Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Why it's so hard to write fiction, Part 39

Sara Jane Moore, who in 1975 took a pot-shot at Gerald Ford in San Francisco, was released from prison Monday, after serving 32 years of a life sentence. Apparently the California parole board felt that as her only crime was the attempted assassination of an unpopular Republican president, she deserved a second chance.

The reason why Moore is merely a peculiar footnote in history — and a minor character in the Sondheim & Weidman musical, Assassins — and not a successful assassin, is because as she was starting to pull the trigger, she was tackled by Marine Corps veteran Oliver Sipple, who was legally disabled because of wounds received in Vietnam and at the time living on a VA pension in an apartment in San Francisco's Mission District. Sipple, who was gay but still in the closet, begged reporters not to delve too deeply into his personal life, but was outed anyway. As a result he was disowned by his family, subsequently collapsed into alcoholism, psychiatric, and other medical problems, and was found dead in his bed on February 2, 1989, at the age of 47.

The alleged friend, gay rights activist, and media darling who outed Sipple, Harvey Milk, went on to become, in 1977, the first openly gay man elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, or for that matter, to any significant political office in America. His triumph was short-lived, however, as in 1978 he was gunned down by fellow Supervisor Dan White, a political ally of now-Senator Dianne Feinstein. In his trial, White claimed he was temporarily insane at the time of the shooting due to a combination of being depressed and having binged on junk food. The jury returned a verdict of, "We may be a California jury, but even we aren't stupid enough to believe that one." White went to prison for seven years, Castro Street erupted in riots over his light sentence, San Francisco went on a spree of naming things after Harvey Milk, and the so-called "Twinkie Defense" entered the American legal lexicon, to the unending joy of humor writers everywhere.

Strangely enough, at the time of the attempt on Ford's life, Sara Jane Moore was described as being merely an unbalanced middle-aged woman. No mention was ever made of her history of revolutionary radicalism or her connections to the Symbionese Liberation Army, but when SLA member and Minnesota's Own Celebrity Terrorist Kathleen Soliah went underground, the reason she took the name Sara Jane Olson was reportedly to honor her old comrade in arms, Moore. Soliah was arrested in 1999, tried and convicted on various charges relating to the SLA's various murderous activities back in the '70s, and sentenced to two consecutive 10-years-to-life terms, plus six years. On appeal this was reduced to 14 years, then to 5 years and some odd months, and then set back to 14 years, which under California rules means she is actually eligible for release in late 2009.

And what does this bizarre web of relationships and outcomes have to do with writing fiction? Simple. Fiction is required to make sense.

Reality labors under no such handicap.