Literature of the Cursed: O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It”

By Nathan Rabin (@nathanrabin)

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Literature of the Cursed: O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It

I have long been fascinated by books from people who, for various reasons, should not be writing books.

When I wrote for The A.V. Club, I had a column called Silly Show-Biz Book Club dedicated to the semi-literate scribblings of the unjustly famous and the justly anonymous who cranked out what can generously be deemed literature due to their fuzzy connection to fame, whether that infamy-by-association came by being briefly married to Mos Def or being Dr. Dre, Eminem or Diddy’s flunky for a few years. These books fascinated me both because they were not written by professionals and because many of them were self-published and not subject to the gatekeepers of culture with their fussy insistence on “adhering to the basics of grammar and spelling” and “sanity.” They provided an unfiltered, seemingly unedited insight into the psyches of strange people whose rationales for writing tell-alls run the gamut from “desperation” to “naked greed.”

So I formally welcome you to the first installment in Literature Of The Cursed, which I see as a sequel/companion piece to Silly Show-Biz Book Club. Only this time, the authors in question shouldn’t write because they’re bad writers. It’s because they are, objectively speaking, some of the worst people on earth, and for morality’s sake should not benefit financially or professionally from spreading tales of their awfulness.

We begin the series with an unusually pure representation of the form: the notorious If I Did It. If I Did It is a mass of bizarre paradoxes. It is an O.J. Simpson book that is ultimately, due to its bizarre path to publication, less of a ‘book’ than ‘a scathing, convincing and extensive condemnation of O.J. Simpson from people who despise him as much as one human can possibly despise another. It is a confession that is, ultimately, not a confession. It’s a book that was hatched in a frenzy of greed, shamelessness and amorality, commissioned by a woman (Judith Regan) who would have Hitler ghost-write Satan’s boastful memoirs if she thought there was money in it.

But If I Did It ultimately serves the public good not just by providing insight into the mind of a murderer, but also a train-wreck-fascinating glimpse into the mind of the wealthy, entitled, abusive, and belligerent.

***

If I Did It is a book like no other, and its peculiar form reflects the curious machinations that led to its release.

The book opens with a forward by the Goldman family, whose son Ron was brutally murdered by someone the Goldmans never refer to by name, only as “the killer” and “the beast.” Now, it’s tough being overly critical of people who’ve suffered such a terrible and public loss, but referring to Simpson as “the beast” calls to mind images of Othello, and less artful depictions of African-American men as jealous, rage-filled, and violence-prone. The introduction is similarly bogged down by extensive talk of an Oprah appearance and the family’s public feuding with Denise Brown, the sister of Nicole Brown, Simpson’s ex-wife and the killer’s second victim (Brown had attacked Goldman publicly for pushing forward with the publication of If I Did It for what she saw as reasons of greed rather than justice, but their complaints can’t help but feel trivial and insignificant within the context of the double murders).

It is a testament to the strange Frankenstein’s monster/Russian nesting doll nature of the text that the Goldman family’s forward — written in August 2008 after they’d appeared on Oprah and Dr. Phil, and after Simpson had been arrested in Las Vegas for a series of crimes for which he is still incarcerated — is immediately followed by another foreword from the Goldmans, written in August 2007. It lays out the reasons why the family aggressively sought to publish the self-serving memoirs of the man they hold responsible for destroying their lives by stabbing their son to death.

The things I know, and the things I believe, you can’t even imagine. And I’m going to share them with you. Because the story you know, or think you know — that’s not the story. Not even close. This is one story the whole world got wrong.” — O.J. Simpson

Though Simpson famously emerged triumphant at his criminal trial, his civil trial was a much different affair and Simpson was found guilty and ordered to pay 7 million dollars in compensatory damages and 12.5 million in punitive damages to the Goldman family, as well as 12.5 million dollars in punitive damages to the estate of Nicole Brown. The problem was that the family had no way of collecting upon its ostensible $19.5 million payday. O.J. vowed not to pay the family a dime and promptly moved to Florida, which, in addition to being our nation’s worst state and the home of many of its worst residents, apparently has laws that make it almost prohibitively difficult for people who’ve won civic cases to actually collect on their judgments. Due to the Homestead Act, Simpson’s Florida house was protected from the Goldmans’ reach and because Florida is a right-to-work state, the Goldmans couldn’t touch his wages or his NFL pension either.

So you can only imagine how apoplectic the Goldmans were when it was reported that HarperCollins would be paying Simpson upwards of a million dollars for If I Did It, his “theoretical” confession, though the book’s publication was cancelled and a first printing of 400,000 was scotched due to a public outcry that this was going too far, even for Judith Regan and her Reganbooks imprint.

