To “Check your privilege,” watch Dominick Dunne on the Justice Network.

As I write my current book, I’m outraged at the light sentences given to several of the privileged murderers I’ve gotten to know over the years. (I’m a criminologist and embrace the “check your privilege” movement.)

For these reasons I’ve developed an affinity for Dominick Dunne. He’s the late American writer, investigative journalist, and producer who covered the trial of his  daughter’s murderer. Like me, Dunne was incensed at the verdict (acquittal of  2nd-degree murder charge in favor of voluntary manslaughter) and light sentence.

Check your privilege.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The book I’m writing deals with white male privilege and how it results in light sentences and special treatment by the criminal justice system. But what does “check your privilege” mean?  According to the woman behind the concept, it’s the closest thing we have to a racial slur against straight white men. “Privilege” is about the advantages society grants some and not others.

However, Peggy MacIntosh—a former women’s studies scholar—says our debate over her concept hasn’t advanced much in 26 years. She coined the meme in a 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege which went mainstream. “The truth is that it hasn’t changed much,” she says of today’s debate about the idea that society grants unearned rewards to certain people based on their race, sex, and wealth.

What to do?

Checking your privilege means acknowledging the role whiteness and maleness play in your life. One way to do this is to watch Dominick Dunne’s “Power, privilege and justice” programs on the Justice Network. The programs come from the TV series Dunne hosted on CourtTV (later truTV), in which he discussed justice and injustice and their intersection with power, celebrity, etc. The series covered crimes allegedly committed by privileged males like Claus von Bulow, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, and the Menendez brothers.

Check your privilege.Watch Justice Network.

Check your privilege.Watch Justice Network.

Dominick Dunne.

No one knew the dark side of the rich and famous better than Dominick Dunne. A consummate insider and relentless activist, Dunne chronicled the arrogance that leads the rich to believe they are above the law.

Dunne’s dad was a hospital chief of staff and prominent heart surgeon in Hartford, CT.  Dunne’s Irish Catholic family was wealthy. However, from his earliest days, Dunne recalled feeling like an outsider. Perhaps because of being Irish Catholic in the predominantly “WASPish” West Hartford?  Perhaps because of stirrings of homosexual feelings? He never admitted his bisexuality during his lifetime—not surprising for someone born in 1928.

Dunne attended Williams College, served in World War II, and worked in TV in New York City and L.A. He was the older brother of writer John Gregory Dunne who married journalist/writer Joan Didion. Dominick Dunne produced their collaborative screenplay, Panic in Needle Park in 1971, starring Al Pacino. Dunne had already been involved in the pioneering gay film The Boys in the Band the year before.


Dominique Dunne. Check her bf's privilege.

Dominique Dunne. Check her bf’s privilege.

Because Dunne’s family  came from great wealth, he managed to hobnob  with the rich and famous of those days, including Elizabeth Taylor. In 1979, beset with addictions, Dunne left Hollywood and moved to rural Oregon. Here he says he overcame his personal demons and wrote his first book, The Winners.

In November 1982, Dunne’s daughter, Dominique, who acted in “Poltergeist,” was strangled by her boyfriend. Dunne attended the trial of John Thomas Sweeney, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. According to an article about the trial that Dunne wrote for  Vanity Fair,  Sweeney was sentenced to 6 1/2 years, but served only 2 1/2 after his conviction.  A ” slap on the wrist!”

Dunne then started writing novels and frequent articles for Vanity Fair. He based several novels on real-life murders (e,g,, of Alfred Bloomingdale’s mistress and banking heir William Woodward, Jr.).

Check your privilege quote.

Apropos of all of the above, here’s a paraphrase of a quote by Chris Hedges,** who calls himself a socialist, Christian anarchist.

       If you pursue power and privilege, it will always be at the expense of truth and justice.

       By contrast, if you pursue truth and justice, it’ll always mean a diminution of power and privilege.


*The Network specializes in true crime, investigation and forensic science documentary programming. It relies on an extensive library of crime and shows owned by the Turner Broadcasting System, A&E Networks, National Geographic Partners and Discovery Communications. It also airs 90 sec f public service announcements each hour. As of   2017, these PSAs, known as BeSAFE, have resulted in the capture of 101 fugitives and finding of 103 missing children. 

**Hedges comes from money and has been a writer and activist over the years—a bit like Dunne.

To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.

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