March 23, 2015
Robert Durst can’t stop writing
by Liam O’Brien
(Note: Spoilers for the HBO miniseries The Jinx follow.)
Robert Durst’s first wife, Kathleen, disappeared. Decades later, his good friend Susan Berman was murdered in Los Angeles. Soon after, in Galveston, Durst killed his neighbor, sawed the body into pieces, and dumped it in the bay, though he was ultimately found not guilty of murder thanks to a very persuasive defense team. These facts are all readily accessible via his Wikipedia page, as well as in several true crime books, including Without A Trace and A Deadly Secret.
Police found a copy of the former book and two copies of the latter in his Houston apartment, which they searched after he was recently arrested in New Orleans for Berman’s murder, fifteen years after her death. Along with the books, police found a trash bag full of court transcripts, though it has not been made public from which case the documents originated. Investigators also seized about 60 boxes of papers and files from the New York basement of one of Durst’s friends.
The amount of ink spilled about Durst’s alleged crimes has been considerable, because there has never been any resolution; his wife’s body was never found, so no murder charge, no sentencing, no imprisonment. The other crimes of which he was suspected or charged never stuck. Part of the spectacle is Durst’s bizarre behavior; hiding out in Galveston as a mute woman, getting caught as a fugitive with a car full of cash after shoplifting a sandwich, etc. But what may be most bizarre of all is Durst’s wide paper trail, which is what ultimately got him arrested. That, and the HBO documentary.
The opportunity that Durst provided to Andrew Jarecki must have seemed far too good to be true. Jarecki’s 2010 movie All Good Things got middling-to-poor reviews upon release, but the rigorous background research and interviews that went into making it gained a second life years later. Durst saw the movie, which is based on Kathleen’s disappearance, and offered Jarecki a one-on-one no-holds-barred interview, plus videotaped interviews of various case principals and other documents, giving the director the last piece of raw material he would need to create a true crime documentary from interviews that otherwise might have been consigned to DVD extras.
That six-part documentary, The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst recently finished airing on HBO, and it is stunningly entertaining. Jarecki’s film is masterfully paced, teasing out and intercutting the publicly known facts of Durst’s exceedingly bizarre life story along with numerous revealing interviews, Errol Morris-style reenactments, and Durst’s weird and twitchy interview, all for maximum creepy effect.
The widely-covered culmination of the documentary is when Jarecki’s team discovers a bombshell; a handwritten address on a letter from Durst which bears an unsettling resemblance to the writing on a key piece of evidence in Berman’s unsolved murder—the “cadaver note”, written to the police tipping them off to Berman’s murder. Berman herself was a writer and journalist with a fascinating backstory, which she leveraged into a memoir about her mobster father; used copies of her books have been rising in value since The Jinx began airing. The twist of this letter, as well as an accidentally-captured candid moment in which Durst seemingly confesses to murder, push The Jinx into thrilling and manipulative territory in its final minutes, switching from relatively straightforward documentary to something far more dramatic.
What struck me after finishing it, and compulsively reading the wave of journalism about it, is how often ink on paper actually drives the narrative. The Galveston murder gets traced to Durst in part due to a discarded newspaper; Durst’s comings and goings around Berman’s date of death are captured in receipts; a note from his trash, retrieved by a friend of his wife, that reads like a murder checklist; and, finally, Durst’s show-closing handwriting, a damning connection that originally slipped through the LAPD’s fingers more than a decade ago.
For all the flak Jarecki has caught for distorting and patching over timelines, not to mention his assiduous use of reenactment, The Jinx’s most effective moments are when they read the evidence in black and white while their emotions bubble up; Berman’s stepson’s truncated freakout upon presenting the filmmakers with the letter, the composed former prosecutor seeing the near-identical handwriting and muttering “aw Jesus”, Kathleen’s friend recounting her chills at discovering the trashed checklist, all landing with much more power than any of Jarecki’s lurid slow-mo fictionalized sequences.
The media attention around Jarecki’s documantary is already getting Durst linked with other unsolved disappearances and all this buzz is sure to enter into Durst’s future trial (assuming he lives to see it; he’s in poor health according to his attorney) because it’s such a sensational story. But however Durst’s defense team allege that The Jinx and circumstance lead to reasonable doubt, what’s abundantly clear is that Durst can’t help writing his own story, whether it’s in ill-advised interviews or compulsive documentation and notes. Durst gave his interview to Jarecki so he could finally tell his story, but unfortunately for his defense he’s been writing it for years.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.