There’s more than enough horror to go around in “When They See Us,” the new Netflix miniseries about the infamously mishandled sexual assault known as the Central Park jogger case. There are police officers who coerce confessions, and prison guards who brutalize the minors under their watch. But the most concentrated depravity, by far, is embodied in Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein.
As portrayed by Felicity Huffman, Fairstein is the mastermind behind the arrest and prosecution of five underage boys — four African American and one Hispanic — who were innocent of the rape but spent years in prison until the real perpetrator confessed. His DNA was present at the scene; the boys weren’t connected to any physical evidence at all. Huffman’s Fairstein is unbothered by the boulder-sized holes in her case, happy to massage timelines and ignore relevant testimony. Later, while the boys languished in prison, she launched a glamorous career as a mystery novelist.
It’s no surprise that viewers of “When They See Us” have come away enraged; the character of Fairstein is enraging. In the past few days petitions have circulated, begging fiction readers to stop buying Fairstein’s novels, demanding her publisher stop printing them. Fairstein shut down all of her social media accounts after a weekend of backlash, which caused even more backlash: Her few days of discomfort on Twitter were nothing, after all, compared to years spent in prison for a crime you didn’t commit.
“When They See Us” is not a documentary but an adaptation, one that Fairstein didn’t participate in. Director Ava DuVernay told the Daily Beast that Fairstein was contacted, “but she tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with me, including approvals over the script”; DuVernay refused those terms. I reached out to Fairstein, asking if she’d like to comment on her portrayal, and received no response.
And then, because I was 8 years old at the time of the trial and, like a lot of Netflix viewers, had only been passingly familiar with the case, I went down a research rabbit hole. I was curious about the real Linda Fairstein. I wanted to know what she’d said about the case. I wanted to know how terrible she’d truly been.
And I learned that as recently as 2018, Fairstein was still defending the interrogations as “respectful” and “dignified.” I read a 2002 interview, conducted after the actual perpetrator had come forward, in which Fairstein shrugged off his confession by folding it into her preferred narrative: that the confessed rapist must have been hanging out with the teenagers that night, she argued — just one of many guilty parties. The investigation, she maintained, had been “brilliant police work.”
But what was most surprising to me were not the articles that made me dislike her. Remember, I was expecting those. What surprised me most were the celebratory stories. The articles — some written before the Central Park case and some written after — where Fairstein is a hero.
The New York Times ran a 1990 profile, for example, entitled “Linda Fairstein vs. Rape.” Published a few months before the Central Park trial, the piece applauded her leadership in the sex-crimes unit — a bold and novel concept in a justice system that was only then beginning to learn how to deal with sexual assault.
Fairstein fought to reframe conversations about rape, the story explained. In one case, she protested the courtroom inclusion of a victim’s “sex diary,” because she believed allowing it into evidence was tantamount to blaming the victim. She said she wanted to overhaul the “he said-she said” mentality that always seemed to give more weight to the man’s side of the story. She wanted people to believe women. Basic as it sounds now, 30 years ago much of this philosophy was revolutionary.
She brought a lot of swagger to her public persona, journalists wrote at the time — but she believed in what she was doing, and what she was doing was good.
Even after the Central Park convictions were vacated, even after the case came to be recognized as a travesty of justice, Fairstein was still named a Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year; she served on Vassar College’s Board of Trustees; she went on book tours.
I don’t bring any of this up to defend Fairstein, because absolutely nothing about the Central Park Five case is defensible. I bring it up to complicate her. I bring it up because I recognize, with sickened dismay, that I, as a woman, probably benefited from her earlier accomplishments.
And meanwhile, the Central Park trial leaned into America’s worst, most racist impulses. Meanwhile, it destroyed the lives of five children while making things worse for countless others by promoting the hideous myth that black men pose a unique danger to white women.
I can’t stop thinking about the moral calculus that was performed, for years, by every organization that invited Fairstein to be on its board, or speak at its functions, or receive its awards.
The work she’d done for victims, they decided, could outweigh the role she’d played in ruining five boys’ lives. The books she wrote were interesting enough, apparently, to excuse the fact that five children had been wrongfully imprisoned while she was writing them. A lot of us performed that moral calculus, too: The books didn’t become bestsellers on their own.
When we talk about Linda Fairstein, we’re talking about our society, too. We’re talking about the things we decide we’ll pay attention to. And the things we decide we’ll overlook.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.