Facing the Wind: An American Tragedy
VTR Date: May 22, 2001
Guest: Salamon, Julie
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Julie Salamon
Title: “Facing the Wind”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I first came to know my guest today in what I call my “Hollywood years” during part of which she served so brightly and brilliantly as The Wall Street Journal’s film critic. At times taking out after me, indeed, in my role as Chairman of the movie rating system.
Well, she was terribly wrong at those times, of course, but wonderfully right when she wrote her superb “The Devil’s Candy” which Newsweek called “as close to a definitive portrait of the madness of big time movie making as we’re likely to get”.
Well, now a television critic for The New York Times, Random House has just published journalist, writer Julie Salamon’s “Facing the Wind: A True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation”. Her incredibly compelling account of another kind of madness. One commentator has written that this true crime story had him “tossing at night and racing to finish it by day”. Calling it a “rare combination of superb reporting and narrative skill”.
Another says of “Facing the Wind” that “it’s one of those all too rare books that haunt the soul long after the last paragraph is read”. And I believe my guest’s book to be so wonderfully readable that the pen with which she wrote it simply must have been made of a quill from an angel’s wing. So let me then ask Julie Salamon first briefly to tell her book’s extraordinary tale so that we can then all go on to parse it’s meaning. Is that a fair enough request to make of you, Julie?
SALAMON: Very fair. And thank you so much for your kind words. The book, the book is about… a group of women in Brooklyn who first became friends because all of them gave birth to children who were blind. Some of the children had other handicaps. And while it was this birth that brought these women together they formed a support group and helped each other out. This was back in the 1970s. The thing that bound them together forever was the death of one of these friends. Her name was Mary Rowe and she was killed by her husband with a baseball bat. He killed her and all three of their children. And yet he wasn’t a monster. In fact most of the people who knew him thought that he was an incredible father, an incredible husband. And he had, in fact, been exemplar to these other women in the mothers’ group. But the story doesn’t really end with the killing, it begins with it. Because he was not guilty by reason of insanity; then spent just under three years in a mental hospital and then was released. And he went on to have a second life. He remarried, had another child and then spent many years trying to be re-instated in the bar to practice law … he was a lawyer … because he wasn’t guilty of a crime under New York State law.
So the book is about all of the different aspects of this very strange case and of this group of people whose lives were forever changed by birth and by death.
HEFFNER: For you, what was the book mostly about. Not the story, but the issue? Responsibility? Taking responsibility for one’s action?
SALAMON: I think taking responsibilities for one’s actions … yes … but also this sort of terrible twist of fate and the way that people either cope with them or don’t. I was first drawn to this story by the mothers group. My second child at the time, when I began reporting the book, almost six years ago … my son had just been born and when I … a friend of mine told me about this mothers’ group … these women had been friends for 25 years and about what brought them together, the birth of their disabled children, it haunted me. I wanted to find out more about them, but honestly I don’t think I would have pursued this story, I wouldn’t have been able to if it hadn’t been for the second tragedy which was the killing.
HEFFNER: Why not?
SALAMON: Because I think just dealing with that quiet heroism might have been more than I could have, could have stood. Actually, it was too close to the bone, too much, I think, of what every mother fears when she has a child … as “is something terrible going to go wrong?”. And for these mothers that terrible thing had happened immediately … from the moment their children were born. And I wanted to write about the story, but didn’t. And yet when I heard about the killing, which was very early on in the reporting, it was almost inescapable … I couldn’t, I couldn’t turn away from it. It wasn’t a story that I wanted to pursue. It was almost as though I had to.
HEFFNER: Were you concerned about pursuing it? Was it itself something that bothered you terribly much? I don’t mean the story of the murder, of course. But the fact of your pursuit …
HEFFNER: … of that murder?
SALAMON: It’s a good question. Yes, I think it was. Because I think it was almost as though I had to say to myself, “well, what am I trying to do? Is this a way of knocking on wood. If I, if I look into the heart of darkness will I protect my own family?”. And it was … friends of mine couldn’t believe that I was involved with this because it was so difficult at every step of the way because the reporting itself was very difficult. Learning about these children and their disabilities and then learning about this terrible killing. And then all the ins and outs of the legal system. And then confronting the notion, did this man have a right to a second life? Is there such a thing as forgiveness? Can we forgive people, or should we forgive people who do something so terrible?
HEFFNER: What were the answers of the mothers’ group?
SALAMON: I think the answers were mixed. I think had Bob Rowe killed his family, gone to a mental hospital, with the same “not guilty by reason of insanity” I think that would have … they would have felt terrible, but I think they would have forgiven him. I think it was the early release that became so difficult for them. Because I think to some extent it was almost as though society was condoning his action. It was saying “yes, you mothers of handicapped children … you handicapped children, you’re expendable”. Even though two of his children weren’t handicapped. I think that was the emotional reaction to it. And I think that … and I think it was the getting married again … it was the … it was sort of the same qualities that had made him so admirable before. “Oh this is a man who has a severely disabled child” … his child was not only blind, but almost deaf, and severely mentally disabled. And yet those qualities which said, “I’m going to face this and move forward and live a life and continue …” the things that had made him admirable … now made him not very admirable to them. Why should he remarry? Why should he be able to have another child?
HEFFNER: And what about you? How did you feel? You’re talking now about the mothers … what was your own sense of the appropriateness of the verdict, and the appropriateness of the release?
SALAMON: I think when I first heard the story I felt very much the same way the mothers did. It seemed wrong. There just seemed something wrong about how can you take a baseball bat, bash in somebody’s head, your wife, your children, and then in less than three years suddenly not be insane, and be able to go out and start things over again. Can you wipe the slate clean that easily? And yet, then, when I started to read through the psychiatric records and the case history and met Bob Rowe’s second wife, who was not, as I thought at first, an insane person herself, but a very intelligent person who had difficulties in her own life, it became much harder to condemn him. Because I could see that there was good in his second life. And was it the right verdict? I think it probably was. I think he was definitely mentally ill when he did this. The insanity defense? It’s a very hard one to answer. Because at some … I think at some level, I think anyone who kills somebody is insane in some ways, and parsing those distinctions seems very difficult to me. Which is why it’s not used successfully very often.
HEFFNER: Not successfully?
SALAMON: Not successfully. Very, very few … very, very few lawyers will even raise the insanity defense because people instinctively move away from it. And interestingly enough Rowe’s lawyer told me that it’s most successful in cases like this where the person kills their own family. Somehow that makes the outside world feel reassured, “oh, there was something inside the family” that made that person snap. Whereas if it were outside it becomes more of a menace to society.
HEFFNER: Is it the menace to society matter that concerned these women? I think not.
SALAMON: No. No. I think with the women it was personal. This was somebody … I think it worked on many levels because I think if not every single one of them … many of the women in the mothers’ group had at some point harbored some notion of if not “I want to take a baseball bat and kill my child”, but “I wish this didn’t exist”. You know most people look at their children … everybody looks at their chidren at one point when they annoy them and say, “yeech, I wish this didn’t exist”. But it’s fleeting, it’s momentary. I think for these mothers that moment may have come more frequently than it does in the case of people with normal children.
HEFFNER: Did they, do they understand that?
SALAMON: Oh, I think they do understand that. But the difference is they didn’t act on the impulse. I think when you have the impulse and you don’t act on it, you feel even less sympathetic towards the person who does act on it. And I think there’s probably a degree of, I won’t say envy, but a degree of, maybe envy that the women in the mothers’ group, much as they love their children, who are now grown … many of them have now grown children with severe disabilities and they’re still parents of these children. And they’re growing older, their children are growing older, but they’re still responsible for those children.
