Monday, July 31, 2017
[August 4th marks the 125th anniversary of the day that Lizzie Borden may or may not have taken an axe and given her mother forty whacks and her father forty-one (more on that crucial ambiguity in Friday’s post). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories or stories of deeply troubled children, leading up to a special weekend post on two children who are anything but!]
On two layers to the sensational case beyond the televised trial.
I’m not going to even try to argue that TV sensationalism wouldn’t be the main context for analyzing the 1993 murder trial of the Beverly Hills brothers Lyle and Erik Menéndez (accused of killing their parents José and Kitty). As Friday’s Lizzie Borden post will reflect, Americans have been obsessed with true crime stories and famous trials for centuries; but the Menéndez trial was the first to be televised in its entirety, airing on Court TV nearly two years before the OJ trial (which is sometimes erroneously described as the first televised trial). Indeed, the Menéndez trial’s TV broadcast was considered so influential that when the 1993 trial ended in a deadlocked jury and LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti decided to retry the case, the second trial’s judge, Judge Stanley Weisberg, refused to allow cameras in the courtroom. There’s no way to know for sure if that change helped produce the second trial’s guilty verdicts, but in any case it unquestionably reflects how much the TV angle became a central part of the story of this famous trial and these famously troubled children.
As with any famous case or trial, however, there are other layers and contexts beyond the immediate ones of those legal proceedings. In the case of the Menéndez brothers, I believe that it would be interesting and potentially important (although I don’t want to put too much stress on either of this post’s latter two contexts) to think about them as second-generation immigrant Americans. Their father José had fled to the United States from Cuba in the late 1950s after Castro’s revolution; he was only sixteen years old, and so in many ways his own identity was likewise formed in the United States, but he nonetheless was a first-generation immigrant to the country. Like many of the post-Castro exiles, José was from a prominent and wealthy Cuban family; but while many of those families emigrated en masse, José came by himself, meaning that he did have to start his life over in the United States in the stereotypical immigrant manner. One of the prosecution’s central narratives in the brothers’ trial was that they had been spoiled, given everything they could ever want and more, by their parents; while the focus there was on defining them as sons of privilege, I think it’s equally possible to see that trend as influenced by their father’s own story, and by the American Dream (one often felt with particular clarity by immigrant Americans) of giving your children more than you had been able to have.
If that national and cultural context might help explain the Menéndez brothers’ backgrounds, however, a very different one applies to their lives since their 1996 convictions and sentences to life in prison without parole. Both men have been married during the two decades since those sentences began: Lyle twice, first to pen pal Anna Eriksson in July 1996 and then (after they divorced in 2001) to magazine editor Rebecca Sneed in 2003; and Erik once, in June 1999 to Tammi Saccoman (who has since written the book They Said We’d Never Make It—My Life with Erik Menéndez ). It’s easy to turn such prison relationships and marriages into comic fodder, but if we’re looking to understand and analyze them with more depth and nuance, I would suggest one of the most unique and compelling American books. I wrote at length in this post about Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), the nonfiction narrative of convicted serial killer Gary Gilmore written as he awaits his execution; as I noted there, Mailer focuses much of his book on Nicole Barrett, the girlfriend who stayed with Gilmore throughout his prison sentence and execution. Mailer goes well beyond any facile or reductive understanding of Nicole or her relationship with Gary, and if we’re looking to think seriously about the Menéndez brothers’ prison marriages, his book should be required reading.
Next problem child(ren) tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?
Saturday, July 29, 2017
[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
July 3: Representing the Revolution: The Patriot: A July 4th series kicks off with the monstrous issue at the heart of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster film.
July 4: Representing the Revolution: The Adams Letters: The series continues with myths and realities of the Revolution contained in John and Abigail Adams’ correspondence.
July 5: Representing the Revolution: 1776 and Burr: Two complementary but contrasting efforts to humanize the founders, as the series rolls on.
July 6: Representing the Revolution: YA Novels: Three groundbreaking historical novels that reflect the evolution of young adult literature.
July 7: Representing the Revolution: TV Shows: And three television programs that likewise reflect that medium’s evolution.
July 8-9: Representing the Revolution: Hamilton: The series concludes with one critique and one celebration of the smash musical.
July 10: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: Civil Disobedience: For Thoreau’s 200th, a series kicks off with three lesser-known facts about his protest essay.
