By the time he was fourteen, John H. Richardson Jr. had already lived in four countries, including Vietnam, Greece, and the Philippines. That’s when his father, who worked for the government, announced he had been reassigned to Korea. The boy could stay in the States and go to boarding school or join his parents in Korea, but the father decided his son was old enough to know the truth. Preposterous as it seemed, John H. Richardson Sr. was not a special assistant to the ambassador, as previously believed, but in fact worked for the C.I.A. Not just that, he’d been the Saigon bureau chief during the Vietnam War.
If a peripatetic childhood is not fertile enough ground for a career in journalism, a serious-minded but distant father with secrets—major secrets—will do the trick. Richardson has the detached, nonjudgmental, observational eye of the perpetual outsider. He’s curious and smart, a realist with a spiky, mordant sense of humor; a truth-seeker, whether writing about abortion clinic doctors, gun advocates, or faded B-movie stars. Richardson loves characters on the fringe. “It’s a privilege to listen to people tell their stories and write them down,” he says, “especially when they’re the kind of people who get overlooked.”
First at Premiere magazine and then for Esquire—with plenty of freelance stops in between—Richardson amassed a trove of memorable pieces, as a terrific reporter and a first-class storyteller. Don’t let the remove fool you; there is plenty of heart and morality in Richardson’s tougher pieces. For the most part, though, his morality revolves around the challenges of his craft—“in just looking closely and trying to get things right.”
Q: You had an international upbringing, correct? How did your childhood help prepare you for being a journalist?
JHR: I was born in Washington, D.C., moved to Greece when I was eight months old, to the Philippines when I turned four, to Vietnam at eight, then a four-year stint back in D.C. before moving to Korea. With every move, I confronted a new culture, each with different traditions and mores. In the Department of Defense international schools, one of the first things they taught was that we should try to understand our new world before we made any judgments. In Korea, the lesson focused on “three men on a shovel,” a Korean way of digging trenches that our soldiers ridiculed until the Koreans proved that three men with one shovel (two using ropes tied to the shovel) can move more dirt than three men with three shovels. You become obsessed with mapping the territory—do I bring the soup bowl to my lips or leave it on the table? Great training for a journalist.
Q: What was it like being a teenager on an army base?
JHR: I was an embassy brat, not an army brat. We had a cook, two maids, and a full-time chauffeur who took my dad to work in a black limousine. Plus, I had a black passport, which gave me diplomatic immunity and drove the Korean soldiers who manned the checkpoints after curfew insane. Big difference.
Q. Did you always feel like an American over there?
JHR: Conspicuously so. I mean, people would come up to me in the street and ask if they could touch my hair.
Q. So what about when you went back to the States? Did you feel like an outsider?
JHR: A friend of mine from Korea said something when she left about how weird it was to be going to the place “where I’m supposed to belong.” The first time I came back to stay, I was ten, and I had to learn to cuss as protective coloration—a few fucks and shits, and I was one of the boys, egging cars, shoplifting, drinking: oh, to belong and not to belong. Because, yeah, I always felt like an outsider. “Third culture kids,” they call us. The flip side is seeing, over and over, humanity’s best trait, the kindness people show to strangers, which almost makes that lonely, detail-hungry outsider feeling worth it, almost.
Q: And the downside?
JHR: Well, I guess I like to think of myself as freer in my mind than more embedded people, less captured by cultural biases and assumptions. I annoy girlfriends by calling myself a “lone mobile unit,” a phrase I picked up from Brian Eno. There’s some pride in that, some arrogance too, and probably some confusions of identity. And loneliness. And a troubling sense of detachment. In other words, it’s exactly like being a writer.
Q: When did you first become aware of what we now call long-form magazine journalism? Did you read Rolling Stone as a kid?
JHR: In Korea, the U.S. Army library had copies of The Village Voice Reader and, astonishingly, Evergreen, a wild beatnik-cum-hippie magazine that I think might have been created by Barney Rosset, publisher of Beckett and Genet. They didn’t make me want to be a journalist though, maybe because the prose wasn’t that inspiring. I studied literature in grad school, wrote and published short stories. Then I decided to drop out of grad school and my mother-in-law suggested I try journalism, hooking me up with the editor of Corrections magazine, who sent me to a fancy hunting lodge to listen to rich old white guys talk about prison reform. I loved it. Going out, meeting people, asking questions, soaking up the little details, going back to my desk to think about it and write it up. But I still thought of it mostly as a job, until I started rereading people like Joan Didion and Michael Herr, whom I admired when I read as an undergrad but didn’t connect to anything I might want to do. They showed me what was possible, and I never looked back.