HEFFNER: Julie, if I were talking to a psychiatrist now, I suppose we could do lots of things with the insanity defense and the question of responsibility … all that. But I’m not a psychiatrist. You come closer to it because of your … the work that you’ve done … but as a civilian, as a writer, as a mother … what do you do with this question of the insanity defense? Not now the mothers we have talked in that group, but what do you do with it?
SALAMON: With the question of the insanity defense? I’ve a very difficult … I don’t have a difficulty with the insanity defense. I think that it would have been wrong for Bob Rowe to go to prison for what he did. I do think that it was a mental disability, and I do think it was probably appropriate for him to go to a mental hospital. I think what was a little frightening to me, as a civilian, reading through his psychiatric records, was that it didn’t seem as though he was getting anything close to what I think a civilian would think of as “helpful therapy”. Many, many doctors were moving through … just looking through the charts. Every week dozens and dozens of people were commenting on him. But nobody seemed to be commenting on him in very much depth. And it was a concern to me to see the sort of superficial nature of a lot of the analysis. And in fact …it seemed to be relatively easy for a well-educated person, such as Bob Rowe, an intelligent person to eventually figure out how to work the system. And I don’t mean work the system in terms of faking the insanity, but in terms of once you’re in the hospital understanding what, what you had to exhibit as a patient to get out.
HEFFNER: Did you for a moment, ever have a thought that there had been faking the insanity?
SALAMON: Of course. I think it’s hard not to because I think that there’s always that nagging question in the end. “Yes, it certainly sounds real, it certainly sounds valid”, but it’s hard for a lay person to fully comprehend how somebody can be so insane that he kills the family that … not only he professes to love … but had shown great love for, for many, many years. And then in a very short period of time be deemed not insane by many, many psychiatrists. The rather abruptness of that is hard for a lay person to comprehend.
HEFFNER: Julie, you say it’s hard for a lay person to comprehend. Do you think that’s an indication of how … I was going to say naive … or how unknowing we are about mental illness?
SALAMON: Ab …
HEFFNER: About depression?
SALAMON: Absolutely. And one psychiatrist explained the Rowe case to make it more simple for a civilian, was that when you have somebody … you know if you thought of it in physical terms, you have a great pressure bearing down on a part of your body. And then that’s removed, you feel better. And with Bob Rowe he had the disability of his son. And Christopher who was a very cute … that was the little boy … an adorable little boy … as he grew older, it becomes less adorable … having to take him to the bathroom, and having to treat him as an infant, essentially, when he’s a 12, 13 year old boy. At the same time, Rowe, and there were changes in the insurance law, that in his forties suddenly from going to be a successful manager of 150 people, his career was called into question. And I think these things happening simultaneously, plus probably some predisposition to depression, weighed on him. And this killing of the family didn’t happen overnight. He had been in a depression for a couple of years. And I think that it was the combination of all these things that were pressing on him. And as one of the psychiatrists explained … when that pressure was gone, when his family and his guilt and his remorse for not being able to take care of them was lifted because they were gone, he felt better.
HEFFNER: That’s a very, very strange and difficult concept to grapple with.
SALAMON: Very strange and very difficult. And every piece of this case is strange and difficult. And yet, having said that, for me, as I was doing the reporting, there were familiar aspects to all of this because …
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
SALAMON: Well, I think in every day in life, there are all kinds of unknowable dilemmas that we come up against. From very small ones to very large ones, and you want to have an answer. It’s always easier to have an answer. And I think, as I thought about it later, there were reverberations in this case of another unknowable question that always played in my life, which is the Holocaust. Not that this is the same situation at all, but the same kinds of questions of forgiveness, of reconciliation, in a very different context. But I’ve always wondered if that’s one of the things that pushed me forward through the reporting of this story.
HEFFNER: Your parents were driven from Europe at the time of the Holocaust.
