American Zero

A Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation, by Catherine Crier. ReganBooks, 480 pages, $27.95.

Witness: For the Prosecution of Scott Peterson, by Amber Frey. ReganBooks, 214 pages, $25.95.

Blood Brother: 33 Reasons My Brother Scott Peterson Is Guilty, by Anne Bird. ReganBooks, 214 pages, $25.95.

The Scott Peterson literature begins in 1925, with the publication of Theodore Dreiser’s great novel An American Tragedy. (If you know it only from the famous film version called A Place in the Sun, you have a false impression: Shelley Winters as the pregnant girl who’s drowned is so whiny and charmless that you want to murder her yourself.) In the novel, Roberta’s death is unbearable-as we sense it approaching, we shudder. She’s a decent, generous, loving girl, and of course her death is a tragedy. Yet it’s not the tragedy of Dreiser’s title. His American tragedy is the tragedy of Clyde Griffiths, the murderer himself, who is morally unanchored, unable to resist the lure of a more wealthy, more worldly, more beautiful girl, yet who also, in his own way, is decent, generous and loving. So that our anguish as the fatal moment draws near is as great for him as it is for Roberta. We like this boy, we understand his longing for the good life, we even respect his struggle with himself as the idea of the murder takes hold.

“Murder! The murder of Roberta! … But he must not think of that! The death of that unborn child, too! … He was not that kind of a person, whatever else he was. He was not. He was not. He was not. The mere thought now caused a damp perspiration to form on his hands and face. He was not that kind of a person. Decent, sane people did not think of such things. And so he would not either-from this hour on …. He must never think of it again! He must never think of it again! He must never, never, never think of it-never.”

He does, of course, think of it again-and again and again. At the final moment on the lake he wavers, and as the boat tips over he can convince himself that he hasn’t actually killed Roberta, he’s only failed to save her. The jury, condemning him to death, does not agree.

At first, glance, this story-the young man, the murdered pregnant girl, the death penalty-could almost be a template for the killing of Laci Peterson; even the possibility that Laci, too, was drowned (in the backyard pool) is raised by Scott’s half-sister, Anne Bird. But the current Scott Peterson literature-three books, with another, by Laci’s mother, apparently on the way-lacks a Dreiser, which is a polite way of saying that it’s mostly plodding and unperceptive, however well-intentioned.

At first my interest in the case was professional; I had never read a word about it or seen anything about it on the news, but was intrigued by the fact that a single publisher had issued all three books within weeks of each other, and that all of them had rushed to the top or near the top of the best-seller list. The publisher is Judith Regan, who has achieved phenomenal success as a purveyor of books that, to put it charitably, are not directed at the highest common denominator. But why should they be? They’re merely canny extensions of today’s tabloid/Fox News mentality, and she’s published them with enviable confidence and panache. That she’s moving her operation next-door to Hollywood is the inevitable next step: Synergy rides again. (Given the cliché-ridden prose of these books and their somewhat specialized grammar, one wonders whether Ms. Regan’s copy editors will be moving to California with her.)

But it’s not just clever publishing that makes best-sellers. These books have succeeded because something about this particular murder galvanized the country’s attention. Perhaps it was Laci Peterson’s famously radiant smile. Perhaps it was Scott Peterson’s publicized “golden boy” good looks and the fact that everyone who met him seemed to think he was so great. (“My God,” thought his girlfriend, Amber Frey, soon after meeting him. “This guy is perfect.”) Perhaps it was the sense among their families and friends that Scott and Laci had “an ideal marriage.” Perhaps it was the mounting tension of the search for a missing young woman in the last stages of pregnancy. Perhaps it was the slow, inexorable revelation of the gap between Scott’s golden-boy image and his endless lies and increasingly erratic actions. (One of the saddest aspects of the story is the way those who most believed in him-not only his own family but Laci’s family, the Rochas, as well as Amber-had to face the growing likelihood, then the certainty, that he was a murderer.) Finally, as in a classic detective story, this was a planned murder, not a sudden outburst of violent rage; it was a crime that needed solving: Scott Peterson secretly bought a boat and made anchor weights out of concrete, and only then killed his wife at home, using his new boat to dump her body in San Francisco Bay.

