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Family Values

In Contempt

by Christopher A. Darden
ReganBooks/HarperCollins, 387 pp., $26.00

The Search for Justice: A Defense Attorney’s Brief on the O.J. Simpson Case

by Robert L. Shapiro
Warner Books, 363 pp., $24.95

I Want to Tell You

by O.J. Simpson
Little, Brown, 208 pp., $17.95

1.

Lyle and Erik Menendez, two furtive suburban churls, gunned down their parents in August 1989, almost seven years ago. The brothers were not arrested until six months after the murders; during the gap they had quite a good time spending the impressive bank account of their father, Jose Menendez, a corporate executive, self-made, forty-five years old when he and his wife, Kitty, forty-seven years old were killed. Jose and Kitty, the parents, Lyle and Erik, the sons. One needs a bit of caution to keep these now familiar couplings from tripping off the tongue as if they were family skits in the old vaudeville days. The brothers’ incarceration came about when recordings of a detailed confession made to a psychiatrist were at last turned over to the police. They were brought to trial, each with his own jury, neither of which could agree on a verdict, and so they went back to prison to await a retrial and to find themselves displaced in public interest by the indictment of the former football star O.J. Simpson for the murder by stabbing of his ex-wife and a hapless friend who happened to be at the scene. In any case, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson, by way of the cameras in the courtroom during the trials, became international double-homicide celebrities.

More is known about the accused and the victims in these trials than about many of the public figures whose actions and opinions will have an effect upon the national life. Politicians, facing their shackling positions, past and present, will have to wait for election night to command the dramatic preeminence of the final returns in the trials of L&E and O.J. This raging intimacy and emotional attentiveness came about from the extraordinary span of the television coverage. The fanatical hours were not only set aside on Court TV and CNN, specialized channels, but also on the regular stations. The purest measure of demand and urgency came when the vast audience, resting its feet or nodding off a bit in front of the long-established afternoon soap operas, was interrupted for the California judicial theater, an offering as slow as the plot clips on As the World Turns are quick and efficient.

Millions all over the world,” a favorite statistic, seemed to wait for the arrival of O.J. Simpson’s mise-en-scène: the “alleged” himself, the lawyers in a circle around the front table, spectators and family in the rows behind, heads and hats of interest, and above them Judge Lance Ito with black hair, black beard, and black robe, all bringing to mind a drawing by Daumier. Long ago it was Extra, Extra, Read All About It!, the lad in his woolen cap, the clang of printing presses, the folded newspapers flipping by—archival memories of a primitive way to announce the evil folks will do for love, hatred, or money. In the old sob story, as in classical tragedy, “situational murder,” in the family, was most gripping to the public imagination. The two cases at hand do not take place in a castle or palace suitable to tragedy, but they have more than a little contemporary signification as settings. They are LA “mansion” scripts: swimming pool, tennis court, patio, guest house, deluxe motor cars, residential emblems giving a certain cachet almost invariably lacking in criminal justice scenery. For Simpson it was Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and Ferrari, and the rather lowly but unfortunately significant white Bronco. For the Menendez family we learn of a reticent Mercedes or two and for Lyle an Alfa Romeo at the time of his high school graduation.

The Menendez trial was a literal sob story as the brothers famously sobbed and sniffled on the witness stand, where they and their lawyers elaborately proposed a family chronicle of such great squalor that nice boys, as they were said to be, would have no recourse except to rid themselves of the elders by blowing them to bits. The infamy of the parents was to be the center of the choice of a punishment that might be death by lethal injection in San Quentin prison, the fate offered as appropriate to the crime by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. At the present time there are 438 prisoners on Death Row in San Quentin, rows of cages Senator Robert Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, president of the American Red Cross, strangely chose to visit on the campaign trail in California. There are no votes to be solicited on Death Row, but for the idea of Death Row there are votes throughout the country and an impatience for the amount of time it takes to proceed with the sentence.

Jose Menendez, foully murdered, was an interesting, thoroughly deplorable man. He came from a respected, prosperous Havana family, all of whom settled in the United States after the Castro revolution. Jose came first at the age of sixteen to join his brother-in-law, went to high school, and in college met Kitty Anderson, whom he married and who would bear the parricidal sons, creatures out of the mist of antiquity even though this family line began in a courtship at Southern Illinois University. After classes in accounting at Queens College, the Cuban exile immediately displayed a talent for business. This is an indefinable endowment, a sort of genetic luck perhaps, in which one need not invent anything or even start up a useful enterprise. Intelligence-corporate seems to be similar to intelligence-military, a gift for strategy in serious battle. Menendez quickly held high positions at the Hertz Corporation and after that at Live Entertainment, an agency in Los Angeles where under his reign profits were indeed notable.

