Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Dr. Fabrikant's Solution

The two articles that follow deal with academic politics. The first tells of Valery Fabrikant, a mechanical engineering professor at Concordia University, who, having been denied tenure, murdered four of his colleagues. I covered the story for Saturday Night for over a year. The resulting article was then reprinted in Actualité in Québec, in Lingua Franca in the U.S., and won a Canadian Association of Journalists Award for Investigative Journalism. The version that appears here draws on both the original Saturday Night article and the version that appeared in Lingua Franca.

he first time I laid eyes on Valery Fabrikant was in a Montreal courtroom in April, 1993, during a hearing to determine his fitness to continue standing trial for the murder of four professors at Concordia University. Because I’d constructed a larger-than-life image of Fabrikant based on everything I’d read about him and a couple of aggressive telephone conversations we’d had, I was surprised by the small, wiry, nondescript man who actually stepped into the courtroom. Fabrikant is no more than five-foot-five and weighs perhaps 135 pounds. He had a self-important look on his face — this was his show — and his eyes kept darting around the room, observing people’s reactions, especially when he said something he thought was clever.

The trial had begun a month earlier with Fabrikant conducting his own defence; he’d been unable to find a lawyer he could trust. (By the time the trial was over, he would have hired and fired ten lawyers, accusing one after another of sabotaging his defence.) Fabrikant didn’t want to be found unfit. He wanted to prove that he was a peaceful and reasonable man who’d been provoked into committing murder by the way Concordia University had treated him.

There are two kinds of people, says a character in a Guy Vanderhaeghe novel: simplifiers and complicators. You didn’t have to be in the courtroom for more than fifteen minutes to realize that Fabrikant was a first-class complicator. He seemed to find it impossible to keep focused on his goal — demonstrating Concordia’s culpability in what had happened. He kept going off on tangents, attempting to prove that if only he were in charge of the courtroom, or Concordia, or the world, everything would be all right, and that everyone around him was dishonest or incompetent or a fool or a liar.

The question of his fitness had arisen as a result of the wild accusations he’d been making during the opening weeks of the trial. He’d accused the police of planting false evidence to make him look bad; they’d poured extra blood under the head of one of his victims, for instance. He’d accused the judge of having a “false” prisoner attack him on the way to court because his defence was going too well. The judge, he claimed, was part of a larger conspiracy to get him. It was at that point that the judge, Fraser Martin, had halted proceedings and called for the hearing.

The two court-appointed psychiatrists declared him fit; Fabrikant wasn’t psychotic, they said, and, generally speaking, he wasn’t out of touch with reality. But there was no doubt that he suffered from a severe personality disorder that greatly affected his interactions with others. He saw threats and persecution everywhere. That made him rigid and unable to put himself in doubt about anything. His narcissism made him insensitive to everyone around him.

Fabrikant made it clear that he had nothing but contempt for the two psychiatrists and immediately set about discrediting them. “When did you lie, now or then?” he asked, looking for inconsistencies in everything they said. He seemed oblivious to the fact that the jurors he was trying to persuade of the psychiatrists’ incompetence were shifting uncomfortably in their seats as he badgered the witnesses.

He brought in a psychiatrist of his own who testified that his client was unfit. He said Fabrikant was “pathologically narcissistic,” and had not only lost sight of the real nature and purpose of his trial but had demonstrated his inability to communicate with a lawyer. Fabrikant explained to the now thoroughly bewildered jury that he’d brought in this third psychiatrist to prove how unreliable psychiatry is.

His fitness hearing, which need have taken only a day, lasted a month. On May 10, the jury ruled that Fabrikant was fit to continue. But if I’d been a member of that jury, I would have been hoping to be persuaded that he wasn’t fit. I would have desperately wanted to stop having to be in the same room with this pathetic, deranged, clever, horrible man. “He’s a tragic figure,” I write in my notebook at the end of my first day in court, “but it’s much easier to feel sorry for him at a distance.”

Dr. Fabrikant's Solution, continued > 

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