Q: What was your first job in journalism?
JHR: Actually, that was in Korea. I was fifteen, and the U.S. Army gave me a summer job as a photographer. I learned that having a camera in your hands makes you look at things much more carefully, which was weirdly exciting. Capturing the fleeting moment had and still has a primal appeal for me. And my shots of the Israeli ambassador performing the lead role in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker were on display in the theater lobby opening night, which was pretty cool. But not as cool as working as a police reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, which is still probably the most fun job I ever had. I would show up at the police department at five a.m., pick the night’s most colorful crimes out of the police blotter and go out to flesh them out—oh man, the guy who got arrested stealing toys to give his kids for Christmas! The woman who tried to rob a bank to pay her boyfriend’s debts by holding a bottle of nail polish in her pocket so it looked like a gun! The one-legged hooker who specialized in older guys! “It says in the Bible that you can’t offend the Lord in the flesh,” she told me. The man-caught-in-a-stairwell-fucking-a-grapefruit story, I still mourn that one. My editors were like, “Are you kidding? No way we’re publishing that.” I went back to the PD to commiserate with the cop who made the arrest, and he had the cored-out grapefruit on his desk in a plastic bag. He asked if I wanted it, so I took it to the newsroom and put it on the news editor’s desk.
Q: Before that, did you go to college?
JHR: Oh man, that’s a long story. Basically, I dropped out of high school after tenth grade, moved to Hawaii, bought a motorcycle, wrecked the motorcycle, applied to college, got into college, dropped out of college, got busted, did a couple of weeks in a charming “youth correctional facility” where one of the guards had a hook for a hand, went back to Korea—diligently working on the flap copy for my future books, in other words. I was planning on spending the next few years wandering around Asia when I got a letter from my sister saying I’d been accepted by USC, which came as a complete surprise to me since I hadn’t applied. She got my test scores and filled out the forms without telling me. Apparently she thought I’d end up in a Thai prison, which probably wasn’t a bad guess. So much for my book about life in a Thai prison!
Q: What did you make of L.A. when you first got there?
JHR: I don’t remember any first impressions about L.A., but I have a vivid memory of getting off the plane and seeing my sister and her roommate waiting for me, because that roommate was a shimmering vision of beauty in a sexy summer dress. Wearing makeup. They took me to a party put on by students at the famous USC drama department and most of them were wearing makeup too, boys included. They seemed kind of white-bread to me, more Neil Simon than Samuel Beckett, but, you know, they wore makeup. They were lively, even antic. I ended up with a double major in English and theater and, years later, almost married the roommate. And learned to love L.A. in all its tawdry glory.
Q: How long were you in New Mexico working for a newspaper?
JHR: I worked in Albuquerque for two years, then a friend turned down a job covering the film industry for the L.A. Daily News and suggested me. I was making about $22,000, and the Daily News was offering $35,000, the film industry seemed like a fun thing to cover, so I jumped at it. Unfortunately, the people who ran the Daily News were dicks, including my editor— a woman but a huge dick. My first week she tried to get me to put my byline on a wire story. “Just change some of the words,” she said. I refused, and another reporter told the editor in chief, who overruled her. Things went downhill from there.
Q: How did you make the transition to Premiere?
JHR: Kim Masters recommended me. She was the reporter who went to the EIC about the wire story, and she’d just gotten a job there. So I started pitching freelance pieces. The first one they accepted was about a Foley artist, which is a person that adds ambient sounds to a soundtrack, a fact I learned the night before I pitched it. Looking back at it now, the opening sentence cracks me up. “ ‘These are my slut shoes,’ says Alicia Stevenson, holding up a truly hideous pair of wedge-heeled sandals, all cracked and covered with duct tape.” That’s me. Then I did a piece about Angelyne, the mysterious woman who had plastered her “trash sex-goddess image, complete with teased blond hair and torpedo bust” all over Hollywood at the cost of $8.3 million dollars even though she didn’t act or sing. “I really don’t want to be famous for being an actress,” she told me. “I want to be famous for the magic I possess.” I guess it was seeing all those bar girls in Korea at fourteen, I’ve always loved louche underworld characters and oddballs in general. I hated doing movie stars. A friend’s wife once said, “I get it, you like to write about subcultures.” She was right, except they’re all subcultures to me. Anyway, a job opened up a year later, and I called the boss and lied that I was coming to N.Y.C. for some other thing, would she have time to see me? Spent my last $600 on a plane ticket and a Macy’s sports coat. Didn’t get the job. But two months later, the guy who did got fired and the boss—the great and wonderful Susan Lyne—called me. That was the turning point for me. If Susan hadn’t been the kind of editor she was, I might have traded journalism for a real job. But she let me off the leash, and I ran with it.
Q: How did you like covering Hollywood?
JHR: Looking back, it was a blast. There were so many colorful people, and nobody else seemed all that interested unless they were famous. My early features were about a ruthless young screenwriter pushing a sentimental script and a wild-man producer who’d pissed off almost everybody in Hollywood. The one I consider my breakthrough piece was about a young guy who quit a very good job at Warner Brothers to produce a low-budget action movie and sell it to the international rug merchants in the underworld of the Cannes Film Festival. Susan actually sent me all the way to Cannes to follow him around for a week, one of the most exhausting and exhilarating experiences of my life so far, and I wanted to capture the intensity of the experience in prose somehow. But I couldn’t do it. I had a windowless office that was basically just a desk and wallboard, basically a large closet, and I sat there for days and days, producing nothing and slowly going insane. Frustration always plays a large part in my getting-started process. One day after lunch I was skimming through a short-lived magazine called Future Sex, reading a piece on a prototype for something called “tele-dildonics,” and I had this sudden impulse to just say “Fuck it” and kick out the jams. I turned to the keyboard of my giant early-1990s computer and blasted off the first five hundred words faster than I could type:
“I think there’s a little skin between the blisters on my feet, but I can’t find it because I don’t have a microscope. I’ve been in Cannes two days, and I feel as if I’m a month into the Bataan Death March. I got three hours’ sleep last night, and that’s three hours more than my friend Alan Schechter, who hasn’t slept for thirty-six hours. After we close down the discos, he’s been sneaking off to the bed of a Norwegian girl. He thinks I don’t know, but investigative reporting is my life. And here he is now, all of twenty-six years old and scrawny as a Mexican pariah dog, leading a meeting with two European millionaires and two of Hollywood’s top lawyers. “Savage has closed,” he says, “payment accepted. As regards to the other screenplay—the producer who gave it to us still doesn’t know we slipped it to the studios. His last comment to me was ‘Alan, I know we’re all friends.’ ” ...
I’m not saying that’s genius, or even modern—the echoes of Kerouac and Wolfe are obvious—but the experience of blasting the words out and having them “come out almost in their form,” as some other writer once said of those blessed moments—freed me up. Susan must have seen it too because right after she read that piece, she called me up and said, “Would you be interested in writing a serialized novel in Premiere?”
Q: How did you go from Premiere to Esquire during its great run in the late ’90s and through the ’aughts under editor in chief David Granger?
JHR: Granger called me up one day, said he’d heard I was a good writer, and asked me to go to lunch. This was when he was number two at GQ. He ended up asking me to do a story about my father, which took me six months and ran over fifteen thousand words. He killed it. A year or so later, Susan told me I could do better for myself as a freelancer and offered to hook me up with Kurt Andersen, who was running New York magazine at the time. Maybe I could split my time between the two magazines? I trusted her completely and wanted to write about other stuff than just Hollywood. So I quit the steady paycheck and pension, and Kurt sent me to Peru to do Lori Berenson, the college girl from New York City who joined a Latin American revolutionary group called the Tupac Amaru, and put the story on the cover. Then he got fired. Around the same time, Susan left Premiere for ABC, and her replacement fired me. Suddenly I had two little kids and half the salary, wonderful. Then someone told me about Granger taking over at Esquire, so I went over to the old Esquire offices and told him he had to hire me. He gave me that dubious and pained expression he uses, the “I suffer because I work with writers” expression and gave me a contract. So I worked at both places for a couple of months or two, then I quit New York to give Esquire my full attention. A couple of pieces later, Granger made me a “writer at large,” the perfect job description as far as I’m concerned.
Q: Again, you’ve written about celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, reported from the set of James Cameron’s Titanic, but many of your most gripping stories tell the stories of people we’ve never heard of. Is there anything in particular that draws you to true crime pieces?
JHR: When it comes to crime stories, my year as a police reporter in New Mexico had a huge influence. The charms of petty crime I’ve already talked about (although there’s certainly a long literary tradition of that too). But I got to know a cop who shot a fleeing suspect who turned out to be a harmless twenty-one-year-old kid. The kid’s death still haunted him, but he also showed me pictures of what the inmates did to each other during the New Mexico Prison Riot, like driving a metal bar through a man’s ear and out of his mouth. What a complex message that was—grief, defiance, anger, and a plea for understanding. People reveal themselves under pressure, that’s always been a crime-story cliché. Another influential moment was when my editors asked me to do something about gangs. I drove up to a bunch of—can I say “cholos”?—standing under a bridge in their wifebeaters and bandanna headbands and asked if they’d talk to me. Blank stares, uncomfortable silence, finally one spoke up. “Can you get us jobs?”
So I realized there’s “cheese down that hole,” as an old friend used to say. Like sex, it can take you deep. And each story is its own universe. Wasp Woman caught my eye because the details were so baroque—the star of a Roger Corman movie about an aging beauty who takes wasp hormones to stay young giving birth in real life to a dwarf son and enrolling him in an experimental program at UCLA where he was given growth hormones? Are you kidding me? The kid was being sentenced for her murder at the San Fernando Valley Courthouse. I’d never been there. It turned out to be a classic example of art-deco sandstone from the 1930s, probably built by the WPA. The hearing room was big, with dark wooden benches. Her psychiatrist told the court he often felt like killing her, too, a prison official said the poor boy was cooperative in every way, the judge said his mom brought it on herself and let him go. From there it just kept getting more and more twisted. And sad.
“Death of a Small-Timer” started about a year before it became a story. On the suggestion of a B-movie actress I knew, I went to the little talent office on Santa Monica where this natty old man sat behind his old wooden desk, his parrot standing at his elbow like a sentry. He showed me his model books and talked about the time Demi Moore walked in off the street, stripping down for some sample shots right there in the back with the prison cell and clawfoot bathtub movie sets, just like all his other clients. Nothing for me there. But a year later my friend called me up and said the cops found him dead with his safe open and some of his cheesecake models were teaming up to find out who killed him. I couldn’t resist that. But Granger killed it, which frustrated me so much I wrote it about five more times trying to get it right.
“The Grifters” started with a piece in Variety about the very sketchy collapse of a movie starring a sketchy unknown named Sonny Gibson. I tracked the director down and he told me Sonny told him not to backlight him because he had a twenty-one-inch dick. He also gave me a lead to the widow he conned out of a million bucks while her husband lay dying in a hospital. Then I found the farmer in Kansas who let him burn down a cornfield for another of his Springtime for Hitler-type scams. That story was pure lurid fascination, although with a touch of moral outrage here and there as I met the victims.
Q: Do you often feel led by a moral imperative in reporting and telling these stories?
JHR: Led by a moral imperative? God no. I’m not proud of that, it’s just my nature. It’s always about the story. Sometimes I’m reluctant because of a moral sense, like not wanting t0 have put myself in the presence of someone like Newt Gingrich or Charlton Heston. But doing the stories could change that, especially when Granger and Warren [Mark Warren, then Esquire’s executive editor] started assigning me stories on topics like race and abortion. I wanted to do the best I could for Mike Brown Sr., who was so decent and suffered so much. The suffering patients at the Boulder Abortion Clinic and Jackson Women’s Health are something I’ll never forget. I got caught up by climate change. But my response to that was mostly just trying to make the prose worthy of them. Bill McKibben I’m not, obviously, but I do think there’s a kind of morality in just looking closely and trying to get things right. It’s a privilege to listen to people tell their stories and write them down, especially when they’re the kind of people who get overlooked. That’s why I tend to say yes to anything, because I believe there’s a story in everyone. And you should be open to surprise—when I was starting at Esquire, Granger asked me if I wanted to do “the little people.” I said, “Hell yes,” thinking he wanted me to do gas station attendants and store clerks. He sent me to a dwarf convention. Not exactly people who get overlooked, actually the opposite, but I got a book out of it. And Chuck Heston turned out to be a lovely guy, very much an actor, courtly with strangers. His dad was a small-town sheriff, ergo the gun love, but at dinner he told me showbiz stories like a charming old queen.
CLICK HERE to purchase a copy of the book, or read an excerpt from the title story below.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, on rare nights he fell asleep, Nathan Powell dreamed of poisonous frogs and people on fire. He stopped taking cabs because he thought the drivers might be terrorists. Then he began producing a film about Afghanistan. And then, not long after, the Afghanistan-born director of the film, Jawed Wassel, was found in a shallow grave, chopped into little pieces
THIS MUCH IS CERTAIN: On the night of October 3 of the year 2001, a man named Nathan Powell brutally killed a man named Jawed Wassel. The causes of death noted by the coroner included two stab wounds in Jawed’s back and signs of “blunt force trauma” that included broken facial bones and an “eggshell type” fracture of his skull. The coroner’s job was complicated because he was working from fragments. As he stated in his report, speaking in the eternal present tense of dictation, “body parts are received separately and these consist of a torso, a severed head, and dismembered upper and lower extremities.” The pieces of Jawed Wassel arrived in various bags and boxes. The torso was in Box 1, Bag A. In Box 2, Bag B, the coroner found “a dismembered lower extremity including upper leg, lower leg, and foot.” In Bag D of the same box, he found bloodstained bath towels and socks and a V-neck pullover shirt of the Club Monaco brand, along with a segment of blue hacksaw blade with bone tissue still adhering to the teeth. In this box he also found sponges, paper towels, a Brillo pad, and one bloodstained hand towel “with a Christmas holiday pattern.” Jawed’s head arrived in a refrigerator drawer. “The bony portion of the neck is transected through the body of the fourth cervical vertebra. The right arm is dismembered by incision of the skin and soft tissues including muscle, tendon, nerve, and blood vessels… Sectioning of the brain reveals typical distribution of gray and white matter and deep cortical structures.” These things are true. They are solid. The ventricles of Jawed’s brain were not dilated. His cerebellum, pons, medulla, and brain stem were all “unremarkable,” which is the word scientists like to use because normal is too vague and easy to dispute. His paratracheal soft tissues were unremarkable. The endocardium of his heart was unremarkable. His aorta was unremarkable and his vena cava was unremarkable and his pulmonary vasculature was also unremarkable. And that is all I can tell you that is certain and solid.
This is a story for our time, dark and violent and complicated almost beyond understanding. In one version of the story, the Twin Towers fall and raise a cloud of madness and paranoia that sends Nathan Powell, a man with a young daughter and no criminal record, off on his own personal war on terrorism. He commits an act of senseless murder that makes sense to him, which has both narrow legal implications in terms of his motive and also larger implications in terms of the horror all around us. In the second version, there’s little sense and no point in puzzling over it. There’s nothing but greed and cunning and a monstrous attempt to use the falling towers to blame the victim, and Jawed Wassel is the first casualty of a phony war. Either way, Nathan Powell has pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, and the difficult truth behind his terrible crime becomes a warning sign of the world we entered on September 11, 2001.
First, Nathan Powell’s version of the story. This is how he has told it to me, to the police, to his lawyer, to several psychologists, and to a polygraph examiner. He’s also written it out numerous times. Although some versions are more detailed than others, the essential story has varied little.
In 1996, after a troubled childhood, a couple of failed relationships, and a few stints at studying film at Columbia and Hunter College, Nathan was thirty-three and living in New York when he started working with an Afghan immigrant named Jawed Wassel on a film called FireDancer. He was the producer and Jawed was the writer and director, and they split their deal down the middle, fifty-fifty. In 1997, Jawed went to Afghanistan and came back with stories of fighting against the Taliban with the Northern Alliance. Nathan says he saw pictures of Jawed with an AK-47 and also heard Jawed making anti-American declarations—that the U.S. was responsible for the suffering in Afghanistan because Ronald Reagan supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union but then abandoned them, or that the U.S. didn’t care about Afghans so much as an oil pipeline through Uzbekistan. But Nathan didn’t give it much thought because that kind of talk was typical in artsy circles, and anyway he’d heard the same kind of thing many times from his father, a banjo-playing socialist who worshiped Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
In 1999, Nathan and Jawed went to Washington, D.C., to start shooting their film and immediately ran into many troubles, such as a huge squabble over a line in the script that suggested that one of the characters in the movie might not be a virgin. This led to physical threats and a lot of talk about honor killing, the tribal custom of avenging stains on a family’s name with blood. Around that time, the lead actor was replaced with Baktash Zaher, who had trained to be a pilot at a flight school in Florida. And members of a Taliban delegation to Washington stayed at the house of one of the Afghans supporting the production, sharing quarters with a couple of crew members.
In November 2000, Jawed mentioned that his contacts in northern Afghanistan had offered to arrange an interview with Osama bin Laden. When Nathan told another friend about this, the man offered to pose as a journalist and kill bin Laden, so Nathan tried to contact the CIA through an acquaintance named Marc Palmer, who brushed him off.
In June 2001, Nathan and Jawed attended a meeting with another FireDancer producer named Kate Wood, and Jawed told them that he was going to Afghanistan to make a documentary and please not to tell anyone where he was going. When he came back six weeks later, he was limping and wouldn’t answer any questions.
Then the planes hit the Twin Towers. Nathan had a clear view of the whole thing from the window of his loft just across the East River, sitting there with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. At one point he used binoculars and saw a person jump. Then he talked to Jawed on the phone, and Jawed said America was finally getting a taste of its own medicine.
On TV, Nathan saw pictures of Arabs in Jersey City celebrating the attacks. The next day, he says, he saw some Arabs on his own street pumping their fists and cheering. A few days later, he went to Jawed’s house and found Jawed watching the news with Baktash and his sister, Vida Zaher-Khadem, who was Jawed’s associate director. When they started glancing at the screen and “whispering among themselves in Farsi,” it made him suspicious. What were they hiding? Then Jawed said the CIA must have organized the attacks to provoke a war and bail out the floundering Bush administration.
Later there was a disturbing meeting with Jawed and a man named Eric Rayman, who argued that the movie should say “something positive” about the Taliban. Nathan couldn’t believe it. What was going on here? Jawed had always said he opposed the Taliban, but maybe it had all been a horrible lie. And what about Baktash training at that flight school in Florida? Why didn’t Baktash ever actually become a pilot?
Over the next few weeks, Nathan couldn’t sleep or fell into vivid nightmares. He stopped taking cabs because he thought the cabdrivers might be terrorists. He made plans to leave the city, but he didn’t tell people because he was afraid they’d think he was crazy.
All through this, Jawed was pushing him to use the attacks to promote FireDancer. At first he thought it was a horrible idea, but an investor named Tom Fox encouraged him, and he was still so emotionally invested in the movie himself that he sent faxes to 60 Minutes, 20/20, and the New York Daily News. When the Daily News asked to interview Jawed, Nathan issued an ultimatum: Denounce the Taliban or else I’ll tell the investors the kinds of things you’ve been saying about America and the CIA. Jawed said he didn’t want to say anything “political.” They must have argued for forty minutes.
And freaky things kept happening. One day six agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration appeared at Nathan’s door and asked to search the files of the moving company that shared his loft. (Nathan worked there answering phones.) Another day, four police officers showed up to poke around, saying they had gotten a 911 call. At night Nathan dreamed of poisonous frogs and burning people who screamed without making a sound.
On September 30, saying he was afraid for their safety, he put his wife and daughter on a plane to Seattle.
On the morning of October 3, Jawed called to say the Daily News article had come out. Still hoping for the best, Nathan ran downstairs and bought a stack of copies. But there was just one line about the Taliban “holding 18 million to 20 million people hostage” and another saying that FireDancer “couldn’t have been made anywhere else but in America” before Jawed ruined it all by saying that the Afghans were “pawns ... for the Americans.”
At around six that night, Nathan met Jawed at a subway station, and out of the blue Jawed mentioned an idea for a movie about an honor killing. Then Jawed asked what Osama bin Laden would do to Nathan if he knew about the plot to kill him by posing as a journalist—and suddenly Nathan realized that al Qaeda had killed the famous Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud exactly the same way. Jawed must have given them the idea! So it was true—Jawed was in league with the Taliban!
By the time they got to Nathan’s loft and Jawed pulled a contract out of his backpack, telling him that since they’d been disagreeing so much, it was time for him to take over the film, Nathan was already on the brink of losing control. He said he’d never sign, that he’d tie the movie up in court and it would never see the light of day, and Jawed retaliated with the fatal threat that pushed Nathan over the edge: “With one phone call or one letter, you will have no family!”
And Nathan did what he felt he had to do—what any good husband and father and patriot would have done if he had walked in his shoes for the last month through the dust of all those vaporized buildings and people.
Of course, Jawed Wassel’s friends and relatives and defenders view this version of events as vile, repugnant, and offensive. What a preposterous story! What a pack of lies! With one voice, they insist that Jawed was a kind and peaceful man who spoke four or five languages, who loved poetry and European films, who dedicated himself to telling the story of Afghanistan through movies. He used to say that art was the best way to “thread the needle of human understanding,” one friend remembered. At least three of his American friends said he was a great patriot who especially appreciated the freedom of expression that gave him a chance to tell his story. His brother, Khaled, told me that when he thought about Jawed, he remembered his brother as a man who always tried to do the right thing. The suggestion that he would bad-mouth the United States or support the Taliban is beyond insulting—it’s another violation.
“If Nathan’s claiming that Jawed was some sort of Taliban or terrorist,” a cinematographer named Bud Gardner told me, “that’s the ultimate misnomer and a complete piece of crap.”
Contents of Not Guilty by Reason of Afghanistan
Death of a Small-Timer: Hal was an old-time Hollywood agent, forever at the desk of his little storefront movie studio on Santa Monica in his neat white shirt and dyed hair and that famous parrot by his side. He would do bondage but drew the line at porn. “I have a philosophy about that,” he said. “I’ll degrade women up to a point, and no more.” When the cops found his body next to his open safe, everyone had the same question: “What happened to the bird?”
El Gringo Loco: Before he started selling drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel, he was an athletic kid from a prosperous American family. He went to college on a football scholarship, found work as a high school football coach. Now he’s living at his mother’s house in Oregon, working a straight job, bored to death, trying to sort out his feelings. Should he go straight? Should he go back to the cartel? You get burned if you stand by the fire, he says, but who wants to be cold?
Not Guilty by Reason of Afghanistan: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, on rare nights he fell asleep, Nathan Powell dreamed of poisonous frogs and people on fire. He stopped taking cabs because he thought the drivers might be terrorists. Then he began producing a film about Afghanistan. And then, not long after, the Afghanistan-born director of the film, Jawed Wassel, was found in a shallow grave, chopped into little pieces.
The Grifters 1 and 2: He said he had the largest penis in the world and that Jackie O paid $100,000 just to sleep with him. He said he set up a narcotics-smuggling operation so brilliant the Mafia gave him a $20 million cut. For $500,000, he had sex with fifty women in less than ten hours, his climaxes monitored by a “scholarly professor of gynecology.” Or so he told all the late-night TV hosts who clamored to have him on their shows. Soon enough, he ended up back in prison on his fourth conviction for fraud. That should have been the end of the story, but his next stop was Hollywood, a place where, as one director who worked with him said, “You know better, but you just go for the fried ice cream.”
The Gun King: David Lewisbey was a high school football star from the suburbs of Chicago, who graduated with straight As and a scholarship to the University of Houston. When he came home for Christmas break, he was arrested for smuggling hundreds of guns across the state border in a rented van and selling them on Facebook to members of the Gangster Disciples street gang. The judge who sentenced him to the longest term possible under the law—seventeen years, just three years short of the average sentence for first-degree murder—said he deserved it because he put guns “into the hands of gangbangers.”
The Latin Kings: After Latin Kings leader King Blood was convicted of ordering twelve murders and seventeen attempted murders, his successor, King Tone, took over and declared peace. The Latin Kings were going straight, he declared. The club would incorporate, get wives and kids involved, make alliances with local politicians. But then King Giz was stabbed. That’s when the mayhem really got started.
The Wasp Woman Stung: Maybe she was just too short at only five feet, but Susan Cabot was being groomed as a starlet by Universal Pictures, even did a film with Humphrey Bogart. But when the big parts didn’t come, she drifted into a B-movie world, then into a B-movie afterlife that eerily resembled her most famous movie—a recipe for madness and for a very B-movie death.
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