (1992)
Didion’s “intelligence is as honed as ever; her voice has its familiar ring, and her vision is ice-water clear.” — Hendrik Hertzberg
‘ Political Fictions ’ (2001)
“But to ‘Political Fictions,’ besides her black conceit, her sonar ear, her radar eye and her ice pick/laser beam/night-scope sniper prose, she brings Tiger Ops assets of temperament.” — John Leonard
‘ Where I Was From ’ (2003)
“This new book of Didion’s is full of second thoughts: about the Sacramento Valley of her childhood and, finally, the whole history of California.” It is the work of “someone who is even now, arguably, a great American writer.” — Thomas Mallon
‘ The Year of Magical Thinking ’ (2005)
“Her manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous. She uses few adjectives. The unshowy, nearly flat surface of her writing is rippled by patterns of repetition: an understatement that, like Hemingway’s, attains its own kind of drama. Repetition and observation narrate emotion by demonstrating it, so that restraint itself becomes poetic, even operatic.” — Robert Pinsky
‘ Blue Nights ’ (2011)
“Didion’s heartbreaking new book, ‘Blue Nights,’ is at once a loving portrait of Quintana and a mother’s conflicted effort to grapple with her grief through words: The medium the author has used throughout her life to try to make sense of the senseless. It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time.” — Michiko Kakutani
Remembering Joan Didion
Joan didion, whose poignant fiction and nonfiction writing blended aloof glamour and vulnerability, died on dec. 23, 2021..
Obituary: Despite her deceptively frail appearance, she maintained the stance of a frontierswoman shaped by the extreme circumstances .
An Appraisal: Didion was the grand diagnostician of American disorder in essays of strong, unmistakable cadence, Parul Sehgal writes .
Her Work: Learn more about the prolific writer’s books and writing for The Times .
Her Life in Objects: An estate sale of the writer’s furnishings and personal items offered fans the opportunity to acquire a piece of her legacy. Here are a few of the things that were up for auction .
Didion’s Papers: The New York Public Library has acquired the joint archive of Didion and her husband , John Gregory Dunne. The collection includes manuscripts, photographs, letters, dinner party guest lists and other personal items.
From the Archives: In this wide-ranging 1977 interview, Didion shared reflections on politics, depression, tennis and religion.
Joan Didion, ‘Goodbye to All That’ and the struggle to see yourself clearly
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Anyone who’s completed the climb out of their early twenties hopefully has the wits to remember when life was as vivid as Kodachrome and the experience to recognize that perhaps all those new colors were duller than they seemed. Perspective, after all, is one of the great pleasures of getting older. But at the date of her death Thursday at the age of 87, Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That” remains the permanent sunspot obscuring the center-vision of many maturing writers even contemplating leaving a place like New York and telling other people about it. Only a great artist creates and ruins a genre at the same time. For millennial writers who grew into the body of essays, novels and literary journalism Didion already had waiting for them, it was like sitting down to grainy footage of a party that ended long before they would ever arrive.
Re-reading “Goodbye to All That” today — in the era of online, shortform oversharing — it’s striking to a contemporary reader how those 1967 sentences trail on and curl over themselves, like smoke lifting off a cigarette in a breezeless room. “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never quite be the same again,” Didion writes in an opening sentence of the piece. “In fact it never was.” That first sentence has six commas and six and s. It then lands with the kind of five-word Didionism that marked her career’s dehumidified approach to writing and evaluating her own experiences.
Joan Didion, masterful essayist, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 87
Didion bridged the world of Hollywood, journalism and literature in a career that arced most brilliantly in the realms of social criticism and memoir.
A certain degree of ruthlessness with yourself conveys honesty, and it’s true that some naivete comes with being young. But not everybody might be so hard on themselves when it comes time to take stock of getting older. “Was anyone ever so young?” Didion wonders, recalling how she was afraid to call a hotel front desk to turn down the air conditioning when she was frigid, feverish and alone. “I am here to tell you that someone was. All I could do during those three days was talk long-distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring.” A husband shows up, along with some furniture, after Didion film-dissolves through a couple pages of life in minimally furnished apartments and all-night parties with strange piano salesmen and various failed writers and self-promoters of her acquaintance.
The essay is so classically a New York story, a journal entry about an outlander’s temporary harmonic alignment with a place that most Americans only recognize from their televisions. But the most universal appeal of “Goodbye to All That” is less about New York than its depiction of youth itself, the only city we’ve all lived in. “I had a friend who could not sleep, and he knew a few other people who had the same trouble, and we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice and then go home in the early morning light, when the streets were clean and wet (had it rained in the night? we never knew) and the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of traffic signals.” Think about the last time you really admired the violence of how a stoplight red looks against wet pavement on an empty street. After a while, you realize that’s just how the world looks when you’re alone.
Column: Joan Didion, California and the enduring power of ‘our special history’
Joan Didion continues to resonate in California, even with a generation nothing like her.
Looking back, Didion seems frustrated that she couldn’t see herself clearly, couldn’t more sharply perceive at the time that being wowed has a natural expiration date that was rapidly approaching. “You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there,” she writes. “In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May.” She stayed eight years.
Eventually she got tired. Many do. Finally, Didion left for Los Angeles, where the essay wraps up so suddenly that the white space arrives with the stopping power you’d meet in an electric fence. “The golden rhythm was broken,” she shrugs. After her essay appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and her book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion went on to have a distinguished career, which included a lot of formidable books, including 2005’s classic “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a painful memoir about grieving the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. “It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it,” she writes of his death. Almost 40 years later, there she was, still struggling to perceive herself clearly, while offering herself to readers to be seen.
It takes time to see clearly after a departure. She knew that.
Remembering Joan Didion: A look back at her writing, interviews and more
The celebrated prose stylist, novelist and screenwriter who chronicled American culture and consciousness died Dec. 23 at 87.
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Joan Didion in The New Yorker
By Erin Overbey
The novelist and essayist Joan Didion has died, at the age of eighty-seven, after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. The author of sixteen books, including “ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ” and “ The Year of Magical Thinking ,” Didion established a deeply personal literary style that influenced a generation of journalists and critics. Her essay “Goodbye to All That” became a touchstone for those dealing with feelings of dislocation and ambivalence about New York City. (Didion, famously, left.)
Didion began writing for The New Yorker , from her native California, in 1988, contributing a regular column about politics and culture in her home state. Her dispatches, which ran under the rubric Letter from Los Angeles, combined meticulous prose with arresting insights about everything from the ravages of wildfires to the consequential history of the Los Angeles Times . Didion’s missives were keenly observant, full of language that cut like a skean. Two of my favorite Didion pieces are a riveting Profile of Martha Stewart , published in 2000, and an immersive essay on the Spur Posse scandal , in Lakewood, California, published in 1993. Both reveal Didion’s incisive, exacting approach to her subjects. Assessing the business mogul four years before her conviction for obstruction of justice in an insider-trading scandal, Didion dissects the complex feminist sensibility behind Stewart’s self-presentation as an “Everywoman” domestic goddess. “This is the ‘woman’s pluck’ story, the dust-bowl story, the burying-your-child-on-the-trail story, the I-will-never-go-hungry-again story, the Mildred Pierce story, the story about how the sheer nerve of even professionally unskilled women can prevail, show the men; the story that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men,” she writes.
One of Didion’s great gifts was an ability to see the story behind the story—to crack the enigmas stitched into individual lives. In her report on the Spur Posse, she takes a small-town scandal involving sexual violence by teen-age gang members and explodes it into a bristling opus about gender politics and the corrosion of the suburban middle class. “When times were good and there was money to spread around, these were the towns that proved Marx wrong, that managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, to co-opt it,” she writes. “When towns like these came on hard times, it was their adolescent males, only recently the community’s most valued asset, who were most visibly left with nowhere to go.”
Didion’s essays are indelible portraits of events and figures that, for good or ill, shaped American culture. Her pieces linger with us, continuing to unfurl crisp new layers of discovery at every turn. We’ve collected a few of her articles from our archive and listed them below.
—Erin Overbey, archive editor
By branding herself not as Superwoman but as Everywoman, Stewart made even her troubles an integral part of her success.
How a once idyllic postwar town fell under the sway of a teen-age gang.
A chronicle of the complicated history of the Los Angeles Times .
Those Hemingway wrote, and those he didn’t.
New Yorker Favorites
The Mexican actress who dazzled El Chapo .
How an innocent question launched a life-altering lawsuit .
Nobody said it was easy being eight .
A delusional, wonderful recipe book.
Did the pandemic transform the office forever ?
Fiction by Haruki Murakami: “ A Shinagawa Monkey .”
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June 8, 2023
New York: Sentimental Journeys
January 17, 1991 issue
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We know her story, and some of us, although not all of us, which was to become one of the story’s several equivocal aspects, know her name. She was a twenty-nine-year-old unmarried white woman who worked as an investment banker in the corporate finance department at Salomon Brothers in downtown Manhattan, the energy and natural resources group. She was said by one of the principals in a Texas oil stock offering on which she had collaborated as a member of the Salomon team to have done “top-notch” work. She lived alone in an apartment on East 83rd Street, between York and East End, a sublet cooperative she was thinking about buying. She often worked late and when she got home she would change into jogging clothes and at eight-thirty or nine-thirty in the evening would go running, six or seven miles through Central Park, north on the East Drive, west on the less traveled road connecting the East and West Drives at approximately 102nd Street, and south on the West Drive. The wisdom of this was later questioned by some, by those who were accustomed to thinking of the Park as a place to avoid after dark, and defended by others, the more adroit of whom spoke of the citizen’s absolute right to public access (“That park belongs to us and this time nobody is going to take it from us,” Ronnie Eldridge, at the time a Democratic candidate for the City Council of New York, declared on the op-ed page of The New York Times ), others of whom spoke of “running” as a preemptive right. “Runners have Type A controlled personalities and they don’t like their schedules interrupted,” one runner, a securities trader, told the Times to this point. “When people run is a function of their life style,” another runner said. “I am personally very angry,” a third said, “Because women should have the right to run any time.”
For this woman in this instance these notional rights did not prevail. She was found, with her clothes torn off, not far from the 102nd Street connecting road at one-thirty on the morning of April 20, 1989. She was taken near death to Metropolitan Hospital on East 97th Street. She had lost 75 percent of her blood. Her skull had been crushed, her left eyeball pushed back through its socket, the characteristic surface wrinkles of her brain flattened. Dirt and twigs were found in her vagina, suggesting rape. By May 2, when she first woke from coma, six black and Hispanic teenagers, four of whom had made videotaped statements concerning their roles in the attack and another of whom had described his role in an unsigned verbal statement, had been charged with her assault and rape and she had become, unwilling and unwitting, a sacrificial player in the sentimental narrative that is New York public life.
