When New York police pulled Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the powerful managing director of the International Monetary Fund, off an airplane and arrested him for sexually assaulting a hotel maid, Linda Fairstein took note.
Before quitting to write fiction full-time, she’d led the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit, prosecuting such high-profile defendants as Robert Chambers, the “Preppie Killer.”
In “Night Watch,” her 14th novel featuring Alex Cooper, Fairstein takes us behind the scenes as vexed prosecutors deal with a case very similar to the DSK-maid imbroglio. Of course, she adds some provocative spins of her own.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: What intrigued you about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case?
Fairstein: It was my jurisdiction had I still been in the DA’s office, so I was watching it very closely.
I didn’t think I would write about it, and then I found that no matter where I went and what I did, that was the first question everybody asked me.
Lundborg: Why did the prosecutors drop the case?
Fairstein: The woman said she’d been raped in Guinea when in fact she later admitted she wasn’t. That’s the most critical part when you’re charging someone with a rape now.
So the inability to know from this woman when she was telling the truth and when she wasn’t is the thing that made it impossible for anybody to go into court.
Lundborg: There was seminal fluid on her shirt that matched his DNA, so something sexual occurred?
Fairstein: I get a lot of outrage from people who think he obviously raped her, and just as much outrage from those who think they had sex for money.
Lundborg: No one will ever know what really happened aside from the two of them?
Fairstein: Probably not. Even rabid feminists may have questions about the fact that it’s quite unusual for a guy to be 58 -- he’s a pig, granted he’s done everything inappropriate sexually -- to come out of the bathroom, and, for the first time, use physical force against a stranger.
Plus she’s bigger than he, it’s a huge hotel room, there were no signs of struggle, so what kept her there?
Lundborg: You said it’s like a Rorschach test -- someone in the book says the guy is married to a supermodel, so why would he want to have sex with someone who takes out the trash?
Fairstein: Do you know it was one of the most common arguments in trials that I did starting from the 1970s until I left -- the physical appearance of the victim.
You would get the snide comments and the jokes and bad attitude if the victims were not attractive. You know -- who’d want to rape her?
Lundborg: Why did you change the race of your DSK figure, making him an accomplished, powerful African? And the maid is from war-torn Guatemala?
Fairstein: At one point in my book, the woman explains that she would never have consented to any sexual act because she would never put her mouth on a black man.
I wanted to give the dynamics of race and power and class a different spin.
Lundborg: What do you think of the current popularity among women of the sado-masochistic “Fifty Shades of Grey?”
Fairstein: It’s totally false hype about the book being harmless and fun, completely wrong.
I think it is dangerous for women. I can’t even go near these books because of the work we did with S&M victims over the years.
In my professional capacity I did not meet the girls who successfully set the limit. I met the girls who thought they were setting the limit but who were with somebody who wasn’t there for the limit.
Lundborg: But shouldn’t consenting adults be allowed to do as they please in the bedroom?
Fairstein: In New York you can consent to sexual activity, but you cannot consent when you are about to be assaulted.
One girl went to the hospital with no skin left because the whipping didn’t stop. She could say “I agreed to do this,” but the law let us prosecute.
Lundborg: Why do women agree?
Fairstein: For most of the women I saw engaging in this conduct it usually started against their will. But some of the most pathetic cases involved women who were very vulnerable and usually mentally ill.
One woman was 5-feet, 8-inches tall and maybe weighed 87 pounds by the time I met her. She was scarred on every part of her body.
Lundborg: What happened to her?
Fairstein: She would make a report and then she would withdraw it and be back with the man shortly thereafter.
We finally arrested the guy and found he’d made a little sound-proof torture chamber in his apartment. He was convicted and sent to jail. She wound up in a mental institution.
Lundborg: What’s your next book about?
Fairstein: I’m currently intrigued by places in Central Park -- did you know there was an African-American community called Seneca Village that was taken over?
And there were also caves built in the 1860s and 70s with open fronts, but when bad things began to happen the caves were covered.
Last summer, someone excavated one of the caves and there were odd things inside, so my imagination is running wild.
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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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