Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sylvia Likens and the limits of victim mythology

One of the more useful aspects of the Internet is that you can discover a tidbit of some temporary fascination that you would otherwise have never known existed. For example, I became curious about Kenny Rodgers’ pre-country pop days with the First Edition, and naturally from there I wound-up on the Wikipedia page on the ruby. Since the ruby is one of three (or is it four now?) precious gems, I decided to read a little, discovering that the stereotypical blood-red ruby is actually not the usual color it is found as. I also learned that a “businessman and philanthropist” had donated to the Smithsonian a ruby that originally belonged to his beloved deceased wife. My thoughts on the matter progressed in the following order: An expensive expression of one’s affection; one way to obtain a kind of “immortality”; it must be helpful to have a connected father; this is way out of my league; and I must have been right about that silver spoon business. Still, if I had not live the life of an urban Jeremiah Johnson/Robert Dupea, life would have been quite dull and I would have nothing to talk about.

In the same vein, a search for a film that was rated NC-17 for extreme violence rather extreme sexuality ended in abject failure, but I did come across the name Ed Gein. Gein was the Plainfield, Wisconsin man and apparent harmless town oddball who would become the inspiration for such horror film characters as Norman Bates, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. From there I discovered the case of H.H. Holmes, whose hotel built to accommodate patrons of the Chicago World’s Fair would become known as the “Murder Castle,” since those who booked a room in the place never came out alive, and Jane Tappon, the nurse who cuddled and kissed her victims while they writhed in agony from the poison she administered. But these cases were of mild interest compared to the case of Sylvia Likens, the 16-year-old girl who in 1965 was tortured to death in Indianapolis. The abuse she endured was one thing; but what makes this case stand-out for me was the hypocrisy of feminist mythologizing involving the case since then.

It is unfortunate that one of the first “serious” treatments of the Likens case came from Kate Millett, in her “semi-fictional” book “The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice.” I’m sorry, professor, but radical feminists are called “radical” for a reason: Their indulgence in self-pity immersed with misandrist fantasy has to be taken as precisely that. When Eleanor Smeal complained in USA Today about “racism against white women,” this was an utterly unjustified by reality attempt to place the station of white women as lower than racial minorities in this country. I once read on the PBS website a comment by a feminist “scholar” who tried to place the blame for the horrific mutilation and beating to death of 14-year-old Emmett Till on Till himself, because even from today’s perspective a black youth whistling at a white woman would be deemed irredeemably “offensive.”

For a little background, Sylvia Likens was the daughter of carnival employees who frequently placed their daughters in the care of others during their traveling. For Sylvia, the last of these foster parents would be a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski. Although Baniszewski already had seven children of her own, she agreed to take on Sylvia and her sister Jenny for $20 a week. She was receiving child support payments from two ex-husbands, one of whom she would claim was in arrears, and apparently she supplemented that income from a home business ironing clothes. Although most commentators claimed they lived in abject poverty, in fact Baniszewski was able to maintain the family in what most people would regard as a large home, two stories not including an expansive attic and the infamous basement. There was no stove in the house—despite the fact that Baniszweski’s first husband of a total of 17 years (they were married and divorced twice) was a policeman—only a hotplate to heat soup, but more bizarrely, there supposedly was only three eating utensils for ten people, and eventually only one spoon; each person had to wait till another person had finished eating to let the next person use it. It would turn out that this was less a symptom of poverty, but of the bizarre character of Baniszewski.

