The XX Factor

The Jinx Highlights How Cops Once Dismissed Domestic Violence

Robert Durst at his trial in Galveston, Texas, in 2003.

Photo by James Nielsen/Getty Images

The Jinx, HBO’s documentary about the hijinks of the alleged murderer Robert Durst, has created a welcome swirl of media attention covering nearly every angle, from hand-wringing over the journalistic practices to questioning the timeline of events, to exploring the meaning behind Durst’s dark pupils. But one factor has gotten very little attention in the renewed interest: That domestic violence, and law enforcement’s inclination not to take it seriously, is at the heart of the allegations against Durst.

Durst has long been suspected in the 1982 disappearance of his onetime wife, Kathleen Durst, though never arrested or convicted. The other two incidents covered in The Jinx—the alleged murder of Susan Berman, for which Durst has now been arrested, and the killing of Morris Black, which he admits to—are thought by several of Kathleen’s relatives and also law enforcement agents interviewed in The Jinx to be related to the first, allegedly committed to keep the victims from talking to the police about Durst’s secrets. This matters, because if the suspicions expressed in The Jinx are true, then Durst isn’t an unknowable monster, but something far more common: the wife-beater (something he admits to in the documentary) who escalated his violence to murder. Serial killers who kill for the thrill of it are rare. But men whose desire to control women leads to murder are not. Thirty-four percent of female homicide victims are killed by male partners.  

The Jinx devoted a good chunk of time to interviews with Kathleen Durst’s four female friends who say they spent the months after her disappearance haranguing the NYPD to treat it like a potential murder. Their story is a stark reminder of how poorly the issue of domestic violence was understood in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before feminists were able to really start a national dialogue. They claim that Kathleen expressed fear of her husband and reported this to the police. But law enforcement saw her disappearance as merely a matter of marital difficulties; it was easier to believe she had just left Durst than that he had done something to hurt her. (It couldn’t have helped that he was an incredibly powerful and rich man.)

While many women still face these issues today, initiatives like the Violence Against Women Act help train law enforcement to see domestic violence as the escalating problem that it is, instead of dismissing it as just a husband-and-wife spat. It’s hard not to wonder if things would have turned out differently for Susan Berman and Morris Black if there had been a better understanding of domestic violence back in 1982.