In the late autumn of 1963 my father, age fifteen, Canadian, compiled a scrapbook containing newspaper and magazine articles related to the recent killing of American President John.F.Kennedy on November 22. In the early autumn of 1991, twenty eight years later, I, age fifteen, found that scrapbook anew, and plundered its depths.
I'd seen it many times before -- a thick, red, hardbound scrapbook, its pages less than a quarter full. Until that fall, it had been fondled and fingered for its personal, rather than political, history; it was solid, demonstrable proof that my dad had, at one point in time, in the dark and distant past, against all conceivable odds, been a teenager like myself. A time capsule from the past, it was, helping me along that path child must walk alone, when he or she discovers that their parents are, and always have been, human. (And thus fallible. Which should engender forgiveness in us, but does it?)
That particular fall, though, it was not my father I was seeking, but J.F.K. -- the man, the movie, his assasination and its legacy.
I, being a rapidly burgeoning film nut, was getting psyched and stoked for Oliver Stone's soon-to-be-realsed film J.F.K. (A whole future post still awaits, a long one, on Oliver Stone, which will make some of you eager and many of you, I'm afraid, sick to your stomachs.) J.F.K's death was something I knew a little bit about, in that way abstract way (pre-Internet) that most teenagers in a televised society knew a little bit about almost everything, but I felt the need to preapre for the film. I would feel a similar desire the following year, awaiting release of Spike Lee's magnum opus Malcolm X. (I would read Malcolm's autobiography and a book on his assasination before the film's opening, which only whetted my appetite even more and raised my expectations for the movie itself; luckily, I was not to be disappointed.)
Via my father's scrapbook, I was thrilled to be able to read actual, authentic newspaper accounts, brittle and yellowed and aged, about Kennedy's assasination, his funeral, the arrest of Oswald and Oswald's own, subsequent assasination by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. I was ecstatic to discover that my dad also had an old copy of one of the first conspiracy books about the assasination, The Second Oswald, resting on the battered bookshelf in our basement toyroom, where all my dad's old books from the sixties and seventies were kept. (Mostly philosophy and true-life adventure stories.) I read the book straight through in one sitting, I think, instantly convincedby the book's hypothesis that Oswald had a double in Dallas in the months leading up to Kennedy's death, using his name, usurping his identity. It was a conspiracy, I thought, with something approaching awe.
I had read the scrapbook. I had read The Second Oswald cover to cover. I was ready for J.F.K., the movie.
I was wrong.
That film's impact on me, Oliver Stone's impact on me, must wait for a future post. (Again, you've been warned. After all, you're talking to a guy who really, really liked Alexander, so you know what you're in for.)
I walked into the movie theatre at the Pen Centre in St.Catharines, Ontario one person, and emerged as another. That may sound like an exaggeration, or adolescent hyperbole, but I can assure you, it's not. That film changed the way I thought about cinema, and it altered my overall perception on life itself.
Stone's film contemplates a theory so fast and sinister, so grand and Machiavellian, that its very hypothesis would seem outraegous were it not more rooted in reality than one would like to believe. Notice I said 'contemplated'; the film is a mosaic of speculations, hypotheses and 'what-ifs', something most of its fervent, even frenzied critics failed recognize. Actually, I have come to believe, after multiple viewings, that J.FK. isn't about the Kennedy assasination at all. It's about the forces that control our lives. It's about the dangers of relying on a government's word. It's about the way that we perceive the truth is kaleidoscopic in intent and execution. It's about the price and the value of committing to a cause greater than oneself, and what its gained and lost by such a vow. In its themes, metaphors, and sheer cinematic brilliance, the film was far, far ahead of its time -- and, fourteen years later, I believe that its now ahead of this time, too, both cinematically and philosophically.
But I digress.
The point is, I walked out of that screening an absolute, hard-core, frothing-at-the-mouth conspiracy nut. Energized beyond belief by what I had seen, I was motivated to investigate further the spark that Stone had ignited inside of me. I was going to solve this conspiracy, once and for all. Why couldn't I? The St.Catharines Centennial Library, where I would soon get a job shelving books after school, was filled with tomes both old and new on the case. I was young. I had energy. I will avenge you Jack, I thought.
And so, I went to work.
I started with On The Trail of the Assassins by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner in the film), an account of his prosecution of Clay Shaw for the murder of John Kennedy. I then read Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs, also a source for the film, and a book that investigates any number of possibilities before settling rather uneasily on a conspiracy that essentially accuses Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson of, if not instigating the assassination, at least covering it up. I read High Treason and its sequel, High Treason II, by Harrison Livingstone and Robert J.Groden, an encylopedic examination of the case. I read Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F.Kennedy by John Davis, which exhaustively details the role of the legendary gangster in the killing. I read Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F.Kennedy by David S.Lifton, which details the controversial autopsy of J.F.K. I read J.FK: The C.I.A., Vietnam, and the Plot to Kill Kennedy by L.Fletcher Prouty, the former C.I.A. contact portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the film. I read Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed Kennedy by Bonnar Menniger claims that the final head shot that killed Kennedy was accidentally fired by a gunshot from his own secret service agent, George Hickey, riding behind him in the same motorcade car, standing just behind Jackie. I read and read and read.
