Ted Bundy and I: Reviewing Ann Rule’s true crime classic, “The Stranger Beside me”

stranger beside meAmong the best books ever written about true crime and serial murder must surely be Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial killer Ted Bundy.

A former Seattle police officer and then regular contributor to true crime magazines as she struggled to raise four kids, Rule was commissioned to write the book that became The Stranger Beside Me  as the spate of murders of young, attractive girls grew longer and more baffling.

Paid a small advance, Rule was told her book would only be published if the murderer was caught.

No one at first believed that Ted Bundy, the charming, intelligent, good-looking young law student was capable of such horrendous crimes.

This included Ann Rule herself, who by the most incredible of coincidences had worked night shifts with Ted Bundy at a crisis centre in Seattle in the early 1970s.

But by the time Ted Bundy was founded guilty and sentenced to death in a Florida court, she had come to the awful realisation that the man who sat in the cubicle beside her night after night in Seattle,  saving the lives of those contemplating suicide, was also a monster.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

Apart from telling the story of Ted Bundy  and his awful crimes, The Stranger Beside Me, also narrates Ann Rules own personal journey into the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

ted bundy mugshot

Ted Bundy mugshot

The truth, as Rule found out, was that Ted Bundy, driven by a uncontrolable and never quite explained rage had used his facade of good looks and charm to bludgeon, rape and mutilate dozens perhaps over a hundred young women across America in the 1970s.

Many victims were attacked as they slept in their beds on college campuses, others were lured into Ted Bundy’s infamous beige VW Beetle as he masqueraded as someone with his arm or leg in a cast, struggling to carry his possessions.

Just before his execution in Florida in 1989, Bundy confessed to 30 murders committed  between 1974 and 1980 But many believe, and Bundy hinted himself, that the true total was much higher, perhaps over 100.

Before that, despite a mountain of evidence linking him to many murders (though much of it circumstanstial) he claimed he was innocent of any of the crimes. Often defending himself at his televised  Florida trial, he was seen by many as charismatic, brilliant and charming, which only added to the myth of his innocence.

In the end Rule, who maintained a sporadic correspondence with Ted Bundy through phone calls and letters from the time he was first arrested in Utah until his conviction and death sentencing in Florida, came to see through the facade, to see that she, like so many others, had been conned.

ann rule

Ann Rule

No one, except perhaps his long-standing girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (called Meg Anders in the book) had a more personal insight into Ted Bundy and in the annals of crime writing there are few who has painted such a three-dimensional portrait of serial killer as Ann Rule.

For she knew both Teds: the kind, sensitive, caring charmer and the psycopathic manipulator.

She describes Ted as “brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib and persuasive” who loved “French cuisine, good white wine and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films” and who “knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards” and whose “poems of love were tender and romantic”.

And yet Ted “loved things more than he loved people” who could feel more compassion for inanimate objects than he could ever feel for another human being.

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted had gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.

There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of Ted Bundy’s final interview with Dr James Dobson,  given the evening before he was executed in January in 1980, when his appeals and luck finally ran out.

In it he tries to explain the reasons for his crimes as being due to the combined influences of pornography, alcohol and violence in true crime detective magazines.

This video and shorter versions of it has been watched millions of times of YouTube, which says something about the public’s fascination with Ted Bundy, who  remains in the news, 36 years after his death at the electric chair. (An article appeared as recently as June 30 about a new  book “I Survived Ted Bundy” published recently on Amazon.com).

Rule says of this final interview that Ted was lying and manipulating to the very end, remembering a letter that he wrote her where he dismissed True Crime magazines as trash:  “Who in the world reads these publications?” he asked her.

