I met Gladys Girgenti yesterday.
And I really liked her.
I don’t know what to make of that, but it seems like an important component of trying to understand why these bombings weren’t solved. I’ve never been to a Klan rally. I don’t, as far as I know, know any people who deliberately set out to hurt or scare others. And I’ve never talked to a convicted terrorist before.
She was funny and charming. She had big round eyes that made her either seem perpetually surprised or perpetually delighted. She lived in a big old assisted care facility over in Madison. The place was spotlessly clean, but dark and kind of industrial seeming. The hallway to her apartment was dark and there were pipes overhead. It smelled like people used to smoke there a lot, but hadn’t in a long time.
Her apartment was small and cheery. She had a large window she sat beside and sunlight flooded the place. She had an amazing crocheted afghan draped over her loveseat. She had a cat, who seemed about a third longer than a cat normally should.
Her son told me the cat would bite, but once he got some head pats and sniffed my bag, he settled in on the cat tree and paid us no mind. Once her son seemed to ascertain that I was harmless, he went upstairs to his apartment.
And there I was, alone with one of two known racist bombers to come out of Nashville.
She was very matter-of-fact about things. She launched right in to telling me about Klan rallies and who she knew and how she had met them—J.B. Stoner, who she met through Ed Fields, Robert Shelton, David Duke. Folks I had only read about in books or, in Duke’s case, seen on TV, and they were her friends and she spoke about them with the fondness you have for friends.
She didn’t use any racial slurs or launch into any lectures about the evils of the Jewish people. And, honestly, I didn’t ask her about her beliefs. I wanted to keep my focus on getting my questions answered.
But it’s easy to see how, as a white bystander, you could seduce yourself into believing that a white supremacist like Girgenti isn’t “that bad.” Yes, she was talking about the Klan and talking about people who did really terrible stuff, but she was talking about it in the matter of fact way you might talk about your Sunday School class or the Rotary club. The signals that tell you that this is dangerous shit aren’t present or they’re muted.
So, as I was sitting there, listening to this funny, charming woman tell these stories that were sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad, I could feel something happening to me, mentally. It’s not even been twenty-four hours yet and it sometimes takes me a while to figure out how to understand the things I experience. But I came into that apartment knowing some really terrible things about Girgenti and having heard credible rumors of worse. And I had been warned not to underestimate her, that she was very smart.
In other words, I was as prepared as I could be.
And I still felt this overwhelming urge to just go along with what she was saying. Not just for the sake of the interview—that I could understand and not fret over—but for the sake of our rapport, for the psychological reward of having this woman I found funny and charming finding me funny and charming.
That scared, and scares the shit out of me.
Listening to her stories, it’s very easy to see that the FBI took the absolute wrong approach to her, over and over. It seems like they thought the button to push with her was her family, which, after talking to her, I agree that her family is very important to her. But threatening them never caused Girgenti to break and admit to crimes. It just strengthened her resolve to not cooperate.
Not that I got much farther. She wasn’t in town for my bombings. She didn’t want to tell me anything she, herself, didn’t know as a fact. So, no gossip on who it might have been. But I definitely and firmly got the impression that there was gossip she had heard. I just didn’t have the skills as an interviewer to overcome her reluctance to gossip with me.
But this was my first time interviewing a person with known ties to a terrorist network. Presumably the FBI does that shit all the time.
I had told a handful of people where I was going and that they should call the police if I didn’t get back in touch with them by dinner. I was done long before dinner. I did my best to make sure I wasn’t followed home. I felt stupid for worrying about it.
I couldn’t sleep, though. I found excuses not to go to bed and then when I realized I was just sitting on the couch staring at nothing, I forced myself to go to bed. And then I laid there, in the dark, in the quiet, afraid I would hear someone in the house with me. I had this thought that I should not have met her, that I should not have let her know what I look like, or given her my phone number. That, obviously, anyone with dangerous friends could still be dangerous.
But the thing that kept me up was that I wasn’t having these thoughts until almost eight hours after I’d interviewed her.
The thing I’m trying, but struggling to put into words is how far down the path I was before my gut instinct to be afraid kicked in. I had already done the interview. I was already home. I had already assured everyone I had jokingly asked to avenge me if I was murdered that I was fine. While I was with her, I wanted her to like me.
And I had years of research about her and her friends in my head.
There’s something psychological going on here that seems important, if we want to truly understand how we’re in this situation. Something about how your brain will push you to find connections and common ground with people, to find ways and reasons for you to like each other and see each other as being on the same side, even temporarily.
I keep thinking about that lyric from They Might be Giants, “Can’t shake the Devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.” You become like the people you like. You can’t have a racist friend and not be, at some level, okay with her racism.
And yet, if that person is charming and funny, smart and insightful, isn’t it so very tempting to overlook her flaws?
No, no. More than tempting. I would not have been tempted to overlook Gladys Girgenti’s flaws.
This is something deeper and more fundamental to how white supremacy works, I think. Something so deeply ingrained in me, so deeply trained, let me like her and suppressed the warning signals I should have been getting. Obviously was getting, if my terror that night was any indication.
I came as prepared as I could be. I was raised to try very hard not be a racist asshole by people who have tried very hard their whole lives to not be racist assholes, and I still had that psychological reaction to her. And I didn’t even recognize that’s what was happening until way later.
That’s deeply troubling to me. But it also feels to me crucial for understanding why these bombings were never solved. I think there’s a very good chance that the white people in a position to investigate these bombings had the same bad training or psychological shortcoming or whatever this is as me.
I think a crucial component of why these bombings were never solved is that the people who could have solved them were not seeing them for the huge red flags that they were. And I have to allow that one of the reasons I haven’t solved them is that I also am not picking up on obvious cues and am, instead, reacting in ways that work to thwart my end goals.