An excerpt from Kurt Andersen’s “True Believers”

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An excerpt from Kurt Andersen's "True Believers"
An excerpt from Kurt Andersen's "True Believers"

My publishers signed me up a year ago to write a book, but not this book. “A candid and inspirational memoir by one of the most accomplished leaders  and thinkers of our times,” their press release promised. They think they’re getting a slightly irreverent fleshing out of  my shiny curriculum vitae, a plainspoken, self-congratulatory chronicle of A Worthy Life in the Law and the Modern  Triumph of American Women, which they’re publishing, ho-hum premise notwithstanding, because I’ve written a couple of best sellers  and appear on TV a lot.

By far the most  interesting  thing about my life, however, is nowhere in my résumé or official bio or Wikipedia entry. I’m not exactly who the world  believes I am. Let  me cut to the chase: I once set out to commit a spectacular  murder, and people died.

But it’s not a simple story. It needs to be unpacked very carefully. Like a bomb.

Trust me, okay?

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I am reliable. I am an oldest child.  Highly imperfect, by no stretch a goody-goody. But I was a reliable U.S. Supreme Court clerk and then a reliable Legal Aid lawyer, representing with all the verve and cunning I could muster some of the most pathetically, tragically unreliable  people on earth. I have  been a reliable partner in America’s nineteenth  largest law firm, a reliable author of four books, a reliable law professor, a reliable U.S. Justice Department official, a reliable law school dean. I’ve been a reliable parent—as trustworthy a servant, teacher, patron, defender, and worshipper of my children as anyone could reasonably demand, and I think on any given day at least one of the two of them would agree.

I was not an entirely reliable wife for the last decade of  my marriage, although my late ex, during our final public fight, called me “reliable to a goddamned fault,” which is probably true. And which may be why the surprising things I did immediately afterward— grabbing his BlackBerry out of his hand and hurling it into  a busy New York street, filing for divorce, giving up my law firm partner- ship, accepting a job  that  paid a fifth  as much, moving three thousand miles  away—made him more besotted by me than he’d ever seemed before. As my friend Alex said at the time, “That’s funny— telling Jack Wu ‘@!$%# you’ finally made him  really want to @!$%# you.” I am reliable, but I’m not  making  the case that reliability is the great human virtue.  Nor am I even making the case that  reliability is my great virtue. In fact, after  four decades in the law, I’ve lost my animal drive  for making cases for the  sake of  making  cases, for strictly  arguing one of two incompatible versions of the truth, for telling persuasive stories by omitting or twisting  certain facts.

So I am not arguing a case here.  I’m not setting out to defend myself any more than I am to indict myself. I’m determined to tell something like the whole truth—which, by the way, I don’t believe has ever been done in any American court of law. To tell the whole truth in a legal case would require a discovery process and trial that lasted years, hundreds of witnesses  each testifying for many weeks apiece, and rules of evidence rewritten to permit not just hearsay and improperly obtained information but iffy memories of certain noises and aromas and hallucinatory  hunches, what a certain half-smile or drag on a cigarette decades ago did or didn’t signify during some breathless three A.M. conversation.
 
In any event, for the purposes of this  book, I am extremely reliable. I have files. Since long before I went  to law  school,  for  half a century now—half  a century!—I’ve  saved every diary and journal, every letter I ever received, catechism worksheets, term papers, restaurant receipts, train schedules, ticket stubs, snapshots, Playbills.  At the beginning, my pack-ratting impulse was curatorial,  as if I were director of the Karen Hollaender Museum and Archive. I know that sounds narcissistic, but when I was a kid, it seemed like  a way to give the future me a means of knowing  what the past and perpetually present me was actually like. Prophylactic forensics, you could say.

My memory has always been excellent, but the reason I’m telling my story now is also about maximizing reliability: I’m old enough to forgo the self-protective fibs and lies but still young enough to get the memoir nailed down before the memories  begin disintegrating.

Only one in a hundred people my age suffer dementia, and the Googled Internet is like a prosthetic cerebral cortex and hippocampus, letting us subcontract sharpness and outsource memory. But after sixty-five? Atrocious: the incidence of  neurodegenerative disease increases tenfold during that decade, and it’s worse for women. I turn sixty-five next May.
So, anyhow, here’s my point: I am a reliable narrator. Unusually reliable. Trust me.

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An excerpt from Kurt Andersen's "True Believers"

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