According to the statistics page of my blog, the post with the third most “hits” is one concerning Sylvia Likens, from several years back. Likens was a teenager who died of torture and malnourishment while left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, along with her disabled younger sister, for a few months in the mid-1960s. A few feminist writers like Denise Noe have tried to deflect blame from Baniszewski, suggesting she was too “frazzled” to control children who should know right from wrong, and thus she was not “responsible” for her methods of “punishment.
The problem with that theory is that Sylvia was the one who took the brunt of the “punishment,” the “example” for what would happen to the other children under Baniszewski “care” if they were unfortunate enough to land on her “shit list.” This would include numerous cigarette burns and “graffiti” sliced on her skin with a knife, discovered on her body when police found her locked in the basement. The other children took part in this torture at the instigation and direction of Baniszewski, who seemed to believe that she was “justified” in pursing this course of action.
The question is why no one outside the house thought anything was “amiss,” and why the children participated in the torture. Sylvia’s older sister lived in town, but she had refused to take in her younger sisters while their mother and father were working with a traveling circus. The Likens eventually found Baniszewski “agreeable” to take them in for a modest weekly sum. Unfortunately for Sylvia, when these payments arrived only sporadically Baniszewski felt more and more “put upon,” and took out her frustrations on a girl not her own flesh-and-blood.
When Sylvia complained about the abuse to her older sister, the latter dismissed the accusations as that of a typical “rebellious” teenager, and she didn’t want to be bothered with it. In fact, the worst of the torture did not occur until the last few weeks of Sylvia’s life; before that, her sister’s estimation of the situation may have been largely accurate. Certainly others likely saw the situation in the same light. Naturally, there is one problem with being an “outsider”: you don’t actually see what is happening “inside.”
Why did the Braniszewski children participate in something they knew was wrong—or did they “know” it was wrong? In the 1960s, corporal punishment by a parent was not deemed “abuse”—and still isn’t in most states today—and even children under five years of age who died under questionable circumstances there rarely was prosecutions for their deaths, because it was assumed that only a “psychotic” parent could kill a toddler (the case of Dennis Jurgens, who we will soon discuss, would change all of this—more than 20 years after the fact). The children in that household were obviously fearful of Braniszewski, and wanted to avoid treatment similar to that of Sylvia, and remain on their mother’s “good side”; no doubt they believed that failing to do their mother’s bidding would result in their own “punishment.” Perhaps participating in the torture was also a form of “catharsis,” taking out their own inward need to alleviate the pressure of a dysfunctional situation in which the constant presence of violent verbal threat was always underlined with the very real possibility of physical violence to themselves.
Because of Sylvia’s age, there was no question that her death was homicide, and that someone or someones would be held accountable. Not so the case for over two decades in the death of Dennis Jurgens, who died at the age of three-and-a-half in 1965 of peritonitis caused by being struck with “train wreck” force in the abdomen, his body covered with bruises from head-to-toe, what was described as “bite marks” on his penis, and his face and limbs contorted in such a way as to indicate hours of horrible pain before paramedics were even called to the Jurgens’ home. For years his adopted mother, Lois Jurgens, had received equivocal psychological evaluations concerning her fitness to adopt and raise vulnerable young children. In his book A Death in White Bear Lake, Barry Siegel chronicles the story: Jurgens told one psychiatrist that “She had lots of fears and compulsions—fears of death, of cancer, of going crazy, of the dark, of automobiles. She was a perfectionist, with a compulsion to keep things tidy and in place. She was easily disgusted with life, upset by every little thing.”
The psychiatrist’s determination was that Jurgens was “A 26-year-old married woman with a long-standing neurosis of the mixed type, starting back to childhood…it is fortunate that this woman has not been able to carry through pregnancy at this time, as a child would only compound and complicate her emotional disturbance—she would be a poor candidate for adopting a child at this time…They cannot afford psychiatric care, which she desperately needs—she may without it go on to a paranoid schizophrenia.”
Jurgens was a woman who apparently felt that having children was vital to her self-identity, and since she could not have children of her own, she sought to adopt, which required psychological examinations as to fitness, which over the years required brief “hospitalizations.” Another psychiatrist observed that she was “‘and obsessive-compulsive neurotic lady’ who does not handle pressure very well.’ He had ‘serious doubts as to her emotional stability for standing any type of prolonged stress,”’ and that despite repeated hospitalization “she remained basically the same—the usual diagnosis was chronic neurotic type with anxiety and depression, plus schizoid personality. Lois was self-centered and lacking in insight…and would remain so the rest of her life.”
Yet Lois Jurgens and her husband Harold were allowed to adopt in those less restrictive times when a person had to be clearly “psychotic” to be deemed “unfit” to be a parent. When pressure was put on a judge to allow the Jurgens to adopt, he in turn put pressure on the court-appointed psychiatrist in the case to give him a “reason” to allow the Lois Jurgens to be declared “fit.” The psychiatrist would oblige by giving Jurgens a perfectly “rational” justification for her psychological state:
“Mrs. Jurgens is a person who would expect obedience and conformance of other people close to her, and who has difficulty in accepting the imperfections of those people close to her…Mrs. Jurgens has had and could be expected to have difficulties accepting the social and personality imperfections of an infant or young child.” Because her husband appeared to be “supportive” of his wife and largely even-tempered, it was felt that he would be a “counterbalance” to his wife’s negative impulses.