SALAMON: They weren’t driven, they were in the Holocaust. My parents were both in concentration camps. And for much of my life I’ve sort of grappled with the notion of “can we forgive?”. Do you forgive? How do you forgive? And, I’m not comparing what happened in Germany to the same mental breakdown that happened to Bob Rowe, but in a sense it’s not that far-fetched. And the entitlement to a second life, that those are notions of forgiveness, I think are very high on … have always been very high on my mind throughout my whole life.
HEFFNER: And given that, what did you do with Bob Rowe’s, the question of Bob Rowe? How did you reconcile ….?
SALAMON: The question of Bob Roe. I wish I could give you an easy answer. I have to say though having met his second wife, and his child from that marriage, it’s very hard for me to look at that and say, “this was all wrong. This was a mistake”. Because he was a good father to that second child.
HEFFNER: “This was all wrong …” meaning letting him out.
SALAMON: What had happened, letting him out. I do think … and his second wife, though argues … and with some force … then why shouldn’t he be allowed to practice law again. Because there you have a philosophical question … if he’s not guilty by New York State law, which was later changed to “not responsible”, but he’s not a felon, he officially hasn’t violated any of the code of professional responsibility … you know, it’s a decent question … why shouldn’t he be able to practice law again? And several psychiatrists testified … well known, well respected psychiatrists, testified on his behalf throughout these court proceedings … that yes, he’s qualified to practice law. And that’s the question …
HEFFNER: Julie, in “Facing The Wind” … what did you think? You’re so eve-handed, you’re a magnificent writer, you’re a beautiful writer and you’re a great reporter, and so as a reporter there’s an even-handedness here, that made me want to know, what does Julie Salamon think about his practicing law?
SALAMON: I think that the decision was absolutely right that was made, that he should not practice law again.
SALAMON: Because I think that, just as … I’ve thought … I’ve gone back and forth on it a lot, because I think there are logical, intellectual arguments to be made on the side of “yes, he should be able to practice law again.” However, there’s a privilege aspect to practicing law, and just as the mothers and the Rowes themselves found their lives altered irrevocably by the birth of their children, they wanted to have a normal life afterwards. But you know what? They couldn’t. Through no fault of their own, their life was different. They had good lives, all of these people in many ways, but they had difficult lives, more difficult than they would have been in the same way that once Bob Rowe killed his family, whether it was through mental illness, that was a different quirk of fate, I think he lost the privilege to practice law again simply because part of the practice of law entails a kind of public trust. And I think that would be very hard for people to have. I’m not saying it’s fair; I’m not even saying it’s right in terms of a moral rightness. But I think it’s probably right in terms of how the public would respond to it.
HEFFNER: But then, doesn’t it come down then to a P.R.. decision and wasn’t that what the Bar made …
HEFFNER: … what the court made?
SALAMON: it was absolutely a P.R.. decision … there’s no question about it.
HEFFNER: But then I don’t want you to make a P.R. decision. You don’t need to, the Bar … well, you’re a lawyer. But I’ll forgive you for that …
HEFFNER: … but the courts making that decision is different from you making a judgment.
SALAMON: I think… the judgment I’m making is an emotional one. I think that in some way, even though it wasn’t his fault, I think emotionally I think you do want to exact a little retribution. And I’m not saying it’s fair or right, and I’m not even proud to have that feeling. But I do think it is a not entirely unjustifiable feeling for people to have.
HEFFNER: When it comes then to the question of crime and punishment, particularly in our time we’re debating the question of capital punishment, so frequently … you see this as a matter of the need to satisfy basic feelings, instincts, needs, rather than a rational process?
SALAMON: Well, I think it’s hard to impose a rational process on such irrational acts from the beginning to the end because in this case, I think that there was a … I think justice was served. Bob Rowe was not guilty by reason of insanity. That seems fair when you read through the psychiatric record. He spent a certain amount of time in a mental hospital, mostly to make sure, I think, on … that was a P.R. effort as well, because most of the psychiatrists soon after he was in the mental hospital said his illness was over. But I think there was a great fear that if they would release him and another crime would be committed, that wouldn’t be a very good public relations move on behalf of the mental health system. But he spent under three years in the mental health system, and then was out. And that seemed fair to me, although there are many people who thought that that was unfair; that it was too short a time. And in fact most people who do … who are committed to state institutions instead of prison spend much longer time in the mental hospital than they do in the prison.
