Does Jussie Smollett Actually Believe His Own Story?

Smollett's outburst at his sentencing was extreme and dramatic. He may have even fooled himself.

Does Jussie Smollett Actually Believe His Own Story?
Jussie Smollett is led out of the courtroom after being sentenced at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on March 10, 2022 in Chicago Photo:Brian Cassella-Pool (Getty Images)

“I am not suicidal,” Jussie Smollett told the Chicago courtroom Thursday after his sentencing. He said it again and then again. It became a refrain. He’d go on to say it a total of eight times in his post-sentencing statement. Two of them occurred when he was being led out of the courtroom by a deputy sheriff en route to his 150-day jail sentence.

Smollett had just been slapped with 30 months of felony probation and $145,000 in fines and restitution as a result of his December conviction for making a false police report regarding a racist and homophobic attack that he alleged occurred in January 2019.

“I am not suicidal!” he called as he left the courtroom, his right fist raised. “I am not suicidal and I am innocent! I could have said that I was guilty a long time ago!”

Smollett’s brief outburst had, at times, a preacher’s tenor. He bellowed, “If anything happens to me when I go in there, I did not do it to myself. You must all know that.” The “all” bent like a note that was being sung.

This was the (for now) final theatrical act of a case and trial that was consistently theatrical in nature. If the hoax Smollett was accused of attempting was his defining performance, his brief speech before he was hauled off to Cook County Jail seemed tailored to be played at awards shows after his name was read off a list of nominees. In retrospect, anything less than this kind of performance at his case’s climax would have been truly shocking. What Smollett was serving was drama as usual.

For about 40 minutes at the end of the nearly six-hour sentencing hearing, Judge James Linn scolded Smollett, calling him “profoundly arrogant and selfish,” “a charlatan pretending to be a victim of a hate crime,” and accusing him of throwing “a national pity party for yourself.” The judge said Smollett had stolen resources from legitimate cases, creating a “heater” that demanded precedence over other unsolved crimes. Linn also delivered his own theory as to why Smollett may have hatched his scheme:

The only thing I can find is you really craved the attention and you really wanted to get the attention and you were so invested in issues of social justice and you knew this was a sore spot for everybody in this country. You knew this was a country that was slowly trying to heal past injustices and current injustices and trying to make a better future for each other, and it was a hard road. And you took some scabs off some healing wounds and you ripped them apart for one reason: You wanted to make yourself more famous and for a while it worked.

This was a preamble to Linn’s sentence, which was unpredictably harsh. Many legal experts interviewed in the lead-up to Smollett’s sentencing predicted he’d serve no jail time. The amount of attention that Smollett’s case commanded—orchestrated at least somewhat openly by Smollett, who appeared on Good Morning America soon after the attack he alleged and before he was hit with felony charges for his alleged hoax—should not be confused with its severity, which is largely theoretical and opaque.

If Smollett did real damage in terms of hoarding resources and sowing mistrust about hate crimes, the extent of the burden he caused could hardly be measured. He took up a lot of time and attention (though a lot of that attention was given freely by a voyeuristic public), but on the other hand, his punishment is harsh in ways that are predictable and unsatisfying. Though he alleged violence, he did not commit a violent crime, and so, here again is another Black man being put behind bars for a nonviolent crime. His reputation is in tatters, so it’s not like he could pull off anything like this again. His jail sentence will theoretically make an example out of him and practically take away five months of his life, should he serve the full duration. If he wasted the public’s time, well, now it’s the judicial system’s turn to waste his time. And all to preserve the vague, frequently disregarded notion of social justice.

Smollett’s sentence was overly harsh, but it should be noted that his story quickly crumbled under scrutiny. If he knew the people who attacked him—personal trainer Abimbola Osundairo and his brother Olabinjo Osundairo—how could he not recognize them even when they were wearing ski masks? Why did Smollett give differing reports to the police (according to the Chicago Police Department’s case file) of his assailants’ race (and please don’t say, as his lawyer did, because they were in whiteface under the masks)? If the attack was legitimate, how did he manage to come away from it with only a few scrapes, given how much bigger in stature his attackers are?

According to the case file, Smollett was in frequent communication with Abimbola Osundairo before and after the attack. Also per the Chicago P.D.’s docs, after Smollett “learned” that the Osundairo brothers were the main suspects, “he was asked if he would sign complaints and prosecute and he stated yes he would.” What struck me reading over the records when they were released in 2019 was how cruel Smollett’s behavior was, if in fact he did concoct this hate-attack scheme. He was willing to throw two unpaid immigrants under the bus. In the file, Abel Osundairo reported that he was getting paid a pittance of $50 per personal training session and would even settle for $20, whereas his brother, Ola, said at the time of interrogation that he didn’t have any paying clients, but nearly a dozen who were using his services on a trial basis.

It was hard to see Smollett’s ensuing behavior as anything but frantic backpedaling after a sloppy scheme failed to pay off as planned. I’ve wondered if Smollett thought he’d be investigated to the extent that he was.

But there was something in his post-sentencing outburst that seemed real. Could it be that his legal team was so inept that they just couldn’t unravel a proper alternative theory? Or is it that Smollett simply has to believe this story that he’s been telling so long? Smollett’s repetition and struggle for coherence in such a pithy statement made me wonder about his mental state. It reminded me of something Maureen Orth quotes in Vulgar Favors, her book about Gianni Versace’s murderer, Andrew Cunanan:

“Narcissists get hung up on their image. In effect, they cannot distinguish between an image of who they imagine themselves to be and an image of who they really are,” writes psychiatrist Dr. Alexander Lowen. “Narcissists do not function in terms of the actual self image because it is unacceptable to them.”

I don’t mean to diagnose Smollett, and I acknowledge that the term “narcissist” is thrown around way too often in modern discourse. This is just a theory as to where his mind may be. We’ll likely never know—what appears to be a rabbit-hole narrative invented by Smollett might actually be a bottomless pit, as endlessly fascinating as it is frustrating. At least for now it is over.

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