Lisa Belkin is an award-winning journalist and the author of narrative nonfiction books. Her career at the New York Times includes stints as a national correspondent, medical reporter, and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.
Below, Lisa shares 5 key insights from her new book, Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night. Listen to the audio version—read by Lisa herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Listen until the end of the story.
This is my corollary to Robert Caro’s “turn every page.” Doctors and reporters call them doorknob conversations—you are about to leave the room or change the subject and the patient or source will say “by the way” and break the conversation wide open. You can’t make these moments happen, but when they do there is magic.
This book began when I listened until the end. I was visiting with my mother and her new husband, a man I didn’t know well, as they had met and married late in life. Over poached duck eggs and multigrain bread from their local farmer’s market that Sunday morning, my stepfather began to tell a story, talking slowly and deliberately, as was his way.
He worked as a young doctor in the Army in the late 1950s, stationed not on a base, but in a maximum-security prison outside of Chicago. There he ran experiments on prisoners as part of the Army’s scramble to find a treatment for malaria. As a long-time medical writer, I almost interrupted his tale to insert how that kind of research was now considered unethical and banned.
But he had another point to make. My hand on the metaphorical doorknob, he began to tell of how he’d trained prisoners to be lab techs during those years, and one, in particular, had been gifted and brilliant. That prisoner asked for my stepfather’s help at an upcoming parole hearing. My stepfather did his usual careful research—in this case about the success rates of parole and rehabilitation—then helped the prisoner earn early release. Things, subsequently, went terribly wrong and a police officer was murdered.
2. We are created by our stories—but we often get them wrong.
My stepfather told me his story more than 50 years after it happened. He had most of the details right, but the embellishments and backfills often told me more than the facts themselves.
Take the arrival of his grandmother in America in the late 1880s. Raisel had made the journey from Grodno to America alone with her one-year-old son, and her descendants liked to share the story of that arrival as it had been told to them. When it was her turn to step off the ship, Raisel was stopped by an immigration officer who said she could proceed but Aime had to stay behind. She sat herself down in protest, wrapping her firstborn under her coat and crossing her arms across the bulge to hide him. Finally, word reached the captain, and he came to intervene. The captain insisted that mother and child be allowed to enter the United States together because he and his ship had places to go.
“Less important than what happened, though, is what generations came to believe happened.”
That was one version. There were others. That the ship had been sinking, or the ship had been aflame, or that Raisel grabbed Aime and fled down the gangplank, the crew in pursuit. She did everything but dive off the deck and swim for shore. The only problem with those stories is that there are no records of a ship foundering or burning in New York Harbor around the time when Raisel arrived. Even the most benign of the tales runs up against the fact that immigration rules did not separate babies from their mothers in the 1880s.
Something apparently happened to Raisel that day—something frightening that made her fear she would lose her son. But she spoke Yiddish, some Russian, no English, and the specifics seem lost in translation. Less important than what happened, though, is what generations came to believe happened. Whatever the specific facts, the truth was that Raisel was tough—so tough that her family thought it completely in character that she would refuse the orders of a man in uniform, face down the flames, or even go down with the ship rather than risk separation from her son.
Her grandson would be told that his grandmother was tough, that she stood up to authority, and took risks for what was right. That grandson came to admire toughness. And when his path crossed with a prisoner—a brilliant autodidact who had clearly found his calling and wanted to go straight—that grandson fought for that prisoner’s release.
3. “Life can only be understood backwards. But…it must be lived forwards.”
That’s not my insight. Kierkegaard wrote it, albeit a longer version, in 1843. What drew me to my stepfather’s tale was this idea of understanding a life by going backwards. Three men—the prisoner, the policeman, and the doctor—had begun at the same starting line. They were all the same age, born in the early years of the Great Depression, and they all had parents or grandparents who’d left different homelands to pursue the same American Dream. How did they come to be who they were and where they were on that July night?
How any of us become who we are has long been a fascination of mine, a central thread in the knot of being a journalist. I often begin interviews by asking, “Take me back to the beginning.” It’s a game I play when stuck in traffic, standing at a boarding gate, or sitting in a hospital waiting room, scanning the collected strangers who, for the moment, occupy the same center of some cosmic Venn diagram. What’s your story? I wonder. Have our paths crossed before? Where did your path start?
Finding that start is a lot like unrolling a tangle of yarn, all knotted and entwined. Finding where my stepfather’s story began was a journey backwards, through coincidences and connections, deliberate choices and chance events, global forces and intimate interactions.
