Time for a blast from the past: reaction to “An American Crime”

Keep saying I’m going to drag content over from my old blog to this one, yet rarely do so. Perused over there tonight and picked out a little oddity: my thoughts written in early 2011 on the film “An American Crime” and the true back-story it’s meant to depict. The piece follows (re-edited and shortened).


The disturbing film “An American Crime” was based on the real-life events that led to the murder of a teen entrusted to the home of a single mother of a litter of kids back in the 1960s.  The film itself wasn’t terrific, IMO, in terms of exerting power over viewers and creating empathy with the characters, but I appreciate it for introducing me to a significant criminal case that otherwise might have remained obscured from my knowledge.

Two teenage sisters, Jenny and Sylvia Likens, were handed over by their parents to stay with Gertrude Baniszewski as they traveled with the carnival.  Gertrude suggested the arrangement at the cost of $20/week — money she and her kids desperately needed.  But what the Likens parents didn’t realize when relinquishing their daughters to Gertrude’s household, only really knowing beforehand that the woman attended their church, was that Gertrude and her kids were severely disturbed.  Namely Gertrude, as her kids likely became jacked up as a result of having her for a parent.  She became disturbed due to having so many kids and proving unable to rely on her chosen men to stay and help raise them.  Never underestimate the crazy-making potential of lacking a support network.

It’s all rather grizzly.  In a nutshell, Gertrude made Sylvia the household whipping pony.  Abuse was heaped onto 16-year-old Sylvia, who became confined in the basement, in a vain attempt to evidently protect Gertrude’s own kids by venting frustration onto Sylvia.  Going so far as to carve the words “I am a prostitute and proud of it” on Sylvia’s torso.  What’s particularly unsettling is that Gertrude’s children joined in on abusing Sylvia, as did neighborhood children.  They tied her up, beat her, put cigarettes out on her, threw her down stairs, until eventually Sylvia died from her injuries.  She and her sister Jenny had been staying at the Baniszewski residence for only 3 months.

People ask why I subject myself to such atrocious stories and films, and I wonder myself sometimes.  After viewing this one though, the answer seems clearer: because these awful stories serve as microcosms for the greater evils that concern me.  People ask how could Nazis do what they did, and others answer that it was their duty, plain and simple.  But that is not a sufficient answer.  People ask why entire nations of people throughout history have been misled and corrupted by terrifyingly psychotic leaders.  The reply is too often a shrug, as though these were isolated cases, pockets of strangeness throughout history and nothing more.  But that is a lie.  And a convenient lie at that, one we tell ourselves so as not to be forced to shine light on the dark corners of our own psyches.

In this case, children took the stand and repeatedly stated that they didn’t know why they joined in in victimizing an innocent teenage girl.  Some claimed to be afraid of repercussions to their own persons.  But we know better than leave it at that.  We know that people can be excited and exhilarated by violence and especially being freed up to release it on others.  We know that people act very strangely when taking part in activities as a group; and we know that some people for some reason haven’t any real, authentic individuality to begin with.  This is why democracy is so dangerous, as is trusting opinion polls or anything else that supposedly reflects the attitudes of the so-called majority.  Because several people agree on something doesn’t make it right.  In fact, I’d go so far as to assume anymore that the more people who jump on a bandwagon, the less trustworthy the situation may be.

This film made me think about how people so easily succumb to threats and desire to avoid being singled out.  And it’s this very social dynamic that is responsible for so many cruel and pointless tragedies.  People remain mum while watching a girl get beaten by several peers just as they do when faced with powerful ruling parties in government.  Gotta join a team, right? Can’t be the deviant unless deviance is considered cool among a peer group.  If deviance means being left standing alone crying, humiliated and afraid, most will avoid enduring it.  Who wouldn’t prefer to be on the side with the whip rather than belong among the whipped minority?

I am deeply sickened on this night.  This film did upset me, as plenty have and will.  I watch and read and think long and hard because I demand answers that are sufficient.  As a nonconformist with deep sensitivities who’s familiar with the underdog status, I pray to maintain the strength needed to look the weak in the face and carry on regardless.  But what makes the weak so weak?  And by contrast, this does not imply that I am strong.  I feel weak often enough.  But I also have an ingrained identity and sense of what I expect from myself and others, and past a certain extent it becomes non-negotiable.  They will curse you, call you names, call you a whore, slander your family as trash, accuse you of being a man in a woman’s body for having an assertive nature.  People will step on the most sacred and deeply damaged parts of your heart and psyche in an attempt to…to what?  To make you feel small so as to make themselves feel bigger by comparison?  Bullies…the world is full of them.

What I do know also is that I have some of it in me too.  The sadist, the masochist, the bitter, the bitch, the tyrant — I admit to possessing this potential and have been working hard for many years to clip it back, not through suppression but through understanding what it is and where it comes from, along with seeking avenues for expression that I can live with.  Regularly my mind wanders back to the intoxication of however mild or sharp sadomasochistic pleasures, but as time has worn on I’ve changed.  What once titillated now only does so vaguely in an abstract sense, but in actuality I am made physically ill when consciously stepping onto well-worn destructive paths.  It is a blessing — hallelujah — but I am not yet “cured.”  No such thing probably exists, as I’m figuring out, perhaps for any of us.  People wish for certainty that all is changed and the past will be kept in its place, but I am here to tell you that the past will resurface and no magical illusions will suffice forever.  Effort is ongoing.  Life is not intended to be easy.  This is what it means to be human — to make conscious decisions to shape one’s outcome everyday by choices made.

When a person tosses their own free will aside, or harnesses it to the power of a collective mindset, that person ceases being an individual and becomes no better than a slave.  Just as animals are slaves to their instincts.  But humans, through our evolution, have received the extraordinary responsibility for our own selves to direct our lives.  Our instincts are no longer strong enough to guide us everywhere we’re capable of going, and like other primates we need one another to survive and thrive, most especially when young.  What separates humans from the animal kingdom isn’t simply our opposable thumbs, tool-making ingenuity, or higher intellects — we are separate because we each are capable of making conscious, self-aware choices.  Rational or irrational.  Life-affirming or destructively “evil.”  And in choosing not to make hard choices ourselves so as to blend in with “the majority,” we are indeed by default making the choice to be inhuman.  I would say this compares to being an animal, but it’s a pity to look down on the animal kingdom where no such choices exist.  There is a special brand of what we like to call “evil” in our deliberate decisions to escape from the freedom we innately possess, to choose comfort over conscience, and to obey in fear rather than live in love.

The Baniszewski case is but one example of people choosing the inhuman route.  Do note that examples are everywhere, past and present, from the seemingly trivial to the colossal in scope and impact.