Archive for July, 2011

July 26, 2011

a stranger calls

by Megan Abbott

On book tour of late, I visited Michigan and, for the first time, talked about my novel, The End of Everything, in the world that inspired it—suburban Detroit.  It was a strange feeling, seeing many old friends stretching as far back as elementary school.

After the reading, a trio of these friends—three women, all looking incandescent despite the humid weather and the clambering hands of their downy headed children—came up to say hello and pointed out that I had in fact used the actual names of my high school chemistry teacher and middle school math teacher (both unusual names) in the novel.

I can’t account for the fact that I’d forgotten this entirely, can’t even say I was ever aware I’d done it.  It was an uncanny feeling, like being caught. Like a dream when someone says to you, “I was just on the third floor of your house” when you know you only have two floors.

This episode was followed by an after-party in which several folks, including Eric Peterson, asked if my novel was inspired by the Oakland County missing children cases of the late 1970s. I am, let it be said, a true-crime junkie, which is why I cannot rightly explain the blank face I gave in return. What missing children?

Because my novel is centered around a missing girl, I have spent the last several weeks talking about missing-children cases (with both tragic and happy endings) virtually everywhere I go. One of the reasons I set the novel in the early 1980s was because I remember distinctly the changes in my community in terms of child safety. After the Adam Walsh case (1981),  I remember a distinct feeling of hysteria over “stranger danger” and the way that made me feel as a kid. To me, everything felt like an enticing, half-hidden mystery. But to parents, teachers, everyone else but we kids, it felt quite intensely like a place of peril, especially to children.

So, as I’ve visited bookstores, others have shared similar tales of the Walsh case, and other ones. I know for Sara, the Etan Patz case in New York had a similar impact. And, amid all this, there was both the terrible Brooklyn case and the Caylee Anthony phenomenon (what do you do when the danger is within your own home, which, statistically, is usually the case?).

Amid all these conversations, though, I continually asserted it was the Adam Walsh case that I remember so vividly, in large part because everyone saw the TV movie and the graphic details of Adam’s death scattered through our school with abandon.

But an Oakland County case? I didn’t recall it one bit.

For some backstory, I grew up in Wayne County (Detroit lies at its heart and my town, Grosse Pointe, serves as its upturned chin), the direct neighbor to Oakland, where we might go, when I was a kid, to the movies, or their mall. From what I’ve since learned, over a 13-month period in 1976-1977, four children (ages 10-12) were abducted, held for several days, and murdered. In the grim way of media spectacle, the perpetrator was dubbed the “Baby Sitter” because he kept the children alive for as many as 19 days, feeding them and bathing them before killing them. No one was ever convicted, though there are strong beliefs in the identify of the perpetrator.

I would have been five or six at the time, which is probably why I don’t remember them as they were occurring. But not even in the intervening years?

At the after-party, when discussion of the case came up, I asked my dad if he remembered the case.

“Oh yes,” he said, “of course.”

I’s so interesting because clearly, as a child, I must have felt it—the sense of attenuated fear, anxiety, terror. The dread that must have stretched for years with no suspect found, no justice served. In fact, especially in light of new DNA analysis, there continue to be stories (and stories) about the case, as recently as two weeks ago.

But I have no conscious memory of the case at all. And yet how much it must have impacted all our lives.  Both my brother and I just five years younger than the Oakland County children, abducted in daylight, after buying candy at a pharmacy, coming back from the 7-11.

I am sure my parents shielded me from the specifics, and I do remember all the steps taken in my elementary school to alert parents to “stranger danger.” And I remember afer one such school assembly being particularly frightened to walk the single block home. But as much as I recall countless other missing child cases, I never, ever came upon the one in my own backyard.

It makes me wonder how much I did know about the case, in whatever ways a five or six year old can, but somehow I forgot it, the way we forget things we want to, need to.

I should add, The End of Everything bears no similarity to what happened in  Oakland Country, in facts large or small. I can’t say I even consider it to be a novel about a missing child precisely, but instead about an enchanted family and the power we invest such families with. But it is inspired by that feeling so specific to the late 70s-early 80s. The sense of the world changing, abruptly, even over night, because all the adults were suddenly terrified and that terror painted the entire world of my youth (many of our youth’s) with a powerful menace. The message was: You are not safe, and you never were.

But even adult fear couldn’t stop us. We still needed to discover, to push through to adulthood, to find, on our own, the peril and beauty of the world. We did.

