The journalist and the murderer

A disgraced New York Times reporter learns his identity has been stolen by an all-American hunk who killed his wife and three children. The result is the most unlikely "True Story" you'll ever read.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published June 15, 2005 9:00PM (EDT)

Michael Finkel can't say he wasn't warned. At some point in 2002, when Finkel, a disgraced former reporter for the New York Times Magazine, was becoming friendly with Christian Longo, a man accused of murdering his wife and three children, he asked a forensic psychologist named Joe W. Dixon to read Longo's letters. In the prisoner's lengthy and surprisingly introspective correspondence, Dixon saw a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder. He also saw, in layman's terms, a pathological liar. People like Longo, he wrote, are incapable of honesty: "Lying is their nature. Not just their second nature, but their nature. Beware of their snares."

Dixon's phrasing echoes the old parable about the scorpion that can't help stinging the frog that's carrying him across a river -- even though it means they'll both drown -- because it's his nature. This warning made an impression on Finkel, but not as much as it should have. In Chris Longo, after all, Finkel was dealing with a guy who had fled the scene of a murder and lived for several weeks in Mexico impersonating someone else -- specifically, impersonating him.

In his absorbing chronicle "True Story," Finkel spends a lot of time chewing over the bizarre relationship with Longo that flowed from this unlikely coincidence. But all his rumination and self-scrutiny can't hide the fact that Finkel was fatally infatuated with a man who was suspected (and has since been convicted) of killing his entire family. Finkel had a fever that can be as consuming as love or drugs; he was a reporter with a hot story that he thought might save his career. He gambled that he could make it across the river with Chris Longo without getting stung.

Finkel has become an object of fascination for other journalists -- and the subject of much gossip and innuendo -- because he committed two unpardonable sins. First, in November 2001, he published a profoundly flawed cover story in the Times Magazine, a quasi-fictional weave of truth and invention that purported to be about a young boy trapped in the poverty of West Africa's chocolate plantations. (Although Finkel's fakery was nowhere near the level of Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, his name will always be linked to theirs.) Then, after Longo impersonated him -- and Finkel, as a result, befriended Longo -- he got a huge, juicy scoop, a story nobody else could have gotten.

Now that Finkel has written a riveting book about his bizarre adventure, you might make that three unpardonable sins. Not only has he profited from his own crime (his scoop would not have been possible without his earlier misdeed), Finkel then had the gall to get back on the horse and establish that he's still a formidable writer and reporter. So when you read other journalists beating Finkel up in print, be aware that our contempt for him is equal parts fear and envy, part "there but for the grace of God go I" and part "why couldn't that murderer have impersonated me?"

As he explains in the first chapter of "True Story," Finkel was sitting at home in Bozeman, Mont., on the night of Feb. 20, 2002, waiting for the Times to publish an editor's note on Page A3 that would repudiate his tainted article and announce that he'd been fired. He had every reason to expect that his career as a journalist, at least for major and reputable publications, was over. When a reporter for the Portland Oregonian called him, Finkel congratulated him on being the first, and assumed the media onslaught had begun. But the Portland reporter wasn't calling about the Times scandal, which he hadn't even heard about. He was calling about Christian Longo.

Longo had disappeared from Newport, Ore., a couple of months earlier, around the time his dead wife and three dead kids -- 5-year-old Zachery, 3-year-old Sadie and 2-year-old Madison -- were being fished out of various bodies of water in the area. Longo drove to San Francisco, and a few days later used a stolen credit-card number to hop a jet for Canczn. He spent several weeks in and around the Mexican resort before the FBI and Mexican police caught up to him. He was popular, made a lot of friends and even started a relationship with a high-spirited young German woman. He told everybody he met there he was Michael Finkel, a reporter for the New York Times.

Given this supremely unlikely circumstance, I guess any reporter would have seen an opportunity and leapt at it. For Finkel, who literally had nothing to lose, the allure of this journalistic kismet -- a unique connection to the leading suspect in a spectacular murder case -- was irresistible. His mistake, if it was a mistake, was to be insufficiently cynical. He didn't simply approach Chris Longo with an eye to a juicy byline, a potentially substantial payday and a way back into his profession. He saw Longo as a moral and existential challenge, a gift from Providence, a chance at salvation.