If you know nothing about the case and want to grasp what happened, your only choice is to begin, as I did, with A Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation, by “Court TV Host” Catherine Crier (with the help of Cole Thompson). Ms. Crier (who was the youngest state judge ever elected in Texas before becoming a star of broadcast journalism) starts her book with the “Why this case?” question, but she doesn’t really answer it. Instead, she begins at once to present her own case-that of an investigative reporter and analyst who from the beginning had her doubts. “I began to raise questions on the air about whether he was showing signs of a behavior disorder. Scott seemed to display many of the textbook qualities of a sociopath.” In other words, if I understand the sequence here, she was publicly judging the suspect’s pathology well before he was arrested-not only trial on television but trial by television. Is this standard procedure for TV courts? Isn’t there a confusion here between the roles of reporter, analyst and semi-judicial authority?

About one thing there’s no confusion: the author’s repeated insistence on the “unparalleled access” she had to the “inner workings” of the case. One of many examples: “It is rare to obtain the kind of access that gives rise to such an in-depth look at an investigation and trial.” (Her access at work: “According to records I obtained in my investigation, Laci’s pregnancy was normal.”)

The “I was there” mode of the prologue’s opening sentences immediately undercuts one’s confidence in the narrative: “His look was California chic-jeans, a dark T-shirt, dress shoes. He turned to go, then paused. Removing his wedding ring, he slid the band into his pocket. Now he was ready.” Nor is this is the only time the writer bears witness to what no one can have witnessed; we’re told that when Scott got home after disposing of Laci’s body, he “entered the backyard through the gate and patted McKenzie, the couple’s beloved golden retriever, as the dog bounded out to meet him.” Who can have reported this? McKenzie? (That would certainly constitute unparalleled access.)

Throughout her book, the quondam judge judges. She is convincing about the nature and extent of Scott’s psychopathology-what she identifies as his flat emotional affect and his “discordant and disturbing” behavior. And she follows the chain of events carefully and closely. (Too closely at times, one feels, as she crams in every conceivable detail.) Her tone is too often prosecutorial. An egregious example: In the midst of recording the pathetic pleas of Scott’s family to spare him the death penalty, she quotes his father as saying, “Losing someone you loved and now having your son in this kind of jeopardy …. I just can’t imagine anything worse.” Her comment: “Of course, the Rochas could.”

Ms. Crier is at her most condemning in regard to the Petersons. Scott’s mother, Jackie, is a frequent (and easy) target as she savagely defends her son and attacks his accusers. Scott’s father? “He is certainly showing the protective instincts of a parent. Yet his denial seems so strong that I’m not sure he knew exactly what he was protecting. Did Lee Peterson ever really know his son?” Scott’s half-sister Susan? Yes, she defended her brother, but “reportedly” didn’t contribute to his defense fund. Instead, she constructed an “infinity pool” in her backyard: “Like Scott himself, she had failed to give to others while quietly arranging to sink her money into a lavish swimming pool.” More than once she suggests that the way the Petersons spoiled their golden son contributed to his murderous narcissism. “Once again, Scott’s parents were reinforcing the kind of anything-goes behavior that Scott showed throughout his adult life. Go ahead, hang out at the country club while your wife is missing. You had an affair? Don’t worry about it. You can do no wrong. And, by the way, we’ll take care of your bills.” And yet, Your Ex-Honor, not all spoiled boys grow up to murder their pregnant wives. I speak from experience.

In their very dissimilar books, two women who were close to Scott tell essentially the same story: Both Amber Frey, the girlfriend, and Anne Bird, the half-sister, fell hard for him, then backed away as the truth emerged. (Who can blame them?) Amber’s book, Witness, is the more immediately appealing, since in it she comes across as a wholesome if astonishingly naïve person. Living alone with her baby daughter, Ayiana, beginning her dream career as a massage therapist in Fresno, she is longing for a permanent relationship. When a friend produces Scott Peterson, she’s bowled over (to the extent of sleeping with him on their first date). He was romantic, he was sexy, he was sensitive-“a tender, caring person.” He was also married, but she had no way of knowing that. When he finally acknowledges (through his tears) that he had been married, he lets her believe that Laci is dead. “Can I trust you with my heart?” Amber asks him. There’s no direct answer, but he does tell her, “You know, I live a certain lifestyle, and I can see you living that lifestyle, too. When I get back from Europe, I need to make some decisions. Can you say yes to me without question?” (He’s pretending that he’ll soon be off to Europe on business, though it’s not clear why his work as a fertilizer salesman in Modesto would take him to Paris and Brussels.)

All this is happening in December 2002, during the weeks leading up to Laci’s death. On Christmas Day, the day after her disappearance, Scott is on the phone to Amber, supposedly calling from Maine, and Amber is singing to him one of Ayiana’s favorite songs, “Five Little Ducks Went Out to Play.” “I love it,” he says when she finishes. “The next time I see you, I want that song to be the first thing I hear.” It’s details like these that bring Scott’s duplicity and cruelty to life more tellingly than Catherine Crier’s accusing commentary. Scott picks Ayiana up at school. He goes with Amber and Ayiana to the zoo. He comes over to Amber’s house, where he makes lasagna and they down a bottle of wine he’s brought. (Amber writes their names and the date on the cork. “There are plenty of corks to come,” Scott tells her.)

Food, in fact, is peculiarly important to all the principal actors in the Scott Peterson story. Laci was a perfectionist as a housewife and hostess, with Martha Stewart as role model; whether she and Scott, on the morning she disappeared, were watching Martha on television doing something with meringue turned out to be a crucial question at the trial. Amber stops to tell us that when she and Scott had lunch at Whole Foods, “I had the tortilla soup, which was great.” Scott not only makes lasagna, he makes a Pink Lady caramel apple for Amber. (“It’s my first attempt,” he says. “I hope you like it.”) Most bizarrely, the following April he calls some friends to tell them, “I made you some lavender cookies … but I got arrested a couple of hours ago so I have to go.” Wine is practically the currency of all their lives.

As the world knows, Amber took her story to the police-not the press-and helped them by holding long phone conversations with Scott, which were taped. (About 65 people were secretly wiretapped during the course of the investigation, including members of the media like Diane Sawyer, Larry King and Greta Van Susteren.) Thanks to her well-publicized honesty and ingenuousness, Amber went from being the Other Woman to being a heroine, embraced even by Laci’s family. Late in the game, she’s still concerned about Scott, sending him a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life (22 million copies sold). “I want Scott to know God and to have hope through God and to try to learn something about being a good person.”

A doubter might at first find Amber’s religious dedication exaggerated or insincere, but one’s doubts are gradually dispelled. She talks to God, she hears from God, she does a “prayer request.” A what? “This is where you take a slip of paper and write down exactly what it is you want, and you leave the paper in a box at the church.” At the suggestion of her “youth minister,” she goes to a meeting of the Chosen Women: “It was an astonishing experience. Thousands of women attended, filling an entire football stadium, praying, singing and giving witness …. I closed my eyes and listened to the sea of sobbing women around me, and I was completely overwhelmed.” When she’s about to be cross-examined at Scott’s trial, she’s ready: “[M]y attorneys had prepared me”; besides, “I also had God on my side.” And she’s ready for the future, too, because, as she says, “I felt that God had big things in store for me.” It’s impossible not to hope that God will come through for her. Yet it’s also impossible not to be amazed by the glimpse she gives us of this (to me) exotic born-again world. Think what a novel Dreiser could have written about her life: Sister Amber.

Anne Bird was one of the two babies (fathers unknown) whom Jackie Peterson gave away at birth; she was persuaded to keep a third-all this before she married Lee Peterson and had Scott. Anne was lucky in her supportive and loving adoptive parents, and sounds considerably more sophisticated and better educated than Amber or anyone in her birth family, even though Scott liked to use words like agape (the Greek word for love) and to quote from Boris Pasternak.

When Anne is 32, as she recalls in her book, Blood Brother, she meets her birth mother for the first time. It goes well, though Jackie seems more interested in talking about Scott-“her baby, her golden boy”-than about her newly rediscovered daughter. They keep in touch, and a few months later-this is in 1997-Anne meets Scott and Laci. “He was a real charmer, the kind of guy who lights up a room. I had always considered myself a good judge of character, and I thought Scott was about as solid and genuine as they came.”

Their relationship takes root, and Anne grows close to Laci, too-“so warm, so full of life, and such a kick in the pants.” But there are moments when she finds “something distant” about Scott, “moments when I felt he wasn’t there at all.” In 2002, when Anne is a mother of two little boys and Laci is very pregnant, they’re all together in a fourth-floor hotel suite complete with terrace when Anne’s older boy, a toddler, disappears: “For thirty seconds everyone in that room had been thrown into a panic by my screams …. Only Scott was oblivious.” He just went on talking on his cell phone, which “struck me as very odd indeed.”

During the months between Laci’s disappearance and Scott’s arrest, he spends a good deal of time in Anne’s house in Berkeley. Despite her own passionate belief in her brother’s innocence, Anne’s husband is increasingly suspicious of him, so much so that their marriage is being undermined. Then, as her own suspicions set in, she draws up a list that becomes the subtitle of her book: 33 Reasons My Brother Scott Peterson Is Guilty. “I had gone from doubting his guilt to suspecting him of premeditated murder.”

Her account of all this is straightforward, but her account of her birth mother is not. Blood Brother is punctuated with anecdotes that place Jackie in an unfavorable light. Not long after their first meeting, Jackie takes Anne to the antique shop she runs, where Anne sees a little piece of beaded embroidery that Jackie sells her at “a nice discount.” (There’s mother love for you!) Again: Jackie calls Anne to criticize a thank-you card she’s received from Laci: “I’m going to send her a book on how to write thank you notes.” These snapshots-and there are many others-are trivial in themselves, but they add up to an unsettling portrait.

After the murder, Jackie’s behavior grows more and more out of control. “That Sharon Rocha,” she says of Laci’s mother, who comes across in everyone’s account as a dignified, grieving parent, “there’s a word to describe that woman. She is evil. That’s what she is, evil. She and her friends and family are destroying my son. How dare they stand there and point the finger at Scott?! … As for that Amber Frey, what’s the big deal? So Scott slept with a bimbo? So what?” During the time when Scott, still pretending that Laci is alive, is hiding out at Anne’s, Jackie calls and gets the baby-sitter. “Oh, Lorraine,” she says, “This is Scott’s mom …. I wish Scott could meet someone like you.” (Anne: “It sounded like Jackie was becoming unhinged.”) When Amber testifies at the trial about Scott’s lies, Jackie shrugs: “What does that prove? … There’s no evidence against Scott. They have nothing.” “Wow,” thinks Anne. “She was in complete denial.” (Denial runs in the family. Here are Scott’s last words to Anne when she visits him in prison: “Don’t worry about a thing. Everything is going to be all right.”)

Anne Bird is also in denial-about her feelings for Jackie. She doesn’t seem aware that in writing this book, she’s strengthening the argument against reversing the death penalty that’s hanging over Scott, Jackie’s favorite child. Why would she do this? Inadvertently, she provides us with an explanation. When the police were first questioning Scott’s alibi, Anne tells us, Jackie began to panic and lash out. “I honestly can’t say I blamed her,” Anne writes. “This was her son they were talking about, her little boy. This was one of the children she had kept.”

What lesson can we take from all this? That it was Anne’s good fortune that Jackie didn’t keep her? That Scott’s criminal behavior in some way stems from the way he was raised? Despite the microscopic examination he’s undergone-at the trial, in the press, in these three books-Scott remains a mystery, and one, perhaps, that not even a Dreiser could unravel.

The surface resemblance of An American Tragedy to the Scott Peterson case only underlines the crucial difference between them: the nature of the murderer. Clyde Griffiths is a weak, well-meaning young man who struggles against, and eventually succumbs to, a fearsome temptation. Scott Peterson would seem to be an empty man-empty, apparently, of everything but the conviction that he has the right to indulge himself in any gratification, at no matter whose expense. There’s no indication that he struggled against temptation, and he seems to have no need to justify himself: It was apparently enough that he wanted Laci dead for him to feel justified in killing her.

There’s nothing, then, to be learned from his actions; nothing to sympathize with in his nature. He isn’t even malign, like Iago; in fact, he’s more or less a man without qualities, apart from his unrelieved self-absorption. Which means that while what he did grips our imagination, he himself is utterly uninteresting-he’s a cipher at the center of the havoc he wrought. Today’s language describes him as a sociopath, a psychopath, and the only moral to stories about psychopaths is that we should try to avoid them.

There is no consolation for anyone in the Scott Peterson story, and no final illumination. Dreiser’s driven characters reflect the optimistic strains of post–Horatio Alger America: Carrie floats upwards, unmoored, unaware of the damage she causes along the way; Frank Cowperwood-The Financier, The Titan-is simply living the capitalist dream; Clyde Griffiths is a disadvantaged boy dazzled by undreamed-of opportunity. If we accept the testimony of the current books about Scott Peterson, he reflects a very different world: one of unmediated consumerism, narcissism and license. Are we to conclude that today’s American tragedy is America itself?

Robert Gottlieb writes for The Observer, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books; he is the former editor in chief of Knopf and The New Yorker.

American Zero