And hat tip to Eric Peterson, who first suggested a connection between my book and the case and who provided great insight into the case that night.

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July 26, 2011

Cat Fancy… Unhinged

by karolinawaclawiak

Have you ever heard of Louis Wain? He was a Victorian artist who painted pictures of anthropomorphic cats. Cats playing ball and smoking cigarettes. Cats in Victorian garb, sporting monocles, playing trumpets and dancing wildly in posh party scenes. Comic strip cats, children’s books full of cats and cats running through postcards. You get the idea.

(Photo courtesy of http://www.wonderranchpublishing.com)

He started painting his house cat, Peter, to comfort his dying wife and continued on an artistic journey that would last a lifetime. Wain was quite successful, with double-page spreads in the Illustrated London News, books, awards. He was so well-known for his paintings of cats that he was elected as President of the National Cat Club after writing the book In Animal Land With Louis Wain. However, after World War I people no longer held the same interest in images of frolicking cats, perhaps the chaos of war couldn’t afford room for whimsy anymore.

(Photo courtesy of Fanny G Illustrations)

As popularity of Wain’s cat portraiture waned a new kind of energy started sprouting up in his work. Wain’s cats started betraying more and more anxiety, perhaps in response to the world around him. His cats suddenly had fear in their eyes, near panic, and a new kind of distrust. More than likely, they mirrored the frenetic energy taking over his own mind.

(Photo courtesy of BrixPicks)

Their anxious progression began to show the trajectory of Wain’s own mental illness as a diagnosed schizophrenic. His cats’ large, yellow eyes illustrated a consuming paranoia.

(Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo O.)

I’m continually struck by the eyes of his cats and how much tension, and ultimately terror, he housed in their small frames. Wain would later push himself further, creating such abstract work that the nearly pulsating lines only hinted at a cat underneath. (Photo Courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

Although he had a huge body of work the poor business decisions he made, such as failing to retain the rights of his own work, led him to destitution. Eventually, he was committed as his mental health deteriorated and in 1925 was found in a low-grade mental hospital by H.G. Wells. What did Wells do? Rounded up benefactors, including the Prime Minister, so that Wain could be moved to a better facility to live out his life in safety and comfort. He continued painting his cats through the end of his life. I recently found a Louis Wain quote from the IDLER(1896):

“I used to wander in the parks studying nature, and visited all the docks and museums. I consider that my boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it taught me to use my powers of observation, and to concentrate my mind on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed.”

It makes me think of how writers and artists really have no choice but to convey their own peculiar views, no matter how strange the picture may be.

(Photo courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

July 18, 2011

you never know what you will find

by Megan Abbott

A few weeks ago, I contributed guest column to Suzanne Beecher’s Dear Reader, the expansive online book club. Writing it, I ended up on a flight of nostalgia, recalling the library branch that meant the most to me when I was young, and a string of early reading memories. The day the column went out to Suzanne’s readers, my inbox filled all day, and the days following, with messages from hundreds of readers who shared reading memories far richer than my own.

In this era of “the book is dead” (isn’t that every era, since books began?) and at a time when I sometimes feel I’m too much in the “business of books” to enjoy them the same way ever again, I felt sharply humbled by the extent of book-love, library-love, reading-love that came through every email. And the extent to which everyone wanted to share that love: Ninety-year-old readers with Nooks in hand, young mothers trotting their children to the local library, one woman savoring her adolescent daughter’s love of classics like The Black Tulip and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Those who said they came to love reading out of loneliness, those who said they came to read as an escape from the noise of their crowed homes.

Others who recalled “illicit” reads, such as Max Ehrlich’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, Judy Blume’s Wifey, V.C. Andrews (of course), Lloyd Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession, Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings and quite a bit of Jacqueline Susann.

And so many tales of local libraries as second homes, and of, as one reader put it, struggling to steer her bike home because she had stacked so many books into the bag hanging from her handlebars.

Reading all of these emails stirred even more of my own early reading memories, and made me value doubly the encouragement and exuberance of my parents, many of my teachers and the folks at the Grosse Public Library-Woods Branch. But these emails also reminded me of the many ways readers find book love—through a friend, a grandfather with a home library, through movies or comics or those who grow up in non-reading households that find books utterly on their own.