NIGHTMARE IN CENTRAL PARK, the headlines and display type read. Teen Wolfpack Beats and Rapes Wall Street Exec on Jogging Path. Central Park Horror. Wolf Pack’s Prey. Female Jogger Near Death After Savage Attack by Roving Gang. Rape Rampage. Park Marauders Call It ‘Wilding,’ Street Slang for Going Berserk. Rape Suspect: ‘It Was Fun.’ Rape Suspect’s Jailhouse Boast: ‘She Wasn’t Nothing.’ The teenagers were back in the holding cell, the confessions gory and complete. One shouted “hit the beat” and they all started rapping to “Wild Thing.” The Jogger and the Wolf Pack. An Outrage And A Prayer . And, on the Monday morning after the attack, on the front page of The New York Post , with a photograph of Governor Mario Cuomo and the headline NONE OF US IS SAFE, this italic text: “A visibly shaken Governor Cuomo spoke out yesterday on the vicious Central Park rape: The people are angry and frightened—my mother is, my family is. To me, as a person who’s lived in this city all of his life, this is the ultimate shriek of alarm.’ ”
Later it would be recalled that 3,254 other rapes were reported that year, including one the following week involving the near decapitation of a black woman in Fort Tryon Park and one two weeks later involving a black woman in Brooklyn who was robbed, raped, sodomized, and thrown down the air shaft of a four-story building, but the point was rhetorical, since crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept. In the 1986 Central Park death of Jennifer Levin, then eighteen, at the hands of Robert Chambers, then nineteen, the “story,” extrapolated more or less from thin air but left largely uncorrected, had to do not with people living wretchedly and marginally on the underside of where they wanted to be, not with the Dreiserian pursuit of “respectability” that marked the revealed details (Robert Chambers’s mother was a private-duty nurse who worked twelve-hour night shifts to enroll her son in private schools and the Knickerbocker Greys) but with “preppies,” and the familiar “too much too soon.”
Susan Brownmiller, during a year spent monitoring newspaper coverage of rape as part of her research for Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape , found, not surprisingly, that “although New York City police statistics showed that black women were more frequent victims of rape than white women, the favored victim in the tabloid headline…was young, white, middle-class and ‘attractive.’ ” In its quite extensive coverage of rape-murders during the year 1971, according to Ms. Brownmiller, the Daily News published in its four-star final edition only two stories in which the victim was not described in the lead paragraph as “attractive”: one of these stories involved an eight-year-old child, the other was a second-day follow-up on a first-day story which had in fact described the victim as “attractive.” The Times , she found, covered rapes only infrequently that year, but what coverage they did “concerned victims who had some kind of middle-class status, such as ‘nurse,’ ‘dancer’ or ‘teacher,’ and with a favored setting of Central Park.”
As a news story, “Jogger” was understood to turn on the demonstrable “difference” between the victim and her accused assailants, four of whom lived in Schomburg Plaza, a federally subsidized apartment complex at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 110th Street in East Harlem, and the rest of whom lived in the projects and rehabilitated tenements just to the north and west of Schomburg Plaza. Some twenty-five teenagers were brought in for questioning; eight were held. The six who were finally indicted ranged in age from fourteen to sixteen. That none of the six had a previous police record passed, in this context, for achievement; beyond that, one was recalled by his classmates to have taken pride in his expensive basketball shoes, another to have been “a follower.” I’m a smooth type of fellow, cool, calm, and mellow , one of the six, Yusef Salaam, would say in the rap he presented as part of his statement before sentencing.
I’m kind of laid back, but now I’m speaking so that you know/I got used and abused and even was put on the news…. I’m not dissing them all, but the some that I called They tried to dis me like I was an inch small, like a midget, a mouse, something less than a man .
The victim, by contrast, was a leader, part of what the Times would describe as “the wave of young professionals who took over New York in the 1980’s,” one of those who were “handsome and pretty and educated and white,” who, according to the Times , not only “believed they owned the world” but “had reason to.” She was from a Pittsburgh suburb, Upper St. Clair, the daughter of a retired Westinghouse senior manager. She had been Phi Beta Kappa at Wellesley, a graduate of the Yale School of Management, a Congressional intern, nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, remembered by the chairman of her department at Wellesley as “probably one of the top four or five students of the decade.” She was reported to be a vegetarian, and “fun-loving,” although only “when time permitted,” and also to have had (these were the Times ’s details) “concerns about the ethics of the American business world.”
In other words she was wrenched, even as she hung between death and life and later between insentience and sentience, into New York’s ideal sister, daughter, Bachrach bride: a young woman of conventional middle-class privilege and promise whose situation was such that many people tended to overlook the fact that the state’s case against the accused was not invulnerable. The state could implicate most of the defendants in the assault and rape in their own videotaped words, but had none of the incontrovertible forensic evidence—no matching semen, no matching fingernail scrapings, no matching blood—commonly produced in this kind of case. Despite the fact that jurors in the second trial would eventually mention physical evidence as having been crucial in their bringing guilty verdicts against one defendant, Kevin Richardson, there was not actually much physical evidence at hand. Fragments of hair “similar [to] and consistent” with that of the victim were found on Kevin Richardson’s clothing and underwear, but the state’s own criminologist had testified that hair samples were necessarily inconclusive since, unlike fingerprints, they could not be traced to a single person. Dirt samples found on the defendants’ clothing were, again, similar to dirt found in the part of the park where the attack took place, but the state’s criminologist allowed that the samples were also similar to dirt found in other uncultivated areas of the park. To suggest, however, that this minimal physical evidence could open the case to an aggressive defense—to, say, the kind of defense that such celebrated New York criminal lawyers as Jack Litman and Barry Slotnick typically present—would come to be construed, during the weeks and months to come, as a further attack on the victim.
She would be Lady Courage to The New York Post , she would be A Profile in Courage to The Daily News and New York Newsday . She would become for Anna Quindlen in The New York Times the figure of “New York rising above the dirt, the New Yorker who has known the best, and the worst, and has stayed on, living somewhere in the middle.” She would become for David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York, the emblem of his apparently fragile hopes for the city itself: “I hope the city will be able to learn a lesson from this event and be inspired by the young woman who was assaulted in the case,” he said. “Despite tremendous odds, she is rebuilding her life. What a human life can do, a human society can do as well.” She was even then for John Gutfreund, the chairman and chief executive officer of Salomon Brothers, the personification of “what makes this city so vibrant and so great,” now “struck down by a side of our city that is as awful and terrifying as the creative side is wonderful.” It was precisely in this conflation of victim and city, this confusion of personal woe with public distress, that the crime’s “story” would be found, its lesson, its encouraging promise of narrative resolution.
One reason the victim in this case could be so readily abstracted, and her situation so readily made to stand for that of the city itself, was that she remained, as a victim of rape, unnamed in most press reports. Although the American and English press convention of not naming victims of rape (adult rape victims are named in French papers) derives from the understandable wish to protect the victim, the rationalization of this-special protection rests on a number of doubtful, even magical, assumptions. The convention assumes, by providing a protection for victims of rape not afforded victims of other assaults, that rape involves a violation absent from other kinds of assault. The convention assumes that this violation is of a nature best kept secret, that the rape victim feels, and would feel still more strongly were she identified, a shame and self-loathing unique to this form of assault; in other words that she has been in an unspecified way party to her own assault, that a special contract exists between this one kind of victim and her assailant.
The convention assumes, finally, that the victim would be, were this special contract revealed, the natural object of prurient interest; that the act of male penetration involves such potent mysteries that the woman so penetrated (as opposed, say, to having her face crushed with a brick or her brain penetrated with a length of pipe) is permanently marked, “different,” even—especially if there is a perceived racial or social “difference” between victim and assailant, as in nineteenth-century stories featuring white women taken by Indians—“ruined.”
These quite specifically masculine assumptions (women do not want to be raped, nor do they want to have their brains smashed, but very few mystify the difference between the two) tend in general to be self-fulfilling, guiding the victim to define her assault as her protectors do. “Ultimately we’re doing women a disservice by separating rape from other violent crimes,” Deni Elliott, the director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute, suggested in a discussion of this custom in Time . “We are participating in the stigma of rape by treating victims of this crime differently,” Geneva Overholser, the editor of the Des Moines Register , said about her decision to publish in February 1990 a five-part piece about a rape victim who agreed to be named. “When we as a society refuse to talk openly about rape, I think we weaken our ability to deal with it.” Susan Estrich, a professor of criminal law at Harvard Law School and the manager of Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, discussed, in Real Rape , the conflicting emotions that followed her own 1974 rape:
At first, being raped is something you simply don’t talk about. Then it occurs to you that people whose houses are broken into or who are mugged in Central Park talk about it all the time…. If it isn’t my fault, why am I supposed to be ashamed? If I’m not ashamed, if it wasn’t “personal,” why look askance when I mention it?
There were, in the 1989 Central Park attack, specific circumstances that reinforced the conviction that the victim should not be named. She had clearly been, according to the doctors who examined her at Metropolitan Hospital and to the statements made by the suspects (she herself remembered neither the attack nor anything that happened during the next six weeks), raped by one or more assailants. She had also been beaten so brutally that, fifteen months later, she could not focus her eyes or walk unaided. She had lost all sense of smell. She could not read without experiencing double vision. She was believed at the time to have permanently lost function in some areas of her brain.
Given these circumstances, the fact that neither the victim’s family nor, later, the victim herself wanted her name known struck an immediate chord of sympathy, seemed a belated way to protect her as she had not been protected in Central Park. Yet there was in this case a special emotional undertow that derived in part from the deep and allusive associations and taboos attaching, in American black history, to the idea of the rape of white women. Rape remained, in the collective memory of many blacks, the very core of their victimization. Black men were accused of raping white women, even as black women were, Malcolm X wrote in The Autobiography of Malcolm X , “raped by the slavemaster white man until there had begun to emerge a home-made, handmade, brainwashed race that was no longer even of its true color, that no longer even knew its true family names.” The very frequency of sexual contact between white men and black women increased the potency of the taboo on any such contact between black men and white women. The abolition of slavery, W.J. Cash wrote in The Mind of the South ,
in destroying the rigid fixity of the black at the bottom of the scale, in throwing open to him at least the legal opportunity to advance, had inevitably opened up to the mind of every Southerner a vista at the end of which stood the overthrow of this taboo. If it was given to the black to advance at all, who could say (once more the logic of the doctrine of his inherent inferiority would not hold) that he would not one day advance the whole way and lay claim to complete equality, including, specifically, the ever crucial right of marriage? What Southerners felt, therefore, was that any assertion of any kind on the part of the Negro constituted in a perfectly real manner an attack on the Southern woman. What they saw, more or less consciously, in the conditions of Reconstruction was a passage toward a condition for her as degrading, in their view, as rape itself. And a condition, moreover, which, logic or no logic, they infallibly thought of as being as absolutely forced upon her as rape, and hence a condition for which the term “rape” stood as truly as for the de facto deed.
Nor was the idea of rape the only potentially treacherous undercurrent in this case. There has historically been, for American blacks, an entire complex of loaded references around the question of “naming”: slave names, masters’ names, African names, call me by my rightful name, nobody knows my name; stories, in which the specific gravity of naming locked directly into that of rape, of black men whipped for addressing white women by their given names.
That, in this case, just such an interlocking of references could work to fuel resentments and inchoate hatreds seemed clear, and it seemed equally clear that some of what ultimately occurred—the repeated references to lynchings, the identification of the defendants with the Scottsboro boys, the insistently provocative repetition of the victim’s name, the weird and self-defeating insistence that no rape had taken place and little harm been done the victim—derived momentum from this historical freight. “Years ago, if a white woman said a Black man looked at her lustfully, he could be hung higher than a magnolia tree in bloom, while a white mob watched joyfully sipping tea and eating cookies,” Yusef Salaam’s mother reminded readers of The Amsterdam News . “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round up a bunch of black youths, and I think that’s what happened here,” the Reverend Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem told The New York Times . “You going to arrest me now ’cause I said the jogger’s name?” Gary Byrd asked rhetorically on his WLIB show.
