Author Archives: phb256

“Be on my side, I’ll be on your side”

The other day I watched River’s Edge, a 1987 film based on a 1981 crime. I’d say it falls in the Law and Order category of true crime, as a fictionalization of real events. The gist of the story is that a teenage boy killed his girlfriend, then told people about it at school and brought them to see the body. It took a couple days before anyone reported it to the police, due to confusion, loyalty, and distrust of authority. The community, the media, and the film ask What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society?

The news story:
California Suburb Sorts Out Fear and Confusion in Teen Slaying

I saw this film when it was new in a theater, at a showing that was so packed that we had to sit in the front row. I remember this made for a very intense experience, right in front of the screen, right in front of the speakers, viewing at an uncomfortable distance and angle. The discomfort of the experience accentuated the discomfort of the film. Most of my friends saw the film when it made it to HBO, and interpreted the film as a kind of black comedy. To me, that said something about the difference between seeing a movie in a theater and watching one in the living room.

What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society? Answers offered included media violence, marijuana and heavy metal music, which were often considered to be causes of the decline of western civilization in those days.

“You interest me” the police officer says as he interrogates the teen for reporting the murder. What interests me is that I can empathize with the kid. Who is prepared to deal with a situation like that? How would they know how to behave? One of the reasons people kept quiet about it was they knew no good would come from going to the authorities. It would only mean trouble. The movie, and the real life story, don’t do much to counter that sentiment.

Rewatching it in light of events of the past few years, I thought of how the kids’ struggle with confusion and loyalty in the face of a heinous crime is hardly just a problem for youth. How do officers react when they witness one of their own doing something wrong? Or indeed members of any tribe? Perhaps one function of true crime narratives is to help us think through these things.

The other stories

I watched Ridley Scott’s pseudo- true crime film All the Money in the World yesterday, after having had it sit by the TV for two weeks while I was too busy. It’s about the kidnapping and ransom of J Paul Getty’s grandson in the early 70s. Maybe I should have read Martin Weller’s review before I put it in my queue. Given that Scott made it, I expected it to be a well-made film, but to me the focus was on the wrong story. Weller mentions Getty’s “otherness,” the dehumanizing aspect of his massive wealth, which would have been worth exploring. The movie instead focuses on the family tensions. I’m sure people can relate to that, and it’s what studios want, but personally, I’m not really interested. I would be much more interested in the kidnappers’ story. Wikipedia tells me that they were ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia group I had not heard of. In the film, a motley group nabs young Getty out of the blue, has trouble negotiating the ransom, and basically sells the crime to a larger organization. That’s the story I want to know about. It reminds me of Jim’s take on The Iron Heel, where a story mentioned in passing seems more compelling than the story that’s primarily being told. While the elder Getty operates in a metaphorical cut-throat world, the ‘Ndrangheta inhabit a real one. I wonder about the inner workings of the business deals and decisions that go on there. How was that sale made? What goes in to it? Or the impending decision to cut their losses? What price does the original kidnapper pay when the job fails? Shifting the perspective might have made for a more interesting tale.

Curtains for crime time

curtains for crime time

Our True Crime class has come to an end. As all of the students have been saying, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it. And it was worth it because of the students – the truecrimers – they rose to every challenge we gave them. Jim tells all about it with his usual eloquence and enthusiasm.

I approached this course from my librarian’s perspective. I’m interested in information literacy as a necessary component of lifelong learning. I’m also interested in information literacy as something beyond bibliographic instruction in how to use the library. It starts with creativity and curiosity, which we in the profession define down to “identifying an information need” and culminates in communication, the creation and presentation of information outputs. We had curiosity built-in from the start. All the truecrimers shared our fascination with these stories. We pushed them to exercise creativity, and what they came up with in their videos was remarkable. But there was also creativity in their wiki work, where they made decisions on how to break down the readings, what extra information to bring in, and what they came up with for discussions questions. The wiki, the videos, the discussions and the blogging were all forms of communications and presentation. We dispensed with the traditional research papers, yet achieved the same thing, or perhaps achieved something more, and everyone had a great time doing it.

We could have gone further into evaluating some of the information sources. I would have liked to see the class use more library resources and less Google. But we did get at some of those conversations. I think the class started to think twice about taking things at face value, and they had the experience of drawing on primary sources.

