See no Evil|
Spoken in Darknessby Ann E. Imbrie, Bloomsbury Books 249 pp, 17 pounds.
"WHO MURDERED HER was never a mystery." the opening sentence of this book warns away those who are looking for a "whodunnit"; its mostly dispassionate tone discourages the sensation seeker. But this is a murder story, a true one. It traces the life of a serial killer and that of his last (you hope) victim, Lee Snavely, who was just another "missing person" for a year until the plastic bags containing her remains were dug out of a shallow grave in Ousted, Michigan. She was the writer's best friend at school and this account is written in her memory. It traces her life from leaving school until her pitiful death a few years later. Subtitled "Small Town Murder and a Friendship Beyond Death", the story is part documentary and part novel, the facts of the case as laid down in police and medical records interwoven with the specualtive dialogue by the writer. Being honest and compassionate and eshewing mystery, mystique and excitement, this book has little chance of selling well, nor will it be made into a film. Joe Public prefers the sensationalism of a ghoulish cult film like Silence of the Lambs where they can watch pretty white girl (Jodie Foster) applying to a cannibal for help in trapping a serial killer in a land "where the psychopath is prince" and having her nose rubbed in a good deal of filth in the process.
Crime has always been a source of entertainment ("everyone likes a good thriller"). That hundreds of thousands of persons who would not say boo to a goose are fascinated by films about cannibals, rapists and torturers arises from a social pathology which is not new. It does not need the encouragement which the entertainment and media worlds have been so disposed to give it in recent years, but encouragement is what it is given in a world whose values are utilitarian through and through and whose thrills are vicarious but vicious. A comparison with the last years of Imperial Rome is difficult to avoid. Perhaps we should be grateful for the invention of television and cinema for providing surrogates to the real thing. Without them the demand for live shows might be too strong to resist. This is not a cult book, but similarities with Thomas Harris's novel are there nevertheless. Both stories are about a maniac serial killer in small town America who slips through the nets time and again because the police are bad psychologists. They cannot read the signs correctly. The difference is that Ann Imrie's story is "for real".
Lee Snavely "didn't heed the warnings", such as the one at school not to walk up the side of the stairs (the boys can look up your skirt). Reaching seventh grade Lee needs a bra but doesn't wear one, she wears "what she damn well pleases". She never really grows up, she remains "daddy's baby", easily taken in by any man who promises her a rainbow, or even a packet of dollars, just as she believed her father's lies about her mother. She marries a man whom she meets in a haze of marijuana, a man who subsequently leads her into a Bonney & Clyde life of petty crime, robbery, extortion and prostitution. As a prostitute, she still doesn't heed the warnings and breaks her own rule never to do a job which involves taking a change of clothes. She ignored the warning most of us are given as children: don't talk to strange men. Prostitution of course, is a career necessarily based on ignoring such a warning, hence the cynical popular adage quoted by the writer, "a prostitute is a murder victim waiting to happen". While Ann Imbried condemns the cynicism in this, her story illustrates its wisdom. Lee the prostitute is little changed from Lee the eight-year old innocent. Who but an innocent would drive off with a stranger to an unknown destination for a "bit of light S & M in a party room, all fixed up" and feel reassured that the stranger "looked like Billy Graham with glasses"?
