I had not heard from Geoffrey James for years. His is a hand-made, civilized life. He’s a man of the world with refined tastes so he got my immediate attention with his opening gambit: An invitation to come up to his studio and see a picture he recently took of Paul Bernardo’s prison cell literally hours after it was vacated.
“Got my attention” is a gross understatement. I was gob smacked. Geoffrey is one of the world’s great photographers. And not one I would ever imagine having any interest in taking a picture of such a feckless sex killer’s cell. I really had no interest in Bernardo, I couldn’t imagine that Geoffrey did. And I was right.
Over a light lunch of crusty fresh bread, cheese, pate and chilled white wine he explained that he couldn’t resist because he knew such a invitation would cause me considerable psychic dissonance.
He knows that I was one of the very few journalists in history ever allowed singular entry to Kingston Penitentiary for the specific purpose of interviewing an incarcerated sex killer.
It was a long time ago.
Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister. And the degree of difficultly was such that I had to ultimately get a ministerial directive from then Attorney General Jean-Jacques Blais because there was no way the warden or the Regional Commissioner of Corrections was going to let a journalist cause as much discord and tension inside the institution that such a visit would precipitate. Because the prisoner in question was high-profile and isolated in the Segregation Unit – he would not have lasted a day in general population – they had to lock down all the other inmates to safely facilitate the interview for as long as it took. It was the rare exception to an unwritten bureaucratic rule where a “no” meant “no” forever. It was an institutional nightmare and no one was happy about it.
My interview subject was the Shoeshine Boy Killer Saul David Betesh.
Circa 1977 – 79 I was assigned to write a long piece for “Toronto Life Magazine” called “Sympathy for the Devil” which, among much else, documented exactly how Betesh and three of his cohorts kidnapped, raped and murdered a twelve-year-old Portuguese immigrant named Emmanuel Jacques.
The warden and the prison staff were not the only ones who saw me as a duplicitous pirrahea. It was a controversial case in part because the killers had taken a series of over three hundred Polaroids documenting virtually every moment of the rape and murder.
In those days, homicide detectives often liked journalists and were inclined to cooperate and talk. I managed to get a hold of all those Polaroids without much difficultly. When flipped like a deck of cards, what the photographs depicted came magically alive like Helios‘ racehorse-in-motion. It was without exception the most horrifying spectacle in my life and indelibly imprinted on my psyche.
Geoffrey understood something about that article, it’s motivation and all my subsequent work that most people (including many so-called learned men and women in the fields of criminology let alone the myriad hacks on this continent that call themselves journalists) do not. While that article and others I’ve written and my books may have been read, few have really read them.
He knows that I am not particularly interested in crime per say rather the effect unusual and bizarre criminal behavior has on our institutions of law and order and their purveyors and practitioners such as police, prosecutors, including attorneys general, court clerks, expert witnesses, defense lawyers, the correctional service and its minions: All bureaucracies that are secretive and otherwise imprevious to scrutiny.
High profile over the top crime tends to create cracks in their otherwise impenetrable carapace of power, privilege and paranoia.”
As Leonard Cohen wrote “cracks are where the light gets in.”
Mr. James’ interest was not in Paul Bernardo about whom he could give a rat’s ass, it was the penitentiary.
Geoffrey James also knew that since those days and that experience I maintained an abiding interested in that particular institution and its history.
He well knew that I did not consider Bernardo an “important” or “interesting” figure any more than I did Betesh – perhaps even less than Betesh who was, like Bernardo, a monster and a most disagreeable interlocutor because, like most monsters, he is mundane and infantile.
The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction have become blurred by our unfettered interest in serial offenders of all descriptions. It is why “Criminal Minds” is one of the longest running shows in television history. And wildly popular. Has anyone noticed that it’s not very good, repetitive and boring?
Remember people, Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character. Silence of the Lambs is a great movie, even better book but Thomas Harris made it all up. Neither is there anyone in the Behaviorial Science Unit of the FBI that even remotely resembles Clarice Starling.
So is my other favorite. John Doe (played by Kevin Spacey)in the chilling 1995 “Seven“. Even a little bit of study will tell you how far these serial fiends are from real serial fiends.
The telephone call was Geoffrey’s opening gambit to set me up for a full preview of his latest project called Inside which documents, at some length and compelling detail, the recently closed Kingston Penitentiary, the most famous prison in the country.
A few years after it was opened Charles Dickens toured the facility in 1842 and pronounced it “an admirable gaol.”
In the tradition of transforming historic correctional institutions into tourists’ traps, as Pennsylvia did with Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, the government decided it was high time that Kingston’s doors be closed to its original purpose which it was on September 30, 2013.
And the moment those massive doors were closed they opened for Geoffrey James and he became the first photographer in history ever allowed inside – at least the first with his camera and equipment and a full mandate to document what it had become since Dickens’ had his look about. (To be continued).