It was a lot of fun working with Jim and the group. I take something away from it professionally as well as personally though. It gives me a success story of a different way to run a class, and a different way to work with faculty. I don’t know if my own institution would give me the freedom to experiment like that, but I can tell the tale and maybe spark some ideas and start some new things.

Oh, and I got the term “crimer” from the Crimer Show on Twitter:


Image credits:
Crime scene part one cc2006 paral_lax
stage curtains from Sherane’s Closet


The working class gangster

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

henryWe talked about nature vs. nurture with In Cold Blood. Thomas Firestone, in “Mafia Memoirs: What They Tell Us About Organize Crime” talks about the differential association theory, which “argues that people become criminals because they ‘learn’ criminal behavior from role models, usually friends or family members.” That seems like environment more than nature or nurture. It’s part of both but not really either. As I see it, nature is something inherent in the person, and nurture is something that is done to the person. What I get from the theory is that the nature of the environment nurtures criminality in the individual. The gangsters in Goodfellas were the neighborhood symbols of success, a thing to aspire to be.

This strikes me as similar to Monster Kody Scott’s situation. I’m not sure to what extent the Crips represented success in those days, but it was better to be part of a gang than to be independent (a victim). The gang offers a sense of community, a family, and gives direction and purpose, however senseless those might be. The life doesn’t end well, but does anyone else’s? It reminds me of William Fly – he had to have known that he would be killed at sea or hung on shore, since no one retired after a successful pirate career. It was just better to be able to do what he wanted, even if only for a few months, than to endure the life of a worker at sea.

jimmyGoodfellas also shows a different side of the Mafia from most gangster movies. They tend to focus on the top guy, the gangster royalty, the Little Caesar, the Scarface, the Al Capone, the Godfather. The characters in Goodfellas are the working class mafia. According to Firestone’s analysis, I should be classifying them in feudal rather than corporate terms, but serf doesn’t sound right. Henry appeared to be wealthy, but in the end he was just living from score to score. Jimmy made a lottery level score with the Lufthansa heist, but looked like he was working on skid row more than easy street afterwards. And Paulie, the closest thing to a boss man in the movie, was working a grill in a restaurant before he got picked up by the police. So it’s like the Fly life – it looks good when it’s going good, but it only ends up bad.

Evil Incarnate

evilA call for papers for something called the Evil Incarnate Conference  came through my email today. The theme is “Manifestations of Villains and Villainy,” and the conference seeks a definition through exploring various cultural representations of evil.

This was a fascinating coincidence, since we’re currently exploring something similar in the True Crime class. Our perspective is more literary/historical and not so much philosophical, and crime and villainy aren’t always the same thing, but it could be an opportunity to build on the work of the semester. Another nice little coincidence is that the conference will be held in Cleveland, home of the Torso murders. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which I think my wife wants to visit.

The Cleveland/Torso connection makes a nice case study. It gives us a clear hero and villain: Eliot Ness, the man who cleaned up Chicago, and the mysterious serial killer, who murders indigents allegedly in the name of scientific progress. At the same time that was going on in Cleveland, we had a government funded experiment doing much the same thing at the Tuskegee Institute. One was considered a heinous crime and the other was not, at least not until it became public some 40 years later. The hero’s ultimate response to the crimes was to burn the residents of the shantytown out of house and home. While that may have been less villainous than killing and dismembering them, it hardly seems heroic.

We’ve seen changes in representations of crime over the course of history. Some of the early execution sermons displayed criminals as lessons in the power of God’s saving grace. In today’s America, those same women would be reviled as monsters for killing their own children. Yet we also have a park named after a man who led a killing spree in the 1830s. And as we look at our last two works, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Monster by Sanyika Shakur, we will be seeing criminals who are viewed as heroes in their respective ‘hoods.

Could I tie together what we’ve been doing and turn it into a paper? I think I’d be out of my depth, because it’s hardly my area of research, but I also think it might be fun. Then I wonder if I don’t have enough to do already.

Ted, just admit it

Jane’s Addiction wrote the song “Ted, Just Admit It” in 1987. It gave the title to their 1988 major label debut, Nothing’s Shocking. At that point in time, Ted was still denying responsibility for his murders. The song incorporates Bundy’s voice from an interview clip

There’s gonna be people turning up in canyons,
There are gonna be people being shot in Salt Lake City
Because the police there aren’t willing to accept, what I think they know
And they know I didn’t do these things…

Perry Farrell has tried to explain the story behind the song, but to me he sounds about as logical as Bobby Beausoliel. He said that it was just a coincidence that they used the Bundy tape, but others involved say different. The line, “He tells you everyone is stupid” fits with Ted’s way of toying with people, but it reflects an attitude that many people have.

