Robert Durst, The Jinx (2015)

The Retch of the Wretch

A brief inquiry into the digestive problems of three evil men: Robert Durst, Anwar Congo and William Calley.

In the now-infamous climactic scene from the HBO documentary series The Jinx, the alleged triple murderer and confirmed creep Robert Durst mutters into a still-live mic that he “Killed them all, of course.” That line has justifiably received a lot of attention and will no doubt receive more when he eventually stands trial for the murder of his friend and apparent confidante, Susan Berman.

But another muttering from Durst deserves some scrutiny. The line is this: “And the burping.”

What he’s probably referring to here — though no one can be entirely certain what’s going on behind that man’s oil-black eyes — is what happens when director and deft interrogator Andrew Jarecki shows Durst that his handwriting perfectly matches that of Berman’s killer. That’s when Durst burps. His cheeks puff, his lips part, his already-narrow eyes narrow even more.

At that moment Durst is attempting to wave away the damning evidence Jarecki has placed under his nose. When the interview ends, Durst makes small talk — of sandwiches, the time, whether he can keep a photo of the woman whom he most likely shot to death — acting like a carefree soul rather than a guilty man who has just held in his hands the documents that could at last undo his lies.

His body, however, won’t let him get away with it. In the bathroom that mic also captures a series of foul throaty noises that sound like the prelude to losing one’s lunch.

Another recent documentary likewise concludes with an episode of intestinal upheaval. The protagonist in The Act of Killing is named Anwar Congo, and during the so-called communist purges in Indonesia during the mid-’60s Congo personally carried out as many as 1,000 executions. For much of the film, Congo appears to be in a state of giddy denial. He smiles. He dances. He jokes around. He dresses like a tacky dandy and carries himself like a cartoon dignitary.

In the final scene, Congo returns to a weedy cement courtyard where, decades earlier, he oversaw the mass slaughter of innocents. He explains, as if it’s a great DIY tip, how looping wire around the neck is an efficient way of dispatching a human being. Congo doesn’t deny enthusiastic participation in the long-ago carnage, though neither does he quite accept responsibility, clinging instead to the self-absolving notion that he is as much a victim of history as the parade of captives he so callously slew.

“I was wrong,” he says, “but I had to do it.”

What follows that half-assed admission is an extended sequence in which Congo wordlessly and utterly falls apart. He doubles over and bellows pathetically. He leans over a half wall as if to empty his guts. He spits and coughs and wipes his mouth.

His affected nonchalance is replaced by spasms of sincerity.

The sins of Durst and Congo differ vastly in context and scale, but both are guilty of deeds unthinkable for anyone still in full possession of their humanity (even if you believe Durst is somehow blameless for multiple murders, the man did admit to chopping up his buddy’s body and tossing the plastic-wrapped parts into the ocean). They are both confronted with the reality of their egregious past behavior and they are both forced to cope on-camera with that information. What they’ve done and the image of themselves that they wish to project do not align, and that cognitive dissonance produces an unpleasant physiological response.

In 1969, Seymour Hersh tracked down and interviewed William Calley, a lieutenant in the United States army who had been charged with the murders of 109 men, women, and children in Vietnam — a horrific incident that became known as the My Lai Massacre. Soldiers recall Calley giving the order to shoot unarmed villagers and, in one memorably horrific instance, seizing a toddler who had crawled out of the ditch where his dead mother lay and shooting him to death, as well.

Calley hardly seemed satanic. He was a slight, nervous man in his mid-twenties, with pale, almost translucent skin. He tried hard to seem tough. Over many beers, he told me how he and his soldiers had engaged and killed the enemy at My Lai in a fiercely contested firefight. We talked through the night. At one point, Calley excused himself, to go to the bathroom. He left the door partly open, and I could see that he was vomiting blood. (“The Scene of the Crime: A reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past.” by Seymour M. Hersch, The New Yorker, 30 March 2015)

Calley tried to seem tough. Durst attempted to appear casual. Congo pretended to be happy-go-lucky.

Then their stomachs revolted.

The catch-all term for this reaction is psychogenic vomiting, which a 1973 paper in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics defines as vomiting that is “the result of an emotional upset or of a more profound psychic disturbance.” There’s a lot of buzz lately among microbiologists and neuroscientists about the gut-brain axis; that is, the multiple pathways that connect our lower and higher regions. In short, it’s wrong to think that everything below the neck simply carries out orders from a gelatinous three-pound dictator. It’s more like behavior by committee.

According to Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and therefore must be right (right?), our minds have two systems: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is what’s going on below the surface: emotional, intuitive, immediate. System 2 is our conscious mind, the thoughts we know we’re thinking: slower, logical, verbal. It’s probably stretching Kahneman’s metaphor, but perhaps what we’re seeing in Durst, Congo, and Calley is a clash of those two systems. System 1 already accepts what System 2 is desperate to deny. Kahneman writes that a person “cannot prevent System 1 from doing its thing” and, while he wasn’t referring to uncontrollable upchucking, it seems to apply.

There’s something oddly reassuring about this repulsive phenomenon. It’s not repentance, or even acknowledgment, but at least it’s a sign that, deep down in their very viscera, they know what they’ve done and that knowledge, at some level at least, makes them sick.

Tom Bartlett is a writer in Austin, Texas. He has a sensitive stomach.