Sylvia Likens lived in this house for only three months, but during this time Baniszewski would target her, and lead her own children and some in the neighborhood in an orgy of sadistic “punishment.” Even if one enumerates Sylvia’s alleged transgressions—like allegedly stealing candy, beaten into confessing to stealing a gym suit that Baniszewski had refused to buy for school, allegedly spreading rumors about Baniszewski’s daughters—they can be explained by the abuse and deprivations she endured, all either perpetrated or directed by Baniszewski. Particularly in the last weeks of her life, Sylvia suffered cigarette and heated knitting needle burns that were applied all over her body, being kicked in the vagina, starvation, force-fed her own feces, bathed in scalding water, locked in the basement or tied to her bed so that she would “learn a lesson” about not peeing on the mattress (and then beaten for incontinence because she was not allowed to use the bathroom) and finally—and only an idea that could come from a sadistic adult—the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” were scrawled with a heated sewing needle on her abdomen. Baniszweski initiated the carving but passed the “job” to a boy who was there; he didn’t know how to spell “prostitute,” so Baniszewski wrote it out on a piece of paper. Then, after overhearing Baniszewski instructing one of the boys and Sylvia’s own sister to dump her body in the woods, she tried to escape, but was caught and beaten senseless in the basement; she died the next day, apparently from swelling and bleeding in her brain. Baniszewski gave police a letter that she had dictated to Sylvia, stating that a gang of boys had raped her, scrawled the “message” on her and dumped her body in the basement; Sylvia was in fact a virgin (and the subsequent autopsy would confirm this remained so), but Baniszewski had made an effort to “simulate” sexual intercourse by forcing her to insert a coke bottle in her vagina, but apparently not enough to break her hymen. Jenny Likens, however, escaped with the police and informed them what was really going on in the house. Ironically, unknown to Baniszewski, it was one of her own teenage daughters to whom the term “prostitute” could be better applied to, she being pregnant at the time.

Although there were numerous occasions, such as a visit from her parents, an older sister, the police and child protective services regarding suspicions about Sylvia’s condition, Baniszewski’s deceptions seemed to convince all that nothing was amiss, or that Sylvia was simply getting the “punishment” she “deserved.” Baniszewski was eventually arrested based on the testimony of Jenny Likens and neighborhood children who were peripherally involved, and charged with first degree murder; her daughter Paula was also charged with murder, and some of the “children” more egregiously involved than some of the others were charged as accessories. Although Baniszewski was convicted in two trials, she eventually served less than 20 years in jail, being declared a “model” prisoner (even referred to as “mom”) by the parole board despite the outrage of Sylvia’s family and most of the state of Indiana. Baniszewski claimed that she didn’t “know” what role she played in Sylvia’s death, and even if she took part in any abuse, she didn’t “remember” it because she was “on drugs.” She died five years later, apparently never admitting to any culpability save feeling “responsible” for the children’s actions.

So back to feminist Kate Millett and her take on this case. Even people who quoted from “The Basement” in their own research only referred to the more “lucid” passages when in search of commentary based on the actual facts rather than ones she made-up to suit her political fantasies. In an interview about the book, Millett claimed that in her view the Sylvia Likens saga "is the story of the suppression of women. Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman.” It is hard not to feel some disgust, given the facts, that this sadist would be referred to by her first name, as if Millett had some sisterly kinship with her; come to think of it, maybe she does. The only “terrible truth” to the case was that a “mother” was responsible for inhuman actions on a child. Millett also refers to the alleged grinding poverty of the family, but on the Investigation Discovery Channel, a program on the case featured a reporter who was on the scene at the time who noted that Baniszewski’s financial difficulties were based more on her money-handling incompetence rather than a lack of sufficient income. Millett also “mused” that Sylvia’s killer had a lesbian attraction to her; a police profiler on the ID program contradicted this assertion, stating that Baniszewski had a psychotic jealousy of the young, attractive Sylvia, which would make her the “logical” target for Baniszewski’s depradations.

