By Danielle Cantor
In 30 years with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office—20 years as head of the sex crimes unit—Linda Fairstein became a household name trying high-profile crimes, such as the "preppie murder." Through less public efforts, she pushed the legal system to work harder and smarter by protecting victims' rights and using advancing tools such as DNA and the Internet to investigate crimes.
And somewhere, Fairstein has found the time to write. After publishing Sexual Violence
, a legal history of sex crimes in America, she introduced her series of crime novels in 1996 to critical acclaim. Five books later, and now retired from the DA's office, she's still thrilling readers with fictional mysteries too complex and bizarre to have grown out of anything but real-life experience. Book six (The Kills
, Scribner, 2004) takes DA Alexandra Cooper on her most gripping journey yet through the New York legal system.
Now retired from the DA's office, Fairstein divides her time between Manhattan and Martha's Vineyard-and, professionally, between writing and the pro bono cases she takes on behalf of victims of sex crimes, stalking and domestic abuse.What drew you to a career as a prosecutor?
I wanted to do public service of some kind, and law seemed like the best way. There were so few women in the Manhattan DA's Office in the 1970s; I was one of only seven out of 170 lawyers. But in 1976, Robert Morgenthau, who brought tremendous diversity and is still in charge of the office to this day, asked me to head the sex crimes unit. I didn't want to. "Do it for a year or two and then move on," he said. After that year or two was up, it was too late—I had fallen in love with the work. Laws were starting to change for victims of sexual violence then, which was exciting because we could finally give victories to women who had never been allowed in a courtroom before. It was very rewarding on an emotional level.Are there any cases that stick out in your mind as turning points—either professionally or personally?
One of the most high-profile cases of my early career was a dentist we caught on video abusing sedated patients. It was an opportunity for me to explain to a disbelieving public that sex offenders don't always look like the bum hiding behind a tree in the park, and that victims can be young professional women paying to have dental surgery. But most of the cases that have had enormous personal impact are the ones that have moved through the system quietly. Over the holidays I get a lot of cards from women I've helped through the process—some whose cases happened up to 20 years ago. The personal relationships that developed are profoundly moving to me.Prosecuting violent crimes can be tough on the soul-especially for a woman trying sex crimes that are almost always perpetrated against other women. Did you ever want to quit?
One of the things I liked about my job, on a good day, was the emotional depth; when victims said, "you helped me get through this when I didn't think I could." There were also dark days when it just didn't work-victims who had no support system would beg me, "don't tell my mother," or "don't tell anyone at my job." There were moments when I questioned why I was doing this and what was keeping me there, but I never thought seriously about quitting. The good days outnumbered the bad, and every day was an opportunity to do the right thing for someone.Have you had experiences with domestic violence-or other forms of violence against women-outside the realm of your work?
Sure. In the Brooklyn Jewish community or Rockland County, where there's a tremendous Jewish community, I was often invited to synagogues to discuss domestic violence. Unfortunately, in most of the upscale audiences, women would cluck their tongues and insist, "It's not our problem, it's a ghetto problem." Also, because I'm a known advocate for these issues, I get scores of calls at home from friends and acquaintances in search of legal advice, either for themselves or for women they know.Are there any existing laws, especially those relating to violence against women, that you feel should be changed?
I have to break that answer down into three parts. Regarding sexual assault, I think most of the laws are in place. It was a long, slow battle, but those changes happened between 1972 and about 2001. For domestic violence, there's a lot left to be done because we've been slow to recognize victims' needs. In many states, including New York, hearsay evidence is not allowed in domestic abuse cases: that is, a police officer cannot testify in court about what a wife told him if she has returned to her husband at the time of the trial. And as for child abuse laws, they're still ripe for reform. The problem is that most states hold children to the same standards as adult victims. But kids have different developmental abilities: A six-year-old can identify an abuser, but she may not know that she was attacked on a Wednesday or that it happened at 3:15 in the afternoon.Regarding the controversy over the Central Park Jogger convictions and their subsequent reversal: What gives you the strength to stand up for your convictions in the face of opposition, and what keeps you standing if the evidence turns against you?