The song does tie into that whole fascination with crime and criminals, with the worst of criminals. Part of the fascination is psychological: What makes them do it? How do they think? But it also points to a thrill-seeking aspect of it – looking for something shocking, something that can pierce the desensitization we have in our media-saturated environment.

Ted the poet

A few years ago I read Arthur Phillips’ novel, The Egyptologist. He tells the story through letters and diary entries, and at several points in the novel I realized that what I thought was happening wasn’t what was going on at all. Because what people write in letters is what they want their readers to know, which may be something less or other than the truth, and what they write in their diaries, or their letters for that matter, may be colored by their interpretation of their world. Neither the stories they tell others nor the stories they tell themselves qualifies as objective truth.

This came to mind as I read Bundy’s prison poem. Is it what he thinks? Is it what he wants Ann to think he thinks? Is he expecting it to get to the police? He’s saying he doesn’t belong there, that God is on his side, that jail will not break him. Ann Rule questions what’s behind the poem. She is his friend and she doesn’t trust his motives, even though she’s not yet convinced he’s the man the police are after.

We read Bonnie Parker’s poem a few weeks ago. She knew her trail was coming to an end, and seemed to accept it. But I’m not sure who she was writing to, who she thought would read it, so I’m not entirely sure how to interpret it – not unlike this poem from Bundy. But the poems are quite dissimilar – Bundy is not fatalistic nor is he admitting to anything.

He speaks of redemption and salvation, like some of Cotton Mather’s convict converts, but unlike those who found salvation through prison, he’s looking for salvation from prison:

Jailer, do what you please
No harm can befall me
When the Savior does call me.

We could interpret Bundy’s poem in multiple ways, but we wouldn’t know what is right or true. The question of the truthiness of true crime stories comes up again and again.

Another thing I wonder about is that misspelling of holy as wholly. You can’t blame it on autocorrect or miskeyboarding because he was writing by hand. It’s such an elementary error. Is he like Perry, not as smart as he thinks he is? On some levels that might make sense, but not in his writing, with his academic background. I’m probably reading too much into any of it, but these are the kinds of questions that run through my head.

“The story you’re about to see is true”

4You are about to see a dramatization of actual facts, in which some of the names have been changed. But the story is true

1That’s the way the Helter Skelter movie starts, with actor George DiCenzo portraying prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in his author role. We’ve seen that kind of statement over and over again, from the colonial narratives to Capote’s book, attesting to the veracity of the tale. In this case, it’s probably necessary since the story is almost too crazy to believe.

Bugliosi’s part in the story is an interesting contrast to Capote. Capote was in Kansas, living among the townsfolk as he was researching the book, in the cell with Dick and Perry, yet he never showed himself in the novel. There was one point, where a quote is said to have been given to “a journalst” (216), that might have referred to the author, but otherwise he’s invisible. Bugliosi is omnipresent in Helter Skelter. It’s his tale, not Manson’s.

And as a coincidence, Capote calls the truth of Helter Skelter into question. In his jailhouse interview with Robert Beausoleil and alternate, and far more plausible, motive for the murders comes up. The media, we’re told, was only interested in the crazy story. Was that simply because more shocking = more headlines = more sales? Or did it play upon concerns arising from the various social and political upheavals of the sixties? The Civil Right movement, the Vietnam War, those crazy kids with their rock and roll…

ConfessionsOfNatTurnerAn interesting thing about that Helter Skelter race war hypothesis is that we heard something like that earlier, from Nat Turner. I found the parallels really fascinating when I read his Confessions: a charismatic leader, from/of a downtrodden underclass, considered to be a prophet or divinely inspired, visions of a race war, culminating in a killing spree. In 1967 William Styron’s novelization of Nat Turner was published, garnering a great deal of both controversy and critical acclaim. So Turner’s story would have been in the public consciousness at Manson’s time. As far as I can tell, no one suggests a connection between Manson and Styron’s book, but I can see how the idea of race war would resonate with the public, between the upheaval and the riots and the assassination.