Just as notable was the ruthless nature of his executive style, so extreme as to be almost a caricature. Ruthlessness is not embarrassing in the corporate world if it is somehow believed to be a stone in the structure of profit. However, Jose was seriously sadistic to those with whom he worked; he was forever insulting, humiliating, raging—habits that do not render a profit beyond whatever pleasure they may give to the one who feels free to display them. Research indicates that many talented people left Hertz because of his offensive behavior, and when his murder was made known the joke went around that everyone who had ever worked with him would need a good alibi.*

It must not be imagined that the sons were anything but deeply proud of their father’s titles and compensation. They gave no indication of a sort of youthful socialist contempt for the cruel practices of capitalism as they had viewed it at home, none of the questioning of the reputed terms of our beginning and end sometimes noted in the preacher’s son. In fact Lyle and Erik have no ideas at all that one can discover, although they certainly practice the poet’s call for “no ideas but in things.” They had things, cars, and clothes, and they lived expensively, went to private schools, took tennis lessons, had girlfriends. The trouble was that their parents somehow got the notion they should or could become superior in all things, in sports, in school, in ambition, in avoiding trouble—which they didn’t. When first in California they lived in a suburb of Los Angeles and broke into two houses, stole a lot of valuable things, and had to be bailed out by their father.

Lyle was accepted at Princeton for his talents in swimming and tennis, thus achieving the sort of prestige his father violently desired. However he was soon on probation for failing grades and after that expelled for cheating. The rage of the father is easily imagined, even if for these delinquencies most parents would be given to strong expressions of disappointment and disapproval. Lyle and Erik played around the country in junior tennis tournaments with some success but never enough for Jose, who was hysterically eager for them to win, an embarrassment in the stands, and fearful at home with his punishing rage at their weakness and failure. What the parents raised were spoiled, indulged sons forcefully denounced for their insufficiencies. A controlling, relentless father and an unhappy, unsupportive mother.

Constant dread of criticism or punishment can create an addiction to lying in the hope of covering mistakes, lacks, and wrongdoing. Those experienced in lying will often tell several lies when one would suffice. To cancel a previous engagement: I’ve got a terrible cold and…er…my dog died. Lying or not lying was critical to the way the brothers’ defense would be evaluated. In the first trial half the jurors believed them and half did not. In the second trial they were not believed and thus were convicted of first-degree murder and doomed to spend the rest of their lives in prison, although they escaped the death penalty. The case turned on their assertion of extraordinary sexual abuse by the father, the memory of which caused the sobbing on the stand.

Erik was the principal victim, claiming forced fellatio, sodomy, and “massages” from the age of six until eighteen, that is, up to the very moment they decided to kill their parents. Lyle too was the alleged object of abuse from the age of six to eight, and since he was two years older, that tidily gets the father off him and onto Erik, to speak in the spirit of the exchanges brought out by the doleful, patient questions of the defense attorneys. The mother, also murdered, must, to round things out, show an inappropriate attention to her children’s bodies, and so we hear of considerable interest in bath times even when they were in their teens.

Many peculiarities in the plot skillfully performed for the audience. Lyle hadn’t been aware of Erik’s twelve years of servitude to his father’s wishes; Erik didn’t know his brother had bought and was wearing a hairpiece, Hollywood style. The discoveries somehow brought a confrontation that led to a death threat by the father and so in fear of their lives the sons attacked first. It was necessary to re-load and shoot the mother twice before she expired, and killing her even once was a troublesome decision when the father’s murder might alone have achieved the change desired. They added to their indictment that their mother had known about the sexual abuse all the many years, an assertion meant to assist due cause.

The relation between the husband and wife seems to have been a good deal more banal. Kitty Menendez was in a bad way owing to the “other woman” problem, a longtime mistress she feared her husband might want to marry, and for that dilemma and heartache she drank, threatened suicide, went to psychiatrists, and so on. A canny and calculating Jose Menendez knew that divorce was not a bottom-line plus in his personal account books, and also as a shrewd operator he was not likely to think he could kill two grown sons and get away with it. As for the brothers, had they immediately confessed and told their gruesome story they might have been freed. The blur in this picture is that perhaps they didn’t have the story until they had spent some months reflecting in prison.

  1. *

    See Blood Brothers, by Ron Soble and John Johnson, reporters for the Los Angeles Times (Onyx, 1994).

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