Millett was not the only person with mendacious ideas about the case based on feminist gender myths. Denise Noe, who wrote about the case for TruTv, apparently didn’t read the psychiatrist reports from the time of the murder when she wrote “The poverty stricken and chronically ill Mrs. Wright (what Baniszweski called herself to provide cover for the fact her youngest children were illegitimate) was hardly charismatic; she was neither hypnotist nor dominatrix but the minors apparently had faith that her "grown-up" status would protect them from the consequences of their actions. As it turned out, they would be appallingly successful in hiding behind her skirt.” Once more, woman as victim, children as victimizers; it didn’t occur to Noe that the facts indicated that it was Baniszewski who was, like a cowardly bully afraid to face the consequences of her actions, trying to hide behind the children. Reality rarely justifies feminist fantasy. A psychiatrist who examined Baniszewski in 1965 said on the ID program that his diagnosis was that she was a “hysterical personality” with “sadistic traits.” The criminal profiler also said that she was a sadist, because she apparently obtained a “thrill” from inflicting pain, and watching others inflict it. As for the children, the profiler noted that in such cases, when multiple children are present, the adult abuser singles out one child, initiates the abuse, and being the authority figure, authorizes those under her to inflict abuse. Baniszewski was also sending out a message: If you don’t stay in line, this could happen to you. Children who feel fear of the adult also wish to “please” the adult—even if it means inflicting cruelties on one of their own.

None of this has anything to do with gender politics; in the only critical commentary I found on Millett’s book—strangely enough an English translation of a review in the German magazine Der Spiegel—Angela Praesent admitted that she wished someone with sufficient distance, like Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, had written the book. Millett—rather mendaciously given that her own life has been a relative success and uninhibited by “patriarchal” obstacles—has made both Sylvia and Baniszewski’s story her own, which allows her to find excuses for Baniszewski’s crimes, and invent unjustified inferences into Sylvia’s thought processes. Millett’s “hyper-identification” with women only serves feminist mythology, not knowable fact:

"For I was Sylvia Likens. She was I. She was sixteen. I had been sixteen...Since then you have been with me, a devil's seed, a nightmare, my own nightmare, the nightmare of a youth, of a female child's growing up, of becoming a woman in an enemy world, a world we had lost and in which we are constantly reminded of our defeat. What you endured is a symbol to it. That it was done to you by the hand of a woman is the worst part of the story...Who else could have been so suitable for destroying a child-woman?"

I’m just guessing, but I think Millett has more in common with Baniszewski than with Sylvia. At any rate, no one should ever attempt to deduce logic from feminist arguments. Millett’s life “story” has absolutely nothing to do with Sylvia Likens’—and for her to pretend to merely belittles Sylvia’s death and the suffering she endured. Praesent also scoffs at Millett’s simplistic breaking down of society as victim-woman/culprit-man, especially given the lack of “victimization” in Millett’s own life (in fact, most feminists seem to be victims in their own mind). Take this bizarre assertion:

"How scheming that the male society's wish to castrate the woman is performed by women as their dogsbodies (someone who does the “dirty work”); women who have been mutilated themselves in their youth, embittered and eager to ensure that the young shall never experience these joys they had to forego themselves …. To be female then means to die."

If men are not performing the dirty deeds themselves, then they are somehow telepathically projecting their evil designs into the minds of women: Thus both men and women are combining to exterminate the female of the species. Again, there is no point in searching for logic in any of this, save within the mind of someone who “feels good about feeling bad.” The fact is that while there are some less developed countries where such “mutilation” is occurring for obscure cultural reasons, it is not happening in the U.S., and for anyone—especially a woman—to believe that she is performing an act forced on her by either experience or by the “patriarchy” is utterly delusional, and probably psychotic.

Praesent’s ends her review by noting that “Kate Millett is taken in here by her own overexpansion of the Male-Female dichotomy. There she is, one of us who eventually got away - alive and still female, economically, sexually and intellectually not a bit more depending on others as men are - and shakes compulsively the bars of the self-constructed cage made of terms and ink. Let's help her to straighten things out: Not just women were murdered in Auschwitz. Charles Manson and his mixed group of followers did not just slaughter Sharon Tate but her male guests as well. Especially black male Americans were (and are) lynched because of their allegedly threatening sexuality. Male children, too, are abused by their parents. Boys, too, were kept from masturbation, from lust, in a violent and soul-killing way, and not just in Victorian times. Jesus also died, as we learnt.”

