The Books: After Henry, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf with another essay from After Henry, by Joan Didion.

The final essay in After Henry is a massive multi-part sweeping essay about the Central Park Jogger rape and the ensuing media frenzy as well as the trial. It’s over 50 pages long. As I’m sure everyone remembers, on April 19, 1989, a white woman was jogging at night in Central Park (a fact for which she was excoriated in the press) and was brutally assaulted and raped. Five black kids were accused of the crime, tried, and convicted. They all confessed to the crime, but it was widely believed that the confessions were coerced. They were kids. In 2002, however, another man came forward (already serving a life sentence) and said he had committed the crime. DNA evidence put him there, and so the convictions of the five kids (now men) were vacated. From the beginning, there was something polarizing about the Central Park Jogger case. It was 1989. There had been the giant stock market crash of 1987 which had set the entire city on edge. The high-flying 80s appeared to be careening out of control, and the influx of “yuppies” to the city (member all of that? The hostility towards this demographic?) was still continuing, but there was a sense that they were somehow to blame for the economic woes of the city. “Who the hell do these people think they are …” etc. And a white woman jogging alone … at NIGHT … in Central Park …. She’s GOTTA be a yuppie because no New Yorker in their right mind would ever think that the world was her playground, that she was entitled to feel safe anywhere. This was part of the prevailing attitude. It was a polarizing case, made even more so by Al Sharpton’s involvement. The kids were black, she was white. The Yuppie Influx had made everyone resentful, and the Central Park Jogger case became the safety valve where people let off steam about their resentments and rage about what was happening to their city, on both sides of the racial divide. The poor were getting poorer, the rich richer, there was great mistrust between blacks and the cops, and the “disenfranchised” were getting left behind entirely. This is the New York that Tom Wolfe wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities. There are some cases that just happen to come along at a time and, even while on the face of it they have nothing to do with the underlying social issues, act as a mode of expression for the subtext of a populace. It was hard to even understand the actual FACTS of the case, in the middle of the media storm and the special interest groups, and the crowing of the people who came along to take advantage of the situation.

What did the case say about New York? We know what everyone was SAYING it said about New York (“crime is horrible here”, “the blacks are out of control”, “the whites are entitled assholes”), but Didion was, as always, squinting between the lines. New York, at that time, did not have the highest crime rate in the nation, a fact that was lost on the cackling media and op-ed columnists, but a fact that Didion elaborates upon. New York in the 80s was not New York in the 60s and 70s. The idea that crime was “rampant” did not bear out when you looked at the facts. But that did not matter in the midst of the case and the trial. The narrative was starting to set in stone, on both sides: New York is OUT OF CONTROL, was one narrative. The Yuppies come here and think they OWN the place, was another narrative. And who is to blame?

The rapacious quality of the coverage certainly acted as a catalyst. People are raped in New York every day, unfortunately. Why was this one so special? Almost instantly, it became less an everyday crime, but a Symbol of What Was Wrong. In that environment, it makes perfect sense that the five teenagers would be coerced into making confessions to a crime they did not commit. The cops felt the pressure, the media felt the pressure, the Mayor’s office felt the pressure. Al Sharpton swooped in and turned up the flames. Didion watched all of this go down, and listened to the commentary in the halls at the court house. “They want to pin it on OUR BOYS.” she heard one black woman say. “Our boys”. Everyone felt proprietary towards the case, and it mattered to them personally what happened with the outcome. Because it would then SAY something about the world in which they lived in, it would either confirm or deny their deepest held convictions. You could see the same phenomenon in the disgusting outpouring of glee in response to the O.J. verdict. The verdict was not about O.J. It was vindicating the population’s overall feeling (in some cases quite justified) that the LAPD was a bunch of racist assholes who harassed black people. The glee seemed to come from that, even though the O.J. case was not ABOUT a black man being harassed by the cops, and pulled over unfairly, etc. It was about a giant celebrity with a rage problem who killed two people. Yes, the police were harassing young black men in a way that needed to be stopped. But O.J. was not the symbol of that situation. However, he became the symbol of it. Therefore, the verdict was a validation: “Yes. You are right. Black people are unfairly targeted.” Lunacy. There are many similarities between the O.J. case and the Central Park Jogger case, although the circumstance of celebrity was not a factor in the Central Park Jogger case. But the explosive and vicious racial divide was really what the case came to be about.