I mean, she’s obviously a public figure, and a very mysterious one, I might add. Well, it’s a funny place we live in called America, and should we be surprised that they’re up to their usual tricks? It was a trick that got us here in the first place.
This reflected one of the problems with not naming this victim: she was in fact named all the time. Everyone in the courthouse, everyone who worked for a paper or a television station or who followed the case for whatever professional reason, knew her name. She was referred to by name in all court records and in all court proceedings. She was named, in the days immediately following the attack, on local television stations. She was also routinely named—and this was part of the difficulty, part of what led to a damaging self-righteousness among those who did not name her and to an equally damaging embattlement among those who did, in Manhattan’s black-owned newspapers, The Amsterdam News and The City Sun , and she was named as well on WLIB, the Manhattan radio station owned by a black partnership which included Percy Sutton and, until 1985 when he transferred his stock to his son, Mayor Dinkins.
That the victim in this case was identified on Centre Street and north of 96th Street but not in between made for a certain cognitive dissonance, especially since the names of even the juvenile suspects had been released by the police and the press before any suspect had even been arraigned, let alone indicted. “The police normally withhold the names of minors who are accused of crimes,” the Times explained (actually the police normally withhold the names of accused “juveniles,” or minors under age sixteen, but not of minors sixteen or seventeen), “but officials said they made public the names of the youths charged in the attack on the woman because of the seriousness of the incident.” There seemed a debatable point here, the question of whether “the seriousness of the incident” might not have in fact seemed a compelling reason to avoid any appearance of a rush to judgment by preserving the anonymity of a juvenile suspect; one of the names released by the police and published in the Times was of a fourteen-year-old who was ultimately not indicted.
There were, early on, certain aspects of this case that seemed not well-handled by the police and prosecutors, and others that seemed not well-handled by the press. It would seem to have been tactically unwise, since New York state law requires that a parent or guardian be present when children under sixteen are questioned, for police to continue the interrogation of Yusef Salaam, then fifteen, on the grounds that his Transit Authority bus pass said he was sixteen, while his mother was kept waiting outside. It would seem to have been unwise for Linda Fairstein, the assistant district attorney in charge of Manhattan sex crimes, to ignore, at the precinct house, the mother’s assertion that the son was fifteen, and later to suggest, in open court, that the boy’s age had been unclear to her because the mother had used the word “minor.”
It would also seem to have been unwise for Linda Fairstein to tell David Nocenti, the assistant US attorney who was paired with Yusef Salaam in a “Big Brother” program and who had come to the precinct house at the mother’s request, that he had “no legal standing” there and that she would file a complaint with his supervisors. It would seem in this volatile a case imprudent of the police to follow their normal procedure by presenting Raymond Santana’s initial statement in their own words, cop phrases that would predictably seem to some in the courtroom, as the expression of a fourteen-year-old held overnight and into the next afternoon for interrogation, unconvincing:
On April 19, 1989, at approximately 20:30 hours, I was at the Taft Projects in the vicinity of 113th St. and Madison Avenue. I was there with numerous friends…. At approximately 21:00 hours, we all (myself and approximately 15 others) walked south on Madison Avenue to E. 110th Street, then walked westbound to Fifth Avenue. At Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, we met up with an additional group of approximately 15 other males, who also entered Central Park with us at that location with the intent to rob cyclists and joggers….
In a case in which most of the defendants had made videotaped statements admitting at least some role in the assault and rape, this less than meticulous attitude toward the gathering and dissemination of information seemed peculiar and self-defeating, the kind of pressured or unthinking standard procedure that could not only exacerbate the fears and angers and suspicions of conspiracy shared by many blacks but conceivably open what seemed, on the basis of the confessions, a conclusive case to the kind of doubt that would eventually keep juries out, in the trial of the first three defendants, ten days, and, in the trial of the next two defendants, twelve days. One of the reasons the jury in the first trial could not agree, Manhattan Lawyer reported in its October 1990 issue, was that one juror, Ronald Gold, remained “deeply troubled by the discrepancies between the story [Antron] McCray tells on his videotaped statement and the prosecution scenario”:
Why did McCray place the rape at the reservoir, Gold demanded, when all evidence indicated it happened at the 102 Street crossdrive? Why did McCray say the jogger was raped where she fell, when the prosecution said she’d been dragged 300 feet into the woods first? Why did McCray talk about having to hold her arms down, if she was found bound and gagged? The debate raged for the last two days, with jurors dropping in and out of Gold’s acquittal [for McCray] camp…. After the jurors watched McCray’s video for the fifth time, Miranda [Rafael Miranda, another juror] knew it well enough to cite the time-code numbers imprinted at the bottom of the videotape as he rebuffed Gold’s arguments with specific statements from McCray’s own lips. [McCray, on the videotape, after admitting that he had held the victim by her left arm as her clothes were pulled off, volunteered that he had “got on top” of her, and said that he had rubbed against her without an erection “so everybody would…just know I did it.”] The pressure on Gold was mounting. Three jurors agree that it was evident Gold, worn down perhaps by his own displays of temper as much as anything else, capitulated out of exhaustion. While a bitter Gold told other jurors he felt terrible about ultimately giving in, Brueland [Harold Brueland, another juror who had for a time favored acquittal for McCray] believes it was all part of the process. “I’d like to tell Ronnie some day that nervous exhaustion is an element built into the court system. They know that,” Brueland says of court officials. “They know we’re only going to be able to take it for so long. It’s just a matter of, you know, who’s got the guts to stick with it.”
So fixed were the emotions provoked by this case that the idea that there could have been, for even one juror, even a moment’s doubt in the state’s case, let alone the kind of doubt that could be sustained over ten days or twelve, seemed, to many in the city, bewildering, almost unthinkable: the attack on the jogger had by then passed into narrative, and the narrative was about confrontation, about what Governor Cuomo had called “the ultimate shriek of alarm,” about what was wrong with the city and about its solution. What was wrong with the city had been identified, and its names were Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, and Steve Lopez. “They never could have thought of it as they raged through Central Park, tormenting and ruining people,” Bob Herbert wrote in the News after the verdicts came in on the first three defendants.
There was no way it could have crossed their vicious minds. Running with the pack, they would have scoffed at the very idea. They would have laughed. And yet it happened. In the end, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray and Raymond Santana were nailed by a woman. Elizabeth Lederer stood in the courtroom and watched Saturday night as the three were hauled off to jail…. At times during the trial, she looked about half the height of the long and lanky Salaam, who sneered at her from the witness stand. Salaam was apparently too dumb to realize that Lederer—this petite, soft-spoken, curly-haired prosecutor—was the jogger’s avenger…. You could tell that her thoughts were elsewhere, that she was thinking about the jogger. You could tell that she was thinking: I did it. I did it for you.
Do this in remembrance of me : the solution, then, or so such pervasive fantasies suggested, was to partake of the symbolic body and blood of The Jogger, whose idealization was by this point complete, and was rendered, significantly, in details stressing her “difference,” or superior class. The Jogger was someone who wore, according to Newsday , “a light gold chain around her slender neck” as well as, according to the News , a “modest” gold ring and “a thin sheen” of lipstick. The Jogger was someone who would not, according to the Post , “even dignify her alleged attackers with a glance.” The Jogger was someone who spoke, according to the News , in accents “suited to boardrooms,” accents that might therefore seem “foreign to many native New Yorkers.” In her first appearance on the witness stand she had been subjected, the Times noted, “to questions that most people do not have to answer publicly during their lifetimes,” principally about her use of a diaphragm on the Sunday preceding the attack, and had answered these questions, according to an editorial in the News , with an “indomitable dignity” that had taught the city a lesson “about courage and class.”
This emphasis on perceived refinements of character and of manner and of taste tended to distort and to flatten, and ultimately to suggest not the actual victim of an actual crime but a fictional character of a slightly earlier period, the well-brought-up maiden who briefly graces the city with her presence and receives in turn a taste of “real life.” The defendants, by contrast, were seen as incapable of appreciating these marginal distinctions, ignorant of both the norms and accoutrements of middle-class life. “Did you have jogging clothes on?” Elizabeth Lederer asked Yusef Salaam, by way of trying to discredit his statement that he had gone into the park that night only to “walk around.” Did he have “jogging clothes,” did he have “sports equipment,” did he have “a bicycle.” A pernicious nostalgia had come to permeate the case, a longing for the New York that had seemed for a while to be about “sports equipment,” about getting and spending rather than about having and not having: the reason that this victim must not be named was so that she could go unrecognized, it was astonishingly said, by Jerry Nachman, the editor of the New York Post , and then by others who seemed to find in this a particular resonance, to Bloomingdale’s.
Some New York stories involving young middle-class white women do not make it to the editorial pages, or even necessarily to the front pages. In April 1990, a young middle-class white woman named Laurie Sue Rosenthal, raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and at age twenty-nine still living with her parents in Jamaica, Queens, happened to die, according to the coroner’s report from the accidental toxicity of Darvocet in combination with alcohol, in an apartment at 36 East 68th Street in Manhattan. The apartment belonged to the man she had been, according to her parents, seeing for about a year, a minor assistant city commissioner named Peter Franconeri. Peter Franconeri, who was at the time in charge of elevator and boiler inspections for the Buildings Department and married to someone else, wrapped Laurie Sue Rosenthal’s body in a blanket; placed it, along with her handbag and ID, outside the building with the trash; and went to his office at 60 Hudson Street. At some point an anonymous call was made to 911. Franconeri was identified only after her parents gave the police his beeper number, which they found in her address book. According to Newsday , which covered the story more extensively than the News , the Post , or the Times ,
Initial police reports indicated that there were no visible wounds on Rosenthal’s body. But Rosenthal’s mother, Ceil, said yesterday that the family was told the autopsy revealed two “unexplained bruises” on her daughter’s body. Larry and Ceil Rosenthal said those findings seemed to support their suspicions that their daughter was upset because they received a call from their daughter at 3 AM Thursday “saying that he had beaten her up.” The family reported the conversation to police. “I told her to get into a cab and get home,” Larry Rosenthal said yesterday. “The next I heard was two detectives telling me terrible things.” “The ME [medical examiner] said the bruises did not constitute a beating but they were going to examine them further,” Ceil Rosenthal said.
“There were some minor bruises,” a spokeswoman for the office of the chief medical examiner told Newsday a few days later, but the bruises “did not in any way contribute to her death.” This is worth rerunning: a young woman calls her parents at three in the morning, “distraught.” She says that she has been beaten up. A few hours later, on East 68th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, a few steps from Porthault and Pratesi and Armani and Saint Laurent and the Westbury Hotel, at a time of day in this part of New York 10021 when Jim Buck’s dog trainers are assembling their morning packs and Henry Kravis’s Bentley is idling outside his Park Avenue apartment and the construction crews are clocking in over near the Frick at the multi-million-dollar houses under reconstruction for Bill Cosby and for the owner of The Limited, this young middle-class white woman’s body, showing bruises, gets put out with the trash.