HEFFNER: So we want to punish them for mental illness?
SALAMON: No, I don’t think we do want to punish them …
HEFFNER: What … then how would you put it?
SALAMON: I think … well, I think the question is how do we … if the mental illness was such that, yes, we excused somebody for the killing and then we re … I don’t disagree with you, but I do feel that there’s a … there is some emotional desire to have, to have some feeling of existential fairness, for lack of anything else. I think you’re right, it’s not logical. But I do think that there is, there is this sense that just the act itself whether its done under the … done with premeditation and evil, or it’s done thorugh mental illness in the absence of control. I think that society wants there to be some, some feeling that the person who did this, whether consciously, unconsciously … something was exacted.
HEFFNER: He did die … an awful death.
SALAMON: He did die an awful death. And there are those who think that it was punishment, although I certainly hate to think that because that means that does everybody who dies of cancer then did some terrible thing? I don’t think so. And it was twenty years later.
HEFFNER: Why didn’t you go see him?
SALAMON: I didn’t go see him at first because I was afraid. When I first started, I admit that freely … I didn’t have much experience in interviewing people who had killed anybody. And when I first learned about the case … my first order of business was to learn about the families, to learn about the women and their children. And I … there were two reasons I delayed meeting Bob Rowe. Number one, before I met him I wanted to know more about everybody else. And number two, I wanted to be able to read his court records. And his court records had been sealed because he was not guilty. So, his records were excluded from public purview and I wanted to read them, so I had to go to court and argue and get the court records released, which was a whole other saga … you could do a whole program on that because it was a lengthy, lengthy process, during which, when I went to make my first argument to get the court records released, I looked up at the Judge … it’s in an open court, I was there with all the people in handcuffs making various motions, because it was criminal court … and I asked the Judge, I’d like to make a motion to have this record released. And I told him what the case was, and he looked down at me, and said, ‘I have to excuse myself from this case because I was the prosecutor”. So, I asked him if I could interview him.
HEFFNER: And you did.
SALAMON: And I did. And he was actually a wonderful interview.
HEFFNER: Question, you haven’t still answered why you didn’t interview Rowe?
SALAMON: So, I was waiting to …
HEFFNER: And we only have two minutes left.
SALAMON: Oh, I was waiting to get the court records released and by the time I got them released, he died. He died two years into the reporting.
HEFFNER: Is that only reason?
SALAMON: That was the only reason. I would have interviewed him then … absolutely. And it would have changed the course of the book.
SALAMON: Because I think once I talked to him, he might have dominated it almost too much, I think, because he was old then, he was sick, he was demented. And I think I would have had a real struggle trying to separate out what was true, what wasn’t true. Because I think he had become pretty addled near the end. And it would have been very, very difficult.
HEFFNER: You did one book, true crime book, about Hollywood. I, I joke when I say that … “true crime” … would you come back to this kind of theme again, Julie.
SALAMON: I don’t think so because I don’t think of it as a true crime book. I certainly didn’t set out to write a true crime book even though there is a horrible true crime in the middle of it. It was … for me … what was interesting wasn’t “who done it”, we knew that. It wasn’t the detective work, it was the ramifications of the crime, I think, and the effect that it had on all the people around it.
HEFFNER: It is a little Tolstian, Dostoyevskyian, a mixture you really tackled that. You’d go back to those themes though?
SALAMON: I probably will, God help me. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Julie Salamon, I … again, maybe I’m too effusive, but that’s just because I know you and love you … but “Facing The Wind” is so beautifully written that I hope everybody who hears what I say, reads it. A true story of tragedy and reconciliation. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
SALAMON: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.