How much agency do we have over our own lives, and how much is predetermined by the people and events that came before us? On this episode of the PAWcast, journalist Lisa Belkin ’82 discusses how she took a deep dive into this age-old question with her new book, Genealogy of a Murder. In it, she researches a family story: In 1960, her stepfather helped a prisoner get parole, and then that prisoner killed a police officer. By examining the three men’s similar histories, going back generations, Belkin turns a microscope on the question of what makes us who we truly are.
TRANSCRIPTI’m Liz Daugherty, and this is the Princeton Alumni Weekly’s PAWcast. In 1960, the lives of three men born to immigrant families during the Great Depression collided. A doctor helped a prisoner get paroled, and then that prisoner shot and killed a police officer. Many years later, journalist Lisa Belkin, Princeton Class of 1982, heard this story from the doctor, who had recently become her stepfather, and she had a question: How? How did one of these men become the cop, one the killer, and one the doctor? To find out, she traced the families of all three men back through four generations — through births and marriages, wars, historical events and major cultural shifts that shaped the lives of Americans in the 20th century. Then she wrote it all down and titled her new book Genealogy of a Murder. In it, she writes, “We have less power over who we are now than we believe, and much more power over the future than we think.”
Lisa, thank you so much for coming on the PAWcast.
Lisa Belkin: Thank you so much for having me.
LD: Let me start by asking, what made you want to tell this story in this way?
LB: It was kind of gravitational pull. It happened. It didn’t start out as a multi-generational effort. It started out as just this cool story, and it was the end of the story that my relatively new stepfather told me. My mom and he married fairly late in life, and we were getting to know each other, and he told me a tale about how he had been stationed as a doctor at a maximum security prison in 1960. And he had been running medical experiments on prisoners, which is a whole part of the story. And he became friendly with one of those prisoners who was training in his lab as a lab tech, and he came to believe that the man had changed and he helped him get him parole, and things went terribly wrong and a police officer was killed. And so he started with it, what is now the end of the story.
And I was struck from the beginning that these three guys started at the same starting line, that they were all the very familiar story — the one we’re debating the heck out of right now — but the very familiar story of people who pick up from where they were and come to this land of opportunity. And they do it for their children, that is the professed reason, is they do it so their children can have a better life. And in effect, this was sort of looking at that better life, these three young men who started at the same place and the things that happened to them even before they were born. And the larger world, events and the more intimate interactions and all the things that made them who they were on a night in July in 1960 when one of them killed another one of them because a third of them made a wrong choice.
So I went backwards, I went back a hundred years. It took nine and a half years — I went back.
LD: Now you had to find these families, right? You had to find the documents. Can you talk a little bit about the methodology and what went into this?
LB: Right. I don’t know that I could have done this book — it could have been done, but I don’t know that I could have done it — a few decades ago, because the technology has changed. I now sat through a pandemic in my pajamas and found the footprints of all these families online because of these huge databases that now exist. Before you would’ve had to go to each repository and go through all the physical documents, and we have now put lives online. We do it ourselves, right? We do it every day. We are leaving all sorts of footprints and evidence for the next set of obsessed writers who come along and want to map a story. But the previous generations did it just in the documents, the pieces of paper, the small bits that they left behind. And it was, I constantly kept having the same reaction, which was I would find a something, a newspaper article, a birth certificate, something that told me a story, and I would say, “Oh, my God, they were real.”
I kept rediscovering them as if they were just sitting there waiting for me to come along and say, yeah, no, no, I, I have a puzzle piece that you can put in your jigsaw here. I’ve been waiting a hundred years for you to finally come along and do this. But I did, I learned, you know, the tools of genealogy that anyone with an ancestry account has been learning. I think I became particularly good at it because I worked particularly hard at it. But this information is out there and available to anyone who wants to do this with their own family story.
LD: How did the families feel about the book when you reached out to them?
LB: I started with my stepfather’s family, and he told me this tale. And it took him, he spoke slowly and deliberately, which is how he did everything. And you’ll see from the book that he was slow and deliberate about many things in his life, and it took him 45 minutes. And I had learned by then to listen. And I looked at him and said, “Well, you know I have to write about this, don’t you?” And he said, “Well, if you must.” And so I started with him. First thing I did was I fact checked him. You know, there’s a a phrase in journalism, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. So he told me this great story, but how did I know that, his memory of it was 54 years ago at the time, 54 years earlier, how did I know that that was true?
So I checked, and every checkable fact that he told me was correct. The murder I found in newspapers, the shooting of this police officer, the drug trials, the malaria drug trials that he was running on prisoners — there were all sorts of accounts going back in various databases. And once I knew that I had the tale and I had the name of the police officer, which he did not remember from the beginning. And then I found the police officer’s children online through various police memorials that the city of Stanford had put together.
