Online Edition: Fall 2005

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True Story

Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

Michael Finkel

Harper Collins ($25.95)

by Elaine Margolin

Michael Finkel made a serious mistake. An up and coming reporter for the New York Times Magazine, Finkel had just returned from the Ivory Coast where he had spent weeks researching a story on the child slave trade there. While meeting with his editor, he outlined how he was going to approach his piece, which was slotted to be the cover story for an upcoming issue. She nixed his ideas, instructing him instead to weave an emotional and biographical narrative around one of the children he interviewed, the kind of story that would grab the reader’s heart. Finkel spent the next few weeks in a wine and sleep deprived mania producing a piece of writing he considered to be his best ever. The only problem was it wasn’t true; the boy at the center of the article was a composite of many different people rolled into one. Finkel got caught and was fired; full of shame and regret, he retreated to his home in Montana to lick his wounds.

Tortured by his own reckless behavior, Finkel wondered how he could have let this happen. A passionate and extremely gifted young writer, he had spent his entire life “trying to become Michael Finkel of the New York Times. Now, after scarcely a year, I was finished.” Children lie in order to master the world around them. It is a self-protective act, usually devoid of malevolence; the lie allows them to imagine themselves as stronger than they are. Adults lie for similar reasons; they need to create an image of themselves that is better then the one they have. But as Finkel found out, we have zero tolerance for our journalistic thieves, be they Steven Glass or Jayson Blair or the gentle but still culpable Doris Kearns Goodwin. Finkel spends a good portion of this book meditating on the forces and pressures that led to his personal downfall, but ultimately, he steps up to the plate and takes full responsibility for his actions. His struggle is for his own redemption and our forgiveness.

Finkel’s chance for salvation arrives unexpectedly when a reporter calls and tells him that Christian Longo, a highly intelligent young man on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, has been arrested for murdering his family. He had been picked up in Mexico impersonating a reporter—Michael Finkel of the New York Times. In prison awaiting trial, Longo was willing to speak about his life and the crimes he was accused of, but only to the real Finkel.

Thus begins a year-long odyssey for Finkel, who begins a highly charged and often turbulent relationship with Longo through letters, phone calls, and visits. As he attempts to analyze Longo’s descent, Finkel begins to look at his own, and the similarities he sees disturb him. Both men are too comfortable lying. Both have trouble with intimacy, particularly with women. Both seem to feel compelled to operate under a continual umbrella of performance pressure that crushes their spirit. Both are obsessed with their place in the world, their egos dependent upon maintaining a notion of their own uniqueness. Ultimately, however, True Story shows that Finkel is no longer willing to dance around the truth; his revelations about himself demonstrate the workings of a first-rate mind, a terrific journalist, and perhaps most importantly, an honest man.

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