This Nov. 22 will mark 60 years since President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas – an event that not only terrorized a nation and inspired the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, but spawned a vast body of literature about the murder and its meaning in American life.
Now Los Angeles-based author Deanne Stillman shines a light into a little-known corner of this tale with “American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and his Mother,” from Melville House.
Stillman is best known for her evocative nonfiction that explores brutal histories in the West, with such titles as “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave,” “Mustang,” “Desert Reckoning” and “Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill.”
“American Confidential” continues Stillman’s oeuvre exploring the dark side of the American psyche. It delves into the troubled life of a man who, she argues, was the prototype of the disturbed “lone gunman” behind current mass shootings. But it also examines the peculiar and powerful dynamic between Oswald and his mother, Marguerite, who seemed consumed by a need to matter and was fueled by resentment toward society.
Stillman says she has been “reading and thinking about” the JFK assassination for years, and waded through thousands of pages of conspiracy coverage and testimony before investigative commissions to “find things that were of interest to me regarding Oswald’s family coming from family members themselves. That’s where the keys are buried and revelations are to be found.”
Recently, I emailed with Stillman, whom I have known since “Twentynine Palms” entered the zeitgeist in the ‘00s. Here’s our exchange, edited for clarity and space:
Why does this event continue to capture our collective imagination?
Oswald was like Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar, or even Pontius Pilate, who ordered Christ’s killing. Killing JFK was a betrayal of tremendous magnitude, not that Oswald knew Kennedy or was in his orbit, like the others, but it was an act of unfathomable treachery, a shot in the heart of the country, it shattered all manner of checks and balances.
It has also led to a wave of conspiracy theories without end – and given that the government was lying at the time about Vietnam and many other things, that was understandable – but this ongoing conspiracy madness regarding any consequential thing that happens is now destabilizing the country. When it comes to Oswald, Norman Mailer, whose book “Oswald’s Tale” informed mine, has said that people couldn’t believe that a figure who mattered little, a cipher like Oswald, could take down JFK, a man of great stature and value. This guy? You gotta be kidding me. Yeah, this guy.
In my view, there was what I call an inadvertent “conspiracy of one,” formed by Lee and his mother together, in a desperate and inadvertent campaign to matter. So in the end, Oswald is Travis Bickle (the main character in the movie “Taxi Driver”), posing with his rifle for a Polaroid taken by his wife, essentially saying, “You talkin’ to me? Ma, do you see me now?”
As you note in the book, it is thought that the assassination of JFK has been written about more than any other single day in history, including more than a thousand books and innumerable essays and articles. There have only been a few that concentrated on Oswald and his mother’s unique and seemingly toxic relationship. What more did you feel needed to be uncovered?
Actually, there’s just one that’s about Oswald and his mother Marguerite, not counting mine, and that’s called “A Mother in History” by Jean Stafford and like most of the other major books on the JFK assassination, it came out decades ago. It was foundational to “American Confidential,” and just one of two of the many about the assassination written by women, not counting mine.
What is missing from all of these books is a placement of the Oswalds in a deep cultural context, in the way that I like to look at things. For instance, buried in most of the coverage is the information that Marguerite Oswald’s father was a streetcar conductor in New Orleans. What streetcar exactly? I started to wonder and as I looked into this thread – and bear in mind that we’re talking about Lee’s grandfather – I realized that for various reasons, he was probably a conductor on the Desire line, immortalized by the Tennessee Williams play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And then I started thinking about how that echoed in the Oswalds’ life. The play is about a family of little means brutalized by Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando in the movie) and the more I thought about this, the more I knew that there were parallels to what was going on between Lee and his wife, the beatings and emotional violence, as I recount in my book, who lived in shabby apartments in New Orleans and elsewhere.
There was also the fact that Lee loved riding the subway while he and his mother lived in the Bronx. He carried maps and marked out routes and spent a lot of time riding those rails. I suggest that this was possibly a way of connecting with his grandfather, who died before Lee was born; most likely, he had heard tales of his service on the Desire line, which went right past their house.
Also, I realized that Marguerite had grown up during the Depression – something that I haven’t seen explored elsewhere – and in particular, during the time of Huey Long, the populist demagogue who was governor of Louisiana, a smarter precursor of Donald Trump. His famous slogan was “Every man a king, every woman a queen,” and that was all about the fact that many in the country were destitute.