“Everybody got upside down because of who he was,” an unidentified police officer later told Jim Dwyer of Newsday , referring to the man who put the young woman out with the trash. “If it had happened to anyone else, nothing would have come of it. A summons would have been issued and that would have been the end of it.” In fact nothing did come of the death of Laurie Sue Rosenthal, which might have seemed a natural tabloid story but failed, on several levels, to catch the local imagination. For one thing she could not be trimmed into the role of the preferred tabloid victim, who is conventionally presented as fate’s random choice (Laurie Sue Rosenthal had, for whatever reason, taken the Darvocet instead of a taxi home, her parents reported treatment for a previous Valium dependency, she could be presumed to have known over the course of a year that Franconeri was married and yet continued to see him); for another, she seemed not to have attended an expensive school or to have been employed in a glamour industry (no Ivy Grad, no Wall Street Exec), which made it hard to cast her as part of “what makes this city so vibrant and so great.”
In August 1990, Peter Franconeri pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, the unlawful removal of a body, and was sentenced by Criminal Court Judge Peter Benitez to seventy-five hours of community service. This was neither surprising nor much of a story (only twenty-three lines even in Newsday , on page twenty-nine of the city edition), and the case’s resolution was for many people a kind of relief. The district attorney’s office had asked for “some incarceration,” the amount usually described as a touch, but no one wanted, it was said, to crucify the guy: Peter Franconeri was somebody who knew a lot of people, understood how to live in the city, who had for example not only the apartment on East 68th Street between Madison and Park but a house in Southampton and who also understood that putting a body outside with the trash was nothing to get upside down about, if it was handled right. Such understandings may in fact have been the city’s true “ultimate shriek of alarm,” but it was not a shriek the city wanted to recognize.
Perhaps the most arresting collateral news to surface, during the first few days after the attack on the Central Park jogger, was that a significant number of New Yorkers apparently believed the city sufficiently well-ordered to incorporate Central Park into their evening fitness schedules. “Prudence” was defined, even after the attack, as “staying south of 90th Street,” or having “an awareness that you need to think about planning your routes,” or, in the case of one woman interviewed by the Times , deciding to quit her daytime job (she was a lawyer) because she was “tired of being stuck out there, running later and later at night.” “I don’t think there’s a runner who couldn’t describe the silky, gliding feeling you get running at night,” an editor of Runner’s World told the Times . “You see less of what’s around you and you become centered on your running.”
The notion that Central Park at night might be a good place to “see less of what’s around you” was recent. There were two reasons why Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, when they devised their winning entry in the 1858 competition for a Central Park design, decided to sink the transverse roads below grade level. One reason, the most often cited, was aesthetic, a recognition on the part of the designers that the four crossings specified by the terms of the competition, at 65th, 79th, 85th, and 97th Streets, would intersect the sweep of the landscape, be “at variance with those agreeable sentiments which we should wish the park to inspire.” The other reason, which appears to have been equally compelling, had to do with security. The problem with grade-level crossings, Olmsted and Vaux wrote in their “Greensward” plan, would be this:
The transverse roads will…have to be kept open, while the park proper will be useless for any good purpose after dusk; for experience has shown that even in London, with its admirable police arrangements, the public cannot be assured safe transit through large open spaces of ground after nightfall. These public thoroughfares will then require to be well lighted at the sides, and, to restrain marauders pursued by the police from escaping into the obscurity of the park, strong fences or walls, six or eight feet high, will be necessary.
The park, in other words, was seen from its conception as intrinsically dangerous after dark, a place of “obscurity,” “useless for any good purpose,” a refuge only for “marauders.” The parks of Europe closed at nightfall, Olmsted noted in his 1882 pamphlet The Spoils of the Park: With a Few Leaves from the Deep-laden Note-books of “A Wholly Unpractical Man,” “but one surface road is kept open across Hyde Park, and the superintendent of the Metropolitan Police told me that a man’s chances of being garrotted or robbed were, because of the facilities for concealment to be found in the Park, greater in passing at night along this road than anywhere else in London.”
In the high pitch of the initial “jogger” coverage, suggesting as it did a city overtaken by animals, this pragmatic approach to urban living gave way to a more ideal construct, one in which New York either had once been or should be “safe,” and now, as in Governor Cuomo’s “none of us is safe,” was not. It was time, accordingly, to “take it back,” time to “say no”; time, as David Dinkins would put it during his campaign for the mayoralty in the summer of 1989, to “draw the line.” What the line was to be drawn against was “crime,” an abstract, a free-floating specter that could be dispelled by certain acts of personal affirmation, by the kind of moral rearmament which later figured in Mayor Dinkins’s plan to revitalize the city by initiating weekly “Tuesday Night Out Against Crime” rallies.
By going into the park at night, Tom Wicker wrote in the Times , the victim in this case had “affirmed the primacy of freedom over fear.” A week after the assault, Susan Chace suggested on the op-ed page of the Times that readers walk into the park at night and join hands. “A woman can’t run in the park at an offbeat time,” she wrote. “Accept it, you say. I can’t. It shouldn’t be like this in New York City, in 1989, in spring.” Ronnie Eldridge also suggested that readers walk into the park at night, but to light candles. “Who are we that we allow ourselves to be chased out of the most magnificent part of our city?” she asked, and also: “If we give up the park, what are we supposed to do: Fall back to Columbus Avenue and plant grass?” This was interesting, suggesting as it did that the city’s not inconsiderable problems could be solved by the willingness of its citizens to hold or draw some line, to “say no”; in other words that a reliance on certain magical gestures could affect the city’s fate.
The insistent sentimentalization of experience, which is to say the encouragement of such reliance, is not new in New York. A preference for broad strokes, for the distortion and flattening of character, and for the reduction of events to narrative, has been for well over a hundred years the heart of the way the city presents itself: Lady Liberty, huddled masses, ticker-tape parades, heroes, gutters, bright lights, broken hearts, eight million stories in the naked city; eight million stories and all the same story, each devised to obscure not only the city’s actual tensions of race and class but also, more significantly, the civic and commercial arrangements that rendered those tensions irreconcilable.
Central Park itself was such a “story,” an artificial pastoral in the nineteenth-century English romantic tradition, conceived, during a decade when the population of Manhattan would increase by 58 percent, as a civic project that would allow the letting of contracts and the employment of voters on a scale rarely before undertaken in New York. Ten million cartloads of dirt would need to be shifted during the twenty years of its construction. Four to five million trees and plants would need to be planted, half a million cubic yards of topsoil imported, 114 miles of ceramic pipe laid.
Nor need the completion of the park mean the end of the possibilities: in 1870, once William Marcy Tweed had revised the city charter and invented his Department of Public Parks, new roads could be built whenever jobs were needed. Trees could be dug up, and replanted. Crews could be set loose to prune, to clear, to hack at will. Frederick Law Olmsted, when he objected, could be overridden, and finally eased out. “A ‘delegation’ from a great political organization called on me by appointment,” Olmsted wrote in The Spoils of the Park , recalling the conditions under which he had worked:
After introductions and handshakings, a circle was formed, and a gentleman stepped before me, and said, “We know how much pressed you must be…but at your convenience our association would like to have you determine what share of your patronage we can expect, and make suitable arrangements for our using it. We will take the liberty to suggest, sir, that there could be no more convenient way than that you should send us our due quota of tickets, if you please, sir, in this form, leaving us to fill in the name .” Here a pack of printed tickets was produced, from which I took one at random. It was a blank appointment and bore the signature of Mr. Tweed…. As superintendent of the Park, I once received in six days more than seven thousand letters of advice as to appointments, nearly all from men in office…. I have heard a candidate for a magisterial office in the city addressing from my doorsteps a crowd of such advice-bearers, telling them that I was bound to give them employment, and suggesting plainly, that, if I was slow about it, a rope round my neck might serve to lessen my reluctance to take good counsel. I have had a dozen men force their way into my house before I had risen from bed on a Sunday morning, and some break into my drawing-room in their eagerness to deliver letters of advice.
Central Park, then, for its underwriters if not for Olmsted, was about contracts and concrete and kickbacks, about pork, but the sentimentalization that worked to obscure the pork, the “story,” had to do with certain dramatic contrasts, or extremes, that were believed to characterize life in this as in no other city. These “contrasts,” which have since become the very spine of the New York narrative, appeared early on: Philip Hone, the mayor of New York in 1826 and 1827, spoke in 1843 of a city “overwhelmed with population, and where the two extremes of costly luxury in living, expensive establishments and improvident wastes are presented in daily and hourly contrast with squalid mixing and hapless destruction.” Given this narrative, Central Park could be and ultimately would be seen the way Olmsted himself saw it, as an essay in democracy, a social experiment meant to socialize a new immigrant population and to ameliorate the perilous separation of rich and poor. It was the duty and the interest of the city’s privileged class, Olmsted had suggested some years before he designed Central Park, to “get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good and the bad, the gentleman and the rowdy.”
The notion that the interests of the “gentleman” and the “rowdy” might be at odds did not intrude: then as now, the preferred narrative worked to veil actual conflict, to cloud the extent to which the condition of being rich was predicated upon the continued neediness of a working class; to confirm the responsible stewardship of “the gentleman” and to forestall the possibility of a self-conscious, or politicized, proletariat. Social and economic phenomena, in this narrative, were personalized. Politics were exclusively electoral. Problems were best addressed by the emergence and election of “leaders,” who could in turn inspire the individual citizen to “participate,” or “make a difference.” “Will you help?” Mayor Dinkins asked New Yorkers, in a September address from St. Patrick’s Cathedral intended as a response to the “New York crime wave” stories then leading the news. “Do you care? Are you ready to become part of the solution?”
“Stay,” Governor Cuomo urged the same New Yorkers. “Believe. Participate. Don’t give up.” Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, at the dedication of a school flagpole, mentioned the importance of “getting involved” and “participating,” or “pitching in to put the shine back on The Big Apple.” In a discussion of the popular “New York” stories written between 1902 and 1910 by William Sidney Porter, or “O. Henry,” William R. Taylor of the State University of New York at Stony Brook spoke of the way in which these stories, with their “focus on individuals’ plights,” their “absence of social or political implications” and “ideological neutrality,” provided “a miraculous form of social glue”:
These sentimental accounts of relations between classes in the city have a specific historical meaning: empathy without political compassion. They reduce the scale of human suffering to what atomized individuals endure as their plucky, sad lives were recounted week after week for almost a decade…. Their sentimental reading of oppression, class differences, human suffering, and affection helped create a new language for interpreting the city’s complex society, a language that began to replace the threadbare moralism that New Yorkers inherited from nineteenth-century readings of the city. This language localized suffering in particular moments and confined it to particular occasions; it smoothed over differences because it could be read almost the same way from either end of the social scale. *
Stories in which terrible crimes are inflicted on innocent victims, offering as they do a similarly sentimental reading of class differences and human suffering, a reading that promises both resolution and retribution, have long performed as the city’s endorphins, a built-in source of natural morphine working to blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems. What is singular about New York, and remains virtually incomprehensible to people who live in less rigidly organized parts of the country, is the minimal level of comfort and opportunity its citizens have come to accept. The romantic capitalist pursuit of privacy and security and individual freedom, so taken for granted nationally, plays, locally, not much role. A city where virtually every impulse has been to stifle rather than to encourage normal competition, New York works, when it does work, not on a market economy but on little deals, payoffs, accommodations, baksheesh, arrangements that circumvent the direct exchange of goods and services and prevent what would be, in a competitive economy, the normal ascendance of the superior product.