“The blunt fact is that Ted Bundy was a liar. He lied most of his life, and I think he lied at the end,” Rule wrote. But, she said, Ted’s final performance accomplished one thing that troubled her:

Sensitive, intelligent, kind young women wrote or called me to say that they were deeply depressed because Ted was dead. One college student had watched the Dobson tape on television and felt moved to send flowers to the funeral parlour where Ted’s body had been taken. “He wouldn’t have hurt me,” she said. “All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me…”

ted bundy trial

The ‘other Ted’: The famous enraged photo  of Ted Bundy at his Florida trial

There is nothing in ‘The Stranger Beside Me that glamourises Ted Bundy or turns him into the folk hero others made him out to be, especially after his daring escape from a Colorado jail in 1977, while facing kidnapping charges.

Rule stresses time and time again that whatever the tragedy of Ted Bundy’s life – who he might have been, what he become in the end – the real tragedy were all his innocent victims whose lives he ended. Indeed, she tells with great compassion the story of each of his many victims, of who they were and who they might have been.

And yet, she could never quite shake the memory of the Ted she knew before he became the serial killer ‘Ted Bundy’ something which became impossible following the publication and huge success of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980.

Ann Rule passed away on July 26 last year, aged 83 taking with her the title of America’s queen of true crime.

She publishing three dozen crime books after The Stranger Beside Me, but it remained her signature work with fans writing to her about it and asking questions about her and Ted Bundy decades later.

In an update to the book published in 2000 (I suggest downloading the Kindle version which has all the numerous updates since 1980), Rule writes:

It has been a quarter of a century since the day Ted Bundy called to ask for my help and to tell me that he was a suspect in the disappearance of more than a dozen young women…time and time again, I have naively believed the fascination with Ted would diminish and that I would never have to think about him again. I have long since accepted that I will be answering questions about him until the end of my days.

 

 

 

In the Boston Strangler’s shadow: Reading Sebastian Junger’s ‘A Death in Belmont’

death in belmontThe front cover of my edition of Sebastian Junger‘s intriguing  true crime book,  A Death in Belmont features a grainy black and white photo of the author as a small child sitting on the lap of his mother, who looks down at him affectionately.

Behind them is a kindly looking elder gentleman called Floyd Wiggins, and next to him, looking directly at the camera is a powerfully-built stocky man in a white shirt, his hair greased up in a pompadour, called Albert DeSalvo.

The photo was taken in mid-March 1963 when Wiggins, DeSalvo and another man Russ Blomerth (who took the photo) built an artist’s studio in the backyard of Sebastian Junger’s Belmont home.

A year later, the same man, Albert DeSalvo,  would confess to being the notorious Boston Strangler, one of the most infamous and violent serial killers and rapists in American history.

Knowing this, turns the photo into something utterly chilling: a young child and his mother with a monster smiling serenely behind them.

This then is the springboard –  a very personal one – for Junger’s engrossing book about the Boston stranglings that terrified residents in the early 1960s.

Of course DeSalvo, who confessed to being the strangler after being arrested for a string of other violent crimes, is a big part of the book, but he is not the central character.

roy-smith

A mug shot of Roy Smith

Instead Junger focuses on a black man, named Roy Smith and one particular murder that occurred near his childhood home in Belmont, which also gives the book its title: A Death in Belmont.

The day before the photo was taken a woman in her sixties, Bessie Golderg had been raped and strangled in her home, just a mile away.

The brutal attack, perpetrated in the middle of the day and by someone who Bessie Goldberg let into her home, occurred during a spate of 13 similar stranglings that started in June 1962 and ended in January 1964.

But this murder was pinned not Albert DeSalvo (who also never confessed to it in jail), but on Roy Smith had been sent by his employment agency to clean the Goldberg house on the same afternoon that Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled.

He was there in the hours just before her death – shopkeepers and neighbourhood kids saw him walking in Belmont that afternoon – and so he became the prime suspect.

Being a black man in a white neighbourhood also did not help, nor did his criminal history or his penchant for alcohol.

Despite this, the evidence was only circumstantial , Smith had little motive apart from robbery and there was nothing in his past to suggest he was a sexual predator. But, a court found him guilty and he was given a life sentence, only narrowly missing the death penalty.