Longo's story, Finkel writes, "was the journalistic equivalent of a winning lottery ticket." From the moment the Oregonian reporter had called him, Finkel felt "a vague sense that the beginnings of my redemption, both professional and personal, might somehow lie with Longo ... And I thought that if I were able to be truthful with Longo -- an accused murderer and a possible con man; a person who might easily forgive deceit -- then I'd demonstrate, at least to myself, that I'd moved beyond the dishonest behavior that had cost me my job."

"True Story" is Finkel's chronicle of his quest for redemption. Along the way it seeks to plumb three mysteries that, as is only fitting in this tale of human deviousness and deceit, remain resolutely unplumbable. In the fashion of a suspense novel, Finkel bounces between three fractured narratives that don't so much interlock as cast reflected light on each other.

One is the story of Longo, a handsome, charismatic and strikingly intelligent man with no history of violence who becomes the leading (and indeed only) suspect in a senseless and shocking crime. The second is the story of Finkel himself, a successful globe-trotting journalist who writes a feature story about the chocolate plantations of West Africa whose main character does not exist. The third is the story of Finkel and Longo's oddly deepening friendship, as they gaze into each other and begin to recognize an essential kinship -- a careless egotism, a facility for falsehood, a consuming desire to appear successful at almost any cost.

By far the cleanest and clearest of these narratives is Finkel's own. He faces his failings bravely and never tries to blame anyone else for the pile-of-crap Africa story he published. (Unlike Blair or Glass, he otherwise had written genuine and fully fact-checkable journalism, as a Times internal investigation confirmed.) There were indeed extenuating circumstances -- he was stressed out, overtired and writing to a crazy deadline; he was abusing drugs; and, one could argue, he was hemmed in by the aggressively stupid conventions of magazine journalism, which values easily summarized, high-drama "human" stories over honesty and subtlety.

But as Finkel gradually reveals the roots of the faked story and how he convinced himself to write it and file it, he refuses to hide behind excuses. His editor at the Times Magazine wanted a story that focused on one young boy who worked on a chocolate plantation. After trying and failing to dredge a single case history from his notes, Finkel took numerous real quotes from his reporting and attributed them to one invented character, convincing himself his story was truthful in spirit, even if it didn't follow the rules.

When the story began to unravel, thanks largely to a Canadian researcher for Save the Children who sent aid workers to track down the boy Finkel claimed to be portraying, he had a total meltdown. He wrote a series of deceptive e-mails to Save the Children, trying to drive the organization off the scent. He imagined draining his bank account and flying to Toronto to bribe the aid worker. He attempted to forge notes, using the same blue ink he had used in Africa. As humiliating as these details are, Finkel states them clearly, without prevaricating or passing the buck.

"I knew what I was doing," he writes. "I had the power to stop myself at any time, but I decided not to. It was the stupidest thing I have ever done. It's something that causes me pain every day; it's something for which I will never fully forgive myself." Those are the words, to use the language of Finkel's ancestors, of a mensch. But here's the thing: Finkel also becomes aware that his act of journalistic fakery was not an entirely isolated act. It revealed a side of his personality that was arrogant, that told pointless lies at parties, that dumped girlfriends without explanation. And the therapy he sought for this condition, for reasons that seem more deeply buried than the roots of his phony African-chocolate story, was friendship with Chris Longo.

Finkel became Longo's confidant and indeed almost his only contact with the outside world; Longo used his one hour per week in telephone privileges exclusively to talk to Finkel, and they wrote each other voluminous letters. (Longo's first ran 78 pages, written in golf pencil, the only writing implement he was permitted.) They shared the mundane details of their lives, their romantic and family histories, innermost thoughts and fears, and reflections on the misdeeds that had gotten them in trouble. (In Longo's case, that meant previous cases of embezzlement, check fraud and theft -- he never directly discussed the murders with Finkel until his trial was over.)

Longo, it turned out, was an aspiring writer, with an autodidact's large but uneven vocabulary; he had chosen Finkel's identity to assume because he read magazines voraciously and knew his work. Finkel bought him a high-end dictionary and a subscription to the New Yorker, and sent him books by his favorite writers. (Longo especially liked David Foster Wallace.) Finkel was smart enough to see the pitfalls that lay in getting involved with a fan, but was powerless to avoid them.

"There is perhaps nothing more dangerous to a writer's common sense," Finkel writes, "than encountering an enthusiastic reader of his work, even if he's calling collect from county jail." This combination of rueful self-scrutiny and what sometimes seems like painful, blazing naiveti, is what makes "True Story" so engrossing and so maddening. Despite Finkel's claim that he only wants to prove to himself that he is capable of honesty, he clearly craves attention and affection from Longo; he longs to like Longo and wants Longo to like him. During his first phone conversation with Longo, in April 2002 -- an experience he compares to an awkward first date -- the first thing Finkel wrote in his notebook was "A v. nice guy."

On one hand, the situation Finkel found himself in was so unexpected and so dramatic that it's hard to know, in the abstract, what you or I or anyone else would have done differently. In my own career as a journalist, I've been lied to with great sincerity (I think) by a man who was guilty of attempted murder (I think). It's a disorienting experience. We all want to believe that other people are telling us the truth, and reporters want to believe it most of all. And the question Finkel asked himself was real: Had his capacity for honesty, as a human being and a writer, been eaten away by his deception?

That said, there are a dozen points in "True Story," or a hundred, when I wanted to reach into the book and slap Michael Finkel. What I wanted to say to him was this: Chris Longo apparently tied rocks wrapped in pillowcases to the ankles of his sleeping son and daughter, and then threw them into a muddy pond in rural Oregon, where they spent the last seconds of their lives terrified, trapped, freezing, drowning. (They were recovered wearing only underwear, with no signs of trauma, looking almost as if they were still asleep.) I can imagine facing the bitter fact that even this man is a human being, and that no one could do something so horrible to people he supposedly loved without suffering some kind of grievous pain. But you, buddy -- you became his best friend. You sat by the phone with a pot of tea every Wednesday night, waiting for him to call. Were you completely out of your fucking mind?

Finkel and Longo repeatedly vowed to be totally honest with each other, and after a bit of cat-and-mouse, they struck a deal: Longo would communicate with no other journalists, and Finkel would reveal nothing about their letters and phone calls to anyone until Longo's trial was over. As with his first-date quip, Finkel seems partly aware that their relationship had a highly charged, almost romantic intensity. I don't mean to suggest that there was a homosexual attraction between them; they only met a few times, and then only through the glass walls of a prison visiting room. In fact, what I mean is that the danger of homosexuality was removed from the relationship -- since Longo was almost certainly never going to see the outside again -- which set them free to pursue a level of intimacy almost unknown between two heterosexual men.

Furthermore, their narcissistic attraction to each other had a curious, borderline-erotic quality. Longo literally wanted to be Finkel, and seemed to think that with the right education and the right breaks, he could have been. In one letter Finkel quotes, Longo remembered his Mexican charade wistfully, as a period spent "half daydreaming of what the real life of Michael Finkel must be like. I've learned enough in life to realize that no life or career is as fantastic as you might imagine, but I couldn't help picturing how my life would have been if I had taken whatever steps the real Mr. Finkel took to attain the position that he now held."(In his letters to the murder-groupies who wrote him mash notes, Longo would sometimes steal phrases or sentences from Finkel's writing, and pass them off as his own sentiments.)

For his part, Finkel almost seems to wish he could be the version of him that people in Canczn had enjoyed so much. Longo is the well-built, all-American, people-pleasin' type, and apparently quite a chick magnet. His Mexico sojourn involved several late-night naked swims with Norwegian and Swedish women he met at parties (although he says he resisted all sexual overtures before meeting the German photographer). "I can state with certainty, and some sadness," the real Mr. Finkel writes, "that any time someone answering to the name Michael Finkel has been skinny-dipping with Scandinavians, I was nowhere around."

At one point in "True Story," Finkel and Longo talk frankly about the fact that their relationship is based on self-interest. Finkel is using Longo to write a story that will resurrect his career, and Longo is using Finkel -- as the latter realizes rather late in the game -- to help him craft a defense to the seemingly insurmountable case against him. It's an invigorating, almost frightening moment, but it doesn't tell the whole story. No one had been better than Longo, Finkel tells him, "at exposing and analyzing my moral flaws." The accused murderer responds: "I'm keeping the connection with you. It's not just a connection on the surface. I think it's deeper than that."