There were in the five boroughs in 1990 only 581 supermarkets (a supermarket, as defined by the trade magazine Progressive Grocer , is a market that does an annual volume of two million dollars), or, assuming a population of eight million, one supermarket for every 13,769 citizens. Groceries, costing more than they should because of this absence of competition and also because of the proliferation of payoffs required to ensure this absence of competition (produce, we have come to understand, belongs to the Gambinos, and fish to the Lucheses and the Genoveses, and a piece of the construction of the market to each of the above, but keeping the door open belongs finally to the inspector here, the inspector there), are carried home or delivered, as if in Jakarta, by pushcart.
It has historically taken, in New York as if in Mexico City, ten years to process and specify and bid and contract and construct a new school; twenty or thirty years to build or, in the cases of Bruckner Boulevard and the West Side Highway, to not quite build a highway. A recent public scandal revealed that a batch of city-ordered Pap smears had gone unread for more than a year (in the developed world the Pap smear, a test for cervical cancer, is commonly read within a few days); what did not become a public scandal, what is still accepted as the way things are, is that even Pap smears ordered by Park Avenue gynecologists can go unread for several weeks.
Such resemblances to cities of the third world are in no way casual, or based on the “color” of a polyglot population: these are all cities arranged primarily not to improve the lives of their citizens but to be labor-intensive, to accommodate, ideally at the subsistence level, since it is at the subsistence level that the work force is most apt to be captive and loyalty assured, a third-world population. In some ways New York’s very attractiveness, its promises of opportunity and improved wages, its commitments as a city in the developed world, were what seemed destined to render it ultimately unworkable. Where the vitality of such cities in the less developed world had depended on their ability to guarantee low-cost labor and an absence of regulation, New York had historically depended instead on the constant welling up of new businesses, of new employers to replace those phased out, like the New York garment manufacturers who found it cheaper to make their clothes in Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur or Taipei, by rising local costs.
It had been the old pattern of New York, supported by an expanding national economy, to lose one kind of business and gain another. It was the more recent error of New York to misconstrue this history of turnover as an indestructible resource, there to be taxed at will, there to be regulated whenever a dollar could be seen in doing so, there for the taking. By 1977, New York had lost some 600,000 jobs, most of them in manufacturing and in the kinds of small businesses that could no longer maintain their narrow profit margins inside the city. During the “recovery” years, from 1977 until 1988, most of these jobs were indeed replaced, but in a potentially perilous way: of the 500,000 new jobs created, most were in the area most vulnerable to a downturn, that of financial and business services, and many of the rest in an area not only equally vulnerable to bad times but dispiriting to the city even in good, that of tourist and restaurant services.
The demonstration that many kinds of businesses were finding New York expendable had failed to prompt real efforts to make the city more competitive. Taxes grew still more punitive, regulation more byzantine. Forty-nine thousand new jobs were created in New York’s city agencies between 1983 and 1990, even as the services provided by those agencies were widely perceived to decline. Attempts at “reform” typically tended to create more jobs: in 1988, in response to the length of time it was taking to build or repair a school, a new agency, the School Construction Authority, was formed. A New York City school, it was said, would now take only five years to build. The head of the School Construction Authority was to receive $145,000 a year and each of the three vice-presidents $110,000 a year. An executive gym, with Nautilus equipment, was contemplated for the top floor of the agency’s new headquarters at the International Design Center in Long Island City. Two years into this reform, the backlog on repairs to existing schools stood at 33,000 outstanding requests. “To relieve the charity of friends of the support of a half-blind and half-witted man by employing him at the public expense as an inspector of cement may not be practical with reference to the permanent firmness of a wall,” Olmsted noted after his Central Park experience, “while it is perfectly so with reference to the triumph of sound doctrine at an election.”
In fact the highest per capita taxes of any city in the United States (and, as anyone running a small business knows, the widest variety of taxes) provide, in New York, unless the citizen is prepared to cut a side deal here and there, only the continuing multiplication of regulations designed to benefit the contractors and agencies and unions with whom the regulators have cut their own deals. A kitchen appliance accepted throughout the rest of the United States as a basic postwar amenity, the in-sink garbage disposal unit, is for example illegal in New York. Disposals, a city employee advised me, not only encourage rats and “bacteria,” presumably in a way that bags of garbage sitting on the sidewalk do not (“because it is,” I was told when I asked how this could be), but also encourage people “to put their babies down them.”
On the one hand this illustrates how a familiar urban principle, that of patronage (the more garbage there is to be collected, the more garbage collectors can be employed), can be reduced, in the bureaucratic wilderness that is any third world city, to voodoo; on the other it reflects this particular city’s underlying criminal ethic, its acceptance of graft and grift as the bedrock of every transaction. “Garbage costs are outrageous,” an executive of Supermarkets General, which owns Pathmark, recently told City Limits about why the chains preferred to locate in the suburbs. “Every time you need to hire a contractor, it’s a problem.” The problem, however, is one from which not only the contractor but everyone with whom the contractor does business—a chain of direct or indirect patronage extending deep into the fabric of the city—stands to derive one or another benefit, which was one reason the death of the young middle-class white woman in the East 68th Street apartment of the assistant commissioner in charge of boiler and elevator inspections flickered so feebly on the local attention span.
It was only within the transforming narrative of “contrasts” that both the essential criminality of the city and its related absence of civility could become points of pride, evidence of “energy”: if you could make it here you could make it anywhere, hello sucker, get smart. Those who did not get the deal, who bought retail, who did not know what it took to get their electrical work signed off, were dismissed as provincials, bridge-and-tunnels, out-of-towners who did not have what it took not to get taken. “Every tourist’s nightmare became a reality for a Maryland couple over the weekend when the husband was beaten and robbed on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower,” began a story in The New York Post this summer. “Where do you think we’re from, Iowa?” the prosecutor who took Robert Chambers’s statement said on videotape by way of indicating that he doubted Chambers’s version of Jennifer Levin’s death. “They go after poor people like you from out of town, they prey on the tourists,” a clerk explained last spring in the West 46th Street computer store where my husband and I had taken refuge to escape three muggers. My husband said that we lived in New York. “That’s why they didn’t get you,” the clerk said, effortlessly incorporating this change in the data. “That’s how you could move fast.”
The narrative comforts us, in other words, with the assurance that the world is knowable, even flat, and New York its center, its motor, its dangerous but vital “energy.” “FAMILY IN FATAL MUGGING LOVED NEW YORK” was the Times headline on a story following the September murder, in the Seventh Avenue IND station, of a twenty-two-year-old tourist from Utah. The young man, his parents, his brother, and his sister-in-law had attended the US Open and were reportedly on their way to dinner at a Moroccan restaurant downtown. “New York, to them, was the greatest place in the world,” a family friend from Utah was quoted as having said. Since the narrative requires that the rest of the country provide a dramatic contrast to New York, the family’s hometown in Utah was characterized by the Times as a place where “life revolves around the orderly rhythms of Brigham Young University” and “there is only about one murder a year.” The town was in fact Provo, where Gary Gilmore shot the motel manager, both in life and in The Executioner’s Song . “She loved New York, she just loved it,” a friend of the assaulted jogger told the Times after the attack. “I think she liked the fast pace, the competitiveness.”
New York, the Times concluded, “invigorated” the jogger, “matched her energy level.” At a time when the city lay virtually inert, when forty thousand jobs had been wiped out in the financial markets and former traders were selling shirts at Bergdorf Goodman for Men, when the rate of mortgage delinquencies had doubled, when fifty or sixty million square feet of office space remained unrented (sixty million square feet of unrented office space is the equivalent of fifteen darkened World Trade Towers) and even prime commercial blocks on Madison Avenue in the Seventies were boarded up, empty; at a time when the money had dropped out of all the markets and the Europeans who had lent the city their élan and their capital during the Eighties had moved on, vanished to more cheerful venues, this notion of the city’s “energy” was sedative, as was the commandeering of “crime” as the city’s central problem.
The extent to which the October 1987 crash of the New York financial markets damaged the illusions of infinite recovery and growth on which the city had operated during the 1980s had been at first hard to apprehend. “Ours is a time of New York ascendant,” the New York City Commission on the Year 2000, created during the mayoralty of Ed Koch to reflect the best thinking of the city’s various business and institutional establishments, had declared in its 1987 report. “The city’s economy is stronger than it has been in decades, and is driven both by its own resilience and by the national economy; New York is more than ever the international capital of finance, and the gateway to the American economy….”
And then, its citizens had come gradually to understand, it was not. This perception that something was “wrong” in New York had been insidious, a slow onset illness at first noticeable only in periods of temporary remission. Losses that might have seemed someone else’s problem (or even comeuppance) as the markets were in their initial 1987 free fall, and that might have seemed more remote still as the markets regained the appearance of strength, had come imperceptibly but inexorably to alter the tone of daily life. By April 1990, people who lived in and around New York were expressing, in interviews with the Times , considerable anguish and fear that they did so: “I feel very resentful that I’ve lost a lot of flexibility in my life,” one said. “I often wonder, ‘Am I crazy for coming here?’ ” “People feel a sense of impending doom about what may happen to them,” a clinical psychologist said. People were “frustrated,” “feeling absolutely desolate,” “trapped,” “angry,” “terrified,” and “on the verge of panic.”
It was a panic that seemed in many ways specific to New York, and inexplicable outside it. Even now, when the troubles of New York are a common theme, Americans from less depressed venues have difficulty comprehending the nature of those troubles, and tend to attribute them, as New Yorkers themselves have come to do, to “crime.” ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was the headline on the front page of the New York Post on September 10, 1990. RAMPAGING CRIME WAVE HAS 59 PERCENT OF RESIDENTS TERRIFIED. MOST WOULD GET OUT OF THE CITY, SAYS TIME/CNN POLL. This poll appeared in the edition of Time dated September 17, 1990, which carried the cover legend THE ROTTING OF THE BIG APPLE. “Reason: a surge of drugs and violent crime that government officials seem utterly unable to combat,” the story inside explained. Columnists referred, locally, to “this sewer of a city.” The Times ran a plaintive piece about the snatching of Elizabeth Rohatyn’s Hermes handbag outside Arcadia, a restaurant on East 62nd Street that had for a while seemed the very heart of the New York everyone now missed, the New York where getting and spending could take place without undue reference to having and not having, the duty-free New York; that this had occurred to the wife of Felix Rohatyn, who was widely perceived to have saved the city from its fiscal crisis in the mid-Seventies, seemed to many a clarion irony.
This question of crime was tricky. There were in fact eight American cities with higher homicide rates, and twelve with higher overall crime rates. Crime had long been taken for granted in the less affluent parts of the city, and had become in the mid-Seventies, as both unemployment and the costs of maintaining property rose and what had once been functioning neighborhoods were abandoned and burned and left to whoever claimed them, endemic. “In some poor neighborhoods, crime became almost a way of life,” Jim Sleeper, an editor at Newsday and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York , noted in his discussion of the social disintegration that occurred during this period:
…a subculture of violence with complex bonds of utility and affection within families and the larger, “law-abiding” community. Struggling merchants might “fence” stolen goods, for example, thus providing quick cover and additional incentive for burglaries and robberies; the drug economy became more vigorous, reshaping criminal life-styles and tormenting the loyalties of families and friends. A walk down even a reasonably busy street in a poor, minority neighborhood at high noon could become an unnerving journey into a landscape eerie and grim.
