Lisa Belkin, GENEALOGY OF A MURDER: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night

Lisa Belkin, GENEALOGY OF A MURDER: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night

Zibby interviews Lisa Belkin about Genealogy of a Murder, a multigenerational tale of three families whose paths collide one summer night in 1960 with the murder of a police officer. Lisa’s in-depth research uncovers the intricate interplay of fate, decisions, and history spanning a century. She dives into a myriad of subtopics: motorcycling’s popularity in the early 1900s, the concept of epigenetics, prison reform, and the impact of small life decisions. Finally, she hints at a future project and reflects on her past editorial roles.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your new book, Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night.

Lisa Belkin: Zibby, I have been looking forward to this for years. It’s great .

Zibby: For years. You’re so funny. This has a very interesting origin story. Tell listeners about how you came upon this story. Then we’re going to dive into some of the ways these families intersected and how this is really a story of multiple cultures and so much other stuff.

Lisa: So much other stuff. That should be the subtitle.

Zibby: Eloquently said.

Lisa: That should be the subtitle. So much other stuff. At its heart, it is a family story in many ways. It’s a story about a lot of families, but one of the families is mine. It started when my mother remarried late in life to a man who I didn’t know well, was getting to know one day when I was visiting them. He started to tell me a story. It was a very long story. I tend to interrupt and show that I know stuff. I just, this time, listened because he was trying to get to know me and have me get to know him. In the end, the story was the heart of this book. He told me a tale about when he was thirty years old. He was a young doctor. He was not stationed in a military zone. He was stationed at a prison, at Stateville Penitentiary in Chicago, Illinois. The shortest version of this long, epic tale is that he befriended a prisoner who was working for him. My stepfather was working in a lab set up at the Stateville Penitentiary to test malaria drugs on prisoners, an entire other topic of conversation. It would not be allowed today. At the time, it was considered the army’s best hope because malaria was devastating troops in any war zone it went into, World War II, South Korea. Vietnam was looming. Al was there to find a cure for malaria. He was also there to help rehabilitate prisoners by training them to be lab techs, by working side by side. He got to know one, he thought, very well. The man — his name was Joe DeSalvo — asked for his help in securing parole and talking to the parole board. Al did in fact help, helped him quite substantially. He was paroled. Joe did very well. Then things went very badly, and a police officer was killed. He told me this story. I looked at him and said, “You know I have to write about this, don’t you?” He said, “Well, if you must.” That, nine and a half years later, became this book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s crazy. What you do so well — there are many things. You have us get to know the families all the way back, as far as you know, so that by the time Joe DeSalvo is working with your stepfather, I feel like I’ve known him so well because I knew his parents.

Lisa: A hundred years. Yes, you’ve known his parents and his grandparents.

Zibby: Let’s start with him because his backstory is so interesting. I did not know anything about the motorcycle culture and how it was the Formula 1 of its day, essentially, meets the Roman Colosseum. His uncle and his did had been in that world. You raise so many interesting questions. Talk a little bit about the craziness of that culture. I don’t know why it’s been lost.

Lisa: I didn’t mean to go back a hundred years. It just happened. I meant to write a book about what happened to these men in 1960. Then I was really struck by the fact that they’d all started at the same starting line. They all had grandparents who came at about the same time, in the late 1880s, early 1900s. They came for the same reasons, the reasons we’re still arguing about today, essentially, to give these kids a better life. These kids were now thirty years old. How did all of them start in essentially the same place and one became the cop, one became his killer, one became my stepfather? You can now do this research in your pajamas. In my pajamas, I at least got the scaffolding of the story, the basics of the story. Joe’s story led me to these newspaper clips about a guy with a same name who turned out, in fact, to be his father, who was a — “I could’ve been a contender.” He was a contender. He almost made it. The brass ring was in sight in this world of motorcycling racing. Who knew? From 1908 to 1911, motorcycle racing was, apparently, the most popular sport in the United States.

It was far bigger than baseball. It was bigger than football, which had not been incorporated yet. There was no NFL. Huge arenas were built. Your Roman Colosseum analogy is absolutely spot on. These men went to die. Many of them did die for the possibility of that brass ring, of this future in America. His father, you could argue — I do — had one particularly spectacular crash that made it into all the newspapers where — I passed it past forensic pathologists nowadays. I said, “Here’s what I know about this. What likely happened to him?” They all said traumatic brain injury. It would explain the huge personality change that you can find in the record. It would explain why he went through the rest of his life basically bullying everyone around him, depressed and angry. His children paid a price for that. One of his children was this young man, Joe, who would grow up to come to know my stepfather, who tried to help, who tried to redeem him. It was arguably too late. You have to go back a hundred years to truly understand the whole of any of us. I had the luxury or the stupidity of doing it. It took me almost a decade. I too really feel like I know these people at this point down to their DNA.

