Airing the Family’s (Blood-stained) Laundry

As a teenager at a boarding school, journalist Eric Konigsberg came across a groundskeeper who once had worked the mob beat as a New York cop. The man asked Eric if he was related to infamous mob hitman Harold Konigsberg. Thanks to his family’s well-meaning concealments, Eric didn’t know that the man was talking about his uncle.

Ten years later, Harold’s name came up again while Konigsberg was working on a magazine assignment about the mob. At his father’s insistence, Konigsberg dropped the story. “I was always close to my parents and had few qualms about heeding direction from them,” the author explains in “Blood Relation,” his ambivalent inquiry, despite his family’s reservations, into Harold’s life.

A not-so-nice Jewish boy from Bayonne, N.J., Harold Konigsberg committed at least 10 murders in the service of organized crime. He seems to have gravitated to crime for no reason other than a mysterious predisposition toward violence. When a handyman painting the Konigsberg house asked 7-year-old Harold to quit shaking his ladder, the boy’s sanguine reply was: “I want you to fall.” An older Harold brought lead-filled pipes to unsuspecting heads with the same glee with which he hocked his sister’s valedictorian medal at a pawnshop. (Though Harold never had much use for the government’s laws, he was more tolerant of the divine kind, never losing his Yiddish and attending services even during a life sentence in prison.)

Uncle Harold casts a long shadow in Konigsberg’s increasingly horrified telling, so it may strike the reader belatedly that he was not exactly a mastermind criminal. He was in prison for all but several of his adult years, and Mafia bigwigs thought so little of the threat he posed after his arrest that they refused to pony up hush money. In some ways, the more intriguing danger he represented was to the upward aspirations of a 1950s American Jewish family mortified to have a murderer in the clan.

Virtually all the adult Konigsbergs reacted to Harold’s notoriety by essentially pretending he didn’t exist. (A namesake went so far as to change his name.) The next generation, on the other hand, idolized him. Less insecure than their parents about their place in American life, and therefore liberated to worry about such smaller-scale stigmas as schoolyard taunts that Jews were weak in the knees, these youngsters saw in Harold a brawny redeemer. One of Konigsberg’s ablest maneuvers is to use Harold to animate the very different anxieties of several generations of American Jews.

Sadly, this kind of inquiry into the psychodrama of the Konigsberg clan is rare. Whether because of the perceived requirements of journalistic detachment or, more interestingly, an inability to process this family criminal as anything more intimate than a legal case, Konigsberg considers his uncle with a frustrating correctness, never missing an opportunity to sideline his own views in favor of more “objective” standards. To the extent that he allows himself a viewpoint, Konigsberg works hard to make sure his readers understand that he thinks Harold was a terrible man about whom, like his family, he comes to harbor not one inch of ambivalence.

As a consequence, Konigsberg over-relies on facts. He writes in the acknowledgments that he read more than 20,000 pages of court testimony in preparation, and it certainly feels that way. Catalogs from court documents and surveillance tapes, much of them filled with inconsequential detail, run for pages; multiple sources are sought out to confirm the most negligible details. After Harold proclaims insanity in an effort to get a case dismissed, we have this typical sentence: “Harold was in the acute psychiatric unit, on the 2-1-East wing, and put on a round-robin of various medications: high-dosage injections of a tranquilizing agent, Cogentin (an anti-Parkinson’s drug), and a thousand milligrams daily of Thorazine, dispensed from large plunger bottles into Dixie cups like mustard at a stadium.” Elsewhere, Konigsberg consults a battery of forensic psychologists to establish whether Harold is a psychopath. But that was clear from the first several pages; does a reader really need to know whether Harold meets the scientific requirement?

Konigsberg’s thoroughness is deeply admirable, and rare in journalism, but its energies are misdirected here. Harold did not invent the atom bomb, eradicate a population or paint a “Black Square.” The most exceptional things about him were the shame he brought on a family who couldn’t afford to feel shame and how that family responded. Because the author eventually accepts his family’s view of Harold, it’s easy to miss that the Konigsbergs themselves are not as kosher as all that. The family deployed a variety of fascinating psychological mechanisms in response to Harold. In addition to the aforementioned denial, some turned their backs on people altogether, preferring a “walled city” to public embarrassment. Others chose to minimize Harold’s transgressions, perhaps as a way of rehabilitating themselves. Still others were not above calling on him to loosen some Mafia-imposed restrictions on a family business. (Harold obliged.)

This is fertile ground for a clear-eyed assessment, but Konigsberg rarely works up the nerve to distance himself adequately to interrogate his family’s peace. Though Harold’s father, Mendel, beat him, Eric takes care to acquit Mendel for the possibility that this had something to do with Harold’s development; a different assessment would tarnish a family patriarch. Here’s another typical sentiment: “For some time now, I’d anticipated the moment when I would come upon some massive documentation of Harold’s depravity and rush to share it with my father, Grandma Frieda, my grandaunts. Then they would no longer be able to shrug him off as easily. Instead, I wanted to shield their eyes. Who wouldn’t?”

Konigsberg is too much of a journalist when he needs to be a nephew, and too much of a son when he needs to be a journalist. Objectivity is useful, but let’s agree to keep it out of memoirs. They’re a long way from police blotters. The facts are only so interesting.

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