Guilt Trap

Twenty years after Nicole Brown Simpson's murder, thoughts on Socrates, St. Augustine, If I Did It, and the nature of guilt.

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If I Did It is an extremely confusing book written by an extremely confused man. That man is O. J. Simpson. He wrote the book as an act of confession. Or, maybe not, since the entire book is hypothetical. O. J. Simpson didn’t even write the book. He told his hypothetical account to a ghostwriter named Pablo F. Fenjves. In fact, the name O. J. Simpson is nowhere to be found on the cover of If I Did It. There is only the phrase “Confessions of The Killer.”

The book refers to that now-infamous night twenty years ago, June 12, 1994, when O.J.’s wife Nicole Brown Simpson was killed along with Ronald Goldman. Ron Goldman was, most likely, a man at the wrong place at the wrong time, a waiter returning a pair of glasses left at a restaurant by Nicole’s mother. Or maybe he was romantically involved with Nicole. Either way, it doesn’t matter anymore. Ron Goldman was caught up in the events of that night and was killed. After O. J. Simpson’s trial ended in a not-guilty verdict in 1995, there was another trial. This was a civil trial, brought by Ronald Goldman’s family. That trial reached verdict in 2007. O. J. Simpson was found liable for the wrongful death of Ronald Goldman. The Goldman family was awarded $33.5 million dollars in damages. They also received the publishing rights of If I Did It. The Goldmans were ordered by the judge of the civil trial to publish the book as a way to collect damages, (O. J. having nowhere near $33.5 million dollars readily to hand), and to prevent O. J. from profiting from the “wrongful death.” It was the members of the Goldman family who decided to call the author of If I Did It “The Killer.”

If I Did It includes an introduction by the Goldman family, a prologue by Pablo Fenjves explaining how the book was written, a history of the trial, an afterword by the journalist Dominick Dunne, and an epilogue by the Goldman’s lawyer Peter T. Haven. The sheer polyphony is enough to confuse anyone. The core of the book is O. J. Simpson’s story. It is his own account, as it were, of what happened during his seven years of marriage to Nicole Brown Simpson, her murder, and the immediate aftermath. The first five chapters of the book read like any story of romance, marriage, and marital troubles leading to divorce. Because O. J. Simpson’s main interest was telling his side of the story, it is a tiresome read, like listening to a miserable friend as he rattles on about what everyone else in his life is doing wrong.

Then we get to Chapter 6, “The Night in Question.” A few pages into the chapter, Simpson begins to explain what happened on the night of the murders. He claims that a man named Charlie (no last name given), whom he’d met only a few weeks before, drove up to his house to tell him bad news about Nicole. Nicole was involved with drugs, Charlie said, and was hanging around with a bad crowd. This angered O. J., who was already having a bad day. O. J. decided to take action. But just as O. J. is about to describe the murders, he adds this strange proviso: “Now picture this — and keep in mind, this is hypothetical.” He then goes on to relate what happened as he and Charlie went to “scare” Nicole and ended up confronting Ron Goldman and Nicole at the pathway to her house. Eventually, O. J. grabbed a knife from Charlie and killed both Nicole and Ron in a sort of daze that he only woke up from when the murders were complete.

“I looked down and saw [Nicole] on the ground in front of me, curled up in the fetal position at the base of the stairs, not moving. Goldman was only a few feet away, slumped against the bars of the fence. He wasn’t moving either. Both he and Nicole were lying in giant pools of blood. I have never seen so much blood in my life. It didn’t seem real, and none of it computed.”

Hypothetically.

In the final two chapters, “The Interrogation” and “The Fight of My Life,” O. J. provides a transcript of his interrogation by the LAPD and an account of the days leading up to his arrest, including details about the legendary ride in the white Bronco with A. C. Cowlings. In those final two chapters, O. J. goes back to protesting his innocence and to explaining away the otherwise incriminating evidence including, absurdly, facts from his own hypothetical confession of the murders in the previous chapter.

It could be argued that confusion is to be expected from a man trying to get away with murder. But then, why write a book that includes a hypothetical confession and then immediately refute that very same hypothetical confession? O. J. comes off as a man desperately trying to achieve two contradictory goals at once. On the one hand, he wants to clear his name; on the other hand, he wants to confess his crimes. How can a man who has committed a heinous double-murder both clear his name and confess the crime? It is only possible if a man can be innocent and guilty at the same time.

At the end of the chapter in which Simpson relates how he hypothetically killed Nicole and Ron, he tries to explain the special nature of his innocence. Speaking directly to the reader of the book, Simpson says:

“Half of you think I did it, and nothing will ever make you change your minds. The other half know I didn’t do it, and all the evidence in the world — planted or otherwise — isn’t going to sway you, either. But this wasn’t about that. This was about me, the prime suspect, the accused party, and I did what all accused men do at the moment of truth: I proclaimed my innocence.”

That’s an amazing statement, because it is manifestly untrue. Plenty of people accused of crimes — especially crimes they committed — proclaim their guilt. Some people even proclaim their guilt when they aren’t guilty. But O. J. is saying that there is a difference between guilt with a small ‘g’ and guilt that infects your entire character. Is there a difference between committing a murder and “being” a murderer? O. J. desperately wants to believe that there is. He worries that he stands accused of being, in his essence, a murderer. That’s why he said in the above quote, “This was about me.” For O.J., there is a difference between being a person who committed an act of murder and being “The Killer.”