Zibby: You present them so completely. Joe and Charles, his twin brother, were five minutes apart. Yet their lives went in completely different directions. You raise a question. When does it start changing all future generations? Is it in that moment? Which decision? Can one decision really affect all the DNA of the people who come later? which is fascinating to contemplate.

Lisa: There is the idea of epigenetics, that you can in fact inherit trauma, for instance, is well established. In many cases, this was trauma. What happened to the father traumatized the son. Yes, they were twins. They were not identical. Still, they were twins. Talk about the same starting line. We’re talking about two boys born at the same time. Now you have this metaphor of a starting line in their racing. They both raced, one slightly ahead of the other all the time. At what point was it nurture? The older son was always treated as the older son. He was always a bit more of the golden boy. Where did that become established fact? If you do this often enough, how does this become established fact? By the time they started racing, the older brother was known as the winner, and the younger brother was already seen somewhat as the loser and trying to catch up and trying to prove himself and being more reckless as a result. This went on to literally affect three men in 1960.

Zibby: You also go through all the other men. Another big storyline that you have — I feel like a theme of the whole book is, what can we do with prisoners in terms of reformation? There are all these different approaches — you detail one really well with the warden and his wife and the horrible fire — and all these different theories on how prisons should play a role in society. Of course, you start by saying something like, how you treat your prisoners is a major reflection on the state of the country as a whole. There were some real pioneers in prison life and prison — I’m not saying the right words. Reformation? What should I say?

Lisa: Rehabilitation. The word is penology, which utterly amuses friends of mine for reasons — it’s penal reform, people. In penology circles and carceral circles, there’s a lot of philosophy that I tried to make much more human because we’re talking about individual lives. How do we change the trajectory of individual lives as a society? What is our philosophy? There’s the pendulum that’s always there in pretty much everything policy-wise. We always react to what we’ve been doing by replacing it with something else that we then replace with, usually, a version of the thing we just abandoned. That is true of prison reform. That pendulum — people can’t see me, but my hand is going back and forth. That pendulum is particularly profound when it comes to prisons because depending on the state of the country, depending on how secure we as a population feel, we take that out on our prisons. When we are feeling anxious or unmoored, we are very much about punishment. When we are feeling expansive and optimistic, we are all about reform.

In the 1950s, which is right before my stepfather arrived at this penitentiary, was the latest in the optimistic, “We can help them. We can fix them. We can make the world a better place,” philosophy, so he walked into that. By that point, this prisoner who he’d interacted with had been through several swings. He’d been very punished, and he’d been very rehabilitated. It all started — I couldn’t just start in 1960 because what’s the fun of that? We went back to 1911 with one of the first deeply reformative wardens who made a difference, who proved that trust actually creates men who internalized that trust and when released, didn’t come back. As it happened, there was an accident on his watch. He lived within the prison walls. His wife was burned to death in a fire in that prison. The result of that act was the end of rehabilitation that was getting legs, that was getting traction in the US.

Zibby: She might not have died in the fire. She might have died by blunt force trauma.

Lisa: She died during the fire. It is unclear how, yes. It is unclear by whom. It’s still very debated in small but passionate circles in Illinois as to who killed her. I don’t believe it’s the man that was convicted for it. Neither did the warden.

Zibby: That was also very interesting. Then you also have Irish immigrants. You take us all around the world and steerage on boats. It’s amazing. I feel like I’ve just watched a Martin Scorsese movie, like Gangs of New York or something. The one thing that kept going through all of this, I felt, was how much these random small things change lives. The little thing on the train which affects where you sit on the train, whether you’re sleeping with your head on your jacket or you’re sitting up, or you’re getting a cigar, whether you’re in the fire, in that place or you’re not, everything, it just hinges on the smallest details. It’s almost overwhelming. Every little thing you do, then, can have such massive ripple effects.

