Framing DeLorean: A Review


John Zachary DeLorean’s now historic tale has three bullet points, fraud, embezzlement, and an embarrassing cocaine bust. Those of us who knew next to nothing about the story, prior to watching Framing DeLorean, knew John DeLorean built a “car of the future” that few, outside the producers of the movie Back to the Future purchased. We read those “Metoric Rise and Dramatic fall” magazine articles. We heard that story on late-night talk shows, and we repeated the jokes that dropped from it, “The DMC DeLorean looks great … from the outside. If you’re on the inside though, you’re probably not going to think that, because you might not be able to get out of it.” Bottom line, we thought, the main character depicted in the now historic tale of John DeLorean was a bad guy, on par with Oliver Stone’s bad guy Gordon Gecko. After watching Framing DeLorean, the viewer finds that it’s a lot more complicated than all that. We see an ambitious, talented man who got so caught up in the tent poles of glory and fame that he ended up kicking them all down around him to bring the tent down on himself? We find ourselves asking the questions was the DMC DeLorean a fraud perpetuated on the public, or did its engineer/CEO fear what others might think of him so much that he allegedly engaged in fraudulent activity to try to prevent others from seeing him for who he really is? Even if he wasn’t what they suspected?

No one cares, you say, because law enforcement officials believed he engaged in fraud, and they they gathered enough evidence to successfully indict him on those charges. They also arrested DeLorean after a sting operation, in which they caught him, on tape, taking part in proposal to sell cocaine. A jury found him not guilty in both cases, but no one cares. The charges, alone, damaged his legacy beyond repair. He became a laughing stock, and that was the end of the story as far as we were concerned. As detailed in the documentary Framing DeLorean, the full story is so much more complicated than that. The first two-thirds of the movie, depicts an ambitious, talented man chasing an impossible dream, and the final portions detail what happened when that dream wasn’t realized as flawlessly as the genius thought it should’ve been.  

No one in the film disputes the notion that John DeLorean was an ingenious and wildly successful engineer. After succeeding beyond his dreams as an engineer at General Motors (GM), DeLorean could’ve landed just about any job he wanted in the automotive industry. He decided, instead, to leave the security of his job at GM to pursue the impossible dream of beating the Big Three in the automotive industry at their own game. He also left behind the structure that he had at GM (and by the end of the film, some viewers might say this is key), and the system of checks and balances GM exerted on his designs. The final portions of the documentary cover what happens to a dream, when that man hits a series of roadblocks, and he is not as capable as those in the foundational structure at GM would’ve been at solving them.

When DeLorean left a secure job at GM, he took a team of talented, some say brilliant, people with him. Those brilliant minds thought DeLorean was such a brilliant mind that they left their own secure jobs to set about trying to make history with him. Private investors considered him such a genius that they scrambled to gather whatever funds they could find to back whatever project John DeLorean chose to pursue. He also received $140 million, in public funds, from Great Britain for the work he proposed to do in Northern Ireland, and he had the sentiments of the entire country of Northern Ireland behind him. A majority of Northern Ireland residents still consider John DeLorean a hero for everything he did to revive the economy of their then war-torn country. The employees he hired in Northern Ireland considered working for DeLorean a “dream job”. All conditions remaining constant, those workers probably would’ve worked for DeLorean for the next twenty to thirty years. DeLorean also had what many considered a brilliant engineer, named Bill Collins, follow him from GM to the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). Collins was purported to be the kind of genius who could make all of John DeLorean’s dreams come true, and he could augment some of the particulars of DeLorean’s dreams to make the DMC DeLorean a top performer.

Even with all that behind him, we learn that the talking heads interviewed for the documentary considered DeLorean’s dream improbable. During that era, becoming a car manufacturer was near impossible, they said. The Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had the market seized. No person, in their right mind, would attempt to go it alone, they said. Against everyone’s advice, John DeLorean tried it, and he nearly did it. He nearly accomplished the impossible dream. 

To accomplish such an impossible dream, one has to have an unusual amount of confidence, and John DeLorean obviously did … in the beginning. When he experienced some roadblocks, and the talking heads in the documentary suggest that most of these roadblocks were manageable, DeLorean’s unusual level of confidence began to waver. Did he begin to see the impossible dream for what it was? 

