A Conversation with David Berg, author of Run, Brother, Run
Run, Brother, Run is, at its root, about your brother’s murder in Texas in 1968. What happened to him?
My older brother Alan, whom I idolized, went into partnership with my father in the carpet business in Houston in 1963. Alan was an amazing salesman but it was a very rough business—a boiler room operation that overcharged poor people—primarily black folks. The business expanded quickly and they hired one man in particular to run their San Antonio branch, but within months a lot of money went missing—enough to almost bankrupt the company. Dad was certain the branch manager had stolen the money and when that man moved to Houston to open a competing business, Dad launched a campaign to kill his financing and pretty soon, the dispute grew vicious—dangerous. I am confident, as were the police and district attorney, that the former manager then hired a hit man, Charles Harrelson, who kidnapped my brother and murdered him, for $1500. However, my brother was denied even the justice of anyone being convicted for his murder.
What was your brother like?
Alan was not an ordinary man—in fact, he was driven, as am I, by a fear of being ordinary. He was funny and warm and loyal and I think, felt as though he was put on earth to take care of everyone he loved—especially me. But his upbringing was terribly flawed and unstable. After my father remarried, he bounced Alan from pillar to post, from this military school to that, from his own home to Mom’s and as a result, my brother never had any continuity or stability in his life. What that chaotic life produced was a character more Gatsby-like than Gatsby himself.
What was it like to be Jewish in Texas and Arkansas in the 1950’s and 60’s?
Jews were not accepted, by Baptists in particular. Back in those days, given that we had killed their Lord and personal Savior, we were shunned as if we were lepers, except when they wanted to convert us (which I refused except for one incident with a drama student who insisted I accept Jesus if I wanted to touch her there and I immediately agreed). And I’ll never forget the day my high school principal, Mr. Andrews, put his arm around my shoulders and confessed, “You are my very, very favorite Jew,” a tribute not to our relationship but my willingness to read Scripture over the loudspeaker every morning (I would do anything for airtime). One great benefit of being outsiders was that we grew up pretty uninterested in what anyone thought of us. Dad, ironically, was an outspoken integrationist who railed against the treatment of blacks to everyone who’d listen in an era when that sort of talk could get you killed.
You and your family did not know what happened to Alan for six months after he disappeared. What was that like?
I was closer to Alan than I’ve ever been to anyone. He was six years older and more of a father figure than a brother, actually. He was also my fulltime cheerleader — he believed I could do anything — and you don’t have too many of those in a single lifetime. For those six months he was missing, until we found his body, it was difficult to draw an unlabored breath. Worse, the Houston police wasted valuable time, figuring Alan was just another husband who took off on his family, and wouldn’t open a missing persons file. But we knew Alan loved his wife and kids and that wasn’t the case. My father posted a reward and launched an investigation of his own. We were then thrown into a world we could not have imagined, one of crooked lawyers, investigators, and cops who tried to con him out of the reward.
How did you finally find your brother?
Dad followed every lead – he even persuaded George H. W. Bush, who was at that time a Houston congressman, to help us, although it didn’t take much persuading. Finally, a former salesman with my father’s company, who had run off with Harrelson’s girlfriend, called with the information that broke open the case. The girlfriend told him what happened and he wanted the reward. One of the detectives Dad had hired found Alan’s remains in a ditch not far from Galveston.
Charles Harrelson is the actor Woody Harrelson’s father. Does the fact that he’s a public figure matter to the story?
Yes, it did. I understand Woody Harrelson’s devotion to this father. What I couldn’t stomach was his capitalizing on his father’s past, for instance, when he played the murderous character in Natural Born Killers, a movie about a killer heroized by the press. At the time, there was a ticket-boosting leak from the set, that Oliver Stone directed him to “Play it more like your father.” Or those times Woody has attempted to legitimize his father, such as implying he was innocent of the assassination of a federal judge, or lamenting his inability to sit on a beach and have lunch with his father, as if there weren’t survivors out there reading what he said.
Harrelson was acquitted of your brother’s murder. Yet you have had a remarkable career as a trial lawyer, including many criminal cases. What effect did Alan’s murder and Harrelson’s acquittal have on you and your legal career?
Actually, Harrelson’s acquittal did nothing but intensify my hatred of injustice. I threw myself into my practice, beginning with civil rights and criminal cases, and gradually, after twenty years, for reasons related to my family’s history, into a different area of the law, complex commercial cases. As a result I have tried virtually every kind of case, starting with arguing—and winning—a First Amendment case in the US Supreme Court less than three years into my practice, to murder cases, to patent infringement.
So, Harrelson’s acquittal or not, I love the law. I just hate crooked lawyers—and in large measure, injustice is what this book is about.