I think there's been a good amount of misreporting. And four of these five men admitted over the years that they attacked others who were assaulted in Central Park that night. It's easy for me to keep a position that I believe is right, so I'm comfortable with the original convictions. Throughout my 30-year career, I've always maintained pride in my integrity. That's why the DA and my colleagues and the court trusted me all those years.Looking back on your career, what are your greatest sources of pride?
One has been my role as a sort of spokesperson on the issue of sexual violence. My visibility and the fact that I was able to stay in the position so long—there's a high burnout rate—helped me get the message out to agencies all over the country that we can do our jobs better, which benefited both victims' rights and the reputation of law enforcement. I'm also proud of mentoring young lawyers. When I got started in 1972, there were so few women we had to figure things out for ourselves. I longed for role models and found a lot of wonderful men along the way. But I've loved giving back to scores of young women who've come through after me.What sparked your first book, the nonfiction Sexual Violence? Did its success motivate you to start writing fiction?
Mainstream media interest in the issue of sexual violence was growing in the mid-'80s. Several publishing houses asked me to write the book, I got the DA's permission-and then the preppie murder case hit and I spent the next three years working on that instead. But the book did get written, and published in 1993. It was well-received by the legal and academic communities. My dream since high school had always been to write novels, so once the touring and publicity for Sexual Violence were done, my literary agent suggested I write a sample of fiction over the summer. Six months and 93 pages later, she had sold my first novel. And the series went from there.What special qualities set the series and its protagonist, District Attorney Alexandra Cooper, apart from other mystery novels?
This is a type of crime novel called a procedural, in which you learn how the protagonist solves cases by using her brain and her training. After reading Patricia Cornwell's novels about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, I realized I wanted to do the same thing for my subsection of the law. My books are different from legal thrillers-what I bring is the authenticity of the voice because of the work I've done and my vast range of experience. I don't think any of the other legal or crime novelists have spent 30 years prosecuting criminals in Manhattan. We've seen more of everything here in New York, and I put that in the books.Do you see your novels as another vehicle for effecting social change, by showing victims who may not have come forward that the system can work in their favor?
Yes. I love this genre of crime novel, in which you learn how the protagonist solves cases by using her brain and her training.Do you consider your upbringing a distinctly Jewish one?
My father was the child of Russian and Polish immigrants who fled Europe because of anti-Semitism. Culturally, he always identified very strongly as a Jew. My mother is not Jewish by birth—she was raised Episcopalian and converted when she married my father during WWII. Like many converts determined to be a good Jew, she made sure we were raised Jewish in a Reform synagogue. Even though my Christian grandparents lived with us and helped raise us, and even though we always had a Christmas tree, I never had a conflicted identity. I was always conscious of the differences between religions and proud to be a Jew.Has your Jewish upbringing informed your choice of career and your view on justice and injustice?
Both my parents were responsible for my interest in doing things for other people. My father's warmth and respect for life-as a human being and a physician; he did a lot of work for indigent people-very much colored my beliefs and treatment of other people. I didn't necessarily think of my father's values as religious, but I did associate them with his Jewish cultural upbringing. Those values definitely shaped our household.Has your spiritual connection to Judaism helped you cope with the more haunting cases you faced daily for so many years?
I think it has. I have enormous respect for the intelligence of the Jewish faith. My husband and I joined a small, new synagogue on Martha's Vineyard eight years ago, and I find a lot of spiritual comfort and relief there. It seems the older I get, the more closely I identify with the religion.How has your work influenced your role as a grandparent to your stepchildren's young sons?
I might think differently if either of them was a girl, but my work has no connection that I can think of to my grandparenting. My daughter-in-law was also a prosecutor, so the kids are used to "court talk" around the dinner table. And now that they can read, they're delighted that I've used their names in my books-not that they're allowed to read them. One of my greatest joys has been spending Shabbat with the boys at their JCC preschool. Now that they're older and in elementary school, I miss that ritual.
Want to buy the book? Visit amazon.com
to purchase Linda Fairstein's novels:The Kills
(Scribner, 2004)The Bone Vault
(Simon & Schuster, 2003)The Deadhouse
(Pocket Books, 2002)Cold Hit
(Pocket Books, 2000)Likely to Die
(Pocket Books, 1998)Final Jeopardy
(Pocket Books, 1997)Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape
(William Morrow & Co., 1993)