The Goldmans initially spoke out against the book, considering it nothing more than a “manual for murder” that would fatten the pockets of their worst enemy. But their thinking changed once they began to see the book more as the only confession Simpson would ever deliver, muddled as it may be, as well as their only way of collecting even part of their civil judgment. So the Goldmans acquired the rights to the book in bankruptcy court and pushed ahead with a plan to publish it both as a means of getting something, anything from the defiant Simpson and as a means of proving his guilt.

The Goldmans’ two forewords are then followed by another bit of preamble, this time in the form of a prologue from Pablo F. Fenjves, who got the job of ghostwriting the book despite both testifying against Simpson for the prosecution during the original trial (he was neighbors with Nicole) and his strong belief that Simpson was a double murderer and a “malignant narcissist.” He writes that the sessions with Simpson were predictably intense and loaded, with Simpson at one point telling his ghostwriter, “I don’t know what the hell you want from me. I’m not going to tell you that I sliced my ex-wife’s neck and watched her eyes roll up into her head.”

The job of a ghostwriter is generally to make their subject seem as eloquent, appealing, and innocent of double murder as possible. But Fenjves makes it clear that he saw his job as giving Simpson the proverbial rope to hang himself with, to let the man indict himself on the basis of his own hateful, disingenuous words. He even attests that Simpson was happy with the work they did together, with the notable exception of the chapter where he possibly brutally murders two people in cold blood. Fenjves quotes Simpson as grousing, “I hate that fucking chapter. Ask (Regan) if we can take it out.” That’s a little like Monica Lewinsky asking her publisher if they could skip the part in her memoir involving the President to better focus on some of the more intriguing feminist consciousness-raising classes she took in college.

O.J., in his malignant narcissism, thought his confession would be a whole lot better if it weren’t a confession at all, but rather an extended attack on the dead mother of his children.

***

This brings us to the O.J. portion of the book.

In a misguided bit of showmanship, Simpson teases that, for the first time, the real story of what went down would come out, writing on the first page, “Well, sit back, people. The things I know, and the things I believe, you can’t even imagine. And I’m going to share them with you. Because the story you know, or think you know — that’s not the story. Not even close. This is one story the whole world got wrong.

Simpson then writes conversationally about how he came to meet Brown. She was a waitress who had just turned 18 and he was a father, husband, and superstar football player on the verge of his tenth anniversary to his first wife Marguerite. Simpson was instantly smitten by her beauty. Here is Simpson’s origin story for how he came to meet Nicole:

“On my way out of town, I stopped at Beverly Hills jewelry store to pick out an anniversary present for (his then-wife Margeurite) — we’d been married a decade earlier, on June 24th, 1976 — then paid for it and left. As I made my way down the street, heading back to my car, I ran into a guy I knew and we went off to have breakfast at The Daisy, a couple of blocks away. We found a quiet, corner table and our young waitress came over. She was a stunner: slim, blonde and bright-eyed, with a smile that could knock a man over.

‘Who are you?’ I asked.

‘Nicole.’

‘Nicole who?’

‘Nicole Brown.’

‘How come I’ve never seen you before?’

‘I just started here,’ She said, laughing.

She was from Dana Point, she told me, about an hour south of Los Angeles, and she’d come up for the summer to make a few bucks.

‘How old are you?’ I asked.

‘I just turned eighteen last month, she said, ‘On May 19.’

‘I’m sorry I missed your birthday.’ I said.

She smiled at me that bright smile again. ‘Me too,’ she said.”

Yet from the very beginning, Simpson depicts Nicole as something of a nightmare; pushy, demanding, and ruled by bizarre, womanly “emotions” he neither understands nor has much patience for. When she gets pregnant, Simpson depicts her as possessive to a pathological degree, a crazed mama bear who wouldn’t let anyone touch her precious baby:

Nicole was a terrific mother, though. Right from the start, she was a little too terrific. She wouldn’t let anyone near (baby) Sydney. Not the housekeeper. Not her mother. Not even me at times. That was her baby, and her baby needed her and only her, and nothing I could say or do could change her mind. Only Nicole knew how to feed her baby. Only Nicole could bathe her. Only Nicole knew how to swaddle that little girl and hold her just right against her shoulder. It got to be a pain in the ass, frankly. I couldn’t get her to leave the house.

It’s clear from the start that Simpson thought Brown was a mentally ill woman from whom he would need to protect his family, himself, and the world; a crazed, delusional hysteric who did things like keep a fictional list of abuses she had suffered at his hands for unknown reasons. Of their fights, Simpson writes early in the book:

Years later, during the trial, the prosecution tried to paint me as a violent, abusive husband. They said they’d found a safe deposit box belonging to Nicole and that it contained numerous handwritten allegations of abuse dating back to 1977. In the notes, Nicole reportedly said all sorts of ugly things about me: That I constantly told her she was fat: that when she got pregnant with Justin I said I didn’t want another kid; that I once locked her in the wine closet during an endless argument. I don’t what all else I did but the list was endless, and all of it was fiction.

Simpson accuses Brown of flying into a rage when she didn’t receive everything she thought was coming for her. Simpson makes it clear that he was in an abusive relationship, but he depicts Brown as the one being physically and emotionally abusive. According to Simpson, she was always in a rage, always ready to get physical. Simpson presents himself as the patient, sane one who got in trouble for domestic abuse the one time it actually looked like he, one of the greatest athletes of all time, was to blame for a physical altercation instead of his tiny, skinny blonde wife. Simpson writes, “She had that temper on her, as I said, and if something set her off she tended to come at me, fists and feet flying.

In Simpson’s tellings, all the problems in the marriage were Nicole’s fault. After freaking out on her ex-husband-to-be with some grotesquely feminine display of emotions, she dutifully calls up O.J. to apologize and reiterate that everything is always her fault and he is never to blame. Simpson seems to see this as further evidence that he’s always right, and that, while not perfect, he was the grievously wronged party in nearly every conflict and not part of a cycle of abuse. He repeatedly posits himself as the defender of faith and family, while his ex-wife embarks on a second childhood and throws herself into flings with sketchy men Simpson doesn’t want around his damned children.

In his role as concerned father, Simpson shares an anecdote from the set of a Naked Gun sequel:

One day, though, on the set of that movie, I ran into a girl who was a stand-in for Anna Nicole Smith, and she and I got to talking. She began to tell me about some really wild parties she’d been to recently, and how she was always running into Nicole with her little entourage — a group she described as a ‘pretty rough crowd.’ And suddenly, I’m thinking, Now that’s weird. This stand-in was basically a part-time hooker — I believe she had worked with Heidi Fleiss, the so-called Hollywood madam — and she and three of her little girlfriends had written a book about their experiences, ‘You’ll Never Make Love In This Town Again.’ Now here she was, a call-girl, telling me that my ex-wife was running with a ‘rough crowd.’ I was pretty upset, as you imagine, and after the shoot I drove over to Nicole’s house and read her the riot act. ‘I thought I warned you about these people,’ I said. ‘I’ve told you a million times: I don’t want them around the kids.’

Simpson depicts their relationship less as partners than a perpetually pissed-off father and an eternally demanding daughter who forever needs a good, hard spanking for being such a naughty girl; for drinking too much and saying the wrong thing and hanging out with the wrong people and bringing the wrong element into Simpson’s children’s lives.

For Simpson, grown-man business is about playing golf with your golfing buddies (possibly as part of your professional responsibility as the face of Hertz), paying your damned bills, looking after your damned kids, and, when it’s absolutely necessary, listening to your damned ex-wife go on and on about “finding herself” and “her needs” and her damned shrink. It’s as if Simpson only understands a few things: money, professional obligations, sex and image. Everything else bewilders him and throws him into a rage equal parts fuzzy and artlessly profane, like when Nicole asks a peeved Simpson where he’s getting his information from and he responds, “‘I just know, okay?’ I said. ‘I know about the wild parties. I know about Heidi’s girls. And I know about these fucking druggies.’

Simpson’s attempt at chronicling a love story, as much as anything else, feels unmistakably like a justification for killing Nicole because she got on his nerves and tested his extremely limited patience a few times too many. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see If I Did It as a veiled confession by a man who felt he needed to murder the mother of his children in order to protect them from her negative influence.

Assume, for a moment, that Simpson did not brutally murder Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. He would still be writing a book that he knew his children would read some day that depicted the dead mother of his children — and a woman he spent much of his life with — as a grasping, needy, overgrown teenager who was obsessively in love with him and who simply refused to come to terms with the fact that he’d moved on. Despite his contention that Nicole was essentially “stalking” him and his repeated assertions that she was jeopardizing their children’s safety by hanging out with a motley crew of hookers of drug addicts, Simpson nevertheless agrees to break up with his model girlfriend and give Nicole an entire year to see if they might be able to work things out for the sake of their children. O.J. — who had been enjoying semi-regular sex with Nicole while he was ostensibly with girlfriend Paula Barbieri — gave in on one level. But as always, there was a tension in their relationship. He allowed her a year to see if they might be able to reconcile. But Nicole wants what O.J. was stubbornly, purposefully unwilling to give her: an opportunity to move into his sprawling mansion.

The failure of this year of attempted reconciliation leads to the chapter everyone has been waiting for: the killer’s confession. Which the killer in question would like to reiterate is not a confession, because he is not a killer, and has never killed anybody.

***

Finally, we reach Chapter 6, “The Night In Question.”

Here, Simpson stops being brusque, vague, and self-pitying. The narrative becomes riveting as Simpson writes of his violent, murderous rage the night someone — not O.J., of course — brutally murdered Nicole and Ronald Goldman.