Here’s a few letters from these readers (reprinted with their permission):

As a child in a Chicago grade school, one of favorite times was our school library.  The librarian put aside the newest Sue Barton book so I would be the first to read it.  She also chose me along with two other girls to attend the 80th birthday celebration for Laura Ingalls Wilder.  This was in connection with the radio program “Hobby Horse Presents” hosted by Hugh Downs, sponsored by Carson Pirie Scott store.  We were in attendance for the radio program which featured actors portraying Laura and Pa as he was taking her to her first teaching assignment.  After the radio show, we were in a large room for breakfast (orange juice and sweet rolls), and sang “Happy Birthday to Laura,” who had sent a taped message to us.

Years later, much later in fact, I found out that the birthday card which we signed that day was hanging in the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in Mansfield, Missouri.  In our moving travels from Chicago to Texas, we stopped there.  I can tell you—this brought tears to my eyes when I saw the framed card hanging in her home!

—    Janet Fricke, Ovalo, TX

My parents were readers and I was an only child. My father was in the Army until shortly before my tenth birthday in a time when television selections were limited. We resided for two years in Marquette, Michigan with the truly great Peter White Library; echoes of the high ceilings, ornate building and wood softened by decades of elbows resting on the rectangular tables.

No children were allowed unaccompanied into the Adult section but the Children’s Library was a haven with the complete Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the more obscure regional favorite DandelionCottage, the Bobbsey Twins, Cherry Ames, Betsy, Tacy and Tibb series, ah the joy of discovery of Nancy Drew and my childhood favorite, Walter Brooks’ Freddie the Pig series.

I won a blue ribbon in 4th grade for writing the most book reports during the school year…. (I, too, read somewhat age inappropriately—TheFountainhead at 13 is one glaring example.)

—Linda Hitchcock, Glasgow, KY 

When I was about 10 or so, my dad worked swing shift a great deal.  My mom’s friend Alda Mae lived between our house & the Safeway store, so we would often stop by there on the way to the store.  Some nights we never did quite make it there, other than Cathy (Alda Mae’s daughter who was my age & a good friend) & I being sent to pick up a couple of boxes of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & some french bread for us all to share.  I was quite envious because Cathy had all the Nancy Drew books & her older brother Walt had all the Hardy Boys.  Sometimes when we would stop by, Cathy would not be home & I would settle in her room & read Nancy Drew.  But even better, sometimes Cathy & Walt were both gone & I would slip down to Walt’s basement room where no one would bother me to curl up & read his Hardy Boys.

I have so many fond memories of those evening at the Robbins’ home.  Some times, Alda Mae played the piano & we would gather around & sing.

—Liz Stamp

I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvaniaand our library was in a community center. I remember being the top reader every year in the summer reading program. My favorite place to read was behind a tombstone in the cemetery behind our house. So peaceful and quiet. You could really get lost in your book there.

[Today] I work at a library and whenever we have route-ins to do; opening those gray plastic tubs they come in is like opening a treasure chest to me. You never know what you will find.

 —Patricia Corcoran

July 4, 2011

The Medea of Kew Gardens

by djtafoya

If I could raise the money, I’d love to make a documentary about Alice Crimmins. Not many people know who she is now, but her murder trials and appeals in the sixties and seventies were big news at the time. She was accused of murdering her two young children, and because there was no solid evidence of her guilt, the investigation and trials were about what kind of person the investigators, her neighbors, her husband, her lovers and friends thought she was, and the difference between who they thought she was and who they thought she should be.

I’ve been fascinated with Alice since I first stumbled across her story on the internet years ago (for the crime-obsessed, the internet changed everything). Hers is one of those unsolvable, intractable cases about which opinions become more forceful as less and less is clear.

Alice Crimmins was the mother of two small children, Missy and Eddie, who were taken from her Queens apartment sometime during the night of July 13, 1965. Alice was in the middle of a custody dispute with her estranged husband Edmund. Gerard Peiring, one of the detectives assigned to the case, reportedly took an immediate dislike to Crimmins, calling her a ‘cold bitch.’ Alice was heavily made up and liked to dress in tight clothes that showed off her figure. She had been dating a number of men and liked to go out and have fun. When they found Missy’s body in a vacant lot a few hours later, Alice didn’t cry (though she did faint).

Eddie’s body was found a few days later in another vacant lot, so badly decomposed in the summer heat that it was never possible to determine how he died. Evidence in the case was shoddily collected or inconclusive. Alice’s husband, Edmund Crimmins was an odd man who had wiretapped his wife’s apartment and would listen to her having sex with other men. He may or may not have exposed himself to young girls in Cunningham Park. The detectives focused on Alice.

