The Beatrice Interview

Mark Singer

"It wasn't as if the scales fell from my eyes all at once. "

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Mark Singer joined The New Yorker in 1974 as a writer for "Talk of the Town," the section of short vignettes that leads each week's content after the events listings. After a year there, he also began to write longer profiles; one of the earliest pieces was about his great-uncle, a radio performer and TV comedy writer who had been a mythic figure to Singer during his Oklahoma childhood. It was during the research for that story (which was later included in Singer's first book, Mr. Personality) that the author began to understand his calling as a reporter who tells true stories about real people, spending hours, sometimes days or even months with a subject until he's found the right narrative for that person.

In 1992, when he made the decision to write about Brett Kimberlin, who claimed to have sold marijuana to Dan Quayle when the future Vice-President was a law student and had been persecuted by the Bureau of Prisons for attempting to tell his story to the press just prior to the 1988 Bush/Dukakis election, it required a departure from his ordinary methodology. Singer couldn't hang around Kimberlin, who was serving time in prison for other crimes, while the intense deadline pressures of the approaching presidential elections meant that he couldn't pursue the story at his usual pace. But after the article appeared in the magazine, Singer had the opportunity to investigate further. "As I got into writing the book," he says, "I reverted to what I'd always done, which is to write about a single person. I was very comfortable knowing that I was just writing about Kimberlin. Even though this was a story that moved around a lot in time and space, by keeping him in focus I was doing what I had always done as a writer." But as Singer's focus got sharper, he began to reach the conclusion that Kimberlin wasn't telling the truth about Quayle... or about a lot of other things. Nevertheless, he continued to research and write what eventually became Citizen K.

RH: This book is as much about your being manipulated by Kimberlin as it is about his life story. What was it like to bring out that much of yourself to the reader?

MS: I didn't feel that I had a choice about whether or not to tell the truth. Once I realized that he had misled me and lied to me, it wasn't as if I was going to abandon the project, because I thought the truth mattered and that it was important to understand how he had manipulated me. There is so much cynicism about the way the press operates that I thought I might make my job easier in the future, and other journalists' jobs, if I told the truth about how I made a mistake, why I thought it happened, and what I did once I discovered that mistake.

RH: Was one of the factors that led to Kimberlin being able to manipulate you the fullness with which you plunged into writing this feature? It seems to be an all-consuming process.

MS: Did you happen to read the first piece? I think that that piece still holds up when it talks about the essential political story. What it didn't have was a full portrait of Kimberlin's character and...maybe you're asking me if I think that first piece was a rush to judgment or that it was too hasty. The answer is that I don't think it was too hasty. It wasn't hasty; it was done obviously under a lot of deadline pressure, but it was very thoroughly reported. That piece was nominated as a finalist for a national magazine award for reporting. It was not a slipshod reporting job. You can obviously conclude that journalists should be diligent and not rush to judgment, and I agree with that. But I was dealing with a huge amount of material, and I think I had a good handle on it -- and as far as the Bureau of Prisons episode is concerned, I think that story holds up.

Looking back on it, should I have known that it was going to take the turn that it did? I don't know the answer to that. I didn't see him fully as a person, but I don't know how necessary it was for that particular piece of journalism to do that. It was only when I started to write a book about Kimberlin that I needed to see him more fully, and at this point I think I've come pretty close.

RH: In the first few chapters, you describe your emotional turmoil as you completed the first piece. I was wondering if there was a similar process at the moment when you began to realize that you'd been led astray.

MS: It wasn't as if the scales fell from my eyes all at once. I've said there was a pivotal moment; I met this guy who told me that I'd written revisionist history the first time out and now I was going to have to engage in self-revisionism. But the process from there on was an incremental process. That's what reporting is about. You go from one fact to the next to the next. And I love reporting, so rather than being traumatized, I was motivated. I was happy in some sense...I didn't really jump up and click my heels, but I was aware that I was going to have to keep going. It was interesting to me the whole way. I spent more time on it than I wanted to, and I don't think that it warped me, but it did become kind of a burden and I feel unburdened now.

RH: It's a level of self-honesty and openness with the reader about the behind-the-scenes process of journalism that I think is fairly uncommon for major journalism of this sort.

MS: When you're a journalist and you go out to do a story and people don't want to talk to you because of the bad behavior of another journalist, it's very frustrating. You wonder why you're paying for that other journalist's sins. If in the future it becomes easier for me to approach potential subjects and be able to say, "You're dealing with somebody who's willing to be self-critical and look at this in a balanced way," I think that will help. The best thing I can hope for is that this is something people in journalism school will read and analyze to see what happened here and how we can avoid this sort of thing in the future.

RH: It might also help reestablish a positive relationship between journalists and their readers. To say, "I have a certain responsibility in what I present to you, and when I flub that, I'll be honest with you and I'll go back and get it right."

MS: I find, though, that not everybody wants to hear that. One critic wrote in effect that I shouldn't have published this book, that I should have just buried the original story, which struck me as outrageous. What purpose would that serve? Supposedly, nobody would ever have known if I had buried the story... and I guess there are plenty of people who would say, "What do I care about this guy? I read this story in 1988, or I read it in 1992, why do I need to read it now?" But I think it's worth reading because it's an adventure story about the truth.

I don't think anybody else would have ever gotten as close to Kimberlin as I did, or had as much invested in Kimberlin as I did, so I was uniquely positioned to explain him to readers. Nobody else would have listened to him at that point; once he was released from prison, he stopped being a compelling fellow. He's still out there seeking attention and manipulating people, but there's a huge difference in the compellingness (sic) that a prisoner has versus somebody who once got locked up. His moment has passed.

RH: Have you heard back from Kimberlin about the book?

MS: I haven't spoken to him.

RH: And he hasn't tried to contact you?

MS: He has not spoken to me directly. I know he's not happy about it, but I haven't spoken to him about it.

RH: How about Dan Quayle?

MS: I haven't heard from him, either. The book is relatively speaking not very much about Dan Quayle. When I set out to write it, I did think that Quayle was going to run for the presidency in 1996, that I was going to discover that there was more to his DEA file than there turned out to be and that I would have a scoop. But he really recedes into the background as the story progresses, and I don't think there's more to it than what I've reported. I don't assume that Quayle's unhappy about what I concluded about Kimberlin, but I can't say that I ever believed Quayle when he said that he has never used drugs, never attended a party where drugs were used, and never had friends who used drugs. I thought he had really bad spin- doctoring there, but that's what he said.

RH: What effect has this story had on the way you'll write from now on?

MS: If I were to become callous because of [Kimberlin], that would be a mistake. I get phone calls and letters from people in prison, and they're time-consuming and demanding, but I don't want to find myself hanging up on everyone and saying, "Absolutely not." On the other hand, I don't want to end up getting in bed with a prisoner again...or I don't want to leap into bed again, let's put it that way. Somebody who knows me pretty well and has read the book said to me that it reveals the two halves of my personality, the half that's cynical and the half that wants to believe people. I think that's an accurate description of how I'm constructed: psychologically, emotionally, or whatever. When I do stories in the future, I don't think I'll have to consciously remind myself to have a cold eye and a sympathetic ear.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Michael Lewis | David McCumber

All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan