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Why I Won’t Write About Chandra Levy

5 minute read
Roger Rosenblatt

Twenty years ago, I would have done it, probably in the story’s first few weeks–a lock, really, a cinch, given all the elements of the story that are ripe for the taking. The amorous Congressman; the enticement of a tale about another Washington intern; sex in the capital city; sex and politics; sex. Or go a little deeper: a story about the impenetrable nature of public lives or of private lives suddenly blasted with publicity and a sidelight into the missing-persons cases that do not draw national attention–a moral lament about that.

Or go historical and write about all the missing persons who ever teased the world’s imaginations–Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart, Ambrose Bierce, Agatha Christie, Aimee Semple McPherson and her faked kidnapping, Sherwood Anderson and his faked amnesia, Dr. Livingston–I would have presumed.

Or go mystical, play with language and discuss what it means to be missing in America. What or who is missed? Is a missing person like a missed appointment, a missed date? How is it possible to be missing in the land of multiple sources of identification? (Here, note that Gary Condit is said to have told Chandra Levy not to carry any means of identification with her when they had their trysts.) Who and what does Levy miss?

I would have done all or some of that 20 years ago, but I won’t do it now–though I realize that by using this conceit to set up my reason, I will appear to be entering the story by the back door and to be writing about it as I don’t. Bear with me?

The angle taken most easily, of course, involves the down-and-dirty possibilities of the case–the lurid interest in Condit’s apartment house, shown frequently on TV and looking like the soulless building where Isabella Rossellini was kept in Blue Velvet; the images of secret lovemaking on dank and silent Washington summer evenings; new old girlfriends turning up on a weekly basis, talking of being told not to talk. One could swim down into this stuff or pretend to sail above it (as this paragraph somewhat does) and swim while sailing.

The reason that I won’t do it is not just because I don’t have anything to say that would be any more interesting than what anyone else might say (I don’t) or because I take the purist’s stand and wish to withhold judgment until the facts are in. It is simply because I have seen enough of sadness in the news to tell me that–unless Chandra turns up alive–this is the story of something very bad happening to a young woman, and, for the moment, I do not know what more there is to say about that.

Something odd and transforming generally happens to the public when presented with a story like Levy’s. Most people are decent natured when they learn of a terrible event, and their sympathetic attention flies to the person in distress or peril. But open the story to one of sweaty nights between the sheets or to the possibility of murder by a public figure, and the initial rush of sympathy is closed off as if by a valve. Enter, then, the cable-TV experts in somber fantasizing and rampant “scenarios,” and a story that caused you to gulp now makes you salivate.

Suddenly, this is no longer news about a missing woman, young enough to be your daughter, or about a mother and father, terrified enough to be you. It becomes: Doesn’t Condit look like the wound-tight kind of guy who might do away with an inconvenience or a threat? And what about that wristwatch box he tossed in the trash?

There is a tantalizing mystery here–don’t get me wrong. And it would be unnatural not to try to picture what happened to Levy and who did it. But, I don’t know about you, I feel kind of cheap every time I consider this business as if it were a thrilling detective novel to be read during a summer thunderstorm because I don’t know a single thing about the character of Gary Condit or about serial killings in the District or about the guy who works at Levy’s health club or her landlord or the other people living in her apartment house.

What I do know is that the world is a pitiless and dangerous place. In 20 years of observing portions of it, I have seen, or seen the aftermath of, children blown apart by car bombs in Beirut; kindergartners slaughtered in a schoolroom in Israel; hunted young men dying of starvation in Sudan; other young men and women hacked to death with machetes in Rwanda, their bodies hoisted like logs over waterfalls and carried into muddy rivers; still others decapitated in Cambodia, with kids forced to do the decapitating.

This is what people will do to one another. Given who they are and their individual circumstances, they will do absolutely anything to one another. The accumulation of this knowledge leaves one revulsed, heartbroken and, in some dark way, amazed. But it does not leave one with much to say. Chandra Levy’s story is about what people will do to one another, and I don’t feel like writing about that.

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