“Finding that start is a lot like unrolling a tangle of yarn, all knotted and entwined.”
He, of course, did not live it backwards. Hurtling forward, his was a trip through the darkness by the light of an inadequate lamp. All our lives are prologues to one version of a story, an epilogue to another. We don’t get to see the “all of it”—or even the “more of it”—unless a family historian, fervent genealogist, or a somewhat-obsessed author comes along to map the whole.
What began with a stubborn immigrant mother on a ship ended in the death of a police officer, who was the father of three young children. Those children, now with children of their own, did not even know that my stepfather existed until six decades after he’d upended their lives.
4. We are the sepia-toned people.
When Covid-19 first shut down the planet, I happened to be in the middle of writing the 1918 chapter of this book. Nineteen-eighteen was a ghastly year. More people died from the 1918 flu epidemic than from any other natural event in human history up to that point—far more than died in World War I, fought during the same year. And yet, I thought, “I would rather be back in 1918. I know how that ends.”
I thought I knew other things about 1918 too. About quarantine signs on houses because cities didn’t have basic sanitation or modern medication. Women sewing bandages for their fighting men, because industry was not robust enough to provide what was needed. I saw it all in mental snapshots, all sepia-toned and safely distant. How quaint. And, it turned out, how patronizing.
Now, 100 years later, we were those sepia-toned people, those quaint stalwarts upended by the times. We were sewing facemasks, sanitizing groceries, and, some of us, turning to literal horse pills to ward off disease. I went back and rewrote the 1918 chapter with more empathy, insight, and nuance. And shouldn’t these be the point of any story?
5. Go down the rabbit holes.
This is true of storytelling and of life. These may look like detours, but they will prove to be the main road, a direct route from there to here. The sepia-toned people come alive in the rabbit holes. The story, lived forward, becomes understandable backwards.
To wit: Motorcycle racing was the most popular sport in America in 1911. Seen by more spectators than major league baseball, it was an arena for gladiators with engines. Some of the blood was drawn by the track itself, which was built of rough-hewn pine slats and guaranteed to hurl splinters and pop tires. Much of the danger, though, came from the riders themselves, who wrestled while they flew, hooking opponents’ handlebars, grabbing their sweaters, doing all they could to knock the next guy off his bike while wearing little to nothing that counted as protective gear.
They raced in newly built arenas known as Motordromes, holding 10,000 spectators at a time. Stadiums were soon nicknamed “Murderdromes” by headline writers, which only increased sales. Riders crashed, burned, and more than one was decapitated as his bike flew off the track and into the crowd. Spectators were killed and injured too, hit by flying flaming debris or trampled in the rush to escape.
“What had been his chance to triumph in life, ruined him instead—the start of a cascade that would topple other generations, other families.”
It was the danger to the audience that would cause the sport to wane as precipitously as it rose, and by 1914 it was on the decline. But before it was forgotten by history, a middling rider with big dreams would ride one last race, a novelty number, in which he and an opponent would complete a first mile, jump off their bikes to drink down a full glass of lemonade, then get back on and complete a second mile.
This particular rider, whose name was Charles, was the reason I went down this rabbit hole, learning more than I ever intended about motorcycles of old. Charles made it to the lemonade table first. He chugged his drink and had just stepped back onto the track when his opponent drove toward him at nearly ninety miles per hour. Charles was thrown to the ground in the collision, his head hitting the wooden boards with a crack so loud it was heard in the stands.
That dazed young man would never be the same. What had been his chance to triumph in life, ruined him instead—the start of a cascade that would topple other generations, other families.
Charles would quit the sport, but never find another foothold, drifting from job to job with none of the energy or ambition that had almost made him a racing star. He would marry, have two sons, and would take out his anger on those boys, spasmodic uncontrollable rages followed by dark stretches of depression.
Modern-day forensic pathologists would now use terms like Traumatic Brain Injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, but those would all come too late to help Charles. His youngest son, in turn, would respond to his father’s shadow with truancy, petty crime, and then armed robbery. Eventually, that son would be sentenced to a maximum-security prison outside of Chicago, where he would train as a lab technician during an Army drug trial on malaria, meet a sympathetic doctor, and earn parole.
But there would not be a happy ending.
To listen to the audio version read by author Lisa Belkin, download the Next Big Idea App today: