On March 14th 2015, Robert Alan Durst was arrested in a hotel in New Orleans. He was checked in under the name Everett Ward and was mumbling to himself as he limped through the lobby. At 71 years of age and suffering from hydrocephalus, he wasn’t in the most graceful of conditions, and yet he had been evading the authorities for years at this point. Durst was arrested in connection to the 2000 murder of his good friend Susan Berman. Although never a suspect himself, he is heavily believed to be the culpirt, especially by those investigating the case—deputy District Attorney John Lewin in his interrogation of Durst, just following his New Orleans arrest, would straightforwardly claim “I know that, when you killed Susan Berman, that was not something you wanted to do.” He’s already been presupposed as guilty; for Lewin, it’s not about whether or not Durst actually did it, it’s about figuring out how to make everyone (more specifically a judge and jury) believe that Durst did do it.
The New York Scion has been in and out of the headlines ever since the never-solved disappearance of his first wife, Kathie Durst, in 1982. With Susan’s death in 2000, Durst’s name was in the spotlight again and so Kathie’s case gained more traction. More developments would ensue over the years, including another mysterious death of someone close to him, up until the premiere of the HBO documentary series “The Jinx” (Andrew Jarecki, 2015), which is based on Durst and the controversies surrounding him. In one of the most scintillating moments of modern-day television, Durst chilled the spines of viewers across the nation with a few soft-spoken words:
This was also prefaced with: “There it is. You’re caught.” These comments have yet to be deemed admissible for his upcoming trial but if you’re someone like Lewin, or one of the detectives from the original Kathie Durst case, this is all the evidence you need to justify it to yourself. The question I have now, after watching the show and reading what I’ve read, isn’t so much associated with whether or not he killed these 3 people, but more so along the lines of why so many people are obsessed with convicting him. Like OJ Simpson, Durst’s situation carries a significant cultural weight, but where Simpson’s was more political, Durst’s centered on morality.
The myth of “money buys happiness” or “money leads to happiness” is relevant here as a friend of Durst is quoted in “The Jinx” saying that Durst once told him: “All my life I’ve had more money than I can spend and it didn’t make me happy.” The simulacrum for happiness and success, for some reason, must involve the acquisition of money. There’s a grand assumption in our society that having money eases your personal problems, and it’s hard not to buy into it sometimes; we have become conditioned to do so. When Durst says money doesn’t make him happy, it throws us for a slight mental loop because it doesn’t right away match up with what we’ve been taught our whole lives. This ideology that Durst has adopted can also play into his favorability, as many people probably feel similarly so they relate to him through the TV screen. In a moment such as this, the grand old narrative of “money = happy” is shattered in a postmodern paradigm shift. Durst becomes a favorable anti-hero for resisting modern values.
The simulacrum for morality is noteworthy here because of how it’s defined in our culture plays a huge role into how Durst is received by the public. In 2003, Durst was on trial for the murder of Morris Black in 2001, his neighbor and friend while he was living in Galveston, TX. In a swift move by his defense, Durst was put on the stand and asked to tell his version. He admitted to shooting Black, but out of self-defense, and then cut up his body and threw him in a nearby lake;
“I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him.”
Durst ended up being acquitted of the murder charge which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way (my roommate became convinced that Durst was guilty after hearing about the dismemberment, to him one obviously led to the other). I am not giving my side here but objectively asking: why is it that calling the police in that situation the “moral” choice and disposing of the body himself not? Either way Morris is still dead. What if it was proven without a doubt that he was indeed killed in self-defense? Would the dismemberment be just as polarizing? Or even more so? But what does it mean to “add up”? That justification makes us feel comfortable as the general public because we think that there’s no possible way that a man like Durst can be “real” if he cut up the body, but didn’t intentionally kill him. It doesn’t “add up”. In the former, where his self-defense plea isn’t universally believed, the assumption can still be held that he’s just pretending, however, in the latter, he is simulating.
“[P]retending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary.’” (3)**
The simulacra for morality that Durst is simulating is one that can’t be comprehended by the dominant ideology; therefore he comes off as mysteriously terrifying. Even in the most recent of the pre-trial hearings from this past April, a newly identified secret witness claimed she was scared of Durst, which hindered her from stepping forward initially.