It was the middle of the 1960’s and the case became about lifestyle. Books written in the 70’s would describe Alice as a ‘swinger.’ Her heavy makeup hid acne scars (she looks, in some photos, strikingly like the actress Julianne Moore). The police followed and wiretapped her for two years after the murders before finally arresting her in September, 1967. The trials and appeals went on until 1975. Alice was convicted in both deaths in separate trials and was in prison until her parole in 1977.

As always, the thing that gets in my brain and won’t let go is the idea of inappropriate behavior as an indicator of guilt. Cases like this (thinking of the Sam Sheppard case, Lizzie Borden, JonBenet Ramsey, and on and on), in the absence of compelling physical evidence, become stories about whether the accused seem like murderers. Do they act guilty? Do they mourn appropriately? Do they act as we want them to act, as we think we’d act?

In Darin Strauss’s memoir, Half a Life, he admits acting out grief for the benefit of two women in the street soon after accidentally killing a young classmate with his car. In reality, he wrote, he was numb. In the most extreme situations we might say or do anything, and in the moment the police show you the dead body of one of your children, what would you say and do?

To be a parent is to imagine how you might act if the worst happens, and that imagined moment isn’t free of all of your fictional or vicarious experiences, either. You’ve seen it in the movies, read about it in books or newspapers a thousand times. And the police are watching, your neighbors are watching, and they’re drawing conclusions about who you are.

Add other ‘inappropriate’ behavior into the mix. Alice was a sexual explorer who had physical relationships with men other than her husband. She was a woman who was seen to enjoy and embrace her sexuality at a historical moment in which that had political, legal and cultural ramifications that her peers probably found terrifying or abhorrent. During her trials, the prosecutor questioned Alice at length about her relationships with other men. The jurors were all male. Some of the jurors did their own investigations, visiting the crime scene without sanction. One of them was overheard saying, “A tramp like that is capable of anything.”

It’s no secret that there’s something about women engaging in criminal behavior that draws special interest and approbation. I just read Go Down Together, Jeff Guinn’s meticulous history of Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s pretty clear that it was the public’s perception of Bonnie that drove the fascination with the pair’s mostly petty crimes (when they died, Clyde’s viewing drew ten thousand mourners; Bonnie more than thirty).

A few photographs of Bonnie mugging with a cigar apparently convinced people she was a hard-bitten gun moll who engineered their criminal exploits and participated in murder. According to Guinn, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer singled Bonnie out for especially vicious treatment during the final ambush. In the years after the pair died, successive retellings of the Bonnie and Clyde story became stories of a thrill-seeking femme fatale driving her simple, previously innocent man to robbery and murder.

Of course, Alice  might have done it. The prejudice, harassment and rush to judgment don’t immunize Alice, even if they make it easy to sympathize with her. Women have killed their children for any number of reasons and Alice was mercurial and unpredictable. Medical Examiner Milton Helpern said the evidence of undigested food in Missy’s stomach disputed Crimmins’ time line. An eccentric neighbor and a former lover testified against her.

In the press she was called ‘The Medea of Kew Gardens,’ and like Medea she is impossible to fix to one consistent narrative. She maintained her innocence throughout the trials and years of appeals and became more strident and less able to control herself in court. Reading about those later appearances is especially affecting – guilty or innocent her situation must have been just about intolerable, and it’s difficult to even imagine being unjustly imprisoned for killing your children.

Mary Higgins Clark’s first novel, Where Are The Children? was based on the Crimmins case. I just read it again and found it kind of antique, even for 1975. Clark’s take was entirely sympathetic: her main character, called Nancy, is innocent, having been manipulated and drugged by the real killer, but Nancy is frustratingly disengaged and vague, spending what feels like half the book in a drug-induced haze and trying to remember something that might help the men around her to find two newly missing children, the product of her remarriage after the loss of her family and years of hiding. Nancy is resilient but still oddly passive, and maybe that’s what Clark thought about Alice herself, though she doesn’t strike me that way.

People aren’t interested in Alice anymore, but headlines and TV news still reflect our fascination with accused female killers, especially those accused of killing their children, like Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, Diane Downs or Casey Anthony. Alice has disappeared, not just from the scene but from the culture (there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for her). She might, in fact, still be alive. There have been some sightings of her in Florida and New York, where she lived after marrying a Long Island contractor. I wonder if she’s thought about telling her story. I think it would be fascinating, but she probably has no interest in being front page news again.