When “Telling Your Story” Jinxes Your Freedom

Benji de la Piedra is a current OHMA student. In this post, he reviews the HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst as oral history.

The downside to giving an interview is that the interviewer will take what I’ve said to make me look as bad as possible.
The upside is that there will be something out there from me. I mean this whole time since I’ve gotten out of prison, I’ve said nothing to nobody about anything…I will be able to tell it my way and if someone is reasonably open to a different story or a different situation than what has been put out there by the media, then they will have an opportunity to believe it.

- Robert Durst to Andrew Jarecki

Andrew Jarecki is not an oral historian, nor does he claim to be. But he is the lead interviewer in The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, a six-part documentary series that he produced and directed for HBO. When I first started watching The Jinx, I was excited by the possibility that it might actually be a work of oral history. But I was eventually disappointed. Nevertheless, Jarecki’s disingenuous attempt to create a documentary series out of a life-history interview has something to remind us about the precarious ethics of genuine oral history work.

Jarecki interviewing Durst

Jarecki interviewing Durst

The Jinx begins with images of several black trash bags floating in Galveston Bay, which are soon explained by the drawling voice of the Texan detective who found them there in 2001. Inside each of those bags was a human limb. Using a scrap of newspaper found in one of the bags, local investigators were soon able to trace the body back to a local address. In the interviews that they give to Jarecki’s team, they recount how they followed a trail of evidence to identify one “Robert Durst” as their main suspect.

Then a well-crafted collage—of archived news broadcasts, tabloid covers, videotaped court testimony, and original interviews with the Westchester County District Attorney a reporter from The New York Times—introduces us to this character. We find out that Robert Durst is an eccentric, dispossessed New York City real estate heir, whose beautiful wife mysteriously vanished over twenty years earlier. The implication is that he probably killed her, too.

As this first episode nears its end, we are thrust ten years into the future, into 2011. Andrew Jarecki presides over the red carpet premiere of All Good Things, a movie he directed based on the publicly available version of Durst’s life story, which supposes that he indeed is responsible for the murders. We see Jarecki tell an entertainment reporter: “I’m always interested in monster stories. You know you find out someone is described as a ‘maniac’ or a ‘crazy person’ or a ‘serial killer,’ I always think those people started out somewhere, they started out as people with hopes and dreams.” He explains that his desire was “to make a movie that Robert Durst himself could sit and watch and have an emotional reaction to.”

Sure enough, Jarecki got what he wanted. Just before the end of that first episode of The Jinx, we hear the recorded audio of Durst calling Jarecki, asking to be interviewed. “I have over the years,” explains Durst, “been approached by the various interview shows. I’m not interested in doing true-crime kind of stuff. You know more about Robert Durst than those people.”

Sitting on my couch, within an arm’s reach of my homework, my ears perked up when I heard this. Here were two people—one who feels that the public misunderstands his life story, the other ostensibly committed to rectifying that misunderstanding—coming together for an interview. Sounds like oral history if you ask me.

As I started watching the documentary’s second episode, it seemed like this might actually be true. The episode starts with Jarecki asking Durst, “What do you see as the downside to sitting down and doing an interview? And what do you see as the upside?” Durst puts his finger on the co-created, dialogic pulse of the interview, and gives the perceptive response that I’ve chosen as the epigraph to this post. Then, against the backdrop of grainy home movies, we hear Durst answering the standard opening questions of a life-history interview. He states his name, date and place of birth, the names of his parents, the fact that both of them are dead, that he watched his mother die “a violent death” when he was seven years old.

But the voice asking the questions does not belong to Jarecki. It belongs to the Galveston prosecutor who asks on behalf of “the ladies and gentlemen of the jury” (Later I learned that All Good Things starts exactly the same way). From there it’s off to the true-crime races. Subtly deceptive re-enactments, a soundtrack of ominous tones, and clips of nightly news broadcasts mingle with old family photos and a number of informative, emotional, well-edited interviews with other characters to tell the story of how and why Durst most likely killed three people. It’s incredibly entertaining.

But, again, it doesn’t feel like oral history. Jarecki only explores the dimensions of Durst’s life-history that pertain directly to the disappearance of his wife and the murders of his two best friends. As the show’s final episode opens, we find Jarecki conferencing with his co-producers, scrawling “Bob 2nd Interview” across a blackboard. Jarecki says the “Number One” goal of the interview is to “Get Justice,” and they talk over how best to prompt a confession from Durst.

The Jinx raises interesting questions about the ethical line that its creator definitely crossed. Yes, Bob Durst did probably commit those murders, and this show has prompted law enforcement officials to re-examine those possibilities (call it the Serial effect). But I think there’s something deeply troubling about an interviewer who tells a man that he wants to document his life story, but then tries to play the part of lead prosecutor. In the end, after the second interview, Durst whispers a series of potentially self-incriminating ramblings to himself in the bathroom, while his microphone is still recording. Did Andrew shirk an interviewer’s responsibly by not unclipping it from Bob’s jacket when the interview was “over”?

At play here is a choice between two conflicting ethical impulses, to send a murderer to jail or to respect confidentiality, the trust that a narrator puts in you to handle the story of his life. If you call yourself an oral historian, that’s got to be a serious dilemma. Perhaps not as much for a true-crime documentarian like Andrew Jarecki.

That said, it’s worth noting that Durst would have remained free and forgotten if he had just stayed out of Jarecki’s way altogether. In the fourth episode of The Jinx, Durst tells Jarecki that his lawyers won’t stop telling him, “An interview is a big risk for you.” And in the last episode, one of those lawyers tells Jarecki that he told Bob, “Look, I know you want to tell your story, that it’s important to you. And that’s fine by me, but I want you to remember one thing: You run the risk of pissing people off, people who have intentions contrary to your liberty. Don’t forget that.”

True words indeed. They make me wonder why people choose to tell us about themselves in the first place.