He spent the rest of his life in jail, but steadfastly maintained his innocence during his 13 years locked up, right up until his death, from lung cancer. Tragically – if he was indeed an innocent man – he was paroled on his death-bed. Junger writes poignantly:

“If Roy Smith had not been working at the Goldberg’s residence the day she was killed, the murder would quickly have been added to the list of other Boston Stranglings. It was so similar to the previous eight killings that the police initially thought they had arrested the man responsible for all of them. They hadn’t.”

Junger’s brilliant book, investigates in great detail the lives of both Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo, the likeable man who built his mother’s studio in their Belmont backyard, but who had another dimension to his personality: a viscious and cruel man who combined an insatiable sexual appetite with sadistic violence.

While Junger does not proclaim Roy Smith innocent, he hints very strongly at the possibility  that he was an innocent man, who tragically found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Albert DeSalvo just after his capture in Boston on February 25, 1967.

Albert DeSalvo, at the time of his arrest in 1967

It’s a highly convincing argument and I finished reading the book almost certain that Roy Smith did not kill Bessie Goldberg and that more than likely, DeSalvo had raped and strangled her  while on his way to Sebastian Junger’s house to complete his mother’s artist studio. Indeed two further stranglings that DeSalvo confessed to occurred during the time he worked in Belmont.

Junger returns time and time again to his mother’s memories of DeSalvo. Most chilling is her memory of a time Albert DeSalvo asked her to come down into the basement of the house to show her a problem with the boiler. She hesistated, noticing a strange look in his eyes. Ellen Junger made an excuse not to go down into the basement, a decision which might have saved her life.  Junger writes:

“Four months earlier (before Bessie Goldberg died)  Al had stood at the bottom of the cellar stairs and called up to my mother with an odd look in his eyes. For a moment at least, our basement was a place where the very worst things imaginable could happen.”

DeSalvo died in prison, stabbed to death by a black inmate, taking many of his secrets to the grave. So there is no easy solution to the mystery of who killed Bessie Goldberg.

There are also many, including Junger, who question whether DeSalvo was in fact the Boston Strangler, or just someone who craved the spotlight. Until recently, there was little physical evidence to connect him to any of the crimes, while DeSalvo’s own confessions were full of errors.

But in 2013 – seven years after his book was published, a DNA match was found linking DeSalvo to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan providing proof he was guilty of at least one of the  13 murders he confessed to, though this list did not include Bessie Goldberg.

In the end, there can be no definite answers, only likelihoods and possibilities. Junger himself has come under fire suggested Roy Smith may be innocent with the Goldberg family angrily denying his hypothesis that their mother might have been killed by someone other than Roy Smith.

In 2006, when A Death in Belmont was published, Bessie Goldberg’s daughter, Leah Goldberg Scheuerman told the New York Times it was “full of lies and omissions” including that a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also upheld Roy Smith’s conviction on appeal.

It’s not the first time Sebastian Junger has been accused of getting things wrong. His bestselling and most famous book, The Perfect Storm (made into a Hollywood blockbuster with George Clooney) was hit by accusations of many inaccuracies.

21 cedar

21 Cedar Rd, Belmont – were Albert DeSalvo built a studio for Ellen Junger in 1963

But, reading a A Death in Belmont, which Junger spent three years painstakingly researching, you do not get the impression that you are being manipulated: the stories of Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo are carefully constructed by Junger who also masterfully recreates Boston of the 1960s with its immigrant communities, rough neighbourhoods, drinking dens and quiet suburbs.

When as a reader, you weight up all the evidence, it seems hard to believe that Roy Smith, who had no history of sexual violence would have raped and murdered a sixty-year-old woman whose house he was cleaning. If he did, he never admitted it, thus ending any chance of a life outside of prison. What guilty man would do that?

A response from Darren Bobroff: We will be laying charges against Discovery Health

I recently blogged about Johannesburg lawyers Ronald and Darren Bobroff, who have fled South Africa for Australia, and according to South African media reports are facing charges of overcharging clients and related fraudulent activity.