This chapter is notable for a number of reasons. The first is that it marks one of the rare instances in a true-crime tome when an imaginary friend is introduced to provoke/aid/be horrified by the murders. Here’s how O.J. teases the introduction of his imaginary friend Charlie and the role he played in the murders:

I shut my eyes and told myself to stop thinking about (Nicole). I looked at my watch. It was 10:03. I needed a shower, and I had to finish packing. As I got to my feet, an unfamiliar car slowed near my gate, then pulled past and parked a short way down, across the street. The driver got out and waved from the distance, and at first I couldn’t tell who it was. When he came closer, I saw it was Charlie. I’d met him some months earlier at a dinner with mutual friends and we’d gone clubbing with the same friends. I liked Charlie — he was one of those guys who is always in a good mood, always laughing — and I told him what I tell a lot of people: Stop by when you’re in the neighborhood.

Ah, but Charlie is not the bearer of happy tidings. No, he mysteriously appears for the first time in the narrative with some ominous news. He was with some friends who didn’t know that Imaginary Charlie was real-life friends with Simpson, who told him that they’d been to Cabo San Lucas and partied with Nicole and her no-good friend Faye Resnick, and “There was a lot of drugs and drinking, and apparently things got pretty kinky.

Before you know it, Simpson is blacking out and coming to, only to discover Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman covered in blood and himself clutching a blood-soaked knife:

Now I was standing in Nicole’s courtyard, in the dark, listening to the loud, rhythmic, accelerated beating of of my own heart. I put my left hand to my heart and my shirt felt strangely wet. I looked down at myself. For several moments, I couldn’t get my mind around what I was seeing: The whole front of me was covered in blood but it didn’t compute. Is this really blood? I wondered. And whose blood is it? It is mine? Am I hurt?

I was more confused than ever. What the hell happened here? Then I remembered the Goldman guy coming through the back gate, with Judy’s glasses, and I remembered hollering at him, and I remembered how our shouts brought Nicole to the door.

Nicole, Jesus.

I looked down and saw her on the ground in front of me, curled up in a fetal position at the base of the stairs, not moving. Goldman was only a few feet away, slumped against the bars of the the fence He wasn’t moving either. Both he and Nicole were lying in giant pools of bloods. I had never seen so much blood in my life. It didn’t seem real, and none of it computed. What the fuck happened here? And why? And where the fuck was I when this is shit went down?

Needless to say, this freaks the shit out of Imaginary Charlie, who agrees to help Simpson with his theoretical getaway from justice all the same. O.J. never says why Charlie agreed to help him except that he was a friend, and weak-willed, and also imaginary.

This is the money chapter, the only section of the book that feels real and raw and vital (once you get over the preposterously fictional context, that a mysterious figure we’d never met before and will never encounter again told him that Nicole had really gone off the deep end this time and drove him to murder). This is a chapter with the grisly, uncomfortable allure of the true-crime genre as opposed to the self-serving ugliness of what came before, and despite its bizarre inclusion of the imaginary Charlie, it is emotionally satisfying in a way nothing else in the book is.

After the riveting veiled confession chapter, the book induces a strange form of cognitive dissonance; the Simpson who writes (theoretically) about the rage and the blood and the corpses is gone and the Simpson who is shocked, yes, shocked, that anyone might suspect him in the brutal murder of his ex-wife returns. We’re treated to the full transcripts of an interrogation, just as earlier in the book we were blessed with the full transcript of Nicole Brown’s 911 calls to the police.

***

Simpson’s part of the book is followed by a slightly more eloquently written and honest afterword by Dominick Dunne. He discusses his own experiences covering the trial and how it tragically echoed the miscarriage of justice that ensued when Dunne’s own daughter was murdered by a stalker who received a slap on the wrist and a half-hearted order to stop murdering people. But it’s best to end this column with the chilling way Simpson chose to close his part of the book.

He’s just been taken into custody after the Bronco chase and his mind flashes back to a note Nicole had written him. It reads:

I want to be with you! I want to love you and cherish you, and make you smile. I want to wake up with you in the mornings and hold you at night. I want to hug and kiss you everyday. I want us to be the way we used to be. There was no couple like us.

To this, Simpson, can only add:

And I’m thinking
You were sure right about that, Nic.
There was no couple like us.

He’s right. There were, and are, no couples like Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson. I can’t think of another instance where a couple met, fell in love, got married, split, then were further torn asunder when the man brutally murdered the woman, and then scored a million dollar payday to write a faux-confession largely devoted to chronicling what a coke-addled, promiscuous, delusional, immature bitch that woman was.

But for all of its ugliness and unwieldiness, I’m glad If I Did It exists, as it provides an unexpectedly revealing glimpse into a handsome man’s ugly soul and crooked psyche.

Next on Literature Of The Cursed: Rielle Hunter’s In Hindsight: What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter And Me: The Revised Edition

***

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