The title of this book is taken from Luke's Gospel: "For there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; neither that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever you have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light." To ensnare the innocent what the devil has to do is to assume an appropriate disguise, then he can penetrate the Garden of Eden. Americans are obsessed with this theme of the imposter, the next door neighbour who seems nice but who is a secret rapist, Satanist, sadist, serial killer. In fact, serial killers are not very common- serial killer victims in the US are estimated at about 400 a year, which is about 1% of the annual murder rate. But reading and hearing about them provides vicarious thrills along with a good conscience. Modern America and the West in general has abandoned the Puritan virtues but kept the Puritan vices. This book is consciously harking back to the Bible. America is a poisoned Eden, full of traps for the unwary,
"We, parents and children both, followed the hiss of its promise, it can't happen here, into the shelter of ignorance. We traded away knowing for safety, and ended up where the devil could have us." (p.97)
So then, ignorance is not bliss. We should be made aware, make our children aware, so the message runs, of what goes on in the world, the writer blaming the illusion of false security in which so much of Middle America brings up its children. Really? A conservative would argue that children are innundated with "realism", the media wallow in tales of crime and rape, not to speak of book and film fiction. America's Eden is not protected from the intrusion of video and television; the media are notorious for not shielding children from "the facts of life" in any way and are often blamed for contributing to crime by putting criminal ideas into the heads of the unimaginative. What is missing either in the older view of sheltering the young with obscure warnings or the modern notion of bringing them up to be aware of all the dangers inherent in talking to strange men, is an encouragement to discriminate and be instinctive. Discrimination is as much or more a matter of instinct than reason but instincts were devised by nature for self- preservation and they are often a better guide than reason. Good instincts would probably have saved Lee Snavely; the writer hints in fact that she supresses her instincts with her reason. (Reason would argue that it would be atrociously bad luck to have met one of the -at most-hundred active serial killers at large in America, but instinct is not interested in statistics like that).
The book supports two cases: the conservative case for capital punishment and the feminist argument that this is a man's world, serial killings so-called "femicide", misogynist inspired killing of women because they are women. If it were not for doctors with liberal ideas about self-improvement and a legal system apparently more energetic in defending the rights of the accused than ensuring that the perpetrators of murder and rape are kept off the streets, several of the killer's victims would be alive today. The feminist argument lies in the the inference that the killer's hatred of women has flourished in the mysogenist atmosphere of America's Middle West. Taylor (the killer) is "interested in the SS" and carries around a "heavily annotated Portable Nietzsche" (he no doubt approved of Nietzsche's dictum, "You go to a woman? Do not forget your whip!"). For Taylor, women are good for three things only, "to bear children, serve the state and pleasure man". It is for "crimes against the state" that he "interrogates" two prostitutes, carving a swastika into the breast of one of them before killing them both and burying them in his back yard. One of the prostitutes is Lee Snavely.
The writer presents the reaction "she asked for it" as a symptom of a patriarchal society, which "doesn't want to know", but is it not because mothers did care that they used to warn their daughters not to walk up the side of the stairs at high-school? The failing of conservative religious education which dominated in the USA until the sixties so far as the "don't talk to strangers" warning was concerned, was that it issued warnings without entering into explanations for which it considered its children too young. But sexual ignorance tends to make the obedient vulnerable and provoke the disobedient into "doing what they damn well please". The modernist reaction to the cult of ignorance has been to promote a fictional and educational "realism" which involves doing away with all subtlety in order that young people can be made aware of the dangers which undoubtedly exist in talking to strangers. Neither approach shows much respect for the individual's powers of discrimination and both in different ways promote ignorance, the conservative religious way by making the entire motivation of serial killers and sex killers a taboo subject and therefore a complete mystery, the modern way by making a cult of them as though they are especially interesting and creating a feeling of insecurity which creates suspicion of anything new, anything outside the peer group and the media (the strangers who rape and kill on television don't rape and kill you) so that ironically, both approaches encourage a withdrawl from "the big world" into a provincial shell. If it were otherwise more people would be interested in reading a book like this than Silence of the Lambs.
This book arouses pity more than anything else. Little girls who grow up "doing what they damn well please" and not heeding the warnings can end up like Lee Snavely. We all know that, but this book expresses the pity of it. A final point and a polemical one. There is one group which emerges from every horror story of rape or serial killing smelling of roses and profits from them tangibly to an extent that the killers themselves never do, a group which acts like a carrier of the spores of diseased fantasies into every home: I mean the popular media. When porn and scorn sheets like News of the World go bankrupt and their repulsive editors and proprietors forced at gun-point to hand over their gains to the realtives of murder victims, then the chances of survival of girls like Lee Snavely will dramatically increase. If gunge merchant Stephen King were thrown head first out of every publisher's office in the West, if a Rupert Murdoch had to use back numbers of the unread and no-longer-printed Sun to keep himself warm as he lies penniless on the Embankment.. but that dear reader is another story, another country, another society, the real Eden.