Death On Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case, by Caitlin Rother. Published April 27 by Citadel
The story of what happened to Rebecca Zahau and her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s son, Max, is both a mesmerizingly compelling puzzle and deeply sad. No matter how you puzzle over its innumerable oddities and curious details, and the heaps of evidence and information provided here, two people who still had so much life ahead of them — one a six-year-old child — are still dead.
Max seems to have fallen over a banister in the Coronado Mansion in San Diego, and Zahau was unable to revive him. There are a lot of questions about how he fell and what transpired afterwards. Two days later, police were again called to the mansion, where Rebecca’s body was found hanging. Tragic, of course, but this is also where it starts to take a turn for the very weird. The only other person in the house was her boyfriend’s brother, Adam Shacknai, a somewhat odd guy to begin with, and the question arises of whether Zahau’s death was murder or suicide.
Caitlin Rother is an established investigative journalist and followed the story from its beginning, attended Adam Shacknai’s trial, and researched heavily into Zahau’s background and her relationship history with Jonah Shacknai.
It leans a bit too heavily on trial and police transcripts, which may sound odd because of course that’s where the information is, but it feels like rote recitation of that data. When Rother analyzes deeper, it’s better. What I found most interesting were its disprovals of some of the fixed details or assumptions, like about who watched Asian bondage porn the night before Rebecca’s murder. That seemed like a telling clue but turns out it really isn’t. I admit I haven’t followed this case closely, only watched a documentary and read a bit when it first happened, but not all of the common narrative or details were correct which surprised me, that these have been allowed to remain accepted facts.
A few times I found myself somewhat irritated with observations and assumptions, however. Jonah’s brother Adam stayed in the mansion’s guest house the night of Rebecca’s death, discovered her body in the morning and made the 911 call, and was judged “responsible” for her death in a civil trial. When the author ran into Adam’s girlfriend in the bathrooms of the courthouse, she notes, “She seemed quite normal and sweet, not the type of woman who would date a sexual deviant.” What kind of observation is that? This is the kind of throwaway comment that makes me distrustful, because that’s obviously a slant based on emotion that doesn’t belong in an objective facts story. It also connects to a more old-school style of true crime which is why I didn’t love the genre in the first place, until in the last decade or so it became more literary in style and accountable in content.
Rother’s ex-husband committed suicide after a troubling path of substance abuse, mental illness, and threats, factors which she compares to Zahau’s lack of them all. Still, she says what she learned “is that you can’t apply reason or reason or rationality to an irrational act like suicide, because the person committing that act is not of sound mind.” I agree, and this is worthwhile for its presentation of that idea in context.
Nevertheless, it’s disorganized in structure, long sections address parts of Rebecca’s past that have nothing to do with what came later, information is repeated too often, and totally unhelpful detours taken — like a psychic who examines the bed used to anchor the rope Rebecca was hanging from. This is completely ridiculous and unacceptable and not worthy of a serious journalistic endeavor.
If you’re deeply interested in this story of course read this – it has a few worthwhile insights. Zahau’s biographical story of immigrating first to Germany and then to the US is told respectfully, but elsewhere I felt it skirted the line of acceptable speculation or insinuation. And worth knowing that if you prefer clear, organized narrative, it’s all over the place with too much information to always separate what’s important and what’s superfluous, and leans toward an older style of sensationalist true crime. If that’s not your taste (as is the case for me) this can be frustrating.
Don’t Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM, by Sarah Berman. Published April 20 by Steerforth
I haven’t read any of the memoirs from ex-NXIVM members yet, and I’m glad I didn’t and read this broader account first. There was a lot new here even if you’ve watched the documentary series (I think I finished them both but they were really long and involved so I’m not completely sure).
Vancouver-based journalist and former VICE contributor Sarah Berman has written a comprehensive account that still incorporates much of the women’s own words and stories, to extraordinary effect. She shows how deep cult manipulation goes — Sarah Edmondson, who started the group’s Vancouver center and who you’ll immediately recognize if you’ve followed any coverage, as she blew the whistle on the branding of women in the secret offshoot sex cult DOS, is the one who lends the title phrase. Even after she’d left the group with her husband and shown remarkable bravery in what she exposed at great personal risk, calling it a cult in the face of NXIVM’s extreme litigiousness was a step too far.
It shows how much the Albany-based NXIVM was a copy-paste job of Scientology, essentially. “Over two decades Raniere had successfully ruined the lives of several people who tried to expose him, usually through lawsuits, private investigators, and criminal complaints in several states. Some of these people, usually women, were bankrupted and even jailed.” Sound familiar?
Or that NXIVM used “unified”, a word used in the same way that Scientology uses “clear”. Raniere wasn’t even original in any of his ideas, just cribbing Scientology’s “teachings” under new terminology and adding in the element of a multilevel marketing scheme as part of its moneymaker, and devastating sexual abuse to heighten his manipulative grasp over vulnerable women.
As well written and compelling as it is, by the end I felt a little sick; it was a lot to take. The second part of the book focuses heavily on what some of the women suffered, especially Daniela, who remained locked in a room for two years after confessing to Raniere that she’d fallen in love with someone else. Berman rightly describes her as being used as “his caged emotional punching bag.” She eventually is able to leave and reclaim her life, but her relationship with her family remains fractured as they’re still loyal to Raniere, something that’s just so hard to hear. It’s fucked up and heartbreaking.
And the abuse is just hard to consider. Raniere is so manipulative and exercises coercive control, a concept that will be familiar to anyone who’s endured a controlling relationship. I’m not one for trigger warnings and the research around their efficacy is inconclusive at best, but maybe worth warning here. He cruelly gaslights and controls them and then demands blowjobs. I felt queasy.
Raniere also encouraged highly disordered eating, namely urging women to be anorexic: “Raniere had shared his theory about energy exchange during sex, claiming body fat got in the way.” Go fuck yourself. Whatever extent of awful you knew about this cult, it’s worse and more disgusting and heartbreaking.
All that said, as long as you’re prepared, and able to handle this kind of information when you read it, the book is outstanding: clearly organized, empathetic to the women’s unimaginable experiences, and never shying from the kind of painful truths that need to be told about these groups. As of last year supporters were still dancing outside of Raniere’s Brooklyn jail. The power of these kind of figures is nothing to scoff at, as gross and laughable as they themselves are. Berman’s account is comprehensive, transparent, informative and emotional exactly where it needs to be.
I received advanced copies of these titles courtesy of their respective publishers for unbiased review.