How many people love to play “poke the genius” in scenarios such as these? “He’s a genius, you say? Did you know that once you close those beautiful gull-wing doors, you can’t get out?” “Did you know that critics suggest that the performance and power of the car are not as advertised? Genius you say? I say piffle.” Americans say that Americans love to build someone up only tear them down, but how many of us truly adore genius? We might use the ingenious products of Apple, for example, but we prefer to gripe about its relatively insignificant flaws.   

How many people tell us that our dreams are unrealistic? How many of us can weather those storms no matter what hurdles cross our path? How many of us truly believe we can accomplish that dream? How many of us eventually find ourselves beat down by all of the naysayers telling us that our dreams are unrealistic?

When the DeLorean DMC finally, after eight years, hit the market, it hit a major roadblock. People weren’t buying the car. The car hit the market during a recession, and few were buying brand new cars, and critics began slamming the car for a variety of reasons, including the idea that it didn’t test well.

“All John DeLorean had to do, at this point, was halt production of the car and fix the errors [exposed in the tests],” one of the talking heads said in the documentary.

Those words probably haunted John DeLorean for the rest of his life. For a litany of reasons that might forecast the actions of John DeLorean, he didn’t halt production. This is the pivotal part of the story, and I’m quite sure this is the point where the cynical among us begin sniffing out the fraud. Why didn’t he just halt production? It might have cost him millions to do so, but those of us who know the end result know that this would prove the ultimate downfall of the DMC DeLorean car. This gap in the story line requires explanation, and when we don’t receive it, we fill it in. When we fill it in, we fill it with information we already know. We know that at the end of the story, John DeLorean will go down for fraud, so this is the first chink in the armor, and the place where the fraud begins.  

Another key point in the documentary involves the suggestion that DeLorean secured enough money from private investors to save the company. His brilliant engineer, Bill Collins, would tell us that a suspicious clause in a contract, led to him to be somewhat suspicious, but no one else saw any telltale signs of possible fraudulent activity. The talking heads in the documentary express their confusion over what DeLorean allegedly did with the investor’s money (again, a jury of his peers found him not guilty), because they suggest he had enough to save the company. The details are either a bit sketchy, or it’s difficult to follow talk of money, but it appears as though DeLorean secured the necessary funds from investors, he embezzled it, and then he agreed to take part in the sale of cocaine to replace the investor’s money he stole. (A jury found DeLorean not guilty of attempting to sell cocaine, but he was caught, on tape, in an FBI sting operation.)

One plus one equals two and a group of accountants found the missing investor money that John DeLorean hid in various accounts. We were right. This man was a fraud. The question we keep coming back to throughout Framing DeLorean is, was he fraudulent all along, or did he get too caught up in being a successful genius and a renegade who decided he was the one to take on the Big Three of the automotive industry? Did he love the fame, fortune, and the accompanying family life he enjoyed so much that his passion for the DMC DeLorean diminished by comparison? Did he love his pep rally presentations so much that he didn’t want to taint the character he created and others adored, and he didn’t want to give any “poke the genius” players material with a production delay to fix the structural errors of the car? We can guess that whole idea of structural errors and production delays are a pain in the tailbone for auto manufacturers. We can guess that testers always find something, because that’s their job, and a big-idea-genius-engineer often mischaracterizes their findings so often that he begins dismissing so many of them that he ends up dismissing all of them.  

Was John DeLorean was a victim of big-idea-guy disease? Big idea guys who turn into acclaimed geniuses often have a difficult time dealing with the minutiae of their craft. Big idea guys enjoy stepping on a stage to present their big ideas to their audience. The other guys, guys like Bill Simmons, often prefer to execute their genius in the shadow of the glitz and glamor of the big guys. In DeLorean’s former world, as an engineer in the Pontiac subdivision of GM, he had a number of little guys check and balance his idea on his designs before they rolled off the assembly line. He probably took that part of the process for granted as an engineer, but when he became a CEO he couldn’t ignore that part of the process anymore, and it appears as though he did. We can guess that the star child engineer at GM grew tired of everyone questioning him and diminishing his status, and that that drove him to go it alone. At GM, he probably felt like a Rottweiler in a world of Yorkies nipping at his heels. When he opened the doors to the DeLorean Motor Company, he began building a car of the future, and when those pesky Yorkies began telling him that the car’s performance and power weren’t as advertised and the gall wing doors had a tendency to lock up and prevent exit, he considered these issues small matters in the grand scheme of things. Who cares that the car may not be as powerful as critics would prefer, we’re selling Shangri-La here. When DeLorean was an engineer at GM, he could be a big idea man, because he had a team of engineers and higher ups who would shoulder most of that mindless minutia, and he could be the big idea genius who soaked in all the accolades of the finished product.

Take everything we’ve discussed thus far and add an unbelievable dose of pressure on top. He probably placed most of the pressure on himself to maintain his star status, but we have to imagine that he felt pressure from the family to maintain the lifestyle. Add to that, the pressure of having someone like Johnny Carson as a private investor. Having Carson on board was probably a boon in the beginning, as all DeLorean had to say was, “Carson’s on board,” to entice future investors. That line alone, probably quintupled his investments. When matters go awry, as they did for DeLorean, he likely feared Carson using his late-night show to exact revenge. Coupled with all that, was the idea that Britain invested $140 million, and DeLorean had the economy of Northern Ireland counting on his success. That unbelievable amount of pressure might have played a role in John DeLorean eventually doing what he did. 

The final truth is we’ll never know why DeLorean did what he did, but the otherwise unwatchable movie Game Change served up a quote that sums John DeLorean up well. When speaking of why presidential candidate John McCain does what he does to try to have even his most ardent adversaries love him, his campaign adviser says, “If we could explain why they do the things they do, we’d probably have more of them.”

Is it possible that John Zachary DeLorean was the equivalent of an early 20th Century huckster? Of course it’s possible, but I don’t see how anyone can approach the full story of DeLorean’s career, with an open mind, and walk away thinking it’s probable that he stepped out of the offices of GM set to defraud the world.

When I watched Framing DeLorean, I did not see the main character as a malevolent Oliver Stone character. I saw a Coen Brothers character. I saw a plot that involves a man falling prey to a series of actions and reactions that could’ve been avoided if he just did that one now frustrating thing that could’ve solved the problem early on.  

Mindhunter


“The stories and legends that have filtered down about witches and werewolves and vampires may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend the perversities we now take for granted. [These] Monsters had to be supernatural creatures. They couldn’t be just like us.” John Douglas and Mark Olshaker wrote in an excellent memoir titled Mindhunter to explain that serial killers are not a recent phenomenon.

What’s more scary the idea that monsters are real, or the idea that your quiet, unassuming neighbor could commit monstrous acts? Before we giggle at our predecessors for believing werewolves and vampires walked among them, we need to keep a number of things in mind. They were afraid. We’re afraid, and we still don’t know what drives ordinary people to commit monstrous acts in general. We might have better theories and educated guesses, thanks in part to the interviews conducted by John Douglas and Robert K. Ressler and many others, but we still don’t enough to stop current and future monstrous acts. When we’re afraid, we want answers, and future generations might giggle at us for our “more modern, informed answers”. The answers we have, thanks to advancements in the fields of law enforcement, science, and technology inform us that we’re not surrounded by vampires, werewolves, or any kind of literal monsters, but ordinary people who are in some ways triggered to commit monstrous acts. The question is, do these answers provide us more comfort, or do they make it more frightening?

Our predecessors obviously considered the latter more horrific, and they developed the idea of monsters to help create some distance between themselves and those who would commit such acts.

We could very easily say that our predecessors were less informed on such matters, but that is almost solely based on the idea that they didn’t have the science and technology we have to help them explain matters. (Anyone who thinks it’s a stone cold fact that we’re smarter on average, need only take an 19th century 8th grade examination to compare.) I don’t think they were less intelligent, or that most of them truly believed that men all over the world were turning into wolves and vampires. I think they wanted an explanation that might help them avoid discussions on the subject of whether the quiet, unassuming man they met in the apothecary was capable of such monstrosities.

Those of us who watch the NFL often enough begin to think we know what we’re talking about when we question our favorite team’s general manager (GM). If I were a GM, I would open my press conference with eleven words, “You know nothing. Please keep that in mind throughout our Q&A.” If I led an investigation on a psychopath committing serial crimes, I would issue the same intro. Most of us know nothing about law enforcement. Most of us know nothing about the long, laborious task of collecting evidence, and the mind-numbing task of studying case files. We might think we do, because we’ve logged thousands of hours watching movies and TV shows on the subject, but we know nothing.