July 11: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: Cape Cod: The series continues with two reasons to read Thoreau’s often overlooked travel book.
July 12: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: Walden: Two new frames for Thoreau’s most famous project, as the birthday series rolls on.
July 13: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: A Walk to Wachusett: A simple and a more complex pleasure of Thoreau’s first published essay.
July 14: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: Friendships: What three of Thoreau’s social relationships can tell us about the man and the era.
July 15-16: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: Commemorating Henry: The series concludes with three distinct but interconnected ways to commemorate the birthday boy.
July 17: Historical Fictions: An Overview: A historical fiction series kicks off with period fiction, historical fiction, and where Gore Vidal’s America Chronicles fit in.
July 18: Historical Fictions: Kindred: The series continues with my first book highlight, Octavia Butler’s sci fi historical novel.
July 19: Historical Fictions: Cloudsplitter: Russell Banks’ epic story of John Brown, as the historical fiction highlights roll on.
July 20: Historical Fictions: James Michener: The continued pleasures of one of the genre’s most popular authors.
July 21: Historical Fictions: Five More Novels: For my final post in the series, briefly highlighting five more wonderful historical novels.
July 22-23: Crowd-sourced Historical Fiction: The series concludes with one of my fullest crowd-sourced posts ever—add your historical novel nominees to this wonderful list!
July 24: Talks and Events: Facing History and Ourselves: A series on recent talks starts with two benefits of my connection to a great educational organization.
July 25: Talks and Events: The Gardner Museum: The series continues with two reasons to visit and celebrate an exemplary local museum.
July 26: Talks and Events: The Stowe Prize: Two takeaways from Bryan Stevenson’s remarks in Hartford, as the series rolls on.
July 27: Talks and Events: The Harlem Renaissance for BOLLI: Two discoveries I made in preparing for a talk for Brandeis University’s adult learning program.
July 28: Talks and Events: Meeting the Scholars Strategy Network: The series concludes with three ways you can join the SSN Boston Chapter!
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!
Friday, July 28, 2017
[On Tuesday July 25th, I’ll be talking to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society on the topic of “Remembering the Salem Witch Trials: The Limits and Possibilities of Public History.” So this week I wanted to highlight five recent talks and events I’ve given or been part of—please share your own experiences in comments!]
Earlier this month, thanks to the great work of SSN Organizing Fellow Lyra DeCastro and Policy Intern Talissa Lahaliyed, the SSN Boston Chapter held its first event since I took over as Chapter leader, a social gathering at the awesome Scholars Bistro. Here are three things I highlighted in my follow up email to the Chapter, with all of which I could also use your help (especially if you’re in the Boston or New England areas, but for the second and third you can really be anywhere!):
1) NCSL event: Our next SSN Boston gathering will connect to an important local and national event, the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) annual Legislative Summit. The Summit will be held this year at the Boston State House from August 6-9, and on August 7th SSN will host a get-together there (or nearby—exact details forthcoming soon, and I’ll update this space as soon as I have them) for scholars and researchers, state legislators (both local and national), journalists, and other interested folks. If you’re interested in attending this important event, please let me know and we’ll make sure you can join us!
2) Organizational connections: NCSL is one example of one of my two main goals for SSN Boston—linking us to as many organizations as possible. For example, we’re also pursuing ways to link our members and work to both the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition and Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO). Those are both Boston-area organizations, which makes sense in terms of shared events and efforts; but honestly I’m just as open to links with organizations located anywhere and everywhere. So if you have ideas for organizations or efforts to which SSN might connect, whether you have your own connections to these groups or just know of them, I’d really love to hear those ideas. Thanks in advance!
3) Recruiting: For this one, I’ll plagiarize directly from my email to all SSN Boston members, as I can’t say it any more clearly than I did there: “I just wanted to reiterate how much recruiting new SSN participants is a central goal for the Boston Chapter. From every discipline, every field, every side of scholarship and research and activism (not just higher ed, but education overall, journalism, activist organizations, you name it)—honestly, everybody and anybody for whom SSN's work is a good fit are very welcome to join us. So I'd love to deputize you all, Young Guns style (more or less…), to go out and get us as many new recruits as possible, to attend SSN events, become part of our community of contacts, and be in solidarity as we do this work.” What he said!
July Recap this weekend,
PS. Events or experiences you’d highlight? I’d love to hear about them!