Love didn’t go by the book for two FBI agents, one of them a specialist in undercover work
Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. By Caitlin Rother with John Hess. Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
You know the old Woody Allen joke about how the great thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chances of getting a Saturday-night date? This book reminds us that it can also halve your chances of getting out of it alive.
Twisted Triangle grew out of a macabre story about two married FBI agents that got splashy coverage in Vanity Fair and elsewhere in the 1990s. Gene Bennett had taken part in two successful undercover operations before he tried to kill his wife, Margo, in the apparent belief that she had become infatuated with the novelist Patricia Cornwell. His past raises interesting questions touched on in the book: Does undercover work – which requires agents to assume a false identity – foster personality disintegration? Can it lead to disassociative disorder, commonly known as multiple personality disorder, to which Gene’s lawyers attributed his violent behavior? Might undercover work attract people predisposed to the condition?
These questions have a relevance that may extend beyond the Bennett case to those involved in covert operations in places like Afghanistan. So you wish Caitlin Rother and John Hess had gotten better material from Margo, whose story they tell.
The essential problem surfaces in the subtitle, A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. Margo Bennett says repeatedly that she and Cornwell had two intimate “encounters” — or what sounds like a two-night stand — and Cornwell has confirmed it in interviews. On the witness stand, Margo corrected a lawyer who said she’d had “an adulterous lesbian affair” with Patricia Cornwell: “I said I had two encounters with Ms. Cornwell.”
So why is Twisted Triangle billed as the story of “a lesbian love affair”? The publisher may have imposed that subtitle on the authors. But Margo comes across as such an unreliable source that the unreliable subtitle, in a sense, represents a book driven by what sound like rationalizations instead of explanations. Margo signed phony documents in a home-relocation scam because, she says, Gene threatened to leave her if she didn’t. She lied on the witness stand when he was tried for the fraud because, she says, she was afraid he would hurt their children if she didn’t. To explain other unflattering actions, she invokes the Stockholm syndrome and — you guessed it — her “fragile self-esteem.” But if Margo lied under oath to protect her children, how do we know she didn’t try to protect them again by distorting the facts when she was interviewed for this book?
Rother and Hess confirmed some of what Margo told them through court documents and other sources. But much of this book has a “he said, she said” quality. Margo complains that a 1996 Washington Post story made her seem “very careless, uncaring, and crazy on my own.” Twisted Triangle does little to correct that impression and, in some ways, deepens it. In the Post story, Karl Vick expressed the theme of the Bennett case in seven words. Those words also sum up the moral of this book: “Sometimes, homo sapiens behave very, very badly.”
Best line: “Louis Freeh, who had just been appointed director [of the FBI], had instituted a zero-tolerance approach and was taking a hard line on disciplinary issues. Some agents described him as Hoover without the compassion.”
Worst line: Margo says that after working as an FBI agent for a few years, she learned that her husband had $60,000 in cash that he insisted was a gift from his dead father: “Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.
“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”
This passage shows one of the many hard-to-believe rationalizations that Margo Bennett gives for why she accepted her husband’s shady behavior.
Published: April 2008 www.catilinrother.com
If you like true crime, consider reading instead: Stanley Alpert’s The Birthday Party (Putnam, 2007) www.stanleyalpert.com, a memoir by a former federal prosecutor abducted on a Manhattan street and held for 25 hours by captors who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. A review appeared on this site on Jan. 30, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/30/ and a reading group guide on Feb. 4, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/04/.
Furthermore: The Bennetts met while working in the Atlanta office of the FBI. Margo is a campus police captain at the University of California at Berkeley. Gene is serving a 23-year sentence in a Virginia prison. Patricia Cornwell has responded to Twisted Triangle in an Advocate article www.advocate.com/issue_story_ektid54596.asp.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She does not accept books, catalogs, advance reading copies, press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.