If we were to devote our lives to learning more, by way of TV shows, movies, and the books in the true crime section of our favorite book store, we might one day reach a point where we know next to nothing. If, that is, are engagement is studious. I knew nothing when I first picked up the book Mindhunter decades ago, and I probably know next to nothing today. I knew nothing when I proceeded to buy all the books written by Douglas and Olshaker, and all of the other books that line the true crime section of the book store, and I know next to nothing now. I do know that Mindhunter was the best of these books, and I couldn’t believe it took over two decades for someone to make a movie, or a TV show on Doulgas’ excellent memoir.

Those who haven’t yet watched season one of the Netflix series, based on the book, should know that the consensus is that it starts out slow and confusing. To some, each episode of the series is slow and laborious, because it does not involve FBI agents knocking down doors, taking over investigations, or engaging in gun fights. Mindhunter is not the typical profiling show of FBI agents trying to catch a serial killer before he acts again. It is the story about two FBI agents who used the information gathered during interviews with psychopaths to understand such people better for the purpose of helping law enforcement identify them sooner, apprehend them later, and then convict them. Uber fans of the book, who never understood why no one made a movie about this chapter in John Douglas’ life, and this chapter in criminal justice, realized that sometimes even fantastic books don’t play very well in visual mediums. The Mindhunter series on Netflix is largely cerebral, and if you have no interest in this subject, the pace can appear plodding in parts.

Those of us who loved the book and wanted viewers to see the genius of the book for themselves cringed through the slow start, because we know that a slow start can be a death knell for any movie or series on a streaming device. The reason for the slow start is that a series such as this one needs to establish the modus operandi (M.O.) behind the FBI agents interviewing criminal minds to understand the criminal mind better, the series also has to establish the characters involved to spark interest, and the series creators needed to add the requisite (albeit fictional) romance. The characterization and the modus operandi of the FBI agents is necessary for any show, of course, but if I were the head writer of the series, I would’ve opened with the Ed Kemper interviews and dropped the backdrop information in accordingly. I might have also attempted to integrate the M.O. into the first episode, but I would have done so after the initial Kemper interview. My cringe was not because the series was done poorly, but as a member of the short attention span generation, I cringe when a series start out at a snail’s pace, because I can hear the millions of viewers who didn’t read the book, flipping to the thousands of other options available at their fingertips. Those who are patient enough to work through the largely fictionalized characterizations, will learn of a fascinating retelling of a 1995 memoir, by the same name, written by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.

Although Mindhunter, the book, would influence some award winning movies and TV shows, the more faithful-to-the-book Netflix series, contains little to no action scenes. The book, and the series, are more about the groundbreaking work two FBI agents did to change the procedures law enforcement officials use to investigate violent crime. This story is more about the cerebral tactics these two agents advanced to a level unseen in the FBI prior to their arrival. Previous work done in the FBI influenced their work, as did the work of local level law enforcement officials, and the occasions when law enforcement officials brought in a psychiatrist to assist them with a case. In the book Mindhunter John Douglas also noted that his work derived some influence from literature, specifically, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and a British novelist named Wilkie Collins.

The work Douglas and Robert Ressler did inspired the creation of numerous gun-toting FBI-chasing serial killer Hollywood movies, including Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, The X-Files and hundreds of other movies and TV shows, but John Douglas says he didn’t care for any of those portrayals.

“They don’t put across accurate portrayals, and [that] aggravates me,” he said. “I can’t look at those movies.” As for the Netflix series, Douglas says, “They’re going by the book and I am very pleased.” Watching the series, he said, “is like reliving my life all over again.”

We can guess that Douglas didn’t care for the Hollywood attempts to tell his story because they felt the need to Hollywood his story up, and I join him in this general sentiment. I loathe movies that do whatever they can to add action scenes, and a romantic angle, to involve the audience in the lives of their characters.

After watching the Netflix series, however, I now understand why various producers, directors, and all the players involved in making the Hollywood versions of his tale, felt the need to Hollywood it up in their versions of the story. If they maintained a stance that their versions would adhere to the book more faithfully, they probably wouldn’t receive funding for it. Their rejections would probably state that no one wants to watch FBI agents doing behind the scenes work.

