If evil—pure evil—exists, is it an elegant, seductive aura of darkness, or a shambling, seriocomic parody of good? Theologians debate this point, but I think a real villain is usually part clown—less Hannibal Lecter, more Oswald T. Cobblepot. I base that belief, in part, on the life of a man named Christian Longo, who in 2001 murdered his wife MaryJane, and their three small children, Zachery, Sadie, and Madison, and threw their bodies into the coastal waters near the seaport town of Newport, Oregon.
Longo is played by James Franco in the new film True Story. The movie is based on a book by Mike Finkel, a former writer for The New York Times Magazine, played by Jonah Hill.
Despite its title, the film is not the “true story"; it is streamlined, sanitized, and, alas, devoid of any serious interest. Finkel’s book, to a lesser degree, suffered from the same flaws: Both writer and filmmaker have peered into the chaos of the Longo case and seen some sort of order. I have done the same, and I see in this awful story only the inexplicable brutality of fate.
I have never met Christian Longo, and never spoken with his defense team; but my home in 2001 was less than 100 miles from the crime, and I avidly followed news coverage of his arrest and trial. I have kept all 17 volumes of the trial record next to my desk for the past seven years—and I have spent hours studying the exhibits from Longo’s trial.
For me, as a father, the horror in Longo’s story arises from the idea that a man might kill—“annihilate” is the term psychologists use for this crime—the best thing any man can ever create, a family and children. Finkel’s interest, however, arises because Longo is a liar; both the film and the book are framed as parables about truth and lies. Finkel had been a successful writer for The New York Times—until he was caught fabricating an interview for a cover story on child slavery in Africa. Just after he was fired, FBI agents and Mexican police arrested Longo in the Yucatan. He had fled there after killing his family. He had been telling people, including his new German girlfriend, that he was “Mike Finkel” of The New York Times.
Finkel began visiting Longo in prison. In the film, Longo maintains his innocence during the run up to the trial, only to enter a plea of “guilty” to two of the murders, and to blame his dead wife for the other two. Finkel is devastated to learn that Longo is guilty—and that he lied. (In the book, on the other hand, Finkel writes that he never doubted Longo’s guilt—though while wooing Longo for his project, he repeatedly told Longo he considered him “an innocent man.”)
Nobody in the Pacific Northwest had ever doubted Longo’s guilt. The day the family disappeared, Longo had attended a Christmas party; given a co-worker a bottle of MaryJane’s perfume as a Christmas gift; rented a movie from Blockbuster; worked a shift at Starbucks; and played a few games of volleyball.
Then he’d stolen a car, driven to San Francisco, and used a stolen credit card number to buy a ticket to Mexico. “I sent them to a better place,” he told the FBI agents who brought him home from Mexico. But he refused to say the words “I killed them,” and his lawyers prepared for a not-guilty plea and a capital trial on four charges of first-degree murder.
Early in 2003, Longo entered pleas of guilty in the murders of MaryJane and Madison, but “not guilty” in the deaths of Zachery and Sadie. At trial, he testified that MaryJane, in a fit of rage at her husband’s fecklessness, had for some reason drowned Zachery and Sadie and tried to strangle Madison; Longo said he then came home, strangled MaryJane in anger, and then killed Madison to put her out of her misery.
Pity the lawyers: It’s hard to argue for a client who denies killing four members of his family by claiming he killed only two—and even harder to stir sympathy for a man who admits strangling his wife, then blames her for killing two of her own children.
A few months before his trial, Longo used an illicit letter drop in the jail law library to send a 15-page love letter to an attractive fellow inmate named Jennifer Muscutt. His letter began, “Dear Senorita Cotton Candy” and went on from there. Muscutt, as the lawyers say, snitched him off—and got a walk on felony drug charges. The prosecutor used the letter to obtain a search warrant for Longo’s cell, and guards seized a file of hand-written documents. Longo’s lawyer argued the file contained trial-prep materials, but the trial judge ruled them admissible. News reports at the time said they contained details of the murders of MaryJane and Madison. If true, that would have ended any chance that Longo could have claimed to be innocent of all four killings. The Cotton Candy letter was admissible after the guilty verdict, as the jury pondered the death penalty. I suspect that Mahatma Gandhi, if shown the letter, would have voted for the needle.
Whatever its role in the eventual outcome, the Cotton Candy letter seems to me the defining moment of State of Oregon v. Longo. In it, Longo (his entire family had been dead less than a year) tells Muscutt he would like to sweep her off to Burning Man and make sweet love in the desert under the stars. I have held the letter in my hand. Even after several hours, I found I had read only about half of it. The letter burned my hand. I did not want to live in the same world as the writer. Having read it, I could never again take seriously the idea that the author is anything but a murdering moral monster. It marks almost an end to his humanity—an end that is not monstrous, not dark and scary, but embarrassing and ludicrous. He is not only unaware of the grotesqueness of his sexual blandishment—he is also clearly unable to understand that the woman he is addressing will regard him as a creepy sucker to be exploited rather than as a figure of desire. The letter has become an important part of my sense of what it means to be human—and, more inmportant, less than human.
In the book, Finkel barely acknowledges the Cotton Candy letter. The film omits it altogether; it does not fit the character Franco has created. Finkel sees the story as a study of lies and the human soul; but why? A man who murders his wife and children doesn’t become a worse man because he lies about it afterwards. The two sins are simply incommensurable: one is a character deficiency, the other is an open doorway into Hell.
The crime itself, and its four innocent victims, are largely absent from the film. And the script shows no interest at all in why the crime occurred.
Why did he do it? Longo had high hopes for success—“I was going to make it and I was going to make it big,” he told the FBI after his arrest—but his life was a grim pageant of failure, betrayal, and petty crime. He stole money from an employer to buy MaryJane a wedding ring. He was “disfellowshipped” by his Midwestern congregation. He was busted by MaryJane for infidelity. He ran up $25,000 in credit-card debt. He pawned MaryJane’s ring for gas money to migrate west. In Oregon, he put a roof over the family’s head only by convincing a naive condo manager that he worked for the phone company; for her birthday he gave MaryJane a stolen van. He could not earn enough to feed the three children. I suspect that seeing his failure reflected in his family’s eyes led this deeply narcissistic poseur to wipe out the disgrace by killing them all.
The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed Longo’s death sentence in 2006. In 2011, a decade after the murders, Longo finally admitted he had killed all three children and MaryJane. The same year, he filed a request to marry one of his female pen pals. When an uproar ensued, he told a reporter it had been a prank—“to prove that the Department of Corrections routinely denies his requests.”
He has campaigned to allow executed inmates to donate their organs for transplant, but the idea hasn’t been warmly embraced. In fact, in 2014, Longo read of a Newberg, Oregon, man who was so desperate for a kidney that he stood by a roadside holding a sign seeking donors. Longo immediately wrote offering one of his own.
The kidney patient declined.
This is the story of a dark and scary man—but one who lacks any kind of dignity or self-respect. Rather than James Franco, the role cries out for someone like Andy Serkis, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Serkis’s Gollum seems close to a map of Longo’s psyche—a ceaseless inner conflict between the vile Stinker and the ineffectual Slinker; the crawling killer versus the pathetic clown.