Life plus 99 Years
This is a fascinating read. If you've picked up this book because you're infinitely curious about what life was like for "Leopold and Loeb" after the hoopla of the sentencing trial was over, by virtue of Leopold walking you through many day-to-day phases of his incarceration, you'll definitely get lots of details about cell-block life, prison restrictions, visits Leopold received, what their prison jobs and activities were, and how they spent their days. What you don't get nearly as much of as you may want is how this life affected either of them. It's strange because, on the one hand, Leopold regularly states that he committed a terrible crime and that his life was wasted. He explains multiple times that he, by the 10-year mark, daily lived with deep and heavy remorse. He says out loud that his life is not one to be envied by really anybody.
But...he manages to never really talk about how the before and after affected him. For the first 22 years of his incarceration, he gave zero interviews to the press. Somehow, that (legitimate) desire to not be such a spectacle spills over to the book. He tells you about events and even explains feelings and emotions, but they're sort of generic. Not once does he say anything like, "On that night, I lay there and thought about how if I had just done something different on May 21, 1924, I wouldn't be in this jam." He'll call the crime horrendous, but he won't say, "If only I had used my head and stopped the train of crime events!" He talks about how one of his "bitterest" moments was emptying the bucket used for a bathroom first thing every morning, but he doesn't say, "I can't believe I got myself in this ridiculous jam." Bitter how? He clearly regrets his earlier choices, but, ironically, he doesn't express it very well. He never says, "Here, again, I realized if I had just not been immature and impulsive, I wouldn't be here."
There seems to be a bit of denial, too. He gives theories as to what causes people to commit crimes. He hits on the one that is so obviously his, but he just says, "Interesting theory." After a few pages of the various analyses as to why a person would commit a crime, he never says, "And I think I fall into this or that category." Or, "I think I committed my crime because..." It's not unreasonable to expect an autobiography to explain the author. But he goes out of his way to talk around his own plight. It's an odd approach. And, if you've done any outside research, you know that he had a personality type that was very immature and arrogant when he committed the crime. He does admit he was an obnoxious teen, but his inability to talk about the character flaws that led to his crime and his plight are, you can kind of see, precisely how he got there in the first place. In essence, he never outgrew that need to "appear bigger/better off/in a finer place" than he was. He's writing the book at about the 32-year mark, but he's still sort of "fronting". He presents his existence as "not all that bad" even though he laments being incarcerated. And, subtly, that somewhat indicates a disdain for the reader. The masses, from age 20, had never done anything but judge him harshly and publicly. He never thought they were qualified to weigh in. It almost seems like he doesn't care whether the reader is getting what they "tuned in" for. We're just the lowly masses, ill-equipped to understand a mind like his and hoping for lured details, anyway.
You can also sense a dislike of African-Americans that he tries to hide but that his random remarks reveal. The through-line of the book includes a definite absence of his associating with black people and his only references to black people being to disregard or marginalize them. By the end of the book, with his hundreds of references to people he revered and whose company he sought, it's clear none of those people were black. He also goes out of his way to indicate that many of his fellow inmates were black. So, he's telling you (a) more of them commit crime, while (b) he somehow still, with so many there, never had black friends. He clearly went out of his way to avoid them. A passage in Hal Higdon's book indicates that a fellow inmate who was close to Leopold and who later wrote his own accounts on Leopold said Leopold disliked black people. I mention this because he tries very hard to sell the "I'm no longer that immature youth who worshipped supermen and Nietzsche" but he's sitting there in prison for murder judging himself to be "better" than other kinds of prisoners. It slips through the lines. If you read between them, you see it, not solely in his approach to black inmates, but in his approach to everyone else. He tries very hard to elevate everything he did, not just to demonstrate rehabilitation (a positive), but, you get the sense, to show that he's a special kind of inmate, one who's smarter than the rest. Since that trait is what caused him to commit the crime, it's harder to see the rehabilitation.
On various anniversaries, he never references the crime, again, as though he's trying not to highlight the bad stuff and make himself appear not as bad or bad off as he is. At one point, he's discussing something that is at the 10-year mark for the crime, almost to the day, but he doesn't even mention it. That happens on several occasions: 15-year-mark of crime, 15 years incarcerated, anniversaries of Loeb's death. Often, events overlapped these crucial dates, but you can't even tell whether he noticed. It makes him appear insensitive and cold and kind of undermines his attempts to seem as though he's a far different person than the one who committed the crime.
It spills into infomercial land quite a bit. I don't fault him for that AT ALL. He's trying to make a particular impression for society and the parole board. ANYBODY would do that. It's actually smart. But, in highlighting so many great moments that he truly did experience through various job assignments, he hides so many other things: How limiting prison was, what he could have done with his life if he hadn't committed the crime, all of what he lost. He's RIGHT not to appear to be whining about his plight. But there's a way to explain your regret without appearing like you believe you're the victim.
Finally, if you've read the sentencing trial transcripts (I have), you know that Leopold and Loeb had been a romantic and sexual couple for a few years before the crime. In a 1960 interview, he admitted he still loved Loeb. It's tragic that he had to be closeted for the autobiography. He talks about a female he was crazy about, but it comes across as very false and forced. Every time he refers to Loeb, you can hear the glow, the love, the admiration. He thinks he's hiding it, but you can't disguise love. It's the most bittersweet part of the read because you know it's not his fault that he doesn't feel comfortable talking about it. And...it hides so much of who he really was. You're just not going to get much out of someone's autobiography if one of the most essential parts of his life must be completely ignored.
I gave this four stars because it's very well written, and it really does give you a sense of what prison life was like (if not as much how it affected him). And by the end (no spoilers), you sense a deeper, more realistic and "buyable" desire for rehabilitation and to live a rehabilitated existence, despite my earlier remarks about his notions of "being better" than other inmates, dislike of black people, etc. He comes across as more genuine about his desire for rehabilitation than in his earlier claims. Maybe he just got better at working his game, but he tells the story of incarceration in a compelling, four-star way.
I couldn't give it five stars because he masked too much. He hid details, was glib about his loss, and tried to present the picture of someone almost "unbothered" by prison, and, even if that was entirely true, he didn't write it in a way that I believed it was true. It read like a cover.