John Douglas characterized his twenty-four year career in the FBI, as putting himself in the mind of the hunter. To do so, Douglas developed a process of interviewing and studying psychopaths for the purpose of understanding their methodological approach to choosing victims, securing their removal from the public space, and covering their trail.

On the latter, Douglas wrote, “No matter how much a criminal thinks he knows, the more he does to evade detection, or throw us off the track, the more behavioral clues he’s going to give us to work with.”

When asked how John Douglas would describe his role in these investigations, he said, “If you’re a cop and I work with you on a case, I help to develop a more proactive technique.”

Douglas also tried to clarify the role the Investigative Support Unit (which is part of the FBI’s national Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at Quantico) played in investigations:

“We do not catch criminals. What we try to do is assist local police in focusing their investigations, then suggest some proactive techniques that might help draw a criminal out.” Douglas then writes, “We (also) try to formulate a strategy to help the prosecutor bring out the defendant’s true personality during the trial.”

My analysis of John Douglas, the work he did after the interviews in the field of profiling, and what I once considered the most brilliant books I’ve ever read on the subject, might sound like a love affair gone awry from this point forward. Like an impulsive, physical attraction to another person, I was gaga over this book, and my initial impulses resulted in me failing to view this book objectively.

Before I get into that, however, there is one chapter that no one will ever be able to make me see the light on: Everybody has a Rock. In this chapter, Douglas writes that he attained a confession from an alleged perpetrator by placing an ordinary rock in the corner of the room. It was not the rock that various law enforcement officials believed the alleged perpetrator used to inflict blunt force trauma to the head of Mary Frances Stoner. It was just a rock that Douglas found that he considered roughly the same size and shape as the one law enforcement believed a perpetrator used in Ms. Stoner’s murder, and he placed it in the corner of the interrogation room before the interview. Douglas used numerous behavioral techniques in that interview with the alleged suspect to inform him that he knew the suspect as well, if not better, than anyone who interrogated him previously. Throughout the interview, the suspect kept glancing over at the rock waiting for Douglas to broach the topic of the rock. John Douglas never did. He used it as a triggering stressor, combined with the detailed information he had on the suspect, to make him sweat. Long paragraph short, the man confessed, and Douglas concluded this by writing:

“If the triggering stressor is a legitimate, valid concern, it will have a good chance of working. [The rock] could be mine. Yours would be something else and we’d have to try to figure out in advance what that would be. But there would be something. Because everybody has a rock.”

We all have a vulnerability, in other words, a susceptibility of sorts in the case against us, and it’s law enforcement’s job, and the prosecutor’s job to find it. It’s not a ground-breaking idea, of course, but when it works, it can sound so perfect, as in this case, that it sounds like a magician revealing that he’s had a rabbit in his hat the whole time.

Most also credit John Douglas as a pioneer for a controversial art form called profiling. When I first read Mindhunter, I was an unquestioning fan. I considered John E. Douglas a flat out genius, and I thought he personified the idea that every problem is one genius away from a solution. In the decades since, I’ve read numerous naysayers state that many of the profiles Douglas and other profilers have created for unknown subjects (UNSUBs), are equivalent to Forer Effect.* I was a little shocked by the pushback for I considered profiling an art form, if not a scientific approach to help law enforcement locate and determine which type of criminal was most probable. I considered profiling on the verge of hard science. I was also shocked to learn that many law enforcement officials groan when profilers enter into an investigation, because they don’t believe profilers can help them in investigations any more than they believe psychics can.

One of my naysayer friends asked me the pointed question if I thought psychics could help law enforcement locate and determine suspects. “Of course not,” I said, “but that’s not what John Douglas does.” After a back and forth that involved the details we both knew from the book, the naysayer encouraged me to re-read page 151 of his Mindhunter book.