What seemed markedly different a decade later, what made crime a “story,” was that the more privileged, and especially the more privileged white, citizens of New York had begun to feel unnerved at high noon in even their own neighborhoods. Although New York City Police Department statistics suggested that white New Yorkers were not actually in increased mortal danger (the increase in homicides between 1977 and 1989, from 1,557 to 1,903, was entirely in what the NYPD classified as Hispanic, Asian, and black victims; the number of white murder victims had steadily declined, from 361 in 1977 to 227 in 1984 and 190 in 1989), the apprehension of such danger, exacerbated by street snatches and muggings and the quite useful sense that the youth in the hooded sweatshirt with his hands jammed in his pockets might well be a predator, had become general. These more privileged New Yorkers now felt unnerved not only on the street, where the necessity for evasive strategies had become an exhausting constant, but even in the most insulated and protected apartment buildings. As the residents of such buildings, the owners of twelve-and sixteen- and twenty-four-room apartments, watched the potted ficus trees disappear from outside their doors and the graffiti appear on their limestone walls and the smashed safety glass from car windows get swept off their sidewalks, it had become increasingly easy to imagine the outcome of a confrontation between, say, the relief night doorman and six dropouts from Julia Richman High School on East 67th Street.
And yet those New Yorkers who had spoken to the Times in April of 1990 about their loss of flexibility, about their panic, their desolation, their anger, and their sense of impending doom, had not been talking about drugs, or crime, or any of the city’s more publicized and to some extent inflated ills. These were people who did not for the most part have twelve- and sixteen-room apartments and doormen and the luxury of projected fears. These people were talking instead about an immediate fear, about money, about the vertiginous plunge in the value of their houses and apartments and condominiums, about the possibility or probability of foreclosure and loss; about, implicitly, their fear of being left, like so many they saw every day, below the line, out in the cold, on the street.
This was a climate in which many of the questions that had seized the city’s attention in 1987 and 1988, for example that of whether Mortimer Zuckerman should be “allowed” to build two fifty-nine-story office towers on the site of what is now the Coliseum, seemed in retrospect wistful, the baroque concerns of better times. “There’s no way anyone would make a sane judgment to go into the ground now,” a vice-president at Cushman and Wakefield told The New York Observer about the delay in the Coliseum project, which had in fact lost its projected major tenant, Salomon Brothers, shortly after Black Monday, 1987. “It would be suicide. You’re better off sitting in a tub of water and opening your wrists.” Such fears were, for a number of reasons, less easy to incorporate into the narrative than the fear of crime.
The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces, or performance opportunities. Mayor Dinkins could, in such a symbolic substitute for civic life, “break the boycott” (the Flatbush boycott organized to mobilize resentment of Korean merchants in black neighborhoods) by purchasing a few dollars worth of produce from a Korean grocer on Church Avenue. Governor Cuomo could “declare war on crime” by calling for five thousand additional police; Mayor Dinkins could “up the ante” by calling for sixty-five hundred. “White slut comes into the park looking for the African man,” a black woman could say, her voice loud but still conversational, in the corridor outside the courtroom where, during the summer of 1990, the first three defendants in the Central Park attack, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, were tried on charges of attempted murder, assault, sodomy, and rape. “Boyfriend beats shit out of her, they blame it on our boys,” the woman could continue, and then, referring to a young man with whom the victim had at one time split the cost of an apartment: “How about the roommate, anybody test his semen? No. He’s white. They don’t do it to each other.”
Glances could then flicker among those reporters and producers and courtroom sketch artists and photographers and cameramen and techs and summer interns who assembled daily at 111 Centre Street. Cellular phones could be picked up, a show of indifference. Small talk could be exchanged with the marshals, a show of solidarity. The woman could then raise her voice: “White folk, all of them are devils, even those that haven’t been born yet, they are devils . Little demons . I don’t understand these devils, I guess they think this is their court .” The reporters could gaze beyond her, faces blank, no eye contact, a more correct form of hostility and also more lethal. The woman could hold her ground but avert her eyes, letting her gaze fall on another black, in this instance a black Daily News columnist, Bob Herbert. “You,” she could say. “You are a disgrace . Go ahead. Line up there. Line up with the white folk. Look at them, lining up for their first-class seats while my people are downstairs behind barricades …kept behind barricades like cattle …not even allowed in the room to see their sons lynched…is that an African I see in that line? Or is that a negro . Oh, oh, sorry, shush, white folk didn’t know, he was passing ….”
In a city in which grave and disrupting problems had become general—problems of not having, problems of not making it, problems that demonstrably existed, among the mad and the ill and the under-equipped and the overwhelmed, with decreasing reference to color—the case of the Central Park jogger provided more than just a safe, or structured, setting in which various and sometimes only marginally related rages could be vented. “This trial,” the Daily News announced on its editorial page one morning in July 1990, midway through the trial of the first three defendants, “is about more than the rape and brutalization of a single woman. It is about the rape and the brutalization of a city. The jogger is a symbol of all that’s wrong here. And all that’s right, because she is nothing less than an inspiration.”
The News did not define the ways in which “the rape and brutalization of the city” manifested itself, nor was definition necessary: this was a city in which the threat or the fear of brutalization had become so immediate that citizens were urged to take up their own defense, to form citizen patrols or militia, as in Beirut. This was a city in which between twenty and thirty neighborhoods had already given over their protection, which was to say the right to determine who belonged in the neighborhood and who did not and what should be done about it, to the Guardian Angels. This was a city in which a Brooklyn vigilante group, which called itself “Crack Busters” and was said to be trying to rid its Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of drugs, would before September was out “settle an argument” by dousing with gasoline and setting on fire an abandoned van and the three homeless citizens inside. This was a city in which the Times would soon perceive, in the failing economy, “a bright side for the city at large,” the bright side being that while there was believed to have been an increase in the number of middle-income and upper-income families who wanted to leave the city, “the slumping market is keeping many of those families in New York.”
In this city rapidly vanishing into the chasm between its actual life and its preferred narratives, what people said when they talked about the case of the Central Park jogger came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally volatile and similarly occult visions of the same disaster. One vision, shared by those who had seized upon the attack on the jogger as an exact representation of what was wrong with the city, was of a city systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass. The opposing vision, shared by those who had seized upon the arrest of the defendants as an exact representation of their own victimization, was of a city in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful. For so long as this case held the city’s febrile attention, then, it offered a narrative for the city’s distress, a frame in which the actual social and economic forces wrenching the city could be personalized and ultimately obscured.
Or rather it offered two narratives, mutually exclusive. Among a number of blacks, particularly those whose experience with or distrust of the criminal justice system was such that they tended to discount the fact that five of six defendants had to varying degrees admitted taking part in the attack, and to focus instead on the absence of any supporting forensic evidence incontrovertibly linking this victim to these defendants, the case could be read as a confirmation not only of their victimization but of the white conspiracy they saw at the heart of that victimization. For The Amsterdam News , which did not veer automatically to the radical analysis (a typical recent issue lauded the FBI for its minority recruiting and the Harlem National Guard for its high morale and readiness to go to the Gulf), the defendants could in this light be seen as victims of “a political trial,” of a “legal lynching,” of a case “rigged from the very beginning” by the decision of “the white press” that “whoever was arrested and charged in this case of the attempted murder, rape and sodomy of a well-connected, bright, beautiful and promising white woman was guilty, pure and simple.”
For Alton H. Maddox, Jr., the message to be drawn from the case was that the American criminal justice system, which was under any circumstances “inherently and unabashedly racist,” failed “to function equitably at any level when a Black male is accused of raping a white female.” For others the message was more general, and worked to reinforce the fragile but functional mythology of an heroic black past, the narrative in which European domination could be explained as a direct and vengeful response to African superiority. “Today the white man is faced head on with what is happening on the Black Continent, Africa,” Malcolm X wrote.
Look at the artifacts being discovered there, that are proving over and over again, how the black man had great, fine, sensitive civilizations before the white man was out of the caves. Below the Sahara, in the places where most of America’s Negroes’ foreparents were kidnapped, there is being unearthed some of the finest craftsmanship, sculpture and other objects, that has ever been seen by modern man. Some of these things now are on view in such places as New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Gold work of such fine tolerance and workmanship that it has no rival. Ancient objects produced by black hands…refined by those black hands with results that no human hand today can equal. History has been so “whitened” by the white man that even the black professors have known little more than the most ignorant black man about the talents and rich civilizations and cultures of the black man of millenniums ago….
“Our proud African queen,” the Reverend Al Sharpton had said of Tawana Brawley’s mother, Glenda Brawley: “She stepped out of anonymity, stepped out of obscurity, and walked into history.” It was said in the corridors of the courthouse where Yusef Salaam was tried that he carried himself “like an African king.”
“It makes no difference anymore whether the attack on Tawana happened,” William Kunstler had told New York Newsday when the alleged rape and torture of Tawana Brawley by a varying number of white police officers seemed, as an actual prosecutable crime if not as a window on what people needed to believe, to have dematerialized. “If her story was a concoction to prevent her parents from punishing her for staying out all night, that doesn’t disguise the fact that a lot of young black women are treated the way she said she was treated.” The importance of whether or not the crime had occurred was, in this view, entirely resident in the crime’s “description,” which was defined by Stanley Diamond in The Nation as “a crime that did not occur” but was “described with skill and controlled hysteria by the black actors as the epitome of degradation, a repellent model of what actually happens to too many black women.”
A good deal of what got said around the edges of the jogger case, in the corridors and on the call-in shows, seemed to derive exclusively from the suspicions of conspiracy increasingly entrenched among those who believe themselves powerless. A poll conducted in June 1990 by The New York Times and WCBS-TV News determined that 77 percent of blacks polled believed either that it was “true” or “might possibly be true” (as opposed to “almost certainly not true”) that the government of the United States “singles out and investigates black elected officials in order to discredit them in a way it doesn’t do with white officials.” Sixty percent believed that it was true or might possibly be true that the government “deliberately makes sure that drugs are easily available in poor black neighborhoods in order to harm black people.” Twenty-nine percent believed that it was true or might possibly be true that “the virus which causes AIDS was deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people.” In each case, the alternative response to “true” or “might possibly be true” was “almost certainly not true,” which might have seemed in itself to reflect a less than ringing belief in the absence of conspiracy. “The conspiracy to destroy Black boys is very complex and interwoven,” Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago educational consultant, wrote in his Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys , a 1982 pamphlet which has since been extended to three volumes.
There are many contributors to the conspiracy, ranging from the very visible who are more obvious, to the less visible and silent partners who are more difficult to recognize. Those people who adhere to the doctrine of white racism, imperialism, and white male supremacy are easier to recognize. Those people who actively promote drugs and gang violence are active conspirators, and easier to identify. What makes the conspiracy more complex are those people who do not plot together to destroy Black boys, but, through their indifference, perpetuate it. This passive group of conspirators consists of parents, educators, and white liberals who deny being racists, but through their silence allow institutional racism to continue.
