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Alice Goffman on the run

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on the run

That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Huckleberry Finn

This morning, a couple more pieces were published regarding the growing controversy over Alice Goffman’s much-lauded book On the Run.

Steve Lubet, who first raised serious questions about the book’s veracity, and was as far as I know also the first person to point out that On the Run ends with Goffman admitting to engaging in a conspiracy to commit murder, has an article in the New Republic that raises yet more questions about both issues. First, Lubet reveals further problems with Goffman’s reliability, in this instance surrounding her description of the death of her friend Chuck, whose murder makes up the book’s narrative and thematic climax:

To that point, Goffman’s version closely mirrors the police account of events. The Chinese restaurant in West Philadelphia, the head wound, the younger brother at the scene, the victim’s age and race, the downtown hospital, and the time of death all match. According to police reports, Chuck’s girlfriend was in his hospital room when detectives arrived in the morning, as she was in Goffman’s version. And another friend of Chuck’s was there as well.

But one person who wasn’t in the hospital room when the detectives arrived, according to the police reports, was Alice Goffman. Detective Francis Mullen, one of the lead investigators on the case that day, told me that they would have recorded the name, race, and gender of anyone who was in the hospital room—as they did for other individuals.

“I am 100 percent certain there was NOT a white female” there, he said in an email.

Goffman is adamant that she was by Chuck’s bedside when the detectives arrived. Asked about this discrepancy, Goffman said, “They were definitely in the room, and they were asking Chuck’s girlfriend questions while I was in the room. And they didn’t ask me any questions or say anything to me.”

The conflict between these narratives is of a piece with a lot of other things which anyone who decides to read the book critically will end up discovering. On the Run is full of inconsistencies, incongruities, improbable stories, and, in least a couple of cases, on their face impossibilities. I’m not going to go into these matters here, except to note that when someone points out one of these things in relative isolation, it can appear that the critic is making a mountain out of a mole hill. But there comes a point where a sufficient number of mole hills piled onto each other will begin to resemble a mountain, and by the end of the book On the Run has very much reached that point, as I will discuss elsewhere.

Second, Lubet points out that Goffman’s response to the claim that she admits to having committed a serious felony calls her overall reliability into further question:

Goffman has defended herself by asserting new facts that dramatically alter her narrative. In a response posted on her University of Wisconsin website earlier this year, Goffman writes that the manhunt was actually all a charade, a mourning ritual intended only to satisfy the “neighborhood’s collective desire for retribution.” While the name of Chuck’s killer was well known, “it was common knowledge in the neighborhood” that he “had fled,” she now states. The repeated nighttime searches were really just play acting. In her revised version, “Talk of retribution was just that: talk.”

But if it was all just a performance, why did she omit that crucial information from the book itself? Why did she instead tell us in such gripping detail that Mike kept his hand on his Glock during the drive and tucked the gun into his jeans as he lay in wait for the suspected 4th Street Boy? Why write about sitting in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off, if Goffman really believed there would be no violence?

I cannot really fault Goffman for changing her story about the events of those nights, given that the account in On the Run unequivocally implicates her in a felony—less serious because no one was shot, but no less criminal because the manhunt failed. And even if it had not been a crime, it was no less unethical and immoral to have risked the lives of her potential target and any innocent bystanders.

By belatedly absolving herself of participating in a murder plot, however, Goffman has admitted to another failing: putting drama ahead of the truth. She is asking readers to trust her. But how can we trust her if she has altered her story in ways that go well beyond simple anonymization?

Third, Lubet points out that Goffman omits to provide readers of On the Run the story of what happened to Chuck’s killers, which is a significant omission for reasons that his article makes clear. He also emphasizes that Goffman’s admitted conduct raises serious questions about the ethical obligations of social science researchers in general, and ethnographers in particular.

After reading Lubet’s article, Jesse Singal’s latest defense of Goffman in New York Magazine is pretty shocking. Singal comes off as both remarkably credulous in regard to Goffman’s veracity, and even more remarkably indifferent to her admitted averred conduct. As to the first issue, Singal’s explanation for the awkward circumstance that some of the stories Goffman relates as simple fact are both incredible on their face and impossible to verify is that she sometimes gets sloppy about distinguishing between things she’s been told by her informants and things she confirmed actually happened:

Given that there’s no evidence Goffman lied or intentionally embellished in On the Run, the most likely explanation for these discrepancies is that she simply didn’t heed her own advice about credulously echoing sources’ stories; it might be that important details about how these events unfolded got lost along the way.

There are a couple of big problems with this defense, such as it is:

(1) It would obviously be a huge breach of both basic journalistic and academic norms to present dubiously sourced or completely unsourced stories as representing incontrovertible fact, yet Goffman does just this in On the Run on numerous occasions. Singal seems to overlook that one “important detail about how these events unfolded” that may have “got lost along the way” is whether these events actually happened at all, which is something that can be asked about a number of incidents in the book.

(2) In several instances, Goffman presents herself as an eyewitness to such incidents, which potentially implicates a much more serious breach of academic and journalistic norms than reporting a poorly sourced story in a misleadingly credulous way (which is not meant to minimize the seriousness of lapses of the latter sort).

Singal simply glides over the distinction between (1) and (2), even though in at least one instance Lubet has questioned directly whether Goffman actually witnesses something she claims to have seen (Apparently, Singal doesn’t consider his own inability to verify any aspect of that particular story, despite his attempts to do so, as evidence that Goffman may be lying).

As for the second issue, Singal appears to be completely unconcerned with either Goffman’s frank admission claim in On the Run that she participated on several several separate occasions in a conspiracy to commit murder, or with her unconvincing (to put it mildly) attempt to walk that story back.

All this leads to Singal’s conclusion that On the Run “is, at the very least, mostly true,” which is a rather astonishing standard to apply to a work of either scholarship or journalism.

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