Page 151 of Mindhunter contains John Douglas’s description of profiling, a description I now consider tantamount to a confession:

“What I try to do with a case is take in all the evidence I have to work with –the case reports, the crime-scene photos, and descriptions, the victim statements or autopsy protocols– and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender. I try to think as he does.” So far so good, this was the summary I provided my naysayer friend. The next part is what I presumably skimmed over in my first reading. “Exactly how this happens, I’m not sure, any more than novelists such as Thomas Harris who’ve consulted me over the years can say exactly how their characters come to life. If there is a psychic component to this, I won’t run away from it, though I regard it more in the realm of creative thinking.” {Emphasis mine.}

The next paragraph in the book details Douglas’s praise of psychics, “I’ve seen it work,” he says. Douglas does admit, however, that hundreds of psychics were brought in to help law enforcement officials solve the Atlanta child murders, and they weren’t even close in their descriptions of killers and methods.

Other naysayers who argue that the effectiveness of criminal profiling John Douglas is suspect, ask how many of his profiles were wrong? One suspects, if other naysayers are correct, and what Douglas does is equivalent to what psychics do, that he is wrong more often than he is right, but that he might say that that’s the nature of profiling. Mindhunter is John Douglas’ book, and he can include any information he wants, but if Douglas and others’ profiles had a praiseworthy track record, I think he would’ve proudly listed those statistics. He probably still would’ve added that profiling is an art form, it’s not a science, but he could’ve added something along the lines of “Our figures show that qualified profilers have been proven correct ‘X’% of the time since we developed the technique for law enforcement.”

It’s been a long time since I read the book word for word, but I can’t remember the chapter listing the success rates, and there is no statistics of listing in the index. In the end, this is a memoir of John Douglas’ life as an FBI agent, and the many successes he’s had. As I wrote, he doesn’t have to list anything he doesn’t want to list, but for those of us who believed in him and his techniques, these facts would’ve given us ammunition against his naysayers. Having said all that Mindhunter is a great read, and he never claims he found a scientific approach to crime solving.

As has been reported, season two of this Netflix series will focus on profiling and the Atlanta child murders, but those who might fall prey to the belief that profiling is a hard science that will result in some sort of exactitude must keep all of this in mind.

They should also keep two key facts in mind when watching the focus on the Atlanta child murders. The state was able to convict suspect Wayne Williams of killing two grown men, but they were never able to convict him of a killing a single child. As Biography.com states, “Once the trial (of the case of those two grown men) was over, law-enforcement officials declared their belief that evidence suggested that Williams was most likely linked to another 20 of the 29 deaths the task force had been investigating. DNA sequencing from hairs found on different victims revealed a match to Williams’s own hair, to 98 percent certainty. But that 2 percent doubt was enough to prevent further convictions.” (One has to imagine that the various levels of law enforcement were disgusted with the prosecuting attorney’s office for their unwillingness to pursue these charges to preserve their success record.) 

I noticed that the first season of Netflix’s Mindhunter paid little attention to the art of profiling. I cannot remember if the series used the term, unless they said something like, “we could use this information to build a profile on him”. As far as I remember, the first season didn’t use the term at all. Perhaps, that was because Douglas didn’t coin the term in the time period season one covers, or it may be that the series producers wanted to stay away from the controversial term. (If they used it, I expect fans will help me correct the record.) Regardless, I read that they will put more focus on profiling in season two.

The almost painful confession I must make in regards John Douglas, and his insight into criminal profiling, is that I believed it 100%. Even though Douglas confessed in his book that profiling was more art than science, I considered the art of profiling based on science, behavioral science, and I considered John Douglas an indisputable genius. Even though he said, if someone were to accuse him of using psychic components, “I won’t run away from it.” He then added, “I’ve seen it work.” Any rational mind would respond, “Okay, fair enough, but how often do psychics provide unequivocal assistance to law enforcement work? How often does their information lead to a suspect who is later convicted?” I’m sure there are some who might cite a case for me that pinpoints a case in the history of law enforcement where a psychic helped solve a case, but my rational mind takes me back to that question, “If this particular psychic has a gift, and they were able to help law enforcement solve a case, how often have they been wrong throughout their life?” If there were more documented stats on the powers of even one psychic, perhaps juries and the overall court system would accept and acknowledge evidence that was obtained with a psychics insights in the courtroom. At this point in history that has not happened.

