the spine collector

Filippo Bernardini Gave the Publishing World Something to Write About

Photo: Filippo Bernardini/Facebook

On Thursday afternoon, a judge finally brought an end to the strange case of Filippo Bernardini, the Italian man who pleaded guilty earlier this year to impersonating hundreds of people in the book-publishing industry in order to steal unpublished manuscripts. While the government argued that Bernardini should spend a year in prison, Judge Colleen McMahon didn’t agree. Her verdict: no jail time.

If one theme held the proceedings on Thursday together, it was the enduring mystery of the crime. As the prosecution, the defense, and the judge all noted, Bernardini never sold these manuscripts, nor profited off of them in any way. Not even Bernardini seemed able to fully explain exactly why he had dedicated years of his life to such a bizarre caper, and everyone admitted they had never dealt with a case like this before. “I have no idea what to do with this case, and I’ve thought about it a lot,” Judge McMahon said. “I don’t expect to see anything like this ever again.”

In a letter to the court, Bernardini offered his first explanation for his crime. His defense began simply and sympathetically: “I have always loved books.” He had grown up in a small town, and says that reading offered a way to feel like he was somewhere else — a way to create his own world. Bernardini said “the warmth and excitement” that came with opening a new book as a teenager felt “euphoric,” and that he had long been obsessed with getting his hands on new books, a desire he had previously described in a pseudonymous teenage novel. “I could not get enough of it,” he wrote.

Bernardini described his scheme as a sort of impulsive whim that got carried away. He was stuck in the lower rungs of the publishing world, watching others share book manuscripts above him, and wanted a piece of the action. He says the first fake email address he created was for someone he knew of in the publishing world. “When that request was successful, from that moment on, this behaviour became an obsession, a compulsive behaviour,” he wrote in his letter to the court. He was fueled, he wrote, by a “burning desire” to feel that he was a publishing professional, and when he couldn’t achieve a more stable position, he “started cosplaying” as though he had. “Every time an author sent me the manuscript I would feel like I was still part of the industry,” Bernardini said.

The government, for its part, argued that Bernardini’s motivation was irrelevant. “I don’t think it’s worth dwelling on the motive,” Daniel Nessim, the prosecuting attorney, told the court. “I think it’s still a mystery.” Whatever drove him, Nessim argued, it wasn’t simply a desire to read books before the rest of the public. He wanted to focus the court’s attention instead, on the “longevity and sophistication of the crime.” In addition to the impersonations, Bernardini had gone so far as to set up a fake website to phish login credentials for a literary scouting company’s database.

Throughout the hearing, the judge pressed both sides, neither of whom made an entirely convincing case. Because the crime was so bizarre and ungraspable — He went to all this effort to steal book manuscripts? — the prosecution attempted to compare it to cases with clearer motives, like stealing someone’s credit-card information or nude photographs. (“I don’t equate those two,” the judge said.) The defense, meanwhile, did its best to glide over the most discomfiting aspects of Bernardini’s crime — namely, the way he seemed to take some pleasure in toying with his victims.

Bernardini’s attorney, Jennifer Brown, began her defense by pointing out that the government was missing a substantial component of the case — “the mental health piece.” After his arrest, Brown said that Bernardini was diagnosed with autism by a forensic psychiatrist. There were signs early on (his proficiency with languages, and the fact that he built a childhood collection of more than 400 Disney movies) but it had gone undiagnosed for years. Bernardini’s autism, Brown said, drove his obsessive collecting and contributed to an inability to realize that he was doing something wrong.

McMahon expressed sympathy for Bernardini’s diagnosis, but rejected the idea that it fully explained or excused his behavior. (When Brown argued that her client was unable to think about his crime from the point of view of the victims, “a core deficit of autism,” she said, McMahon pointed out this was “a core deficit of most criminal behavior.”) McMahon said she understood how autism might have played a role in “the compulsion to collect things, the compulsion to feel like you belong,” but it didn’t explain, for instance, the time he told a Swedish literary agent who had sniffed out his scheme that he hoped they died of COVID. “There’s no compulsion to threaten people,” McMahon said. She wondered if Bernardini wasn’t a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Catch Me If You Can — someone who seemed to have enjoyed the scheme itself as much as the books he claimed to love so much. “He was getting off on fooling people, and keeping it going,” she said.

Bernardini’s lawyers presented him as a sympathetic figure who had suffered enough. He had spent more than a year living in a country where he had only one friend, under strict supervision — he was still wearing an ankle bracelet — and wrote in his letter “there have been times when I have gone weeks on end without any physical human interaction.” He had spent a year away from his partner in London, and his “beloved dog,” a French bulldog named Dolly, which his lawyer described as “like his child.” Bernardini had been unable to work in the U.S., and after his arrest, he said it took him months to even pick up a book. “The cruel irony is that every time I open a book, it reminds me of my wrongdoings and what they led me to,” he wrote. He wouldn’t work in publishing again, in part because it’s unlikely anyone would hire him, but also because he said he needs to “completely detoxify myself from what became an obsession.” (It’s also difficult to imagine him wanting to go back: His lawyer pointed out that an $88,000 fee Bernardini is required to pay to Penguin Random House, for legal and other fees the company incurred, is roughly four times the salary he received in his most recent publishing job, at Simon & Schuster in the U.K.) “My name will always be associated with this crime,” Bernardini wrote. “It is my scarlet letter.”

The government argued that a prison sentence would help deter other cybercriminals; McMahon saw the theoretical value in the argument, on the notion that “some geek out there won’t do what you did” if they saw he had been punished, but she didn’t think it would make much difference. But she also rejected the notion that the weirdness of the crime made it a victimless one; she was especially moved by a letter from a literary scout who had been falsely accused by others in the publishing industry of being the culprit. Ultimately, she noted, sending Bernardini to jail wasn’t likely to make his victims feel better, or safer. The felony conviction itself meant that Bernardini would need to leave the U.S. immediately, and would not be able to come back.

Several of Bernardini’s victims wrote letters to the court arguing against his incarceration, including the novelist Jesse Ball, whom Bernardini had impersonated. Ball argued that, in a certain way, he appreciated Bernardini’s caper. “The difficulties of my manuscripts being stolen were none,” Ball wrote. “On the other hand, the benefit of having it stolen was that I suddenly felt once again I lived in a community, a place where things matter because there is memory, attendant eyes fastening on to things that happen. For once a person cared deeply about something — what matter that he was an interloper?” Ball lamented “the soul-crushing boredom of run-of-the-mill publishing correspondence” and the fact that the industry “has become more and more corporate and cookie-cutter.” He was glad to know the book world was still capable of a little mystery. “We must be grateful when something human enters the picture,” Ball wrote. “When the publishing industry for once becomes something worth writing about.”

The Book Thief Gave Publishing Something to Write About