During the hearing, deputy D.A. Lewin, the prosecutor, asks the witness, Lynda Obst, why she’s there, to which she replies:
This similar kind of sentiment is echoed throughout most of Durst’s opposers. They want to bring “justice” to Kathie’s family by finding out the location of her body. They want to bring “justice” to Susan and Morris’s family by punishing the person responsible for their deaths. In what way is this bringing “justice” for the family if its doesn’t literally bring their loved one back? People take comfort in having certain amounts of control over any given situation and “justice” in this case is taking the power from Durst. They want to let him know that his behavior will not be tolerated by the dominant ideology that governs us.
“Power itself has for a long time produced nothing but the signs of it’s resemblance. And at the same time, another figure of power comes into play: that of a collective demand for signs of power—a holy union that is reconstructed around its disappearance.” (23)
Ideologies regarding “justice” stem from discourses of power. What is and isn’t considered “justice” has been perpetuated by those in power throughout history. Even dating back Greek mythology and the Trojan War, after Achilles refused to return Hector’s body—as was customary—Priam, King of Troy, approached the enemy to beg Achilles for the return of his dead son’s body so that he could have a proper burial, and Achilles approved. They both adhered to a dominant ideology of the era, respect for deceased loved ones. Everyone had the same understanding as to what was justifiable in that situation. In today’s postmodern society, on the other hand, the lines are drawn as clearly. What’s “justice” to Durst isn’t “justice” to Lewin; and Obst’s “justice” could differentiate from both. These simulations of “justice” have become hyperreal in they’re “translated by the hallucinatory resemblance of the real to itself” (23)**. The simulacra for “justice” has become so convoluted that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Durst represents a uniques case in post-colonial criticism as well. According to Said: “The relationship between the Occident and Orient is one of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony,” (5)***. Occident vs. Orient, or West vs. Other, is one of the most dominant binaries of our current milieu, and actually has been for a long time. I believe Durst is uniques in a way where he occupies both worlds at once. He’s a postmodern poster-child; a part of the rich and “ruling” class, yet at the same time as foreign to them as the primordially deemed Other. His tendency to play hop-scotch with this ideological line makes him harder to figure out—he’s a real estate tycoon, but he smokes pot everyday; he . In a way he reminds of the Joker, in that he’s a new age type of “villain” or “antihero” driven by unconventional motivations. However, he’s also not yet enough removed from the Western world to abandon it or be abandoned by it. It’s this mastery of both sides that has perpetuated Durst’s “success”. Not a big enough rallying cry can be gathered around his seizure because he’s too interesting. Even Jarecki faced anxiety when getting ready for his final interview with Durst because he knew this was going to be the point where Durst and he will no longer be friends—and that was tough for him initially, because the Other side of Durst is slightly fascinating.
Ultimately, I believe the aspect of Durst’s character that people despise the most is the seemingly nonchalant disinterest he has in his extreme wealth, not his alleged murder of three people. The one thing people hate more than murderers are those who are super rich and don’t explicitly appreciate it. Durst isn’t humble and people don’t like that. It’s looked like he hasn’t cared about any of this stuff for so long that it’s coming off as arrogant. He’s also got that Donald Trump, say-it-how-it-is way of speaking that I’m sure works in his favor for some people (he was once asked to repeat a statement he made about his brother, Douglas, and he answered: “Yeah, I said he’s a pussy”). During this same interrogation, which occurs a day after his arrest in New Orleans, Durst claims that he’s not that good at being a fugitive:
“But, when I was in prison, none of the inmates could understand that, at all. I mean you have lots of money. Why’d you get caught?”
Durst is seen as a simulacrum for aristocracy by the other inmates. They see him as a white, rich, male and simply because of those basic traits he should be able to get away with murder—notice how he chooses to say ‘Why’d you get caught?’ not ‘Why’d you do it?’. When the inmates see Durst they unconsciously see all the white elites throughout history mostly associated with taking what they want and subjugating others. To them he’s not Robert Durst, he’s the spoiled rich kid who killed his hot white wife. Just as minorities and women unrightfully get labeled as subhuman, rich white males unrightfully get labeled as superhuman. Robert Durst thinks and acts in a postmodern style; he’s breaking every rule at every turn. Most people blindly despise him without looking at the society we live in. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
- “Irresistible TV, but Durst Film Tests Ethics, Too.”
- “All Good Things” IMDb Page
- Kathie Durst’s sisters file suit against Debrah & Susan Giordano
*the comments on this ABC News video show the range of his differing support
**from Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
***from Orientalism by Edward Said
****Durst quotes are from 3/15/15 interrogation