In my excitement, I failed to read his book with enough skepticism. I do this, because I enjoy falling in love. I’m a relatively intelligent person who appreciates how math and hard science can help explain most of the inner workings of the universe, but I will not apologize for the emotional, almost romantic attachments I have to ideas before the facts roll out. I continue to believe, for example, that for every problem that plagues man we are one genius away from finding a solution, but I am now more skeptical of the former FBI agent’s influential approach, techniques and procedures than I was when I first read his book. Although I was wrong, painfully wrong, I believe a book such as this one highlights the discussion of belief. When I learned that many in law enforcement do not value criminal profiling as much I thought they should, and I reread Mindhunter in a more skeptical mind frame, I was swayed that it wasn’t the hard science I assumed on initial reading. I’ll take the arrows when they come my way, but I won’t give up the optimistic beliefs that have served me well over the years.

*The Forer Effect is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions tailored to their personality, but is in fact vague and general enough to be assigned to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality tests.

Leonardo’s Lips and Lines


Hyper-vigilance is not a switch an artist turns on to create. It’s less about what an artist does and more about who they are. If this is true, we could say that the final products of artists, their artistic creations, are less about some supernatural gift and more about a culmination of hyper-natural observations of the minutiae that others often miss that we call hyper-vigilance. Thus, in some cases, the final product of an artist’s vision is less about an artistic vision and more about using that product as a vehicle to reveal their findings. Did Leonardo da Vinci’s obsessions drive him to be an artist, or did he become so obsessed with the small details of life that he become an artist?

What goes on in the mind of an artist? That question has plagued us since Leonardo da Vinci, and before him. Those who don’t understand the complexities and gradations of artistic creation love to think about an “aha moment”, such as an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head. Others think that brilliant artistic creation often requires one to mix the chemicals of their brain up with artificial enhancements, or that they ripped off the artists who preceded them. These theories combine some elements of truth with a measure of “There’s no way one man is that much more brilliant than I am” envy. As an aspiring artist, I can tell you that nothing informs the process more than failure, or trial and error. There are rarely “aha moments” that rip an artist out of a bathtub to lead them to type a passage half naked and dripping wet. What’s more common in my experience involves the search for an alternative, or a better way. Rather than intro a piece in the manner I’ve always done, maybe I should try introducing another way, maybe I should build to the conclusion a different way, and all of the gradual, almost imperceptible changes an artist makes along the road to their version of the “perfect” artistic creation. 

To the untrained eye, The Mona Lisa is a painting of a woman. The Last Supper is nothing more than a depiction of the apostles having a meal with Jesus. We have some evidence of da Vinci’s process in his notebooks, but we don’t have his early artistic pieces. Due to the idea that they probably weren’t great, either da Vinci trashed them, or they’ve been lost to history in one way or another. These pieces would be interesting if, for no other reason, than to see the progress that led him to his masterpieces. Of the few da Vinci paintings that remain, we see a progression from his first paintings to The Mona Lisa. His paintings became more informed throughout his artistic career. This begs the chicken or the egg question, what came first Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic vision or the science behind the paintings? Put another way, did he pursue his innovative ways of attaining scientific knowledge to enhance his paintings, or did he use the paintings as a vehicle to display the knowledge he attained?

On that note, anytime I read a brilliant line I often wonder if the inspiration for the line dropped in the course of the author’s effort, or if the brilliant line was the whole reason for the book. Was the book an elongated attempt to verbally shade that brilliant line, in the manner da Vinci did his subjects, to make the brilliant line more prominent?  

Whatever the case was, the few works of his we still have are vehicles for the innovative knowledge he attained of science, the mathematics of optics, architecture, chemistry, and the finite details of anatomy. Da Vinci might have started obsessively studying various elements, such as water flow, rock formations, and all of the other natural elements to better inform his art, but he became so obsessed with his initial findings that he pursued them for reasons beyond art. He pursued them for the sake of knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book capture an artist’s artistic process as well as Walter Isaacson’s Leonard da Vinci biography has. The thesis of the book is that da Vinci’s artistic creations were not merely the work of a gifted artist, but of an obsessive genius honing in on scientific discoveries to inform the minutiae of his process. Some reviews argue that this bio focuses too much on the minutiae involved in da Vinci’s work, and there are paragraphs, pages, and in some cases entire chapters devoted to the minutiae involved in his process. In some places, I empathize with this charge that the book can be tedious, but after finishing the book, I don’t know how any future biographer on da Vinci could capture the essence of Leonardo da Vinci without the exhaustive detail about the man’s obsessive pursuit of detail. Focusing and obsessing on the finer details is who da Vinci was, and it is what separated him from all of the brilliant artists that preceded and followed him. 

