I love this time of year. The trees here are still full of leaves and the colors are about mid-way although this year they are not as brilliant as in years past. We’ve had a very dry, mild summer and that is not conducive to bright foliage. But it doesn’t matter. It is the quality of light that is glorious this time of year. Halloween, All Saint’s day and All Soul’s Day have always been special to me. They seem like a time of transition --- from activity and excitement to quiet and creative serenity. I love these days.
The last few days I have been caught up in a curious fascination. On the recommendation of a friend I rented the DVD of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 8-part documentary The Staircase. It is the story of the trial of Michael Peterson in 2003 for the 2001 death of his wife, Kathleen. It is one of those films that you cannot explain what it is about it that would compel you to sit for 6 hours and watch it in total fascination but you do.
The story is a bizarre one. On a November evening he and Kathleen were sitting by the pool in the North Carolina home drinking wine and chatting. Kathleen had also taken a valium and she decided to go to bed. He stayed by the pool. Sometime later when he decided to go to bed he found his wife at the foot of the staircase, covered in blood and close to death. He called 911 but she died in his arms.
The filmmaker’s access to the parties involved is what amazes you. He follows every nuance and turn. You follow all the conversations and discussions, meetings with lawyers and witnesses. It is an intense piece of filmmaking and it is a bizarre story full of twists and shocks. I won’t detail them but the final outcome is the shocker. Despite the overwhelmingly inconclusive evidence, the jury not only found him guilty but found him guilty in the first degree. He is now serving a life sentence in prison.
What is shocking, at least to me, about this is that it seems very apparent that somewhere in the course of the case the jury decided they didn’t like this guy. He was rich and a writer and of questionable morals. He was also bisexual and had occasional flings with male prostitutes, a thing that his wife knew and accepted but the jury sure didn’t. From the point where the jury decided they didn’t like him, he was doomed. Nothing the defense did from that point on was going to change the mind of the jury.
What is interesting to me about this is how it somewhat parallels Jane Daniel’s story Bestseller! Which she is chronicling in her blog, BestsellerTheBook.blogspot.com. When I read her story, as both a publisher and a writer, all I can do is marvel at how she knocked herself out to get that book to press and to get it promoted despite working with a terribly difficult client and an equally difficult co-author. Even if she made mistakes along the way, the fact that she worked as hard as she did can only make any other writer, who has dealt with publishers who do NOTHING, long for a publisher like Jane. Yet the jury found her guilty and tripled the judgment against her. Why?
In Peterson’s case the fact that he was bisexual made him a lot more guilty than anything he might or might not have done. In Jane’s case there was Jane, beautiful, elegant, articulate, well-heeled vs. Misha, the author who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor. The plain truth is Jane didn’t stand a chance.
What happens to litigants whom the jury decides to hate? Peterson is serving life in prison. Jane lost ten years of her life, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is still fighting to save her home. And, as more of the story comes to light, the evidence is growing that the entire story just might have been a hoax. What happens if it is revealed that Misha deFonseca concocted the whole story? Is it possible that she deluded not only Jane and thousands of readers but a jury who sympathized with a poor holocaust survivor over a glamorous publisher who made the mistake of believing in her? The story is unfolding in real-time and it is compelling too.
So, on this Halloween the story of Michael Peterson, and of Jane Daniel, is a reminder that there is plenty to be scared of in this world. And much of it is real only in the minds of others. Trick or treat.
Thanks for reading.