Most males in this society never realize the hopes and aspirations of their youth; each day comes and goes as if the last one never existed, and the next one promises nothing except that it will come (or so you hope). The one thing you wish for is that some shred of satisfaction or happiness will intervene to make it tolerable; you certainly don’t need a loud woman with “issues” to make it worse. In some quarters that logic has the kind of resonance one might expect for a blind, deaf and dumb person; to feminists, anything contrary to their sole victim state—even to the exclusion of the male minorities, who are constantly demonized for stereotypical criminal and sexual “deviancies” in this country—is anathema. I also would include the media—both “news” and “entertainment”—as perpetrating a false mythology, obviously not because they are interested in “truth,” but for ratings.

To reiterate what the facts of the case show, it is a mistake to label Baniszewski a “victim”—she was the adult in charge and knew exactly what she was doing. The fact she chose to single out a child not her own tends to show that this was not about conveying a “message”—political or otherwise—to the victim, other than the fact she was not immune; such immunity would seem to be implied from the fact that the last thing a parent who employs a “sitter” expects is for their child to be beaten and starved to death (especially in only three months time). Baniszewski obviously felt no emotional or personal responsibility for Sylvia’s well-being; although she could not abuse her sister Jenny—who was lame from polio—without appearing impossibly cruel even to the children whose lives she manipulated with fear and gave justifiability to their immature instincts (to them, it may have all been a sick “game”), she could vent her increasingly insane frustrations on Sylvia, who could be reduced to a mere interloper and pest. By the end, as the criminal profiler surmised, the very act of carving the “I’m a Prostitute” on Sylvia’s abdomen indicated not a “scarlet letter” and at least a questionable future, but that Baniszewski intended that she die, just not in the house as how occurred.

Claims by some—usually women—that Baniszewski had somehow been “forced” to do this from her own alleged previous experiences of abuse do not justify in any way what she did to Sylvia; people always have choices, such as preventing someone from suffering as they allegedly did. It is also sheer mendacity to suggest that Baniszewski had suffered anything like what she inflicted on Sylvia. The sheer level, variety and quantity of abuse suggests some people are simply “born bad.” We don’t even know or choose to discuss to what extent her psychological issues (a “hysterical personality” with “sadistic traits”) were also a problem in her two marriages. It is also no good to ignore the fact that this “mother” would actually coach and encourage the children around her to engage in unspeakable acts. She was also apparently a congenital liar who refused to take responsibility for her actions or those under her “supervision.” Why should we assume (as Noe rather strongly imputes) that the children were lying and she was telling the truth? Since when does a mother choose to throw her own children under the bus for actions that she both initiated and encouraged? More frequently than it is wished to admit? And does not criminal behavior also involve the desire to escape paying a price for those crimes? Not only did Baniszewski repeatedly lie both on the stand and to a parole board about her culpability, but the letter she dictated word-for-word for Sylvia to write in her own hand indicated an effort to falsely shift blame away from her. It is beside the point to speculate if these actions were meant to make a feminist “political” statement; Charles Manson was also trying to make a “statement.” Manson was criminally insane; Baniszweski may well have been as well.

Horror does not necessarily mean spooks and demons. It can come in human form. Sylvia knew it, particularly in the last weeks of her life. Why didn’t she run away? Perhaps she didn’t know where else to go, perhaps she still hoped to get on Baniszewski’s “good side,” or perhaps she was too na├»ve to allow herself to see the inevitable result of Baniszewski and her underlings’ behavior; after all, they were not actually aiming to kill her, were they? But even a few weeks respite is illusory, always living with the fear of what "bad thing" he or she has done to set off another round of "punishment." By the time she sensed the truth and made a dash for safety, it was too late.

No phony mythologizing can alter the fact that a dark side can reside in any person’s mind—male or female.

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