Lisa: I’m hardly the first person to have come up with this. It’s something that fascinates all of us. How many first couple dates — you go out to dinner, and the first conversation you have with the other couple is, how’d you meet? There’s always some coincidence in there. This coincidence changed everything. We all have these moments in our lives. We’re all very, very aware of them. We watch movies like Sliding Doors. We know about the butterfly effect. We are aware that there is this web of stuff that led us to who we are, but we don’t sit down, always, and map it out. You know those crazy people with the murder boards with the yarn that goes connecting all these things that don’t —

Zibby: — Oh, yeah.

Lisa: I became the crazy person with the murder board. Even though one of these stories was my stepfather, it was not my family’s story. I now know far more about my stepfather’s family than my own, which is a bit of a point of contention in some family. Really? There wasn’t a book in us? That feeling of, this is all of us — this is true of all of us. I could write a book about you and I and how we ended up on this podcast. There would be a book. There would be the same book. I hope there wouldn’t be a murder, but there might be. Any random three people on the street have all these connections. What is the point other than a parlor game? I think the point is it’s helpful. It behooves us, to use a word that no one ever actually uses in the world, to remember this, to remember that the decisions we’re making now are in fact a map for future generations that they’re going to have to follow. Why is this relevant to us, to a current generation? Because every decision we make is in fact setting a scene for someone down the line. Individually, it is important to at least be aware of that. On a policy level, at a thirty-thousand-feet level as a society, this book is full of, the GI Bill saved that one. This prison policy saved or destroyed that one. These are not just policies and philosophical debates. These are actual individual lives. Even if you can’t save all of them or even if everything doesn’t work all the time, it made me far more conscious of the fact that there’s a responsibility to deal with public policy and social norms with an understanding that this is truly someone’s life.

Zibby: True. Another thing I learned from the book, aside from reinforcing what I know about life in general and learning about all these different subcultures and different pockets of time and places, is how tremendous a journalist you are. There is so much information in here. I can’t even believe that it’s not two feet high of a book. You wove in so many facts that you couldn’t have known before into this seamless narrative. There must be a lot you didn’t include. How did you go about this massive undertaking?

Lisa: First of all, thank you. Secondly, oh, you didn’t see the first draft. I cut seventy thousand words from the first draft. I knew it was too long while I was writing it. I came to see the first draft as the director’s cut, if I can get self-important here, but less about my ego and me as the director and “this is the whole story.” I had started to feel very responsible for the families I was writing about. I was finding out these things. It was not my story I was telling. It was their story. The first cut was basically everything I knew, everything. Here. I gave it to them. Here is everything I know. Then I went back, and I cut with an idea of, okay, what does everyone else not need to know? It’s wonderful that they do, but the rest of us, the average reader doesn’t need it. Seventy thousand words is a book. I cut a book out of my book. I tried to slip a lot of it into the endnotes, by the way. If you read the endnotes, there are all these little stories.

Zibby: Those were like fifty pages.

Lisa: Those little stories that I stuck in. This was really a good story. It doesn’t actually fit in my story, but this was a great story. That’s how I did it. I wrote it, and then I rewrote it because that’s the only way to deal with that much information. That’s why it took almost ten years. Yes, I learned a lot. I went down a lot of rabbit holes. Then I had to figure out which ones were actually interesting or which ones were just interesting to me because I found it. That probably took two of the ten years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How do you feel now that this is out there and done?

Lisa: I’ve been a journalist now for lots of years. Let’s just say lots of years. This is the single most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. It’s gratifying. It was a deeply gratifying work, gratifying on a process level just to exercise muscles I hadn’t used before, gratifying in that particularly from the police officer’s family, whose children are now in their sixties but who were three, four, and six months when their father died, they experienced it as getting their father back. It was deeply gratifying that way. It was a change for me in my view of the world. I was a journalist. It was all about what happened yesterday, what happened now. This was going very far back, and archival research, which I had never gotten to do, and an understanding of, we think this is the first time this has ever happened, but really, you can look at almost anything, including the past four years, and there are examples of how this experience is universal. I was writing about 1918 in 2020. 1918 was a horrific year. More people died of the flu in 1918 than died from World War I. World War I killed a lot of people. I’m sitting there writing about this ghastly plague in 1918 as it’s coming in 2020. I looked at my husband, and I said, “I want to go back to 1918 because I know how that ends.” I guess I’ve become a bit of a historian in addition to being a journalist. That was also the personal takeaway from this, is that I am deeply invested in history in a way that I wasn’t before. It changed me. This book changed me.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow, that’s so great. Does this mean you want to delve into new giant history projects?

