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Saving Justin Berry

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“His nerves were shattering, the pressure he was under was intense,” agrees the reporter Diana B. Henriques, his closest confidante on the business desk. “I had certainly been urging him to get some help for quite some time.” Ingrassia, the editor, referred him to the Times health organization, which referred him to a therapist, Eichenwald says. But he was in too deep to recognize the personal urgency. He told friends his own health would have to wait.

As it happens, Eichenwald has had significant health problems since college, when he was diagnosed with grand-mal epilepsy. Convulsive seizures came on in a mounting wave until he was waking from multiple seizures a week, unable to recall what he’d been through.

It meant that his classmates knew a part of him that even he didn’t know—another persona, if you will. They named that person “Michael.” Anthropomorphizing his illness served a useful purpose all around. “They’d say, ‘Michael came for a visit last night,’” Eichenwald tells me. “‘I think Michael’s coming again.’ For them it was a way of talking about it, but for me it was a way of thinking about it. I didn’t want this thing to spill over into every aspect of my life.”

“In part, I was Justin,” Kurt Eichenwald tells me, “because Justin was speaking in part through me.”

After a series of adjustments to his medication, Eichenwald reports, he had his last epileptic convulsion in 1991. He still suffers the less-obvious symptoms of partial-onset seizures, including frequent mini-seizures that most laypeople wouldn’t recognize as epilepsy.

“If I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t intervene more actively,” Henriques says. “I think he knew he was under extraordinary duress, and he knew he needed to get some help dealing with it … But the nature of our work is, you’ll get the help when the story’s done—you get the story done.”

Eichenwald has always been extremely difficult to edit, but the weeks before publication were excruciating for everyone involved. Eichenwald says the story was ultimately pushed through 44 drafts by eleven editors. But he hammered back, screaming at his editors about children in danger and writing nuclear memos about his perceived mistreatment. He flew to New York to demand that the piece finally run. He cried often. On the eve of publication, his story was assigned to yet another editor, and he put his foot down one last time. That Friday, he submitted his resignation—not the first time or the last. The piece appeared the following Monday.

In retrospect, Times colleagues say Eichenwald steamrolled the piece through a leery editorial process. “This wasn’t people saying the story is three-quarters right and they don’t give a shit about the rest,” says Alex Berenson, a business reporter. “The difference is Kurt’s record, which gave them the assurance he was telling the truth, and his personality, which made it so difficult to edit him.”

The story, when published in December 2005, took readers into a knotty and unknown world on a narrative roller coaster of lurid seductions, abandoned allegiances, and spiritual conversion. Eichenwald not only delivered Berry into the hands of ministers, lawyers, and the FBI, but also was by his side as Berry’s former associates were arrested one by one. In the dramatic final scene, Berry sat in an undisclosed location, simultaneously conducting an IM conversation with Greg Mitchel and a phone call with the battalion of federal agents as they pulled into Mitchel’s driveway in Virginia.

Berry asked Mitchel whether his housemate and her children were at home, then shouted, “The kids are in the house” to warn the agents. He knew time was short. According to Eichenwald, Berry had “decided to confront the man who had hurt him for so long.”

“Do you even remember how many times you stuck your hand down my pants?” Berry typed. “You molested me. Don’t apologize for what you can’t admit.’’

Mitchel went silent at that moment—taken from the keyboard into federal custody, charged with operating a marketplace for underage porn as the mastermind of JustinsFriends.

The article was an instant sensation. Eichenwald, often with Berry at his side, made the rounds—Oprah, Larry King, Today. Meanwhile, media critics assailed the piece, which could be read as vigilante journalism, Grisham meets To Catch a Predator with a made-for-Hollywood gloss. He was referred to as “Justin,” never “Mr. Berry,” as Times style demands for adults, in a transparent bid to garner sympathy. Gay men in particular were offended by some of the language used in the article—the word “molest” was used when describing Justin’s interactions with men. With women, it was simply “sex.” To many, it seemed alarmist and overblown, an invitation to a kind of sexual witch hunt. (Although Berry and Ryan, his lawyer, forwarded records on hundreds of subscribers to prosecutors in 44 states, so far only one indictment has reportedly followed.)


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