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Festival of Books: The truth? Big lies and secrets must be revealed

April 13, 2014|By Matt Pearce
  • Walter Kirn, left, speaks during "The Truth Will Out: Getting the Story" panel along with Scott C. Johnson, center, at the Festival of Books on Saturday.
Walter Kirn, left, speaks during "The Truth Will Out: Getting the… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Journalists peddle fact but profit most from revealing the lies of others, best of all from the lies told to their faces. One Saturday panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books was called "Truth Will Out" and featured several authors who had unearthed hidden lives and lethal secrets.

The panel's title alluded to Walter Kirn's new book, "Blood Will Out," about his decade-long friendship with a man who said he was a Rockefeller but turned out to be a German con-man and murderer.

"I got to live out the fantasy, best-case scenario for those who want revenge on those who have fooled them," Kirn said. "I got to see the person who had played me for a fool led into a courtroom in an orange jumpsuit in manacles and handcuffs. ... Being able to witness this was a kind of closure that we don't often get in life, and I had to write about it, because for all of us who've ever been duped and not gotten to see the person who treated you poorly get marched off to life in prison, it's a very good feeling."

No similar impulse seemed to exist for panelist and former Newsweek correspondent Scott C. Johnson -- and for an understandable reason. At the age of 14, Johnson learned his father was a CIA case officer after a father-to-son confession made when the two were at a strip mall.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

The germ for Johnson's most recent book sprouted years later when he was anchored as a reporter in Mexico City. That was where his father once worked as a professor in 1968 -- the year of his father's CIA recruitment, and the same year as a massacre of anti-government students and protesters.

"I didn't want to think my dad was someone who was capable of crimes or misdeeds, and yet here I was faced with the reality that yeah, he was a CIA officer, and yes, he was in Mexico City in '68," Scott said.

But he was also "humbled" by the seeming "impropriety" of investigating his father's life as a journalist, a profession, not unlike the CIA, with occasionally predatory qualities. (Scott said the title of his book, "The Wolf and the Watchman," is intentionally ambiguous for this reason.) Ultimately, Scott finished the book with a sense of lingering ambiguity, as well as a relationship with his father that ultimately ended up supportive and apparently intact.

A recurrent theme among the panelists was the lies people tell themselves so as not to disrupt a status quo. Kirn didn't want to confront the discrepancies behind his Rockefeller friend's stories. Clark Rockefeller's fibs were so spectacular that they dazed Kirn, a professional journalist, to the point that he never interrogated the bizarre man right in front of him -- until after Rockefeller, née Christian Gerhartsreiter, was convicted of a 1985 murder.

INTERACTIVE GAME: How to be a writer

Rockefeller was far from the first German living a reinvented life in U.S. Author Annie Jacobsen told an audience of listeners how the U.S. government recruited 1,600 Nazi scientists to come to America after the end of World War II, which she wrote about in "Operation Paperclip."

Many of those scientists, some with ties to top Nazi leadership, would lead such lauded careers in the U.S. that the secrets of their pasts nearly became unspoken. That is, until Jacobsen came along, scouring once-classified documents and interviewing surviving family members to bring those pasts from out of closed mouths, government archives and dusty attics.

"I do believe that the truth gets out," Jacobsen said, adding that she hoped her work would inspire others to root around further in some of history's more uncomfortable chapters.

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