Darren Bobroff has contacted me through the blog and made a comment/statement, which in the interests of fairness and balance I have posted below. You can also find it as a comment here.

Please also read this statement put out in January from Discovery Health in relation to cover for motor vehicle accidents and claims for the Road Accident Fund.

From Darren Bobroff:

Your article relating to my father and I is inaccurate and false. We charged our clients exactly what the law society permitted and so did all other personal injury attorneys. We were targeted by  health insurer Discovery Health.

We have never charged forty percent and the matter referred to was a straight hourly rate based on work done. This is a malicious tactic to defame us. We have never had a single finding of unprofessional conduct in the firms 40 year history. See our website at http://www.ronaldbobroff.com

We will soon be laying criminal charges against Discovery, their attorney George Van Niekerk and proxy attorney Anthony Millar.

(This response has been edited)

Meet the Bobroffs: the latest South African fugitives calling Australia home

ronald bobroff

South African personal injury lawyer, Ronald Bobroff

Australia, with apparent open arms, has welcomed Johannesburg lawyers Ronald and Darren Bobroff to its sandy shores.

The father and son pair, are the lastest South African fugitives who have fled to Australia, ahead of likely criminal proceedings in their home country.

They join alleged $1.5bn ponzi scheme mastermind  Barry Tannenbaum (the subject of a book by investigative journalist Rob Rose called ‘The Grand Scam’) who disappeared into the Gold Coast scene in 2009  and was most recently an Uber taxi driver.

I blogged about Barry Tannenbaum on Freshlyworded a couple of years ago.

According to South African media reports, Ronald and Darren Bobroff fled South Africa in late March this year, shortly before they were due to hand themselves into the Hawks, a specialist division of the South African Police that investigates serious commercial and organised crime.

The Bobroff pair also sold off their law firm, Ronald Bobroff & Partners to another Johannesburg law firm, Taitz and Skikne, before heading Down Under.

Their alleged crime: overcharging accident victims for claims against the Road Accident Fund, a public entity which compensates people injured in road accidents in South Africa.

Just how much the Bobroffs allegedly overcharged their clients is not known, but according to a spokesperson for the RAF, R178 million ($16m) of suspected fraud cases were identified during the 2014/15 year alone.

In January 2016, Discovery Health (part of listed financial services giant Discovery Limited, which has market cap R78bn – $7bn -) put out a statement on its cover for motor vehicle accidents and the Road Accident Fund. It included the following:

In 2014, all Ronald Bobroff and Partners (RBP) fee agreements with its clients were declared unlawful by the Constitutional Court. This resulted in numerous High Court judgments being granted against RBP in favour of its former clients, requiring RBP to repay many millions of Rand in unlawfully retained fees.

South African law restricts lawyers fees to 30 per cent of any award paid out by the RAF, but it is alleged that the Bobroffs kept as much as 40 per cent.

Ronald Bobroff told The Star newspaper he had fled the country with his son and daugher-in-law following a tip-off that they were to be arrested. His 68-year-old wife Elaine was not so lucky. She was prevented from fleeing a week later, spent a night in jail and was released on bail of R150,000 ($13,300).

Speaking to Eyewitness News from Australia, Ronald Bobroff said the “allegations were false” and that he would make a “statement in due course”.

It appears highly unlikely that the Bobroffs will be extradited to South Africa to face the charges made against them.  Extradition would require the co-operation of the Australian government and Australian Federal Police which have to date not shown any desire to return Barry Tannenbaum to his native land to face his accusers.

In South Africa, the Bobroff’s law firm is now under the control of the Law Society of the Northern Province with Ronald Bobroff facing the threat of losing his right to practise law in South Africa.

