The Abyss: Linda Fairstein, “When They See Us,” and the Central Park Five
The new Netflix mini-series, “When They See Us,” is the best kind of grenade. Its four episodes, expertly directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, dissect the infamous case of the “Central Park Five,” five young men who were tried and convicted of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989 — only to have their convictions vacated thirteen years later.
DuVernay’s narrative is complex, and yet it speeds along. The first episode is a master class in cross-cutting between the boys rousted off the streets and forced into interrogation rooms, where NYPD interrogators unleash a full barrage of techniques — beatings, lies, physical intimidation — to get them to confess. These early scenes also show Linda Fairstein, head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, as a key orchestrator of the railroading: Once she locks on the boys as potential suspects, she’s more than happy to rearrange the facts to suit her narrative.
(That Fairstein is played by Felicity Huffman, who recently pled guilty to fraud and faces serious jail time, is an irony not lost on anyone.)
For months before “When They See Us” debuted, Fairstein’s supporters rumbled about the show’s unfairness, and now it’s easy to see why: As portrayed by Huffman, Fairstein is a psychopath’s psychopath, breathtaking in her cruelty and disregard for human rights. The script has her referring to suspects as “animals,” and she ignores detectives’ assertions that the facts of the “case” just don’t add up.
Whether or not you believe the narrative that DuVernay presents, you can’t argue with how effectively she presents it. Perhaps that’s why Fairstein recently discontinued her Twitter and Facebook feeds, and seems to have dropped from the public eye; a popular Netflix show inevitably leads to newspaper and magazine articles re-examining the case. When People begins revisiting your controversies, you have a serious image problem.
Mystery readers (and writers) are also familiar with Fairstein as the author of bestselling mystery novels, all of which leverage her prosecutorial experience. Although she’s made quite a bit of money off her books, and racked up a few awards, her second career has faced controversies related to her first: Late last year, the Mystery Writers of America rescinded Fairstein’s “Grand Master” award for literary achievement after Edgar Award winner Attica Locke (one of the writers on “When They See Us”) pilloried her as “almost singlehandedly responsible for the incarceration of the Central Park Five.”
At the time, in a Tweet, Fairstein defended her actions. “I was neither the prosecutor nor investigator in the case you mention,” she shot back at Locke. “I was certainly NOT the person who ‘single-handedly spearheaded’ the investigation.” (She’s similarly deflected about her interactions with Harvey Weinstein.)
The back-and-forth between Locke and Fairstein fueled a few newspaper articles, not to mention a lot of aggrieved muttering among mystery writers, but it didn’t stop Fairstein from shutting down her online presence; a couple of ink-stained wretches yelling on Facebook and in the pages of The Los Angeles Times isn’t nearly the same as a deep, systematic racking by an Netflix mini-series executive-produced by Oprah.
Her Twitter might be gone, but Fairstein’s literary output is still out in the world, and in the context of her real-life legal career, it is fascinating. Her primary character, Alexandra Cooper, is a fictionalized version of Fairstein herself (although, in her own words, “younger, thinner, blonder”), and her fictionalized version of the world is strictly black and white; there are precious few ambiguities here. The bad guys are born bad, totally irredeemable; the protagonist is a shining beacon of legal righteousness; and by the final page, there’s a satisfying resolution. These are books meant as entertainment, not a meditation on a world of moral grays.
Of course, there’s no shame in that kind of professional whitewashing. For example, Ian Fleming used his experiences with the British Secret Service, nasty as they were, as fuel for the escapism of the Bond novels. Not everything needs to be a Nicolas Winding Refn-level exploration of the monsters that live within all of us.
But in our post-Ferguson, post-Eric Garner era — when cities across the country are reviewing years of prosecutorial misconduct, and the actions of the police are under greater scrutiny than ever — a multi-book narrative that centers on a young! thin! blonde! righteous! DA risks coming off as pornography for those privileged enough to know that the system will always move in their favor.
In other words, this fiction is a far cry from reality, in which children are interrogated in rooms that stink of bleach and frightened piss, and the system sometimes rams the wrong people into prison for life.
Think about that dichotomy, and shudder.
This article first appeared in Mystery Tribune.