American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and His Mother

  • By Deanne Stillman
  • Melville House
  • 256 pp.

Adding questionable conjecture to the saga of JFK’s assassin.

American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and His Mother

Those of us of a certain age remember exactly where we were when we heard John F. Kennedy was shot. It was a disorienting rupture in our lives and the life of the nation, the first of many in the 1960s. Inconceivably, a second jolt hit less than two days later when the president’s suspected assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, was murdered. Since then, conspiracy theories about the killer, his motive, and indeed the very details of the assassination (was there another shooter?) have swirled.

The questions surrounding motive and the possible involvement of more than one conspirator have yet to be resolved, and American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and His Mother does little to change that. In it, journalist and award-winning author Deanne Stillman cites the work of others and lists sources from libraries and archives, but without endnotes, it’s difficult to tell what came from primary sources, and her conclusions are, well, inconclusive — except on one point: Oswald had a troubled childhood aggravated by a troubled mother.

“Bizarre” is a bit sensational as a descriptor of their relationship, but sensational sells, and without a doubt, the relationship between mother and son was anything but normal due in large part to Marguerite Oswald’s own issues. She married four times; she moved frequently, from New Orleans to Dallas to Fort Worth to New York and back; and she had many short-term jobs, including department store clerk, office worker, manager, and insurance salesperson. She was a liar, a grifter, and a negligent parent. She felt herself to be a victim, one of the have-nots continually abused and denied success by the haves.

Marguerite passed her neuroses down to her youngest son, Lee, who developed a few of his own, exacerbating the disruptions in his life caused by his mother’s marriages and moves. He was fascinated with guns at an early age, not particularly unusual for a boy growing up in the 1950s in the South, but troubling in the context of his other issues. He exhibited antisocial behavior in school that could turn violent but got mostly passing grades. He read a lot and learned Russian. Like his mother, he couldn’t keep a job because he quickly grew restless and disinterested. He also picked up her victimization mentality, blaming his failures on the deck being stacked against him.

A stint in the Marines resulted in a hardship discharge after two courts-martial and a disciplinary action. But things really went off the rails when his interest in communism and the Soviet Union led him to move to the USSR and renounce his U.S. citizenship. (He never officially gave it up, though.) After less than three years in the Soviet Union, Lee grew disenchanted, once again losing interest in what had been a consuming passion. With his newly wed Russian wife and baby daughter, he returned to America, and the rest is, well, history. No new ground is broken here in the Lee Harvey Oswald biography.

That may account for the tabloid treatment Stillman brings to the book. The title American Confidential is a clue that this is not going to be the usual journalistic or historical approach. The dust jacket calls it a “mother-son noir,” and the pages are laced with references to literary works like A Streetcar Named Desire, All the King’s Men, and The Glass Menagerie that compare Marguerite and Lee to characters and situations in those stories.

For example, Lee was named after Robert E. Lee, a distant relative. Therefore, Stillman surmises, he must identify with the mythical Lost Cause of the South and its heritage of honor, “everything that Blanche Du Bois longed for in A Streetcar Named Desire.” As a device for illustrating the victimization, resentments, hopelessness, and failed desires the Oswalds shared, the comparison falls flat and turns on its head the idea that literature reflects the human condition. Here, we have reality imitating fiction as proof of — reality?

The book also makes repeated conjectural references to events, thoughts, and actions that may or may not have happened. There is a long digression early on about Huey Long and the populist appeal of his politics in New Orleans. “We do not know if Marguerite Oswald attended any of Long’s many rallies in New Orlean,” writes Stillman before nevertheless speculating that “his views must have been an echo of her own inner monologue.”

There is a page-long depiction of what Stillman imagines Marguerite might have said to Lee about going to New York, based on some things that are real and some that are “reality based,” according to the author. Referring to “The Today Show,” which aired from Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, Marguerite (the author suggests) might have told Lee, “Maybe someday you’ll be on that show too, son.” Stillman follows this with another page of imagined dialogue between mother and son about overcoming the inherent burdens of being Southern and poor.

If your reading preferences turn toward history, you’ll likely find American Confidential an unsatisfying rehash of already-known facts strung together with literary references, speculation, and imagined exchanges. If, however, you don’t mind the embellishments, it’s a very readable story told from a unique perspective — ideal for those who just can’t get enough of Kennedy-Oswald noir.

C.B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in East Hampton, CT.

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