Non­fic­tion

Blood Rela­tion

Eric Konigs­berg
  • Review
By – July 13, 2012

For most of us, fam­i­ly life is often dull and unimag­i­na­tive. Our rel­a­tives lead ordi­nary lives, work at unin­spir­ing jobs, live in con­ven­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties and estab­lish pre­dictable fam­i­lies of their own. This is decid­ed­ly not the case with Eric Konigsberg. 

In Blood Rela­tion, Konigs­berg describes how his life changed once he retrieved a voice mail mes­sage from his Uncle Hes­hy. At the time, Harold Kayo” Konigs­berg was serv­ing a life sen­tence at Auburn Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty. Eric’s great-uncle, sus­pect­ed of more than 20 mur­ders, had already been con­vict­ed of extor­tion. Over fam­i­ly objec­tions, Eric begins a series of vis­its to prison, con­ducts exhaus­tive research into F.B.I. and police depart­ment files, and writes the arti­cle for The New York­er that forms the basis for this book. 

An excel­lent reporter, Konigs­berg wres­tles with his oblig­a­tion to tell the sto­ry, which is pit­ted against his desire to pro­tect his family’s pri­va­cy. He writes, Harold did talk to me — through ten vis­its over three years. I have learned things I have no idea what to do with, and I have won­dered whether I have a right to keep such infor­ma­tion to myself — and whether I have a right not to.” Eric reveals the tor­ment in this work­ing-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly, where one of their chil­dren becomes a life­long crim­i­nal. For exam­ple, unable to live the fic­tion that Harold’s life is total­ly sep­a­rate from that of his par­ents and sib­lings, the Sun­day out­ings that some fam­i­lies spend at Grandma’s house become fam­i­ly out­ings to prison, where every­one waits in the car while Eric’s grand­fa­ther vis­its his broth­er. But, as Eric dis­cov­ers, his pur­suit of the sto­ry exacts a price, as his fam­i­ly begins to revis­it the dys­func­tion and unhap­pi­ness of the past.” 

Konigs­berg acknowl­edges the fas­ci­na­tion many feel when they learn about Jews who are fight­ers, who are aggres­sive, who flout con­ven­tion. Gang­sters are some­times cel­e­brat­ed as folk heroes, a mythopo­et­ic anti­dote to the one­time stereo­type of Jews as weak and eas­i­ly bul­lied.” But seen in the flesh, Konigs­berg reveals in his uncle decid­ed­ly malig­nant char­ac­ter­is­tics, hard­ly the charm­ing Robin Hood-type traits that myth would allow. 

In time, Harold grad­u­al­ly reveals a clas­sic psy­cho­path­ic per­son­al­i­ty, char­ac­ter­ized by nar­cis­sism, lack of empa­thy, a capac­i­ty for deceit, lack of remorse, which eclipses his charm and occa­sion­al like­abil­i­ty. He even­tu­al­ly threat­ens vio­lence even against his grand-nephew, the jour­nal­ist, his unso­licit­ed biog­ra­ph­er, this kohen who shares his blood: The day some­thing that has my name in it and your name on it hits the street, you are dead.” Eric knows about Harold’s abil­i­ty to destroy, and even to reach out from prison, which forces him to become pre­oc­cu­pied with self-preser­va­tion even while he is prepar­ing his mate­r­i­al for pub­li­ca­tion. Thanks to his grandmother’s inter­ces­sion, the threats end, but one will nev­er know for cer­tain whether Harold meant what he said when he bared his fangs. 

The pathol­o­gy of evil is always fas­ci­nat­ing. In the hands of a skilled reporter, it can be riv­et­ing. When the reporter is close­ly con­nect­ed to his sub­ject and this chal­lenges him might­i­ly to main­tain his objec­tiv­i­ty, what emerges can engross the read­er in ter­ri­fy­ing ways. This is such a book. 

Noël Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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