So then I approached the kids. Now, when this police officer died, he was 29 years old. His children were four, three, and six months. So they had no memories of their father. They had stories, but not memories, which are very different. And I wrote, I’ve saved it, I’ve put it online as part of the sort of archive for this book, the Facebook message that I wrote that basically said, “Hi, this may be the strangest Facebook message you’ve ever received, but our family’s lives intersected 54 years ago. And I, I want to tell you the part that I know that you might not.” And so that was harder than my stepfather because I didn’t feel like I owned that part of the story. I needed their involvement, their blessing, maybe not legally, but I could not have written this book if they had not signed on.
And then there was the killer, and that family didn’t leave a lot of footprints. And reading the book, people will figure out why many of them died young, didn’t pass stories that they could pass down or people that they could pass them down to. And so most of that I got from prison records. This was a man who was incarcerated for most of his life. God bless the lawyers committee for freedom of the press because I had to sue the state of Illinois to get the prison records of this man. And that was a treasure trove. So they were very different ways for each family.
LD: You researched for eight, nine years, you did hundreds of interviews, probably thousands of documents. So what have you concluded about this central question: How much do you — you have the answer now, right? Now that you’ve done all of this work, you’re going to tell us —
LB: I figured everything out, yes. (Laughs)
LD: You figured it out, you’re the authority. What do you think now, having done all this: How much agency do we have over our own lives?
LB: So it’s an eternal question, and I knew that going in. And I didn’t think I was going to come up with answers as much as the value of the exploration, the value of asking the questions, of paying attention. Nature versus nurture has been a question for generations. Entire philosophical — all of religion is based on the question of, who are we and are we in charge? Fate versus determinism.
I wasn’t the first people to ask this. I’ve watched the movie Sliding Doors a million times, right? All of those were at the heart of this. But what struck me was how important it all actually is. We tend to look at policy and history from 30,000 feet, right? The government changes this policy, and it’s a debate over whether it should be changed. But it’s not, “and this life was measurably changed, and that created changes down the line that are still reverberating today.”
And I got stuck in a whole lot of rabbit hole on that one because all my characters, for instance, were directly affected by McCarthy. McCarthy was not just some historical figure who was out there ranting, and he wasn’t even some awful man who we know ruined the lives of people he directly accused with no evidence of being communists. We knew that. But what you don’t necessarily pay attention to is he changed the entire atmosphere of all education in higher education in the country at a moment when these three men were entering higher education. And it changed their lives. Can you manipulate this? No. But can you recognize it in retrospect? Yes. And can you have more of an awareness at all times that what we are doing is paving a path to the future, always, with everything we do? That was my takeaway from it. We are.
LD: It struck me as an unusual perspective that you gained, by following people’s lives from birth all the way through death. When we hear about someone committing a crime or landing a prestigious scholarship, rarely do we picture that person as a baby. But you did because you watched them, their, their parents, their grandparents, and then these people from the beginning, all the way up through. And I was wondering, did it make you feel differently about these characters, or maybe people in general, to see what they were before what they became?
LB: It was heartbreaking in some of the cases, I mean, particularly in the instance of the killer, to see that he was born — in many ways, you could argue — without a chance, because you have already learned about the life of his father, which destroyed the man and made him into a God-awful parent. And then this son had to deal with the after-effects of that.
I didn’t, for a long time, I didn’t like the moral of my own book or the potential conclusion of my own book, which was: This guy never had a chance, right? He was a loser because he was born to a loser. He was a ne’re-do-well for things that were not necessarily his fault, but what are we supposed to do about that as a society? He was abused and, and he was neglected, and he was taught all the wrong lessons by his father.
What can we as a society do? And in this case, it turned out society tried really hard to help this particular man, and it didn’t work. And so I hated the end message of my story was, here’s this guy who, people tried to help him in all the ways we consider good, and he still went bad.
But there are other characters in the book who also had bad starts and overcame them. There’s one moment where one of these characters who also had a drunk father, who was also abandoned basically to more or less raise himself, who went AWOL in the army and was doing petty crime and all the things my killer was doing at about the same age. And he ended up going to college and growing up to be a philosophy professor. And so then the message of the book became to me: What was the difference between these men? What made the difference?
