Green-Haired Gumshoes or Hidebound Hacks? Creative Nonfiction vs. Journalism

Michael McGregor

Junger's interest in the case stems from a story his mother told him of DeSalvo's calling to her from the family's basement. When she looked down the stairs, she recalled to her son years later, DeSalvo gazed up at her with "a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotize me. As if by sheer force of will he could draw me down into that basement."

Although DeSalvo never claimed responsibility for the Goldberg murder and never stood trial for any of the Boston stranglings, Junger asserts that his mother could have been a victim that day. To "prove" his assertion, he delivers a mountain of researched "facts" about Smith, DeSalvo, the Strangler investigation, the racial climate in America, and the workings of the Massachusetts criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the only thing holding his story together is his imagination. His conjecture and speculation. His "personal point of view."

As Alan Dershowitz, one of the book's many critics, wrote in the New York Times, although A Death in Belmont reads like a novel, it is nonfiction. Therefore, "it is not enough that the Junger family had a story that was perfect. It is important that the story be true, or at least highly likely. And it is here that Junger's methodology raises concerns. Although he acknowledges that ‘often the truth simply isn't knowable'—and that this story is ‘far messier' than the perfect one he has grown up with—he still tries too hard to fit the messy facts into his payoff narrative."

Dershowitz goes on to quote what he calls "a disturbing claim about the genre of nonfiction" Junger makes near the book's end: "Maybe the truth isn't even the most interesting thing about some stories, I thought; maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true. And maybe it's in the pursuit of those things that you understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense."

Nonsense, Dershowitz says: "Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth."

What we now consider the traditional journalistic approach—stripped-down, just-the-facts writing put in what's called the inverted pyramid—arose in the early twentieth century in response to the popular but wildly inaccurate storytelling of what became known as "yellow journalism." Publications like the New York Times found that readers would actually buy and read newspapers with less sensational stories if they believed the facts they were getting were true. Narrative nonfiction's growing popularity is based not only on better storytelling but also on this belief. It is the last "creative" medium readers still trust to be factually true. In these skeptical times, however, that trust is razor thin.

It seems to me that Dinty W. Moore's warning should be a cry of delight instead, a welcoming of those journalists who have learned to be storytellers and yet retain a fierce and ethical commitment both to dogged research and to letting the story follow the facts instead of the other way around. If their approach is embraced rather than scorned, they just might save this one last verifiably factual portion of creative nonfiction from itself.

Michael McGregor is a journalist and an associate professor of nonfiction writing in the new MFA program at Portland State University in Oregon.