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February 17, 2010


Dead Man Stroking




Off Limits in Oregon
I just finished a gripping article in the January 2010 Esquire. (Yes, I’m way behind on my reading. Check back for my thoughts on Game Change around fall 2012.) The piece “How I Convinced a Death-Row Murderer Not to Die” is journalist Michael Finkel’s account of his relationship with Oregon inmate Christian Longo. Before I explain the typically puerile and reprehensible reasons for my personal fascination with this article, let me explain why the story would move and affect a more thoughtful and responsible citizen such as yourself.

Part 1: Why the Story Would Move and Affect a More Thoughtful and Responsible Citizen such as Yourself

In 2001, after murdering his whole family and fleeing to Mexico, Longo tries to assume journalist Finkel’s identity. Once Longo is brought to justice, Finkel attends his trial and becomes obsessed with the killer. Years of letters, phone calls, and prison visits ensue. Finkel’s fascination with the highly intelligent Longo turns to loathing as the years pass and the journalist acquires a family of exactly the same makeup—a wife and three small children—that Longo murdered.

By 2009 Longo begins to feel remorse. He decides to drop his appeals so that he can be put to death and partly atone for his acts by donating all his organs. He wants Finkel to witness his execution. Finkel realizes that he can’t bring himself to accede to this request until (a) he hears Longo’s full confession and (b) he attempts to talk Longo out of dropping his appeals. Longo, who rather incoherently denied all charges during his trial, then gives Finkel a chillingly detailed account of the murders during a prison visit. Soon afterward, Finkel learns from a transplant surgeon that the organs of executed criminals are mostly rendered useless by the chemicals used in the lethal injection. He passes this information along to Longo along with the suggestion that Longo agitate for a change in the method of execution to one that will leave his organs unharmed and transplantable.

Inspired and energized, Longo resumes the appeals process and dedicates himself to this new cause. He launches a website, GaveLife.org, with his brother’s help. His two-pronged plan involves persuading state governments to adopt a new, organ-friendly chemical cocktail for executions while encouraging the nation’s sizable death row population to sign up for organ donation. The many roadblocks notwithstanding, if Longo’s campaign is even minimally successful, it could result in a doubling of the number of organs available for transplant nationwide.

“It’s odd,” Finkel concludes. “He was the one person on earth I wanted to die, and instead I’ve helped to save his goddam life.”

Part 2: The Typically Puerile and Reprehensible Reasons for my Personal Fascination with this Article

In the course of describing their long correspondence, Finkel passes along a wealth of Longo’s insights into life on Oregon’s death row. Inmates can’t see each other from their single-occupancy cells but they can hear each other, and there is much convivial banter. “A few guys will sometimes watch a television show together—each in their own cells but at the same time,” Finkel writes. “This season, Survivor was popular (they bet Little Debbies on who’d be eliminated).”

It seems that all the inmates have cable TV, as movies with nudity are every bit the welcome distraction that you would expect them to be. There is even a custom—and here’s the part that boggles my mind—of allowing each inmate to claim one or two favorite actresses as his own, after which no one else is allowed to pleasure himself to images of those actresses. Finkel explains:

Longo has dibs on Jennifer Connelly and Alyssa Milano. “Every time a movie comes on with one of our actresses,” Longo writes of the prison film channels, “it’s common courtesy here to yell it down to the one who claimed her. ‘Hey, Chris, A Beautiful Mind just came on 3!’” If there’s a nude scene in the movie, the men will count down the seconds out loud.

I found this tidbit infinitely fascinating, if only because it describes precisely how I would want things to be if I found myself in prison. Beyond that, I first had to wonder about the issue of enforcement. These inmates are not, after all, the most trustworthy of individuals. How does Longo know that during, say, a weekend-long Charmed marathon on cable, the panting fellow across the hall is strumming away solely to Rose McGowan and tuning out Alyssa Milano? Given what we civilians imagine to be the dynamics of prison society, one could easily imagine a peevish serial killer thinking, “I’m really not in the mood for Salma Hayek at the moment, but I’m pissed off at Carlos for winning all the Little Debbies last night, so here goes.”

Still, Finkel reports that these convicts routinely flush their toilets during noisy bowel movements and buy odor repellents so as to avoid offending their neighbors. So there is something a code of ethics and a community spirit to the place that just might extend to a respect for the sanctity of one’s on-screen pseudo-relationships.

More than anything, though, I just got lost in thought pondering which two actresses I would lay claim to. I almost blush to tell you how many hours I lost to this mental exercise—and remember, I’m the guy who wrote about his use of sex toys for men. Anyway, here’s an outline of my reasoning.

I think the first mistake one would want to avoid is to base the choice on the actress’s raw sexiness alone. For one thing, this would pit you against any number of likeminded rivals. Suppose you laid claim to Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johannson or Jessica Alba. How long would it be before some hot-headed newcomer with nothing to lose shivs you in the yard just to inherit your rights? (They do get ninety minutes a day out of their cells.) Holding exclusive rights to all Jessica Alba fantasies, you’d be a man marked for death. Well, okay: double-marked for death.

Instead, you’d probably want your picks to have a fairly long resume of actual nude scenes. Longo showed his genius (his IQ is supposedly in the 130 range) in reserving Jennifer Connelly. During fantasies about a Johannson or an Alba, you have to take the time to mentally undress them, and that could grow old as the years of appeals drag by. No, you need someone who seems to spend a good percentage of her adult life buck naked on film: an Ashley Judd, a Kate Winslet, maybe even a Christina Ricci.

Then again, since those appeals will drag on, you would want—for the sake of balance—an up-and-comer in the mix: someone who has demonstrated a willingness to do nude scenes, but still with the youth and potential to put up Winsletian statistics over the course of a long and physically fit career: an Emily Blunt, say, or an Olivia Wilde. Zoe Saldana will do in a pinch. Or maybe Blake Lively, who’s already provoked more male self-gratification through her awards ceremony dresses alone than any half-dozen retired porn stars have in their combined careers. Such a pick when you’re on death row would evince an optimism, a sense that one does have something to live for.

And so my thinking went. On and on and on. Finally, I went with Ashley Judd for my first choice. I think we all owe it to her when you consider that her mother and sister tried to get her to stop doing those scenes and she kept doing them anyway. Plus, with Ashley, you get extremely pleasant views both fore and aft. Then for my second pick—here’s the shocker—I went with Donna Reed.

Yes, that Donna Reed—who died nearly a quarter century ago at age sixty-four. Who is best remembered by my generation as the sunny hausfrau on her eponymous TV series. Who, leaving aside some grainy and dubious snapshots from her ingénue days, never appeared anywhere in the nude, not even in her own shower as far as we know.

But can you name a more beautiful woman? And think of the exposure factor. You can find her in her primmest, prettiest prime on one channel or another in It’s a Wonderful Life for pretty much the whole month of December. That’s critical when you have no access to DVDs or Tivo and just have to rely on what cable programmers throw out at you. No disrespect intended to Longo or Jennifer Connelly, but I’m guessing there are long draughts between screenings of Mulholland Falls.

Donna Reed, in contrast, will always, always be there for us—and will always and forevermore be radiant. I was feeling down the other day until I caught Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity on TV. I lay down and had myself a wonderful time, let me tell you, the sudden and unwarranted closeups of Ernest Borgnine notwithstanding. (And let's face it: There's no such thing as a gradual and warranted closeup of Ernest Borgnine.).

No, you can’t have her. I thought of her first. Put down that sharpened toothbrush, bro. I could be persuaded to part with Ashley if you’ll give me Olivia Wilde. But I’m keeping Donna Reed.