There are a few times when O. J. faltered in this conviction. He admits that he was seriously considering suicide when he got into the white Bronco with A. C. Cowlings and took the LAPD on that ride around the LA freeway system. But just when he was about to pull the trigger, O. J. heard Dan Rather’s voice on the radio talking about O. J.’s long history of domestic abuse. This made him angry, because it wasn’t true. “That changes everything,” O. J. yelled to A. C. “I’m not going to listen to any more of this bullshit!” Depression, as O. J. puts it, had given way to rage. He wanted to take control of his story, to assert the truths as he saw them. Soon enough, O. J. was the featured man in a televised trial watched by hundreds of millions of people.

It is impossible to read If I Did It without concluding that O. J. Simpson is a man trying to explain something to us, to bring us into his story. But he is pulled in two different directions as he tries.

First, O. J. wants to make it clear that he is not a man given to physically abusing women. He is not a violent man. He didn’t hate his ex-wife, he wasn’t jealous and he did not want her back. Those are the central points in his version of the story. It doesn’t really matter how true they are. What matters is that O. J. absolutely believes these things to be true. Proving these “facts” has become, in a sense, the primary mission of O. J.’s life since the murders. At the very least, the people who believe he murdered Nicole and Ron should find it shocking that a man like O. J. could have done such a thing. This is how O. J. feels about himself, in any case. He can’t believe he was capable of murder. And he can’t understand why anyone else would believe such a thing. The public explanations as to why he did it only further gall him, since they impute motivations that he does not recognize in himself. For years O. J. has been trying to say, “I’m not the guy portrayed in the media, the jealous and violent man who killed Nicole because she wouldn’t come back to me.” At a certain point, the need to convince people that he is not a rage-filled jealous lover became consonant with innocence as such in O. J.’s mind.

In the process of telling his side of the story, O. J.’s claims of innocence became a defense of his very “self,” of whom he is as a man. Confessing to the killings, once the accusations were out, would have amounted to admitting that he is not who he believes himself to be. It would have amounted to obliterating his identity.

There’s a long tradition in Western culture of responding to accusations with an affirmation of the self. Think of it as the Socratic impulse. It is the need to give an apology — not in the sense of saying “I’m sorry,” but in the sense of the Greek word apologia. An apologia is not an admission of guilt or an expression of regret. It is, literally, a “talking back.” It is a response to an accusation in which the accused tells his side of the story. That’s what Socrates does in his apology. He tells his side of the story. He affirms who he is and what he is about. Let’s not forget that Socrates was guilty of his crimes. Just read I. F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates. Socrates was, in fact, corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ students and admirers — men like Alcibiades — were, in fact, being taught by Socrates to have contempt for the structures of Athenian democracy. Some of Socrates’ students did, in fact, overthrow and abolish Athenian democracy. So Socrates, in his apology, is not protesting his innocence so much as asserting himself, affirming his own point of view. “This is who I really am,” says Socrates, “this is what I am about.”

O. J. was grasping at something similar when he said, “I did what all accused men do at the moment of truth: I proclaimed my innocence.” Defending the truth or falsity of the accusations against him didn’t matter as much to O. J. The important thing to defend when you stand alone, accused, is your self. This is when you have a chance to say, “Here’s who I am, here’s my story and I will not surrender this story.”
But there is another side to O. J. This side does want to confess, wants to be able to discuss and come to terms with the actual murders. This side of O. J. wants to be released from the burden of self that he affirms in the Socratic impulse. In his confessional mode, O. J. doesn’t want to be responsible for his story. He wants to be able to give his story away. This desire to confess is the Augustinian impulse and it is fundamentally incompatible with the Socratic impulse.

Augustine’s Confessions are the writings of a man unburdening himself. Augustine wants to find himself by throwing himself away. He wants to loosen the bonds of self. He wants to find relief from his own story by giving it away to God. “For behold,” Augustine writes, “Thou lovest the truth, and he that doth it, cometh to the light. This would I do in my heart before Thee in confession: and in my writing, before many witnesses.” That is, more or less, what O. J. tries to do by embedding a confession in the sixth chapter of his strange book. Except that he cannot do it completely. He does it by way of a hypothetical, and then toggles back into Socratic mode for the rest of the book, in an attempt to reclaim his “self” once more.

On September 13, 2007, O. J. Simpson walked into the Palace Hotel in Las Vegas with several other men. They had pistols and they grabbed various items of sports memorabilia. Simpson said he was just trying to get his stuff back. But the robbery was so inept that you have to wonder. Did O. J. want to be on trial again? His life had become an ongoing ritual of accusation, defense, verdict, and punishment. He was caught in a loop of Socrates and Augustine that he couldn’t solve but only repeat.

Currently, O. J. is serving a nine-to-thirty-three year sentence in a Nevada prison for armed robbery and kidnapping. He has recently filed a long appeal to that verdict. No word yet on whether a hearing will be granted. If so, O. J. could find himself telling his story once again. “I’m going to tell you a story you’ve never heard before,” O. J. says in If I Did It, “because no one knows the story the way I know it.” That’s true of all of us, I suppose. We all know our own stories better than anyone else. At the same time, there is no tyranny as complete as the tyranny of our own story, no freedom so total as the freedom of finally letting that story go. • 2 June 2014

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.
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