Two compelling narratives, which occurred during the years 2004 and 2009, intersect. One is the story of Jeff Smith, a young and gifted rising political star who, challenging the Carnahan political dynasty in Missouri, ran in the 2004 primary for Democrat Dick Gephardt’s U. S. House seat. The other story is of Skip Ohlsen’s bombing in a St. Louis parking garage. Jeff Smith—whose remarkable campaign has been documented in Frank Popper’s award-winning film, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?—narrowly lost to Russ Carnahan, who, when the campaigning began, had seemed untouchable. Despite Smith’s astonishing performance, his campaign committed a violation during the primary; when the Federal Election Commission investigated the complaint lodged by Carnahan, the campaign covered up the violation.
Skip Ohlsen had crafted the postcard that broke two FEC rules and colluded with Smith and two of his supporters, Steve Brown and Nick Adams, in the cover-up. In 2007, the FEC closed its investigation on grounds of insufficient evidence. Smith had gone on to be elected to the Missouri State Senate; Brown, to the Missouri State House. In 2008, irate at his wife’s divorce lawyer, Rick Eisen, Ohlsen planted a bomb near what he thought was Eisen’s Acura. In fact, Ohlsen mistakenly planted the bomb near another Acura, a floor away from where Eisen usually parked, owned by another lawyer, John Gillis. After the bomb seriously injured Gillis, Ohlsen quickly became a suspect.
At about the time of the bombing, the FBI was investigating Ohlsen for other possible crimes and came into possession of recordings that Ohlsen had made while discussing the cover-up with Steve Brown. When the FBI offered Brown the opportunity to barter prison time for evidence against Smith and Adams, Brown himself wore a wire to collect evidence of their participation in the cover-up. Until that point, Smith and Adams had considered Brown their best friend. Not so afterwards: Smith served a year in prison for obstruction of justice; Adams received probation, but a felony conviction. Brown, also convicted of felony obstruction of justice, was given probation instead of a prison sentence. He was disbarred and had to resign as a state representative.
To date, but a small fraction of these entwined narratives has been told. NPR’s This American Life covered Smith’s violation and exposure; Jason Zengerle did an exceptional job of telling the bare bones of Smith’s story in The New Republic. Learning about the story of Ohlsen’s bombing requires reading back issues of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nothing substantive has been written about Ohlsen’s actions; no in-depth analysis of any of the events has been published. With the exception of the segment on NPR, which included some interviewing of Steve Brown, Jeff Smith is the only figure in this far-reaching narrative who has been interviewed. This double-plotted story, however, is chock full of strong personalities and fascinating characters who have yet to be represented.
I’ve spent months so far interviewing those characters. I’ve interviewed the prosecutor in the Smith / Brown / Adams case, Hal Goldsmith. I continue to correspond with Goldsmith and with the prosecutor in the Ohlsen bombing case, Carrie Costantin. To date, I’m the first and only writer to whom Nick Adams has spoken. I’ve interviewed both Rick Eisen, Ohlsen’s intended target, and John Gillis, his actual victim, as well as scores of people who have known the main players: Smith, Brown, Adams, and Ohlsen. I’m in communication with Ohlsen in federal penitentiary and am looking forward to meeting him there. I’m in constant communication with Jeff Smith. My extensive research is in preparation for writing a “nonfiction novel,” as Truman Capote referred to In Cold Blood. The title of the book, “Purposes Mistook,” come from Hamlet for a reason: the convoluted and misfired plotting involved in both Smith’s and Ohlsen’s stories is of downright Shakespearean proportions.
I’m assembling a collection of essays for a general audience on cross-currents between Shakespeare’s plays and modern culture. Most recently, I published “‘Who will believe thee?’: What Shakespeare Shows Us about Sexual Misconduct in the Current Climate” (in Hinterland), which explores the quid pro quo sexual harassment in Measure for Measure as an instance that could have occurred yesterday. Have we made much progress on this front in the last four hundred years? Why does such bad behavior keep circulating? What can be done about it?
Other essays in the collection include “Big Love,” about the nature of love in Shakespeare’s plays and whether that love has relevance today (published in The Hudson Review and named a Notable Essay for 2015 by the editor of Best American Essays, 2016); “Return Engagement: The Haunting of Hamlet and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.” (published in Shenandoah and recipient of the Thomas Carter Prize); and “‘Who will believe thee?’: What Shakespeare Shows Us about Sexual Misconduct in the Current Climate” (published in Hinterland).
Sexual assault on college campuses has dominated the news of late, and it deserves the attention it’s finally getting. At least as pressing, however, is the related problem of professor-on-student sexual harassment and assault and the culture of silence that surrounds it. Most people outside of academe don’t realize that such harassment and assault are pervasive, perhaps even as common as student-on-student assault. One reason for this lack of awareness is under-reporting. While a student who’s been assaulted by another student is typically reticent about registering a complaint, a student harassed or assaulted by a professor may even more reluctant to come forward, owing to myriad factors. Some students may not even recognize until years after the fact that a relationship previously thought to be mutual was not, in actuality, consensual.
Through a series of individuals’ stories, this book will speak to the forces that promote victims’ silence, as well as to the lasting traumatic effects on students of professors’ sexual violations. I believe hundreds, if not thousands, of people would be willing to be interviewed under safe circumstances, and my current aim is to find them. For further details, please see the “Professor-on-Student Sexual Harassment” tab on this web site.