One week I was convinced the C.I.A. did it. The next, it was the Mafia. After that, the F.B.I. -- had to be Hoover, I thought, HAD to be. After watching a PBS documentary I realized that imported assassins, expert marksmen, possibly from Marseilles, surely had a hand in the actual shooting. That notion soon bit the dust when I discovered that Cubans sent by Castro surely had a larger role than I had anticipated.
And so it went.
Many of the conspiracy related books commit the same cardinal sin -- they try to fit the facts into their theory, rather than looking at the facts themselves and seeing where (and where not) the dots connect. Many of these books tend to overlook and omit any evidence that would undermine their own, carefully constructed and elaborate theories. Which is why reading only one book on the case is not enough, and reading ten or fifteen is probably against all Surgeon General warnings, and not a recipe for lifelong mental health. (Exhibit A, right here.) One of my favorite lines from the film J.F.K. sums up the experience of immersing oneself in the body of literature related to the assassination that exists: "We're through the looking glass here, people," Kevin Costner says. "Black is white, and white is black." All too often, it can seem like no one, common link exists to unite all of these arbitrary, disparate, random and, quite often, loony theories.
The most compelling, maddening, enlightening and frustrating books on the Kennedy assassination centre upon one Lee Harvey Oswald, that legendary name in American life. There is enough circumstantial and anecdotal evidence, in my opinion, to prove that Oswald was, at the very least, involved in the assassination, at some level. The madness of all the conspiracy theories revolve around the fascinating and abbreviated life that Oswald lived during his brief twenty-four years on this planet.
Oswald, the troubled loner. Oswald, the military man stationed overseas. (In Japan, I lived a short train ride away from one of the military bases that Oswald stayed at. There's even a picture I've seen of John Wayne visiting the troops at one of these stations, and who is that lurking in the background of the picture? Lee Harvey himself. That these two iconic Americans once occupied the same space and time is surely one of life's oddest ironies.) Oswald, the defector who was somehow able to move to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Oswald, who somehow was able to bring himself and a Russian wife back to the U.S. a few years later. Oswald, who almost certainly tried to assassinate an army general named Edwin Walker. Oswald, who, in the summer months leading up to the assassination, was witnessed associating with both pro and anti Castro groups in New Orleans, Louisiana. Oswald, who made appearances at F.BI. offices in America, and, possibly, Mexico. Oswald at the apex of everything and everyone. Oswald.
Three books are especially helpful in understanding the psyche of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the role that he did (or did not) play in Kennedy's death, and whether he was a tiny part of a larger puzzle or all the pieces in the puzzle himself.
Case Closed by Gerald Posner serves as a kind of rebuttal to the multi-layered conspiracy depicted in Stone's film. The rigorous nature of Posner's research is undeniable, and the book convincingly details the argument that Oswald, and Oswald alone, offed Kennedy. But even Posner, who wrote an equally convincing book on Martin Luther King Jr.'s alleged assassin James Earl Ray called Killing The Dream, falls victim to the loopholes that form the Kennedy assassination's own Bermuda Triangle. One tiny one: Posner states with certainty that Oswald did not even know David Ferrie, who was at the heart of the conspiracy portrayed in Stone's film (and played freakishly well by Joe Pesci.) And yet a FRONTLINE documentary crew showed Posner a picture that clearly shows Oswald as a part of a group of Air Cadets that Ferrie instructed. Does that prove anything? Not necessarily. But it shows the slippery slope of the assassination water slide -- you state one fact, only to have it refuted. You close one door, and another will open. If Oswald knew Ferrie, then there's certainly at least the possibility that Oswald took part in the anti-Castro training exercises Ferrie conducted. And if that possibility exists, well, what doesn't? I believe that Posner, too, perhaps unknowingly, fell victim to what all other writes of conspiracy books fall victim to -- beginning with a thesis, and marshalling the facts to fit that thesis, come hell or high water. And, like clockwork, a rebuttal book to Posner's book soon was released, called, you guessed it, Case Open.
Another fascinating book on Oswald was produced by one of America's greatest writers, period, Norman Mailer. At some point in time, I think, every real reader goes through a period where you devour Norman Mailer, and you're left either marvelling at his genius or embarrassed by his ego. I believe that he's a genius, and so I was overjoyed to hear that he was researching a book on Oswald, spending time in Russia, examining until-then classified KGB files on Oswald, and interviewing Oswald's widow, Marina. The resulting book, Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery is an involving, masterful study of the man and his life. So many of the assassination books are written in that drab, bland, journalistic style that saps the life and vitality out of the English language like a mosquite sucking blood. And here was Mailer, one of the great chroniclers of the American psyche, livening the case with his muscular prose.