And he took one of his first philosophy classes — I’m sorry, a psychology class — and his professor was teaching exactly this lesson, which was: The difference between a boy who makes good and a boy who doesn’t is somebody who cared about him and stepped in when he was young. And in fact, in the life of this other man, people did. And although it didn’t help immediately, it made an impression and it saved his life. And in the case of my killer, nobody did. Nobody came through for him until my stepfather tried to help him out when they met in the penitentiary, but by that point, it was too late. So I’ve clung to that as the message that you can change people’s lives for the better, but you’ve got to get to them sooner than we do a lot of the time. And here’s a perfect storytelling example of that.
LD: Something else that struck me as I was reading this was the Ancestry.com trend. That’s become very, very popular and there’s definitely an element of “be careful what you wish for as you dig into your family history.” Have you had any thoughts about that as you’ve been doing all this research?
LB: Well, this book is a walking advertisement for Ancestry.com. I tried very hard to get them to advertise, but they, they don’t like to do that sort of thing. But truly, I could not have done it without those databases. And there are, now, I forget how many millions, tens of millions of people who have these accounts and have these stacks of documents. Some of them find out things that surprised them greatly. I did my own DNA hoping for one of those, because I’m a storyteller, right? I was kind of hoping there was some great secret. Nothing. Completely predictable. I am 99.9% Ashkenazi Jew. But the fact is that each of these documents — and they’re dry documents that are hard to read — but each of them is a potential life-changing story. And each of them does possibly tell you something that you never knew about yourself. I see why it’s addictive and Americans are addicted to it. And what I love about it is, you know those murder boards in movies, like the corkboards where an obsessed person has the bits of yarn and they—
LD: Oh, sure. John Nash, right? Right here at Princeton.
LB: Yes, the Princeton connection. That’s kind of what this book is, and that’s what you can do with any Ancestry account if you’re dedicated and slightly compulsive enough. I could write this book about the two of us. How did we come to be on this podcast at this moment? Probably wouldn’t be a murder in there, but there would be a story about the coincidences and the connections and the effects of global events on our individual families’ trajectories. And you can find all of that in the document trail. All people are looking for, yes, they’re looking for dates and facts and photos, but they’re really looking for the stories of, how the heck did I get here to this moment? And yeah, that’s why it took nine years. But it was joyous work. It was all, it was sort of the history of the United States through three families in a murder. And we are all part of that.
LD: I wanted to ask another question. This is a little bit off topic, but I suspect it might be the kind of thing we all wonder. You are a New York Times reporter, am I right?
LB: I am a longtime New York Times reporter. I have not worked there for a number of years, but yes.
LD: Oh OK, OK. Because my question was, how did you find the time to do that and this?
LB: Oh, I was employed full-time, just not by The New York Times. I was at the Times for about 30 years, I then left and went for a while to The Huffington Post, for a while to Yahoo News. And so, yes, I had a full-time job and that’s also why it took nine years. Then I left just before Covid and spent pretty much every day of lockdown writing. And that was an interesting perspective because I was working on the 1918 chapter of the book while the pandemic was raging. And I went back and I rewrote it because I had seen 1918 the way we all see it, right? This sort of sepia-toned people, those poor — it was slightly patronizing — oh, those poor souls, they didn’t have modern medicines so they didn’t understand what they were facing, and they tried all these cures that were ridiculous.
And now we were those sepia-toned people. We were sewing masks and instead of them sewing World War I bandages, we were trying cures, everything up to and including horse medication. We were the sepia-toned people. And it gave me so much more empathy and understanding of the fear, the not knowing, because I looked at 1918 and I knew there was a war that killed a lot of people, and there was a pandemic that killed a lot of people, and then the world moved on. I knew how it ended.
No one back then knew those things. Just like nobody in 2020 knew what the heck was going to come next. So did I change it a lot? No, but the news of the day informed the compassion with which I went back and rewrote that section. And it made me realize that journalism is my life’s love, but history means you don’t have to wonder how it ends. And there’s something very reassuring about that.
LD: That’s lovely. Journalism always does feel like it could change at any moment, in real time.
LB: And it was frightening. I had not really focused on how frightening all the things I was writing about were while they were happening, because I looked at them as linear. And nothing is linear while you’re experiencing it. It’s only linear in retrospect. Kierkegaard said life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards. And if I could have figured out how to make that into a title I would have, but it was too long. But that’s essentially the essence of the book.
LD: Well, you know, that gets through my questions. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or anything else you’d like to share?
LB: No, I think you have done a — I am grateful at how you managed. I mean, this is a tough book. It’s tough to discuss because it is about everything. I have written a book that is somehow about everything, and I also ask a decent amount of a reader because you need to stick with it. And I think there’s a payoff, right? All these things come together, but it’s a book that requires patience. That’s why Princetonians are a good audience for it.
LD: Awesome. Well thank you so much again for taking the time to do this.
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