The Law Society of the Northern Province released this statement, published on legal website polity.org.za:

The Council of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces has noted with concern that attorneys, Mr Ronald Bobroff and Mr Darren Bobroff, who are facing serious charges of overcharging clients and related fraudulent actions, are alleged to have absconded from the Republic to Australia. The Law Society had already instituted legal proceedings against the pair and their co-director in the law firm Ronald Bobroff & Partners Inc to have them struck from the roll of attorneys and a curator appointed to the firm in order to protect the interests of the firms’ clients. The judgment of the Court is awaited. The Law Society calls on Mr Ronald Bobroff and Mr Darren Bobroff as senior attorneys to honour their oaths of office and to return to South Africa and to face the charges against them. Clients of their firm, members of the public and all stakeholders are assured that everything possible is being done by the Law Society to ensure that the interests of all concerned are protected.

 

Issued by Law Society Northern Province

Not that either would concern Ronald or his son Darren, who almost certainly have no plans to return.

It’s likely they are well set-up in Australia with Darren Bobroff owning two Sydney apartments in the Eastern Suburbs.

A three-bedroom apartment in Vaucluse was purchased in 2002 for $650,000  while another apartment was purchased in the same block for $309,000 in 1994.

Sydneys eastern suburbs

Darren Bobroff owns two apartments in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs

In a more recent update, National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams said in April: “Of course we are deeply concerned at the fact that Mr Bobroff had evaded justice and had fled to another country, but I can reassure the public that the matter is receiving the requisite attention from my office and that of other law enforcement agencies.”

Conversations with Holden Caulfield

catcher_in_the_rye_penguin_2I picked up my old paperback copy of JD Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye after watching the movie ‘The Killing of John Lennon’ about Mark David Chapman, the wayward young man who killed The Beatles singer and songwriter, and remains in jail.

It seemed a bit of sinister that I should choose to re-read this cult novel after watching a movie about an infamous murderer and murder, but the connection is an obvious one. 

Chapman shot Lennon in December 1980, outside the singer’s apartment in Manhattan, and famously took his inspiration to kill from The Catcher in the Rye and its narrator, 16-year-old angst-ridden rebel, Holden Caulfield.

In the movie, Chapman calls Lennon a ‘phoney’ – as Holden Caulfield calls so many people in the novel – because Lennon preached ‘no possessions’ (famously in his hit song ‘Imagine‘) and yet owned mansions and yachts and was immensely wealthy.

At his trial, when Chapman was asked if he had anything to say, he rose and read the passage from The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden tells his little sister, Phoebe, what he wants to do with his life:

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

Picking up and re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, the exact same lemon yellow copy which I had read as a young man, was both a joy (it’s such an engaging, hilarious, thought-provoking and sad story), and also a rather unsettling experience. 

Mostly because, I  noticed all the passages and sections I had underlined about ‘phoneys’, and people “never noticing anything” and “girls driving you crazy” and “being a madman”. I realised that back then, I like Mark Chapman, was also a rather lost, somewhat bitter young man (thought without any murderous intentions I am certain) who had made a similar emotional connection with Holden Caulfield.

Holden’s inner monologue about the world and its endless disappointments, as he traipsed around New York, mirrored many of my own inner frustrations and torments at the time.

In fact it wasn’t just underlining that I had done, but I’d also engaged in conversations with Holden, writing responses to the things he said. In short, I was a bit of a “madman” myself.

 At one point I wrote: “Really Holden, I beg to differ with you. You are talking shit,” this in response to Holden saying “You don’t always have to get sexy to know a girl.”

In another note, I wrote simply  “Alicia Silverstone” alongside a passage in which Holden describes a girl he has a crush on, Jane Gallagher. 

 Holden observes that when Jane got excited when talking “her mouth sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all”. It must have been around the time the movie Clueless came out which made Silverstone, who had this sexy, pouty mouth,  a star and ever young man’s fantasy. 

Clearly, I really connected with Holden Caulfield back then, and to be entirely truthful more than 20 years on, I still find a lot of wisdom in some of his observations. 

Across the generations, millions of others have made a similar connection to their own feelings of adolescent loneliness and frustration about a world of phoneys: The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since it was published in 1951 and according to Wikipedia, continues to sell 250,000 copies every year.

There’s so many passages in the book that just knock the lights out for me, not least his awkward ncounter with a young prostitute in his hotel room where he loses his nerve, and just wants to chat.

It really must have stunned readers back in the conservative 1950s with Holden’s frank observations about sex (“I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.”), desire (“I was feeling pretty horny, I have to admit it.”), suicide (“I almost wished I was dead.”), death and depression (“I just felt blue as hell”).

Of course, a lot of Holden’s behaviour, thoughts and opinions are those of angst-ridden, affected adolescent, too intelligent for his own good, but at the same time there is also so much truth and poignancy in what he says about people and their phoneyness, be they teachers, priests, movie stars or members of his own family (“All mothers are slightly insane”).

 It’s hard to pick out a favourite passage because their are so many. But I f I had to choose one, It would be when Holden decides to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum, which he loved visiting on school trips because “it always felt like it was raining outside, even when it wasn’t” and where he’d eat candy and chew gum and a girl would hold his hand. 

He recalls his favourite exhibits,  the Indians in a war canoe “about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row” and the eskimos fishing through a hole in the ice.

Holden says you could return a hundred thousand times and nothing would be different, the eskimos would still be there, except you would be different in some way. 

 He then thinks about his kid sister Phoebe, and that she would visit the museum like he did as a school kid and she too would be different every time she visited.

It didn’t exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn’t make gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad. Anyway, I kept thinking about all that while I walked.

There’s something so brutally true about this.

Don’t we all long for some things to never change? That our parents not grow old, that those we love not pass away or disappear from our lives.

Don’t we all want to be Catchers in the Rye?

Who really was Ben Zygier? Reading Rafael Epstein’s ‘Prisoner X’

prisoner x‘Prisoner X’ by journalist and ABC radio presenter Rafael Epstein investigates the life and death of Melbourne man Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in a top secret cell in Israel’s Ayalon Prison in  December 2010 and whose sensational story made headlines in Australia and around the wold.

In 2013, Zygier, a lawyer and father of two from a well-connected Melbourne Jewish family, was sensationally revealed on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme to be’Prisoner X’ the Mossad agent who betrayed Israel.

My interest in reading Epstein’s excellent book came out of a conversation with a fellow journalist, Patrick Durkin (@patrickdurkin),  a former lawyer, who had done articles with Ben at the law firm Norton Rose in 2001.

Patrick mentioned that when news broke that Ben Zygier was ‘Prisoner X’ in early 2013, he had hastily written a story for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper we both write for, titled “Prisoner X, My Melbourne lawyer friend”

It may have been written in haste, but it was deeply moving and renewed my interest in a story I had, for some reason, not followed in great detail when it made front page headlines.  Patrick wrote that the revelations of who Ben was sent a “shock wave” through his group of lawyer friends.

Ben had joined our group of 20-odd articled clerks halfway through the year. Most of us remember him as a serious young man who was largely aloof from the rest of our tight-knit group… News broken by ABC’s Foreign Correspondent of Ben’s jailing and death is as shocking as it is surreal. (Patrick Durkin)

Rafael Epstein also knew Ben Zygier, at a much earlier time in his life, and like Patrick struggled to digest how he ended up in such a predicament in solitary confinement in a maximum security Israeli jail.

Epstein was Ben’s mentor in a Zionist Youth Movement called Netzer in the late 1980s when he remembered Ben  as a “cheeky, warm, quietly spoken boy”.

I have a photo of Ben from this time…it is the same smile and blue eyes that stare out from the photo of Ben flashed around the world’s media two year’s after his death. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

Epstein’s motivation to write the book was to correct the impression created in the mainstream media that Ben was either a “zealot or a traiter” by shedding some light on who Ben really was and, also, to try and solve the mystery of what really happened.

According to Epstein’s carefully drawn picture – based on numerous interviews with people who knew him  – Ben Zygier was by all accounts  a well-liked, quick-witted, intelligent man who would have made a very good lawyer.