For those who proceeded from the conviction that there was underway a conspiracy to destroy blacks, particularly black boys, a belief in the innocence of these defendants, a conviction that even their own statements had been rigged against them or wrenched from them, followed logically. It was in the corridors and on the call-in shows that the conspiracy got sketched in, in a series of fantasy details that conflicted not only with known facts but even with each other. It was said that the prosecution was withholding evidence that the victim had gone to the park to meet a drug dealer. It was said, alternately or concurrently, that the prosecution was withholding evidence that the victim had gone to the park to take part in a satanic ritual. It was said that the forensic photographs showing her battered body were not “real” photographs, that “they,” the prosecution, had “brought in some corpse for the pictures.” It was said that the young woman who appeared on the witness stand and identified herself as the victim was not the “real” victim, that “they” had in this case brought in an actress.
What was being expressed in each instance was the sense that secrets must be in play, that “they,” the people who had power in the courtroom, were in possession of information systematically withheld—since information itself was power—from those who did not have power. On the day the first three defendants were sentenced, C. Vernon Mason, who had formally entered the case in the penalty phase as Antron McCray’s attorney, filed a brief which included the bewildering and untrue assertion that the victim’s boyfriend, who had not at that time been called to testify, was black. That some whites jumped to engage this assertion on its own terms (the Daily News columnist Gail Collins referred to it as Mason’s “slimiest argument of the hour—an announcement that the jogger had a black lover”) tended only to reinforce the sense of racial estrangement that was the intended subtext of the assertion, which was without meaning or significance except in that emotional deep where whites are seen as conspiring in secret to sink blacks in misery. “Just answer me, who got addicted?” I recall one black spectator asking another as they left the courtroom. “I’ll tell you who got addicted, the inner city got addicted.” He had with him a pamphlet that laid out a scenario in which the government had conspired to exterminate blacks by flooding their neighborhoods with drugs, a scenario touching all the familiar points, Laos, Cambodia, the Golden Triangle, the CIA, more secrets, more poetry.
“From the beginning I have insisted that this was not a racial case,” Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, said after the verdicts came in on the first jogger trial. He spoke of those who, in his view, wanted “to divide the races and advance their own private agendas,” and of how the city was “ill-served” by those who had so “sought to exploit” this case. “We had hoped that the racial tensions surrounding the jogger trial would begin to dissipate soon after the jury arrived at a verdict,” a Post editorial began a few days later. The editorial spoke of an “ugly claque of ‘activists,’ ” of the “divisive atmosphere” they had created, and of the anticipation with which the city’s citizens had waited for “mainstream black leaders” to step forward with praise for the way in which the verdicts had brought New York “back from the brink of criminal chaos”:
Alas, in the jogger case, the wait was in vain. Instead of praise for a verdict which demonstrated that sometimes criminals are caught and punished, New Yorkers heard charlatans like the Rev. Al Sharpton claim the case was fixed. They heard that C. Vernon Mason, one of the engineers of the Tawana Brawley hoax—the attorney who thinks Mayor Dinkins wears “too many yarmulkes”—was planning to appeal the verdicts….
To those whose preferred view of the city was of an inherently dynamic and productive community ordered by the natural play of its conflicting elements, enriched, as in Mayor Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic,” by its very “contrasts,” this case offered a number of useful elements. There was the confirmation of “crime” as the canker corroding the life of the city. There was, in the random and feral evening described by the East Harlem attackers and the clear innocence of and damage done to the Upper East Side and Wall Street victim, an eerily exact and conveniently personalized representation of what the Daily News had called “the rape and the brutalization of a city.” Among the reporters on this case, whose own narrative conventions involved “hero cops” and “brave prosecutors” going hand to hand against “crime” (the SECRET AGONY OF JOGGER D.A., we learned in the Post a few days after the verdicts in the first trial, was that “Brave Prosecutor’s Marriage Failed as She Put Rapists Away”), there seemed an unflagging enthusiasm for the repetition and reinforcement of these elements, and an equally unflagging resistance, even hostility, to exploring the point of view of the defendants’ families and friends and personal or political allies (or, as they were called in news reports, the “supporters”) who gathered daily at the other end of the corridor from the courtroom.
This was curious. Criminal cases are widely regarded by American reporters as windows on the city or culture in which they take place, opportunities to enter not only households but parts of the culture normally closed, and yet this was a case in which indifference to the world of the defendants extended even to the reporting of names and occupations. Yusef Salaam’s mother, who happened to be young and photogenic and to have European features, was pictured so regularly that she and her son became the instantly recognizable “images” of Jogger One, but even then no one got her name quite right. For a while in the papers she was “Cheroney,” or sometimes “Cheron a y,” McEllhonor, then she became Cheroney McEllhonor Salaam. After she testified the spelling of her first name was corrected to “Sharonne,” although, since the byline on a piece she wrote for The Amsterdam News spelled it differently, “Sharrone,” this may have been another misunderstanding. Her occupation was frequently given as “designer” (later, after her son’s conviction, she went to work as a paralegal for William Kunstler), but no one seemed to take this seriously enough to say what she designed or for whom; not until after she testified, when Newsday reported her testimony that on the evening of her son’s arrest she had arrived at the precinct house late because she was an instructor at the Parsons School of Design, did the notion of “designer” seem sufficiently concrete to suggest an actual occupation.
The Jogger One defendants were referred to repeatedly in the news columns of the Post as “thugs.” The defendants and their families were often said by reporters to be “sneering.” (The reporters, in turn, were said at the other end of the corridor to be “smirking.”) “We don’t have nearly so strong a question as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants as we did at Bensonhurst,” a Newsday reporter covering the first jogger trial said to The New York Observer , well before the closing arguments, by way of explaining why Newsday ’s coverage may have seemed less extensive on this trial than on the Bensonhurst trials. “There is not a big question as to what happened in Central Park that night. Some details are missing, but it’s fairly clear who did what to whom.”
In fact this came close to the heart of it: that it seemed, on the basis of the videotaped statements, fairly clear who had done what to whom was precisely the case’s liberating aspect, the circumstance that enabled many of the city’s citizens to say and think what they might otherwise have left unexpressed. Unlike other recent high-visibility cases in New York, unlike Bensonhurst and unlike Howard Beach and unlike Bernhard Goetz, here was a case in which the issue not exactly of race but of an increasingly visible underclass could be confronted by the middle class, both white and black, without guilt. Here was a case which gave this middle class a way to transfer and express what had clearly become a growing and previously inadmissible rage with the city’s disorder, with the entire range of ills and uneasy guilts that came to mind in a city where entire families slept in the discarded boxes in which new Sub-Zero refrigerators were delivered, at twentysix hundred per, to more affluent families. Here was also a case, most significantly, in which even that transferred rage could be transferred still further, veiled, personalized: a case in which the city’s distress could be seen to derive not precisely from its underclass but instead from certain identifiable individuals who claimed to speak for this underclass, individuals who, in Robert Morgenthau’s words, “sought to exploit” this case, to “advance their own private agendas”; individuals who wished even to “divide the races.”
If the city’s problems could be seen as deliberate disruptions of a naturally cohesive and harmonious community, a community in which, undisrupted, “contrasts” generated a perhaps dangerous but vital “energy,” then those problems were tractable, and could be addressed, like “crime,” by the call for “better leadership.” Considerable comfort could be obtained, given this storyline, through the demonization of the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose presence on the edges of certain criminal cases that interested him had a polarizing effect that tended to reinforce the narrative. Jim Sleeper, in The Closest of Strangers , described one of the fifteen marches Sharpton led through Bensonhurst after the 1989 killing of an East New York sixteen-year-old, Yusuf Hawkins, who had come into Bensonhurst and been set upon, with baseball bats and ultimately with bullets, by a group of young whites.
An August 27, 1989, Daily News photo of the Reverend Al Sharpton and a claque of black teenagers marching in Bensonhurst to protest Hawkins’s death shows that they are not really “marching.” They are stumbling along, huddled together, heads bowed under the storm of hatred breaking over them, eyes wide, hanging on to one another and to Sharpton, scared out of their wits. They, too, are innocents—or were until that day, which they will always remember. And because Sharpton is with them, his head bowed, his face showing that he knows what they’re feeling, he is in the hearts of black people all over New York. Yet something is wrong with this picture. Sharpton did not invite or coordinate with Bensonhurst community leaders who wanted to join the march. Without the time for organizing which these leaders should have been given in order to rein in the punks who stood waving watermelons; without an effort by black leaders more reputable than Sharpton to recruit whites citywide and swell the march, Sharpton was assured that the punks would carry the day. At several points he even baited them by blowing kisses….
“I knew that Bensonhurst would clarify whether it had been a racial incident or not,” Sharpton said by way of explaining, on a recent Frontline documentary, his strategy in Bensonhurst. “The fact that I was so controversial to Bensonhurst helped them forget that the cameras were there,” he said. “So I decided to help them…I would throw kisses to them, and they would go nuts.” Question , began a joke often told in the aftermath of the first jogger trial. You’re in a room with Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Al Sharpton. You have only two bullets. Who do you shoot? Answer: Al Sharpton. Twice .
Sharpton did not exactly fit the roles New York traditionally assigns, for maximum audience comfort, to prominent blacks. He seemed in many ways a phantasm, someone whose instinct for the connections between religion and politics and show business was so innate that he had been all his life the vessel for other people’s hopes and fears. He had given his first sermon at age four. He was touring with Mahalia Jackson at eleven. As a teenager, according to Robert D. McFadden, Ralph Blumenthal, M. A. Farber, E. R. Shipp, Charles Strum, and Craig Wolff, the New York Times reporters and editors who collaborated on Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax , Sharpton was tutored first by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (“You got to know when to hit it and you got to know when to quit it and when it’s quittin’ time, don’t push it,” Powell told him), then by the Reverend Jesse Jackson (“Once you turn on the gas, you got to cook or burn ’em up,” Jackson told him), and eventually, after obtaining a grant from Bayard Rustin and campaigning for Shirley Chisholm, by James Brown. “Once, he trailed Brown down a corridor, through a door, and, to his astonishment, onto a stage flooded with spotlights,” the authors of Outrage reported. “He immediately went into a wiggle and dance.”
It was perhaps this talent for seizing the spotlight and the moment, this fatal bent for the wiggle and the dance, that most clearly disqualified Sharpton from casting as the Good Negro, the credit to the race, the exemplary if often imagined figure whose refined manners and good grammar could be stressed and who could be seen to lay, as Jimmy Walker said of Joe Louis, “a rose on the grave of Abraham Lincoln.” It was left, then, to cast Sharpton, and for Sharpton to cast himself, as the Outrageous Nigger, the familiar role—assigned sixty years ago to Father Divine and thirty years later to Adam Clayton Powell—of the essentially manageable fraud whose first concern is his own well-being. It was for example repeatedly mentioned, during the ten days the jury was out on the first jogger trial, that Sharpton had chosen to wait out the verdict not at 111 Centre Street but “in the air-conditioned comfort” of C. Vernon Mason’s office, from which he could be summoned by beeper.
Sharpton, it was frequently said by whites and also by some blacks, “represented nobody,” was “self-appointed” and “self-promoting.” He was an “exploiter” of blacks, someone who “did them more harm than good.” It was pointed out that he had been indicted by the state of New York in June of 1989 on charges of income tax evasion and grand larceny. (He was ultimately acquitted of the larceny charges; the tax evasion charge is pending.) It was pointed out that New York Newsday , working on information that appeared to have been supplied by federal law enforcement agencies, had in January 1988 named him as a federal informant, and that he himself admitted to having let the government tap his phone in a drug-enforcement effort. It was routinely said, most tellingly of all in a narrative based on the magical ability of “leaders” to improve the common weal, that he was “not the right leader,” “not at all the leader the black community needs.” His clothes and his demeanor were ridiculed (my husband was asked by Esquire to do a piece predicated on interviewing Sharpton while he was having his hair processed), his motives derided and his tactics, which were those of an extremely sophisticated player who counted being widely despised among his stronger cards, not very well understood.