His verdict? Mailer, long a conspiracy-theorist himself, somewhat reluctantly comes to the conclusion that Oswald did, in fact, pull the trigger -- which doesn't rule out others being involved, no, but he uses Oswald as a fulcrum through which one can better examine what America was and where America is going. Mailer gives us a human Oswald, a real Oswald; he gives us his widow, as well, who was once convinced of Oswald's guilt but now believes that he was, at the very least, part of a conspiracy. And so it goes.
And then there's Lee, a long out-of-print memoir by Oswald's older brother, Robert, which I was lucky to find in the dusty stacks of my aforementioned hometown library. (I remember reading that book down in the cool of my basement, lost in its world.) It is a searching, painful and honest book, written only a few years after the assassination, by a sibling who comes to believe that his little brother did a terrible, terrible thing.
"Scott, who do you believe was the mastermind of the assassination?"
I can still hear his voice. Mr Taylor, my Grade 13 History teacher. We sat together in his cramped office (or what he was using as an office), the two of us checking the progress of my Independent Study presentation on Kennedy's death. I had an answer to his question then, and I have an answer now. But it will remain mine.
But there is this, perhaps more important:
For many years I believed it was a grand conspiracy the likes of which the world had never seen before and would never see again. Then, as I left my teenage years behind, I became more pragmatic, more realistic, more mature. I realized that was Oswald, only Oswald, that young, lost, misguided soul now buried in a pauper's grave. But now, pushing thirty, I waver.
I've lived a bit. I've learned a bit. I've come back to my belief in conspiracy. Peter Pan may have believed in faeries, but I believe in patsies. I no longer necessarily see governments as benign agents of the people's will; I've seen too much that corresponds with and affirms a darker and more labryinth way of public life. I've aged.
There are some who say that those who believe in conspiracies are actually wishful thinkers: a belief in conspiracy implies a longing for a world and a history that has flow, and structure, and reason, and a + b equals c. There is nothing illogical or unplanned in such a world, they say. Young men with mail order rifles do not kill Camelot and alter history's ebb.
And then there is the other side, that those who subscribe to the lone nut theory are naive, not understanding that we live in a complex, venal world that strikes down those who upset and endanger the status quo. One need only look at history, at the word, to see evidence of conspiracy and all its heirs, they say.
I'm somewhere in between.
Some days, when I feel whipped left and right by the random whims of fate, I judge Oswald, condemn him, crucify him. Other days, Cambodia days, watching the methodical, corrupt nature of power and its denizens, reading histories of the C.I.A. and the K.G.B., I realize that the world is a much more complex place than I had imagined, and I cry out for Oswald's true conspirators to lay down their rifles for once and for all, to come forward, like men, and accept blame for the horror that they unleashed.
It's not every day, or week, or even month that I think about Kennedy's killing. There was a period of time, a younger time, when it mattered to me very much. By figuring out the truth, I could figure out life. By examining his death, I could find patterns that were absent in my day-to-day life, which rarely offered anything so grand, so tragic, so alive, even in its dissection of death. Kennedy's assassination, and my perusal of it, represents a time when the world was new and oddly intriging and slowly, methodically being uncovered by me and me alone.
But then I'll hear something on the radio, a recent revelation that both Nixon and Johnson had speculated upon Castro's role in the assassination. Or I'll be wandering through a used bookshop here in Phnom Penh, and I randomly spot the same hardback copy of Mark Lane's Plausible Denial, a compelling account of a trial of Watergate conspirator E.Howard Hunt, who sued a magazine in the 1980's for implying that he was involved in Kennedy's death -- a lawsuit, by jury trial, which he lost, as the jurors believed that there was enough evidence to nail Hunt in a possible conspiracy to kill Kennedy. I hear that news, and I see that book, and I'm back. Back in that endless maze that haunts me still. A maze that led me out of the fiction I usually read and into a larger, more complicated world, a world I am still in the midst of exploring.
And I think of a scrapbook started by a young, grief-stricken teenager in Fort Erie, Ontario over four decades ago, mourning the president of a country not his own. Why would a young Canadian, by way of England, mourn so strongly, strong enough to keep a scrapbook? (That's I would ask, as a teenage boy, about my father, not understanding, not yet, that parents once had and still have the same emotions, the same potential for empathy and curiosity, as us other mortals.) Something passed from the future father to his unborn son, neither knowing the doors it would open twenty-eight years later, the worlds it would unleash, the journey it would begin.