This was the situation that two very young boys, Robert and Dennis, were adopted in. Robert was the older of the two, and tended to be more satisfactorily “obedient” to Jurgens’ expectations, while Dennis suffered from certain functional ailments which for Jurgens were merely major acts of disobedience and a failure to “measure up” to his brother. “Correction” was swift and brutal. When Robert viewed Dennis’ gruesome autopsy photos years later, he admitted that this was how he always remembered seeing Dennis.
After Dennis’ death, in which Lois Jurgens avoided prosecution with the help of her policeman brother and family member support, there was an inquest to determine if Robert should be removed from the Jurgens’ custody, but he would remain with the Jurgens until he was removed from their custody permanently a decade later. Not only that, but the Jurgens were allowed to adopt four more children, two of whom eventually ran away and did not return. One of the children who remained with the Jurgens, a teenage boy named Grant, reported “Once, after Lois had whipped him with a belt buckle, a school counselor and coach noticed big purple welts on Grant, but he explained he had gotten them falling down the driveway. ‘If I tell, they’d just send me back to Lois…Over time, the children became scared even to come home from school. When the bus dropped them off each afternoon, they would go up the steep driveway to see if Lois’ Buick Skylark was parked by the house, relaxing if it was gone, cringing if it was there’” because they knew that she “‘would walk through the house and down into the basement until she found something wrong or out of place’ and they would “hear” about it.”
Lois Jurgens’ husband was the type who wanted to avoid “complications” with his wife, which led to many observers believing that in his own way he was just as responsible for the abuse of the children as his wife. One psychiatrist who interviewed him during another one of wife’s hospitalizations wrote that “During the past year, the patient’s husband has noticed changes in the patient. She has become much more short-tempered and the smallest things would upset her. She cannot admit she’s wrong and she continually picks on her husband…she has lately been very short with the kids even though she is aware of what she is doing and doesn’t like it. She criticizes her husband for being too easy on the children although he says that he thinks she is too strict with them. He said he does not approach her sexually very often because she continually is degrading and putting him down. He just sits and takes her criticism and doesn’t let it bother him, so he says.”
For the five weeks she stayed at a “rehab” center, Siegel writes, “the children savored their life. For the first time since they’d come to the Jurgenses, Grant felt like they were living like normal kids.” But that was not how Lois Jurgens viewed things. For her, “normal” was strict obedience to regimentation and cleanliness that made Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest seem like Mary Poppins. Any “infraction” was met with punishment both physically and psychologically out-of-proportion with the “crime.” A counselor observed that “Lois denies and represses a great deal. In counseling and in group therapy Lois never became amenable to treatment, denying her need to change. She consistently blamed her childhood experiences, her mother and father, her husband and in-laws for her angry behavior. When she left treatment she continued to feel she had the ‘right’ to feel the way she does. In general, it was felt the patient’s response to treatment was unsatisfactory.”
It would not be until 1975, 10 years after the death of Dennis, that Lois Jurgens was declared unfit for further adoption, and the children still in her care permanently removed. It would not be until another decade later that Dennis’ birth mother would come in search of him and demand to know the truth of what happened. The county medical examiner would view the autopsy photos, order a new autopsy taken of Dennis and change the cause of death from “deferred” to “homicide.” The crime of filicide would enter the lexicon, and one need not be “psychotic” to commit the act. Lois Jurgens would stand trial for third-degree murder, and with Robert’s recollection of numerous gruesome incidents of abuse perpetrated on Dennis, including the night of his death, she was found guilty by a Minnesota court.
To most people, these incidents are strictly anecdotal (especially to gender activists, who prefer that all such abusers be male). And perhaps they are. Or perhaps someone might know of a child so petrified with fear of someone close to them that the touch of another, even out of affection, was something to be avoided. One may recall being struck so hard for the offense of spilling milk from a cereal bowl that he had to go to a hospital for stitches. His fear of his mother was such that he was afraid to do anything in her presence, even to satisfy a need, like eating, a drink of water—or worse, using the bathroom. This fear was interpreted at various times as deliberate disobedience, some form of mental illness, possession by Satan or just plain, ordinary criminal delinquency, these were the only stories that were handed down to extended family and friends for years. A psychiatrist would rebut these “explanations” and advise a kinder, gentler approach for a naturally quiet, timid child, but he would be declared to be the “crazy” one.
The boy’s offenses never had anything to do with what one might consider evidence of a “criminal” mind, but centered around particular needs of his, like eating and reading. Like Dennis, he never “measured up” to his brother. Like for the Jurgens’ other adopted children, life was only “normal” and without fear when his mother wasn’t around, because there was always the chance that something would be found that he did “wrong.” During the brief times when the mother showed her “gentler” side to him, this usually ended when he actually felt it was “safe” to ask her for something or walk around the house like he actually lived in it, which she only took as a deliberate effort to take “advantage” of her. Like Grant, he felt it was “safer” to explain the welts around his neck to a cause other than what was actually true. The boy would spend many a freezing night outside howling in pain until his mother thought it was time for him to come in. What did his siblings, all conforming to “normal” standards of behavior and social status, think of this? They probably accepted the “explanations” they were given.
To this day, blindness and denial is the only lessons they have learned. Instead of death or jail as was “predicted,’ it was a kind of “normality” not possible before that the boy grown to be a man had found when he struck out on his own. No longer afraid, but learning to trust other people was something that was no longer possible. He no longer dwells on the past, accepts the feelings of "remorse" as "sincere" even as it has become plain that little has changed.