Whites tended to believe, and to say, that Sharpton was “using” the racial issue—which, in the sense that all political action is based on “using” one issue or another, he clearly was. Whites also tended to see him as destructive and irresponsible, indifferent to the truth or to the sensibilities of whites—which, most notoriously in the nurturing of the Tawana Brawley case, a primal fantasy in which white men were accused of a crime Sharpton may well have known to be a fabrication, he also clearly was. What seemed not at all understood was that for Sharpton, who had no interest in making the problem appear more tractable (“The question is, do you want to ‘ease’ it or do you want to ‘heal’ it,” he had said when asked if his marches had not worked against “easing tension” in Bensonhurst), the fact that blacks and whites could sometimes be shown to have divergent interests by no means suggested the need for an ameliorative solution. Such divergent interests were instead a lucky break, a readymade organizing tool, a dramatic illustration of who had the power and who did not, who was making it and who was falling below the line; a metaphor for the sense of victimization felt not only by blacks but by all those Sharpton called “the left-out opposition.” We got the power , the chants go on “Sharpton and Fulani in Babylon: volume 1 the battle of New York City,” a tape of the speeches of Sharpton and of Leonora Fulani, a leader of the New Alliance party. We are the chosen people. Out of the pain. We that can’t even talk together. Have learned to walk together .
“I’m no longer sure what I thought about Al Sharpton a year or two ago still applies,” Jerry Nachman, the editor of The New York Post , who had frequently criticized Sharpton, told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post in September 1990. “I spent a lot of time on the street. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. Rightly or wrongly, he may be articulating a great deal more of what typical attitudes are than some of us thought.” Wilbert Tatum, the editor and publisher of the Amsterdam News , tried to explain to Kurtz how, in his view, Sharpton had been cast as “a caricature of black leadership”:
He was fat. He wore jogging suits. He wore a medallion and gold chains. And the unforgivable of unforgivables, he had processed hair. The white media, perhaps not consciously, said, “We’re going to promote this guy because we can point up the ridiculousness and paucity of black leadership.” Al understood precisely what they were doing, precisely. Al is probably the most brilliant tactician this country has ever produced….
Whites often mentioned, as a clinching argument, that Sharpton paid his demonstrators to appear; the figure usually mentioned was five dollars (by November 1990, when Sharpton was fielding demonstrators to protest the killing of a black woman alleged to have grabbed a police nightstick in the aftermath of a domestic dispute, a police source quoted in the Post had jumped the payment to twenty dollars), but the figure floated by a prosecutor on the jogger case was four dollars. This seemed on many levels a misunderstanding, or an estrangement, or as blacks would say a disrespect, too deep to address, but on its simplest level it served to suggest what value was placed by whites on what they thought of as black time.
In the fall of 1990, the fourth and fifth of the six defendants in the Central Park attack, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise, went on trial. Since this particular narrative had achieved full resolution, or catharsis, with the conviction of the first three defendants, the city’s interest in the case had by then largely waned. Those “charlatans” who had sought to “exploit” the case had been whisked, until they could next prove useful, into the wings. Even the verdicts in this second trial, coinciding as they did with the most recent arrest of John (the Dapper Don) Gotti, a reliable favorite on the New York stage, did not lead the local news. It was in fact the economy itself that had come center stage in the city’s new, and yet familiar, narrative work: a work in which the vital yet beleaguered city would or would not weather yet another “crisis” (the answer was a resounding yes); a work, or a dreamwork, that emphasized not only the cyclical nature of such “crises” but the regenerative power of the city’s “contrasts.” “With its migratory population, its diversity of cultures and institutions, and its vast resources of infrastructure, capital, and intellect, New York has been the quintessential modern city for more than a century, constantly reinventing itself,” Michael Stone concluded in his New York magazine cover story, “Hard Times.” “Though the process may be long and painful, there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen again.”
These were points commonly made in support of a narrative that tended, with its dramatic line of “crisis” and resolution, or recovery, only to further obscure the economic and historical groundwork for the situation in which the city found itself: that long unindictable conspiracy of criminal and semi-criminal civic and commercial arrangements, deals, negotiations, gimmes and getmes, graft and grift, pipe, topsoil, concrete, garbage; the conspiracy of those in the know, those with a connection, those with a friend at the Department of Sanitation or the Buildings Department or the School Construction Authority or Foley Square, the conspiracy of those who believed everybody got upside down because of who it was, it happened to anybody else, a summons gets issued, and that’s the end of it. On November 12, 1990, in its page-one analysis of the city’s troubles, The New York Times went so far as to locate, in “public spending,” not the drain on the city’s vitality and resources it had historically been but “an important positive factor”:
Not in decades has so much money gone for public works in the area—airports, highways, bridges, sewers, subways and other projects. Roughly $12 billion will be spent in the metropolitan region in the current fiscal year. Such government outlays are a healthy counterforce to a 43 percent decline since 1987 in the value of new private construction, a decline related to the sharp drop in real estate prices…. While nearly every industry in the private sector has been reducing payrolls since spring, government hiring has risen, maintaining an annual growth rate of 20,000 people since 1987….
That there might well be, in a city in which the proliferation of and increase in taxes were already driving private-sector payrolls out of town, hardly anyone left to tax for such public works and public-sector jobs was a point not too many people wished seriously to address: among the citizens of a New York come to grief on the sentimental stories told in defense of its own lazy criminality, the city’s inevitability remained the given, the heart, the first and last word on which all the stories rested. We love New York, the narrative promises, because it matches our energy level.
January 17, 1991
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Joan Didion (1934–2021) was the author, most recently, of Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking , among seven other works of nonfiction. Her five novels include A Book of Common Prayer and Democracy .
William R. Taylor, “The Launching of a Commercial Culture: New York City, 1860–1930,” in John Hull Mollenkopf’s Power, Culture, and Place: Essays on New York City (Russell Sage Foundation, 1988), pp. 107–133. ↩
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Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for Free Online, Spanning Her Career From 1965 to 2013
in Literature , Writing | January 14th, 2014 3 Comments
Image by David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons
In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her reader. She rhetorically asks and answers: “…was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.” The wry little moment is perfectly indicative of Didion’s unsparingly ironic critical voice. Didion is a consummate critic, from Greek kritēs , “a judge.” But she is always foremost a judge of herself. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first novel while working for Vogue , “Goodbye to All That” frequently shifts point of view as Didion examines the truth of each statement, her prose moving seamlessly from deliberation to commentary, annotation, aside, and aphorism, like the below:
I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.
Anyone who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-altering city—will know the pangs of resignation Didion captures. These economic times and every other produce many such stories. But Didion made something entirely new of familiar sentiments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre , and a collection of breakup letters to New York with the same title, the unsentimental precision and compactness of Didion’s prose is all her own.
The essay appears in 1967’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem , a representative text of the literary nonfiction of the sixties alongside the work of John McPhee, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson. In Didion’s case, the emphasis must be decidedly on the literary —her essays are as skillfully and imaginatively written as her fiction and in close conversation with their authorial forebears. “Goodbye to All That” takes its title from an earlier memoir, poet and critic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leaving his hometown in England to fight in World War I. Didion’s appropriation of the title shows in part an ironic undercutting of the memoir as a serious piece of writing.
And yet she is perhaps best known for her work in the genre. Published almost fifty years after Slouching Towards Bethlehem , her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words , a “traveler’s faithful account” of the stunningly sudden and crushing personal calamities that claimed the lives of her husband and daughter separately. “Though the material is literally terrible,” Pinsky writes, “the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative: a forced expedition into those ‘cliffs of fall’ identified by Hopkins.” He refers to lines by the gifted Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that Didion quotes in the book: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”
The nearly unimpeachably authoritative ethos of Didion’s voice convinces us that she can fearlessly traverse a wild inner landscape most of us trivialize, “hold cheap,” or cannot fathom. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review interview , Didion—with that technical sleight of hand that is her casual mastery—called herself “a kind of apprentice plumber of fiction, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of archetype of literary modesty (John Locke, for example, called himself an “underlabourer” of knowledge) while also figuring herself as the winsome heroine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch comedy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jennifer Jones, a character who learns to thumb her nose at power and privilege.
A twist of fate—interviewer Linda Kuehl’s death—meant that Didion wrote her own introduction to the Paris Review interview, a very unusual occurrence that allows her to assume the role of her own interpreter, offering ironic prefatory remarks on her self-understanding. After the introduction, it’s difficult not to read the interview as a self-interrogation. Asked about her characterization of writing as a “hostile act” against readers, Didion says, “Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.”
It’s a curious statement. Didion’s cutting wit and fearless vulnerability take in seemingly all—the expanses of her inner world and political scandals and geopolitical intrigues of the outer, which she has dissected for the better part of half a century. Below, we have assembled a selection of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue :
“On Self Respect” (1961)
Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album brought together some of her most trenchant and searching essays about her immersion in the counterculture, and the ideological fault lines of the late sixties and seventies. The title essay begins with a gemlike sentence that became the title of a collection of her first seven volumes of nonfiction : “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Read two essays from that collection below:
“ The Women’s Movement ” (1972)
“ Holy Water ” (1977)
Didion has maintained a vigorous presence at the New York Review of Books since the late seventies, writing primarily on politics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:
“ Insider Baseball ” (1988)
“ Eye on the Prize ” (1992)
“ The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich ” (1995)
“ Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History ” (2003)
“ Politics in the New Normal America ” (2004)
“ The Case of Theresa Schiavo ” (2005)
“ The Deferential Spirit ” (2013)
“ California Notes ” (2016)
Didion continues to write with as much style and sensitivity as she did in her first collection, her voice refined by a lifetime of experience in self-examination and piercing critical appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she published an autobiographical essay there that returns to the theme of “yearning for a glamorous, grown up life” that she explored in “Goodbye to All That.” In “ Sable and Dark Glasses ,” Didion’s gaze is steadier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tempered and hardened by New York, but on herself as a child “determined to bypass childhood” and emerge as a poised, self-confident 24-year old sophisticate—the perfect New Yorker she never became.
Joan Didion Reads From New Memoir, Blue Nights, in Short Film Directed by Griffin Dunne
30 Free Essays & Stories by David Foster Wallace on the Web
10 Free Stories by George Saunders, Author of Tenth of December , “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”
Read 18 Short Stories From Nobel Prize-Winning Writer Alice Munro Free Online
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
by Josh Jones | Permalink | Comments (3) |
Comments (3), 3 comments so far.
“In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time,..”
Dead link to the essay
It should be “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” with the “s” on Towards.
Most of the Joan Didion Essay links have paywalls.
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Dec. 23, 2021. Joan Didion, who died on Thursday at 87, is best known for her essay collections — “ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ,” “ The White Album ” and “ After Henry ,” to name a ...
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Read two essays from that collection below: “ The Women’s Movement ” (1972) “ Holy Water ” (1977) Didion has maintained a vigorous presence at the New York Review of Books since the late seventies, writing primarily on politics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them: