December 5 - 12, 1 9 9 6

Crime and Publishing

Mark Singer's inquiry into the denial of a prisoner's rights began as a relatively straightforward magazine story. But as he dug deeper, his project became a morass of deceptions and ethical dilemmas worthy of Dostoyevsky.

by Yvonne Abraham

In 1988, Brett Coleman Kimberlin told anyone who would listen that he'd sold pot to vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle during the early '70s. During his run, Quayle had made perversely categorical denials of drug use: not only had he never indulged, but he had never been at a party where drugs were used, and, further, knew nobody else who had ever done drugs, either. So, in the ebbing days of the campaign, when Kimberlin tried to hold a press conference airing his claims, plenty of reporters were willing to listen. But Kimberlin, who was serving 15 years in prison for a series of bombings (one of which blew a man's leg clean off), was not allowed to speak. Prison authorities, probably acting under pressure from Quayle supporters, stepped in at the last minute and put an end to the media event, placing Kimberlin in solitary confinement for good measure.

A martyr -- and a much more compelling story -- was born. Yet, despite Kimberlin's indefatigable efforts, that story lay dormant, at least in the mainstream media, until a series of 1991 Doonesbury cartoons resuscitated his cause. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau passed the tale along to an old friend of his, the talented and respected New Yorker writer Mark Singer.

Singer set to work on the story a couple of months before the 1992 election. His account of Kimberlin's travails, which appeared that year in the New Yorker of October 5, was sympathetic -- some said too sympathetic -- depicting the prisoner as a victim of influence-peddling, a man whose treatment by the Bureau of Prisons only buttressed his Quayle claims, and made him something of a political prisoner.

The article made a splash, and eventually became a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Kimberlin's story was taken up anew in the New York Times and elsewhere. Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) urged a Justice Department investigation into Kimberlin's treatment. A hefty book contract -- under which Singer and Kimberlin would split the proceeds -- was signed. And four years later, Citizen K: The Deeply Weird American Journey of Brett Kimberlin (Alfred A. Knopf), has arrived. Only it is not the book either of them expected. Shortly after Singer began work on the book, he got strong inklings, supported by mounting evidence, of something that had eluded him while he was writing the New Yorker article: Kimberlin had lied.

Rather than let his subject know the jig was up, though, Singer carried on, determined to get at the real Brett Kimberlin. For the writer, the project became a kind of contest, one he was bent on winning, secure in the knowledge that deception was the only way to get at the truth. Kimberlin, ignorant of Singer's epiphany -- and believing he'd already won the contest back in 1992 -- continued to cooperate, secure in the knowledge that he was helping to create a testament to his own greatness.

When the New Yorker published an excerpt from Citizen K in October, Kimberlin learned what Singer had known for some time: that their relationship was not that of a sainted victim and his hagiographer. Singer would say that they were much more evenly matched than that, that they were near-equals engaged in a battle in which the spoils were truth and its representation. Kimberlin, of course, would disagree.

Part 2

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yabraham[a]

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