But unfortunately, he also had none of the traits necessary to become a master spy for Mossad, Israel’s revered and feared spy agency: he was emotionally unstable, his behaviour was sometimes unpredictable, he could be grandiose and boastful and crucially, he could not keep a secret.

prisoner_x_melbourne_021413_620px

Ben Zygier on the front page of The Age newspaper

One of the key revelations in the book is Epstein’s fervent belief that Ben’s downfall was not – as reported in the mainstream media – due to a rogue mission to the Middle East where his attempts to turn a Hezbollah agent into an Israeli double-agent, backfired sensationally.

Instead, Epstein claims, it was things Ben said to a mysterious Iranian man among Ben’s circle of friends at Monash University where he had returned to study in 2009 that led him to a solitary cell in Ayalon Prison.

According to Epstein, Ben’s fragile state of mind caused him to betray his secret life to the wrong person.

Ben’s mistake was a simple one and lacked the determination and intent that has been suggested in the media…put simply, Ben said too much to the wrong person at the wrong time. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

The other key insight from the book is that it provides a convincing case that Ben’s death was suicide, despite the initial suspicions when he was found hanged in a supposed suicide-proof cell. The truth appears to be that Ben died because responsibility for his care was mishandled by the security services and the prison officials, because no one did their jobs properly in ensuring his well being and because, by the end, Ben had lost all hope.

Indeed, a sense of profound and unnecessary tragedy is what rings most loudly in reading Epstein’s book; that Ben Zygier, who came from a well-connected and loving Jewish family, who had a loving wife and two kids, who was well educated, smart and likable, could have lived a successful and happy life.

Tragically, he chose the wrong path and was then encouraged further along it, by people who misjudged his character.

Of course there still remain all those unanswered questions: who exactly did Ben tell his secrets to? What were they and why did he become Israel’s most dangerous prisoner? These questions Epstein cannot answer, though not for lack of trying.

Predictably, after I finished reading Prisoner X, I watched the two riveting Foreign Correspondent documentaries (you can find them here) and read numerous articles published at the time about ‘Prisoner X’ and Ben Zygier searching for clues. But as one former spy put it on Foreign Correspondent, we are likely to ever know the full story.

I also had another chat with my colleague Patrick.

He told me that his old law friends had recently met for reunion drinks.Ben, he said, had inevitably come up in conversation as they reminisced about their days at Norton Rose.

According to Patrick,  the group remembered how Ben would be quiet and not really participating in the conversation, and then suddenly say something that grabbed everyone’s attention: like the time he told the group he had killed someone while serving in the Israeli army.

“That was Ben.”

The-headstone-of-Ben-Zygi-012

My Orwellian odyssey: a descent into the fiction of George Orwell

George_Orwell_press_photoAs it happened, I was in the midst of reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s very fine first novel about imperialism and prejudice set within a rural Burmese village during British rule, when the plans for “Operation Fortitude” were made public.

The press release, issued by Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28 detailed a sinister operation planned in Melbourne over the coming weekend when ABF officers would be patrolling the streets, scrutinizing everyone coming into the city centre and targeting “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

coming up for airMost ominously and invoking the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 with its constant surveillance and suspicion, the press release said that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

As the outrage at this trampling of individual rights (and suspicions of racial profiling) grew louder and louder, it seemed  everyone from Booker prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan to protestors at hastily arranged gatherings were referencing Orwell or using the adjective ‘Orwellian’ to describe the planned paramilitary-style operation.

burmese daysGripped by it all, I finished reading Burmese Days and proceeded to re-read my tattered copy of Orwell’s Coming up for Air (1939) featuring my favourite Orwell anti-hero, the rotund, bald, bowler-hatted insurance salesman George Bowling who as the bomber planes fly overhead, casting shadows over London and bringing with them portents of the approaching descent into worldwide destruction and death, reminisces about his carefree youth and plans a return his countryside home town of Lower Binfield to seek out a legendary fishing spot.

keep the aspidstraNext up, I re-read Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – also a tattered paperback on my bookshelf – about the idealistic London poet Gordon Comstock (brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant in the film version, A Merry War), who has forsaken a promising career as a copywriter in an advertising firm in order to escape the moneying world and all its artistic-destroying influences to write something that matters. We find Comstock virtually starving in his bleak bed sit in a men’s lodging house scrawling away at an epic poem he can’t seem to finish while bemoaning his poverty, which has ironically become an even greater destructive force to his writing than a well paid job as well as to his relationships and his sanity.

animal farmAfter that, I dived straight into Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s political fairy tale about the failings of socialism set among the world of animals who overthrow their human masters only to become slaves under the control of the intelligent, cunning pigs who are “more equal than others”.

Finally, I ended my Orwellian odyssey with 1984 (written in 1949), Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece set in a futuristic London of enormous windowless government buildings, squalid tenements, always watching’ telescreens’ and posters of ‘Big Brother’, where timid revolutionary Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth and his lover, Julie, battle the belligerent totalitarian state, its thought police, doublespeak ideology and hunger for eternal power.

1984_by_alcook-d4z39dhSo what was my Orwellian journey like?

Melancholic and depressing give the current state of the world.

As described in 1984 and Animal Farm, the loss of individual freedoms has occurred even in democratic countries like Australia, the USA and the UK, with their gag orders against speaking out against refugee abuse, surveillance and collection of meta-data and secret actions of spy agencies like the NSA and ASIO.

Imperialism and prejudice is alive and well

As in Burmese Days, which sets its modernistic central character,  35-year-old teak merchant John Flory against the bigotry within the walls of European Club, we find ourselves in an quasi-imperialist world where the richest, most powerful countries continue to oppress minority populations, invade sovereign countries at will and turn a blind eye to the consequences: thousands of displaced refugees.

“After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people, an inferior people with black faces” – from Burmese Days

Secondly, invigorating and wondrous. Orwell’s writing sparkles, glows and comes alive as you read it and follow the adventures and exploits of his characters. His manages to address weighty and universal themes by creating engaging characters, brilliantly plotted storylines and living, breathing places. He is a master craftsman, who true to his famous rules for writing knows that a few, carefully chosen words, expertly put together, can create vivid scenes that leaps out of the page:

In the deadly glare of the neon lights the pavements were densely crowded. Gordon threaded his way, a small shabby figure, with a pale face and unkempt hair – From Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Then there are his characters. I found myself happily inside the head of all of them, even the ones that are on the surface, unlovable like fat, unhappy George Bowling whom we find on the very first page of Coming Up for Air, locked in the bathroom of his home on a dreary London housing estate, plotting his escape from his wife and kids on a “beastly January morning”. After all, who doesn’t yearn – now and then – for a return to their youth, to a time when they were carefree and without adult responsibilities?

Similarly, I identified with the idealism of malnourished and unwashed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with his rallying against “money, money, always money” encapsulated in his distaste for the catchy slogans that hang from windswept, tattered advertising boards outside the secondhand bookshop he works in.

No doubt Gordon would find our advertising-saturated world with its sponsored content and brand placement even more nauseating as he would the greedy capitalism and worship of money that defines success today.

And then there is John Flory, the lonely, lost colonialist searching for companionship in Burmese Days who sees skin colour as a mystery to be explored and celebrated, but set against a world of cunning corruption and prejudice. One of the most tragic of Orwell’s characters, he is also one of his most loveable and most admirable.

Orwellian, as we understand it.

And then there is the sheer devastating power of 1984 and Animal Farm, whose much-discussed and debated themes of tyranny, oppression and the crushing of individualism find their reflection in the darker  actions of governments with their ‘Operation Fortitudes’, metadata laws and secrecy and in mega-corporations like Facebook and Google, now the most powerful players in the world of news, information and personal data.

Indeed, it is no surprise, that as I finished reading these five novels, I read also a review of anew theatrical version of 1984 running in Melbourne and the seemingly never ending articles about Orwell and the Orwellian – though I confess that Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are my two favourites.

Read them all!

play about 1984