Didion is interested in that, for sure, but she comes at the case from all angles. She takes nothing for granted. She reads the op-ed columns and the news items and analyzes the language. The boys were referred to as “thugs” in the paper. What this actually means, and whether or not it can be quantified, was never explained. In that respect, the outrage of the black citizenry to the case can certainly be seen as understandable. One section of the essay is about Central Park itself, the history of the park, how it was designed, and how it was understood from the beginning that this was not a place to be in after dark. Its very design seemed to support that, the fact that the roads that go through Central Park plunge beneath the landscape. All of this could then be seen as “victim-blaming” (“you had no business running in Central Park at night”), but even the term “victim-blaming” can act as a silencer to examining deeper issues. Didion was interested in New York, and in how the city saw itself. In the 80s, the city saw itself as a successful energetic place with a huge influx of “young urban professionals”, who took over the city and poured money into it, and made big bucks, but also had an expectation that they should be safe everywhere. This was not the case in the 70s. I went to New York in the 70s as a child, many times, and it felt dangerous the second you got off the train. It was OBVIOUS that this was not a safe place. That changed. It’s changed even more now. But back then it was relatively new, and the prosperous feeling in New York gave it a sparkle and drive that it hadn’t felt in 20 years. A whole section is about the tradition of not naming rape victims in the paper and what that says about our feeling about this crime, in particular. Didion’s brave. She writes about Al Sharpton, who he was, and how New York (as in: established white New York) did not know how to categorize him or deal with him. People wrote him off (the hair! the clothes! the balderdash!) but that was obviously a mistake since he could mobilize his people like nobody else. She talks about similar crimes of that period, even more horrifying, and why those WEREN’T seen as the “alarm bell” that the Central Park Jogger was. And what alarm exactly was going off?

Who could even tell in the middle of the media frenzy?

It was obvious that there were a great many questions about whether or not the five youths were even in that section of the park. Their stories conflicted. Much of their confessions made no sense. There was no physical evidence. But the rape was so brutal (and Didion goes into that as well) that someone had to pay for it. Now.

This essay is not for the faint-hearted. New York was ugly ugly ugly in the wake of that crime, and to some degree the memory of it still hovers over the landscape. It was a groundbreaking case and it broke open the scab of so-called racial conciliation, revealing the seething world of hatred and resentment that was beneath. It was not the media’s finest hour. They fanned the flames. They either sentimentalized the Central Park Jogger (she was innocent, beautiful, white, perfect, ambitious, sweet) or they sentimentalized “our boys” (they were good kids, sweet, nice, polite) … and all of it appeared to be bullshit. But once that media storm starts it becomes nearly impossible for a calm clear voice to be heard.

Here is an excerpt.

After Henry, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, by Joan Didion

“From the beginning I have insisted that this was not a racial case,” Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, said after the verdicts came in on the first jogger trial. He spoke of those who, in his view, wanted “to divide the races and advance their own private agendas”, and of how the city was “ill-served” by those who had “sought to exploit” this case. “We had hoped that the racial tensions surrounding the jogger trial would begin to dissipate soon after the jury arrived at a verdict,” a Post editorial began a few days later. The editorial spoke of an “ugly claque of activists”, of the “divisive atmosphere” they had created, and of the anticipation with which the city’s citizens had waited for “mainstream black leaders” to step forward with praise for the way in which the verdicts had brought New York “back from the brink of criminal chaos”:

Alas, in the jogger case, the wait was in vain. Instead of praise for a verdict which demonstrated that sometimes criminals are caught and punished, New Yorkers heard charlatans like the Rev. Al Sharpton claim the case was fixed. They heard that C.Vernon Mason, one of the engineers of the Tawana Brawley hoax – the attorney who thinks Mayor Dinkins wears “too many yarmulkes” – was planning to appeal the verdicts.

