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Interviewing a criminal

Sometimes reporters don’t have all the details they want when writing a profile

Interviewing a criminal

David Berkowitz (Christopher Capozziello/Genesis)

A New York moment: 

I recently went to a maximum security prison north of the city to interview serial killer David Berkowitz, who now describes himself as a Messianic Jew. At the same time, I happened to be working on a piece on the rise of anti-Semitism, and Berkowitz mentioned after our interview that he has been following that trend as well, and praying for the Jewish community. 

I had some follow-up questions for him after our interview, mainly about whether he has community in and out of the prison walls, or if he feels lonely. Since I can’t pop into a maximum security prison or give him a phone call, I wrote him a letter. At the end of January, he wrote back, using his prison-approved typewriter. He hadn’t yet seen the now-published article about him.

To answer my question on community he said, “Yes, as a whole, many who are now members of the body of Christ and remain incarcerated, do sense varying degrees of loneliness and detachment from the body of Christ. I thank God for those who are involved in jail and prison ministries. The Lord uses such to bring prisoners much needed encouragement and hope. But prison ministry is not for everyone.” 

He insisted that he is “not lonely for fellowship” and has “a number of dear and faithful friends.” He said he has received a “fair amount of acceptance from the Christian community as a whole,” but added, “Of course, there will always be a certain amount of skeptics.” 

This is a nice answer, but doesn’t provide much specificity. That’s not necessarily Berkowitz’s fault, but rather the journalist must draw specificity out of a subject. If we were talking more in person, I could press him. Who do you talk with most regularly inside prison? Who do you talk to most outside of prison? How much time in the day are you by yourself? 

We had two hours to talk face-to-face in prison, but I had to decide in the moment what to prioritize in that short time. He insists he isn’t lonely; I came away with a different impression, that of someone who has sporadic visitors and has no contact with his family.

Sometimes you have to draw a portrait of a subject without as much interview time as you would like, with a limited window into someone’s life, with only a sketch of his psychology, and you pray that what you gathered is fair and true. 

Worth your time:  

Writer George Packer gave a wonderful speech on the purpose of writing, which I think can apply to any endeavor in these polarized times. I’ll be going back to this piece regularly. He seems to be on the same page as Alan Jacobs in his wonderful book, How to Think, which emphasizes the importance of empathy in our arguments over important issues.

Packer says the current mentality in much writing is needing “a community behind you, vouching for you, cheering you on, mobbing your adversaries and slaying them.” But he counters: “Writers are individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another.”

This week I learned: 

The new order blocking immigration from Nigeria (among other restrictions on other countries) affects many people around me in New York, including people in my church, who have family back in Nigeria. This segment on WNYC helped explain, mostly in an informative and balanced way, the details of what the order means.  

A court case you might not know about: 

A New York appellate court has upheld a lower court ruling that fantasy sports bets are illegal gambling.

Culture I am consuming: 

Kirk Douglas died on Feb. 5 at 103, which brought to mind a great film Douglas starred in, Ace in the Hole, from writer/director Billy Wilder. Nearly seventy years after its release, it still feels like a relevant look into the media environment. Based on real events, the story follows an ethically challenged journalist looking for his big break so he can leave a small town paper and head to the glittery newspapers of New York. It’s a dark film, unlike most of Wilder’s work, but it is one of the great take-downs of journalists’ hubris, which I think is needed alongside the movies like Spotlight or All the President’s Men. 

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback. ebelz@wng.org