Longo sometimes seems like the more perceptive of these two, frankly. He's right, there is a fundamental connection between them: Neither of these guys is capable of seeing beyond their own egos. Other critics have observed that there's a conceptual link between the invented child in Finkel's Africa story and his apparent lack of empathy or compassion for the children Longo murdered. Finkel expresses genuine contrition for his faked article; he understands that he violated the norms of journalism and irreparably damaged his career. But he seems unable to grasp why others would be horrified at his boy-crush fascination with a man who killed small children in cold blood.

It seems clear that Finkel and Longo's friendship was real, that both men saw it as simultaneously instrumental and therapeutic. Both believed, I suspect, that total honesty with a fellow narcissist -- one likely to spot lies and evasions -- might heal their respective pathologies. But both were liars, one writ large and the other writ small. One was a murderer and the other was a journalist, and in the end they couldn't escape those roles.

The relationship between any reporter and his or her subjects is an endlessly slippery affair. New Yorker reporter Janet Malcolm, the profession's prosecuting demon (who knows something about the relationship between journalists and murderers), has described it as a "special, artificial exercise of subtle influence and counterinfluence, with an implicit antagonistic tendency." Most of the time, she writes, "both subject and interviewer give more than is necessary. They are always being seduced and distracted by the encounter's outward resemblance to an ordinary friendly meeting."

Yet doesn't that "outward resemblance" to friendship carry with it some degree of mutual responsibility? In the introduction to her influential collection "Reporting," Lillian Ross, a pioneering New Yorker reporter of an earlier day, expresses an opposing conclusion: "As soon as another human being permits you to write about him, he is opening his life to you, and you must be constantly aware that you have a responsibility in regard to that person ... Anyone who trusts you enough to talk about himself to you is giving you a form of friendship ... A friend is not to be used and abandoned; the friendship established in writing about someone usually continues to grow after what has been written is published."

This is the central dilemma of reporting, at least insofar as it involves writing about other human beings: We appear to become people's friends, and to some extent the appearance becomes reality. Michael Finkel found himself impaled on the horns of that dilemma. He befriended a pathological liar -- seeing echoes of his own falsehoods in the man -- and then professed himself horrified when the liar told him lies.

For a long time, Finkel and Longo willfully avoid the details of what happened on Dec. 17 and 18 of 2001, when Sadie and Zachery wound up in that pond and the third Longo child, Madison, along with her mother, MaryJane, were packed into suitcases and thrown in the Pacific Ocean. Finkel asks leading questions; Longo responds cryptically. Longo drops ambiguous hints, which Finkel reads as oblique admissions of guilt; Longo later claims they were meant as proclamations of innocence. Like so many murder suspects, Longo never talks about the murders directly in his letters, using passive constructions like "a tragedy that has recently taken place" or "the terribly unnecessary demise of the lives of a wife and three beautiful children."

When Longo finally testifies in his own defense at his 2003 trial, his story about how the killings happened is so incredible he later tells Finkel he didn't intend it to be believed. (You have to read the book to get the full effect.) He tells Finkel yet another story in private, a revision of his outrageous testimony, and Finkel finally understands that he has invested a prodigious amount of time, energy and emotion in a guy who can't tell the truth and who -- at least in the case of this violent, dissociated act -- may not even know what the truth is.

For Finkel, this is the last straw; he throws up his hands in self-righteous indignation and declares that he now hates Longo. The reader may be forgiven for staring in blank disbelief. Finkel doesn't hate Longo for having murdered four people, since it was obvious all along he had done that. Finkel hates him solely for the injury Longo did him -- he hates him because Longo could never tell a convincing and enlightening story that would provide a great ending for a true-crime, mea-culpa potential bestseller.

As I said at the beginning, Finkel had been warned, and didn't quite appreciate the personal significance of the warning. Like the frog ferrying the scorpion across the stream, he expected Longo to transcend his own nature. He's a literary-minded guy; he might also have reflected on Nietzsche's famous admonition that if we gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes into us.

There is not the remotest moral equivalence between what Finkel and Longo did. No small children were drowned because of Finkel's bogus magazine story. But the too-strange-for-Dickens connection between them seems more like fate than randomness; they were high-functioning narcissists who reached a catastrophic breaking point. And the fact that Chris Longo could never escape his lies raises the uncomfortable question of whether Mike Finkel will forever be trapped by his. They were best friends, after all. It's easier to forgive Finkel for his bad journalism than for that.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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