“Do you think I like having my life an open book? It was never my intention to become famous by using my sister’s death.”
Reporters who cover trials often say of witnesses that you have to take them as you find them; the same rule applies to the families of murder victims.
A murder trial is a narrative, a collection of family stories.
As a story, Denise Brown has the ambiguities of Becky Sharp. Was she prepared to be held up for scrutiny as the older sister of the most famous murder victim in postwar American history?
While Denise is in New York, I notice in her tote bag a single book: Insane Jealousy, a study of domestic violence – a phrase she routinely says she never heard until June 13, 1994.
Every interviewer now asks her the same question: How could she not have known that Nicole was being battered?
Why did she come out at first and say that Nicole was not a victim of domestic abuse?
It is a measure of the desperation of the family and the madness of this trial that Denise chooses to grieve in public, airing her confidences to Geraldo Rivera, who has become not only her close friend but a booker for reporters who seek interview time.
Her conversation has a definite agita; she speaks in the idiom of twelve-step programs. She says, “I don’t want to spend my time thinking about what-ifs, what-ifs. Nicole never told us she was battered! She would say, ‘He threw me against the wine cabinet, and then we went out to lunch.'”
Denise does not dwell on what the family chose not to see. “What good would that do?… I want to help other women now. This foundation is my crusade for life. Now I am a happy person. I have a mission and a cause.”
Is it mean-spirited to speculate that, as in the case of many battered women, Nicole’s family seemed intent on not seeing the truth of what was going on?
Denise has taken on the public role for the family; it is her odd task to advance the narrative of what the Brown family knew about the Simpson marriage. There are many episodes that she willingly retails: When Nicole attended a Buffalo Bills game on an early date, O.J. blew up when he saw her kiss a friend on the cheek. Denise said to her younger sister, “This is ridiculous. What are you doing with this guy?”
She is reduced to admitting, “He was awful again and again. And when it was good, they were in a honeymoon phase, and they would go around and around in a vicious circle.”
Now Denise Brown will remain as a snapshot and a headline: A SISTER’S GRIEF.
Her picture is the story – a sister sobbing on the witness stand.
And then the words: “He grabbed Nicole, told her to get out of his house, picked her up, threw her out of the house. She ended up falling. She ended up on her elbows and on her butt.”
“Are you OK, Miss Brown?”
“Yes, it’s just so hard. I’ll be fine.” Moments later: “At one point, O.J. grabbed at Nicole’s crotch and said, ‘This is where babies come from and this belongs to me,'”
Can America accept a heroine with moral contradictions?
The foundation has raised more than $200,000 but in February had yet to acquire a federal tax number or have a brochure printed up on the foundation goals. Where is the money?
“In an escrow account managed by our lawyer.”
Is Denise an innocent or obtuse?
She is well aware, she tells me, that she is criticized for appearing to exploit Nicole’s murder for publicity. Of this she says, “I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of me. I’ve gotten very good at telling people to leave me alone.”
I asked her how her parents reacted on the day that O.J. Simpson, a man whom her father had never met, dropped off a Porsche in their driveway for Nicole as a memento of their ten-month anniversary.
“What did they say?” I asked. “‘Oh, my God,’ and then not much else. Why?'”
I said that there were many parents – my own included – who would have have a great deal to say if their eighteen-year-old received a $50,000 present from a former football star.
“My parents taught us to be gracious and to say thank-you for gifts,” she said. I asked her if there might be a suggestion in such a gift that Nicole was being kept. “Oh, no! Not at all! My mother was very easygoing about that. Her attitude was that presents did not make you a kept woman. Someone pays for your apartment… If you’re happy, what difference does it make?”
It has become common for reporters to ask Denise Brown questions that might illuminate O.J. and Nicole’s Brentwood life, as if understanding a victim could explain a murder…
I, too, was curious about the dynamic inside a family that could give us such sisters, trained perhaps by example to be man-pleasers, at the very least.
Nicole was a five-foot-eight-inch baby doll, intelligent and hidden. She was a bride who wore pearls in her hair and a low-cut dress at her wedding; she drove her daughter, Sydney, to ice-skating and on an evening after her divorce, according to Faye Resnick, once crept into a neighbor’s bedroom and awakened him with an oral-sex trick she called “the Brentwood hello.”
Often she spent her mornings running nine miles until the endorphins kicked in. She attempted to run her house as if she were a menu-maker with the skill of Pamela Harriman; O.J. complained about the flower bill.
Denise Brown has been much interviewed; she’s adept at repeating certain key phrases: Her parents had “a storybook marriage” Lou and Juditha Brown used to say, “If you’re happy, we’re happy.”
The subject of Faye Resnick arises during my conversation with Denise. Nicole, according to her sister, was incapable of seeing the liars and the users who were around her, especially at the end of her life. Denise insists she has not read Resnick’s memoir, but is there anyone in America who is unfamiliar with the sound bites?
According to Denise, Faye Resnick was a minor and unpredictable figure in her sister’s life. “I met her for the first time at Nicole’s funeral. She evidently knows me very well. I don’t know her!
“Did you see the movie The O.J. Simpson Story? Thank God, I got a call about it. It portrayed Nicole as the stupidest, ditziest person that I have ever seen. It was not Nicole. I thought, If you had any class at all, you would have made her like the person she is.”
Marie Brenner ~ Beyond the Courtroom for Vogue Magazine (May 1995)