Lisa: I have one that’s kind of caught — you know how ideas work. They grab you, and they don’t let go. I have one that seems to not be letting go. I’ve tried to shake her off, and she is there. It is very much a book about women in a way that this is — well, this one, technically, you would describe it as a book about three men, and yet the women kept coming front and center. It was also very much about these women who had much less agency than we do, far fewer active choices, and yet paid the price for what their men did. The women were kind of in the background waving at me in this book. The next one will probably be front and center in giving at least one particular woman her say. Yes, I’m going back to the past again. I think this is a good spot for me.

Zibby: You’re really great at it. You bring the reader in. Some history books can be hard to keep your interest. This is engrossing. To write narrative nonfiction is a gift. I’m not trying just to blow smoke or whatever, but it’s really great.

Lisa: Oh, keep going. all the adjectives you want. It is different. I have huge respect for people who write fiction because my imagination just isn’t deep enough. Can’t do it. Put a person in front of me, and I can find a story in them. Tell me to find one in my own head, I can’t. Memoir, that is personal. I need the journalistic screen. They’re all different genres, but this is the one that’s my natural groove.

Zibby: You said in the book or somewhere you have a title picked out for your memoir. What is it again?

Lisa: There’s A Story in This Somewhere. Again, that’s very journalistic. There’s a story in this somewhere. It’s one of my tics. It’s something I say all the time while going through pretty much anything. Yeah, there’s a story in this somewhere.

Zibby: I often say, that should be a book. That should be a book. That could be a book title. I think I’m too obsessed with book titles right now. That’s a great title too. Once you have a lens, that’s what you see.

Lisa: You have an editor’s lens. You see book titles. I see stories. We are all deluded and hallucinating through life.

Zibby: I know, right? This is such a handy skill. Do you ever miss the Motherlode? which is how I first met you, when you edited this essay that I thought was my biggest accomplishment. Then it got eight million terrible comments.

Lisa: I was your editor. . Do I miss it? It’s an interesting question right now in the aftermath of Heather Armstrong’s death where there’s been so much reminiscing, evaluating of where the internet was at the moment we met, at a moment where blogs were coming into their own. Women were finding their voice in a way that they had not had an outlet for in quite the same way. They didn’t need traditional publishers. They didn’t need actual journalism. They could just sit down at their kitchen table. Although, I don’t know how many actually wrote at their kitchen table. In a way, that’s an insult. They could sit down and write and then without a filter, get it out to the world. That was spectacular for a short period of time. Then it got very toxic. I had that short period of time. Motherlode and the Life’s Work column before it, when I was at The Times doing both, that was the moment where it was the best conversation on the planet where people came to the comments to truly talk, where it hadn’t yet gotten out of control. Do I miss that? Yes, I miss that, but do I want to go back to writing online and subjecting myself to that? No. No, that was a chapter, and that chapter’s done. It’s interesting how quickly that moment in both our lives became history. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it is definitely history at this point.

Zibby: Wow, that’s an interesting lens as well. See, there’s a story in that. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Lisa: I am teaching at Columbia Journalism School. That is the question on every journalist’s mind. In terms of nonfiction journalism, nonfiction writing, which is what I know, they want to know, am I crazy to be here? What is the future of this profession that you are training me for? The only answer I have is there will always be a need for journalism. There will always be a need. People will want to read other people who are trained to find facts, to express those facts in a compelling and understandable way. The big question is, where is that going to be? I don’t know. They are going to invent it. These students that I am teaching now are going to invent it. All I can do is give them the fundamentals of what worked for me in the world in which I lived. Then that, I hope, I teach them well because we’re counting on them. If you want to write, my advice is probably the same as everybody else who comes on your podcast, all the other millions on people. Write. If you want to write, write. It will find a home. It will find a home that is appropriate to the moment when you’re writing. You can’t find the home until you’ve written, so sit down and write.

Zibby: Love it. Lisa, congratulations. This is a triumph of a book. I really want it to be a movie. I think it would be amazing. Has it been optioned yet?

Lisa: Working on it. We’re working on it.

Zibby: It’s an even better book already. Congratulations. Thank you for the chat.

Lisa: Thank you so much. Take care. Talk soon. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

GENEALOGY OF A MURDER: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night by Lisa Belkin

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