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Monday, July 6, 2020

Truth is stranger than fiction in ‘True Story’

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In February 2002, the disgraced New York Times journalist Michael Finkel was hiding out in his home near Bozeman, Mont., alternating pacing, lying burrowed beneath his laundry, and clamping “my palms over my ears and [yelling] at the ceiling until my breath gave out,” he writes in his 2005 book, “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa,” which has now been adapted into a film starring Oscar nominee Jonah Hill (“Moneyball,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) as Finkel. “All day, I wore sweatpants and bedroom slippers. … More than once, I crawled into the cramped, dusty space under my writing desk and tore at the carpet, rubbing my fingers raw.”

Finkel was distraught because his dream career as a journalist for the New York Times Magazine had abruptly ended; previously, the now-46-year-old reporter had covered stories such as conflicts in Afghanistan and Gaza. But while reporting on child labor on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast for a Times magazine cover story, “Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?” Finkel invented a composite character — in part because his editors had wanted him to focus on one child’s story, a fully fleshed-out character of a sort he just hadn’t found in his reporting. When his deceit was discovered, he was promptly fired, which would ultimately place Finkel in the unwelcome company of other highly visible disgraced journalists, such as former Times reporter Jayson Blair, fired from The New York Times in 2003, and Stephen Glass, fired from The New Republic in 1998.

“I lied to my editors … I know what I did was wrong,” Finkel said in a telephone interview from New York.  

But as Finkel cowered in his home just hours before the Times’ editors’ note about his firing was scheduled to hit newsstands, he received an unexpected telephone call from an Oregon journalist whom he initially assumed was calling about the Times’ note. Instead, Finkel was stunned to learn the reporter was phoning about something else altogether: Apparently, an Oregon man named Christian Longo, who was accused of murdering his wife and three children, then discarding their bodies in local waters, had just been captured in Mexico, where he had adopted Finkel’s identity as an alias.

“At the moment I had lost my name, somebody else had taken on my name,” Finkel said. “That [was] so far beyond the bounds of probability, I feel very comfortable using the phrase ‘divine intervention.’ ”

Striving to revive his career and also to achieve a measure of “personal redemption,” Finkel said, he reached out to Longo, a Jehovah’s Witness who, upon their first meetings, came off as intelligent, self-assured and eerily normal.  

During the ensuing months, the two men not only met in person, but also conducted myriad telephone calls and exchanged hundreds of pages of letters; Finkel learned that Longo had impersonated him because he had been a fan of his writing and coveted the globetrotting journalistic lifestyle Finkel had previously enjoyed.

Along the way, Longo, then only in his late 20s, also became a kind of father confessor figure to Finkel: “I was writing [to him] about my life and my flaws and my sins … so, on that level, the relationship I developed with him had a therapeutic element,” Finkel said.

Longo, he added, was “a fan, and perhaps my only one, and I know for a fact that his admiration of my writing made it very difficult to maintain a journalistic neutrality.” Finkel, who grew up in a Jewish home in Stamford, Conn., told Longo stories about his Grandpa Manny and even taught Longo some Yiddish.

Longo had at least insinuated to Finkel that he was innocent of the murders, even though the communication between journalist and accused killer eventually took on what Finkel describes as not so much a game of cat and mouse as a game of cat and cat. “He was using me, and I was using him … I was trying to revive my career and use this spectacular murder story which I had been involuntarily thrust into …  as a way to restart the only job I’ve ever loved and known,” Finkel said.

And Longo, Finkel eventually came to believe, had been communicating with him as a sort of “dress rehearsal” for what he might say to convince a jury of his innocence.

Even so, Finkel said, he was shocked by what Longo eventually declared when he took the stand at his trial in the early 2000s: Longo took responsibility for murdering his wife, MaryJane, and his youngest child, but he also accused MaryJane of killing his other two children and attempting the murder of a third.

“I’ve never felt such hatred for anyone in my entire life than I felt toward Christian Longo at that moment,” Finkel said of Longo’s apparent slandering of his dead wife. And even though Finkel doesn’t believe in the death penalty, emotionally he wanted Longo to be put to death, from that moment until today.

Finkel now believes that Longo, who had previously lied to his family about their financial woes and had even written counterfeit checks to stave off poverty, had “lied himself into a corner and then rather than confess and embarrass himself, he murdered his entire family.”

Penning his memoir, “True Story,” for which Finkel received an advance of some $500,000, has in fact revived the journalist’s career; he has gone on to write for National Geographic and Esquire, and eventually sold the movie rights to his book (James Franco plays Longo in the film).

But the funds and attention Finkel has received for his book and the film also earned him the ire of MaryJane’s family. “Mike Finkel has to be sicker than the murderer to develop a relationship with the murderer in order to make money and a ‘comeback,’ ” MaryJane’s sister, Karyn Baker, wrote in the comments section of a story on the case in the International Business Times in 2014. “Shame on Finkel.”

In response, Finkel told the Journal, “I can’t imagine the pain that Karyn is going through … [But] the most important thing to remember is that I was brought into this story; it’s not like I went chasing some ambulance. Christian Longo took on my identity, [so] I was a part of this story.”

Given that Finkel has lied about things in the past, why should we believe he is now telling the truth? In his book, Finkel says he is well aware that a disgraced journalist might be offered a second, but never a third chance, and so he meticulously checked every fact in his book, even bringing in an independent fact-checker to help him. And, Finkel points out, The New York Times fact checked all his other stories in the aftermath of his disgrace and found only a few minor errors.

Of editors who still won’t assign him stories, he said, “It makes me sad; it hurts, but it’s your right — it’s completely your right to have your opinion.”

Longo, who was found guilty of the murders, today sits on death row in Oregon; Finkel said he will continue to communicate with him, as he is compelled to follow the story to its end and even plans to watch him die if the sentence is ever carried out.

Now that the film is scheduled to open, Finkel has, after some years, agreed to conduct interviews that touch on his past misbehavior: “There’s a vein of mortification or embarrassment,” he said.  “There’s a vein of concern that after spending the last 10 years diligently working to regain a job in journalism, that it could bring up bad reminders. … I’m doing two days of talking about this, and I’m looking forward to not talking about it.”

“True Story” opens in theaters on April 17.

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