To those whose preferred view of the city was of an inherently dynamic and productive community ordered by the natural play of its conflicting elements, enriched, as in Mayor Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic”, by its very “contrasts”, this case offered a number of useful elements. There was the confirmation of “crime” as the canker corroding the life of the city. There was, in the random and feral evening described by the East Harlem attackers and the clear innocence of and damage done to the Upper East Side and Wall Street victim, an eerily exact and conveniently personalized representation of what the Daily News had called “the rape and the brutalization of a city”. Among the reporters on this case, whose own narrative conventions involved “hero cops” and “brave prosecutors” going hand to hand against “crime” (the “Secret Agony of Jogger DA,” we learned in the Post a few days after the verdicts in the first trial, was that “Brave Prosecutor’s Marriage Failed as She Put Rapists Away”), there seemed an unflagging enthusiasm for the repetition and reinforcement of these elements, and an equally unflagging resistance, even hostility, to exploring the point of view of the defendants’ families and friends and personal or political allies (or, as they were called in news reports, the “supporters”) who gathered daily at the other end of the corridor from the courtroom.

This seemed curious. Criminal cases are widely regarded by American reporters as windows on the city or culture in which they take place, opportunities to enter not only households but parts of the culture normally closed, and yet this was a case in which indifference to the world of the defendants extended even to the reporting of names and occupations. Yusuf Salaam’s mother, who happened to be young and photogenic and to have European features, was pictured so regularly that she and her son be came the instantly recognizable “images” of Jogger One, but even then no one got her name quite right. For a while in the papers she was “Cheroney”, or sometimes “Cheronay”, McEllhonor, then she became Cheroney McEllhonor Salaam. After she testified, the spelling of her first name was corrected to “Sharonne”, although, since the byline on a piece she wrote for the Amsterdam News spelled it differently, “Sharrone”, this may have been another misunderstanding. Her occupation was frequently given as “designer” (later, after her son’s conviction, she went to work as a paralegal for William Kuntsler), but no one seemed to take this seriously enough to say what she designed or for whom; not until after she testified, when Newsday reported her testimony that on the evening of her son’s arrest she had arrived at the precinct house late because she was an instructor at the Parsons School of Design, did the notion of “designer” seem sufficiently concrete to suggest an actual occupation.

The Jogger One defendants were referred to repeatedly in the news columns of the Post as “thugs”. The defendants and their families were often said by reporters to be “sneering”. (The reporters, in turn, were said at the other end of the corridor to be “smirking”.) “We don’t have nearly so strong a question as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants as we did in Bensonhurst,” a Newsday reporter covering the first jogger trial said to the New York Observer, well before the closing arguments, by way of explaining why Newsday‘s coverage may have seemed less extensive on this trial than on the Bensonhurst trials. “There is not a big question as to what happened in Central Park that night. Some details are missing, but it’s fairly clear who did what to whom.”

In fact this came close to the heart of it: that it seemed, on the basis of the videotaped statements, fairly clear who had done what to whom was precisely the case’s liberating aspect, the circumstance that enabled many of the city’s citizens to say and th ink what they might otherwise have left unexpressed. Unlike other recent high visibility cases in New York, unlikes Bensonhurst and unlike Howard Beach and unlike Bernhard Goetz, here was a case in which the issue not exactly of race but of an increasingly visible underclass could be confronted by the middle class, both white and black, without guilt. Here was a case that gave this middle class a way to transfer and express what had clearly become a growing and previously inadmissible rage with the city’s disorder, with the entire range of ills and uneasy guilts that came to mind in a city where entire families slept in the discarded boxes in which new Sub-Zero refrigerators were delivered, at twenty-six hundred per, to more affluent families. Here was also a case, most significantly, in which even that transferred rage could be transferred still further, veiled, personalized: a case in which the city’s distress could be seen to derive not precisely from its underclass but instead from certain identifiable individuals who claimed to speak for this underclass, individuals who, in Robert Morgenthau’s words, “sought to exploit” this case, to “advance their own private agendas”; individuals who wished even to “divide the races”.

If the city’s problems could be seen as deliberate disruptions of a naturally cohesive and harmonious community, a community in which, undisrupted, “contrast” generated a perhaps dangerous but vital “energy”, then those problems were tractable, and could be addressed, like “crime”, by the call for “better leadership”. Considerable comfort could be obtained, given this story line, through the demonization of the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose presence on the edges of certain criminal cases that interested him had a polarizing effect that tended to reinforce the narrative.

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1 Response to The Books: After Henry, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, by Joan Didion

  1. malcolm sperry says:

    this is an excellent exegesis. hats off.

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