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Monday, July 31, 2017

July 31, 2017: Troubled Children: The Menéndez Brothers

[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 [2005]). 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?

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