Some have alluded to the idea that da Vinci just happened to capture Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, in the perfect smile for his famous painting The Mona Lisa. The inference is that da Vinci asked her to do a number of poses, and that his gift was merely in working with the woman to find that perfect pose and then capture it, in the manner a photographer might. Such theories, Isaacson illustrates, shortchange the greatest work of one of history’s greatest artists. It leaves out all of these intricate and tedious details da Vinci used to bring the otherwise one-dimensional painting to life.

Isaacson also discounts the idea that da Vinci’s finished products were the result of a divine gift, and I agree in the sense that suggesting his work was a result of a gift discounts the intense and laborious research da Vinci put into informing his works. There were other artists with similar gifts in da Vinci’s time, and there have been many more since, yet da Vinci’s work maintains a rarefied level of distinction in the art world. 

As an example of Leonardo’s obsessiveness, he dissected cadavers to understand the musculature elements involved in producing a smile. Isaacson provides exhaustive details of Leonardo’s work, but writing a couple of paragraphs about such endeavors cannot properly capture how tedious this research must have been. Writing that da Vinci spent years exploring cadavers to discover all the ways the brain and spine work in conjunction to produce expression, for example, cannot capture the trials and errors da Vinci must have experienced before finding the subtle muscular formations inherent in the famous, ambiguous smile that captured the deliberate effect he was trying to achieve. (Isaacson’s description of all the variables that inform da Vinci’s process regarding The Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile that historians suggest da Vinci used more than once, is the best paragraph in the book.) We can only guess that da Vinci spent most of his time researching for these artistic truths alone, and that even his most loyal assistants pleaded that he not put them on the insanely tedious lip detail. 

Isaacson also goes to great lengths to reveal Leonardo’s study of lights and shadows, in the sfumato technique, to provide the subjects of his paintings greater dimension and realistic and penetrating eyes. Da Vinci then spent years, sometimes decades, putting changes on his “incomplete projects”. Witnesses say that he could spend hours looking at an incomplete project only to add one little dab of paint. 

The idea that da Vinci’s works were a product of supernatural gift also implies that all an artist has to do is apply that gift to whatever canvas stands before them and that they should do it as often as possible to pay homage to that gift until they achieve a satisfactory result. As Isaacson details, this doesn’t explain what separates da Vinci from other similarly gifted artists in history. The da Vinci works we admire to this day were but a showcase of his ability, his obsessive research on matters similarly gifted artists might consider inconsequential, and the application of that knowledge he attained from the research. This, I believe, suggests da Vinci’s final products were less about anything supernatural and more about an intense obsession to achieve something hyper-natural.  

Why, for example, would one spend months, years, and decades studying the flow of water, and its connections to the flow of blood in the heart? The nature of da Vinci’s obsessive qualities belies the idea that he did it for the sole purpose of fetching a better price for his art. As Isaacson points out, da Vinci turned down more commissions than he accepted. This coupled with the idea that while he might have started an artistic creation on a commissioned basis, he often did not give the finished product to the one paying him for the finished product. As stated with some of his works, da Vinci hesitated to do this because he didn’t consider the piece finished, completed, or perfect. As anyone who experiences artistic impulses understands, the idea that an artistic piece has reached a point where it cannot be improved upon is often more difficult for the artist to achieve for the artist than starting one.

What little we know about da Vinci, suggests that he had the luxury of never having to worry about money. If that’s the case, some might suggest that achieving historical recognition drove him, but da Vinci had no problem achieving recognition in his lifetime, as most connoisseurs of art considered him one of the best painters of his era. We also know that da Vinci published little of what would’ve been revolutionary discoveries in his time, and he carried most of his artwork with him for most of his life, perfecting it, as opposed to selling it, or seeking more fame with it. Due in part to the luxuries afforded him, and the apparent early recognition of his talent, most cynical searches for his motivation do not apply. As Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonard da Vinci implies, it’s difficult to find a motivation that drove the man to create the few works of his we now have other than the pure, passionate pursuit of artistic perfection. 

After reading through all that informed da Vinci’s process, coupled with the appreciation we have for the finished product, I believe we can now officially replace the meme that uses the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to describe an artist’s artistic peak with The Mona Lisa.