Megan Abbott's Blog

June 10, 2012

Why let pain your pleasures spoil, 

For want of our patented Magic Oil?’


This is the living archive of the Abbott-Gran Medicine Show. Please visit early and often and we hope one day to return with new tonics, remedies, elixirs and, just maybe, that miracle cure.


We thank you all.




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Published on June 10, 2012 16:54 • 878 views

September 26, 2011

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 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)



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Published on September 26, 2011 06:03 • 441 views

September 19, 2011

As much as I crave a good book about murder or a crime scene photo to dissect, nothing compares to a musical ballad about murder and mayhem. One of my old favorites is a rendition of "Knoxville Girl" by the Louvin Brothers off the Tragic Songs of Life album (1956). These country brothers crooned about the violent riverside murder of an unnamed young woman by her suitor. Voices sweet and lamenting, the Louvin brothers obscured the shock of violence with their lullaby composition.


"I met a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well,


And every Sunday evening, out in her home I'd dwell,


We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town,


I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down."


You can only imagine where it goes from there.  Listen here.


The Louvin Brothers can't be credited with inventing the murder ballad. In fact, "Knoxville Girl" is based on an old Irish ballad, "The Wexford Girl", which has a more elaborate warning against murdering your loved one. Murder Ballads can be traced back even further to England and to the broadsheet ballad "The Cruel Miller" and well, it's anyone's game from there.


Now, take the traditional murder ballad and mix it with the poetry of a notorious serial killer, with a nod toward Joyce Carol Oates, and you have Jon Derosa's "Ladies in Love." Based on a poem of the same name by Charles Schmid, Jr., DeRosa weaves some lines from Schmid's prison writing into his evocative ballad and gives us a precise window into the macabre mind of The Pied Piper of Tuscon. For those of you who don't know, Schmid was an odd character who wreaked havoc on  the city of Tucson in the 1960's and served as the inspiration for Joyce Carol Oates' short story, Where are You Going and Where Have You Been?


Photo courtesy of the Tucson Citizen.


He blurred his natural attractive features with cartoonish makeup and clothing, turning himself into a minstrel Elvis Presley – dark tan pancake makeup, white lipstick and the King's jet black mane. He added his own touches too: a beauty mark on his cheek made from a mixture of putty and axle grease and oversized cowboy boots stuffed with detritus to make him seem taller, attempts at being a more appealing lady magnet to the disaffected youth of Tuscon.


Here, DeRosa has crafted a hauntingly beautiful murder ballad with flutes and woodwinds by Jon Natchez (of Beirut/Yellow Ostrich) and gentle violins and cellos by Claudia Chopek and Julia Kent, respectively.  Schmid's chilling proclamation that "ladies should never fall in love," is sung sweetly, like a lullaby by DeRosa. And Schmid's poetic line about women's voices "being like small animals waiting to be fed" is seemingly easier to take here, layered and somber. But, his complicated and perverse relationship with his victims isn't celebrated here; instead, DeRosa's tale of woe serves as a time capsule of terror that I believe, deserves a place in the history of disquieting murder ballads.


Listen to "Ladies in Love" exclusively on The Abbott Gran Medicine show:


http://soundcloud.com/jonderosa/jon-derosa-ladies-in-love


Jon DeRosa's Anchored EP can be picked up on Itunes or here.



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Published on September 19, 2011 14:47 • 141 views

August 1, 2011


The rise of Bill James is the secret fantasy of every bookish type. The details are practically Dickensian. James, a lifelong obsessive baseball fan, begins recording his thoughts on the game while working as night watchman at a Kansas pork and beans factory. He assembles what he calls a book, almost six dozen photocopied pages long, and sells it via a single ad in The Sporting News. Only seventy-five people would buy the 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else. But those happy few would be present at the birth of a legend.


James's approach is based on rigorous objective analysis or as James put it, "counting things." It dared to challenge much of baseball's conventional wisdom, which in a sport that prizes its traditions is tantamount to heresy. James had a steadily growing number of admirers among hardcore fans, but the powers that be thought him a crank. Until they didn't.


Michael Lewis's Moneyball beautifully recounts what happened next. The front office of the Oakland Athletics relied on Jamesean analysis, known as sabermetrics, to turn a cash-strapped small-market franchise into a perennial contender. Other teams followed suit. James himself would become an advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His ideas would spread to other disciplines; Nate Silver applied the science of fantasy baseball to the American electoral process in 2008 and became a political guru. The man who, as Lewis wrote, "perfected the art of sounding like a sane man in an insane world" ultimately persuaded that world to think as he did. James represents the triumph of the wonk, the vindication of the studious kid watching others play outside, confident in the knowledge that they're doing it wrong.



Bill James's other great passion is crime stories, which he tackles in his new book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. I share those two interests, so I picked up a copy. Little did I know when I cracked it open, coincidentally during the uproar following the Casey Anthony verdict, what a singularly odd experience I had in store. Popular Crime would prove to be one of the strangest books I've ever loved.


To begin, how to describe it? The subtitle, for instance, is a misnomer in that it sounds judgmental while the book itself is not. James is an unabashed enthusiast of crime stories, and laments that "opinion-makers and the 'opinion elites' … turn up their noses" at them. James, on the other hand, is eager to discuss them at length. In nearly 500 pages he surveys decades of tabloid fodder. It's a deeply idiosyncratic study; James did no original research, basing his conclusions solely on exhaustive reading. It soon becomes apparent that James has been thinking about crime for years, and now wants to share his many, many thoughts. That sense of beliefs long bottled up finally spilling forth powers the book through some bizarre passages. Michael Lewis described the Baseball Abstracts as "one long, elaborate aside." The same holds true of Popular Crime.


James breezes through horrors infamous and otherwise, sizing up the evidence and issuing his own verdicts. He makes a case for Lizzie Borden's innocence that surprisingly holds water, blasts the widely accepted "solution" to the mystery of the Zodiac Killer's identity, logically argues that Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, could not have been her murderer's first or only victim. His take on the Kennedy assassination, based on ballistic evidence from a single source, is less convincing yet disturbingly plausible in an Occam's Razor kind of way.


James engages in some bravura historical profiling of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, aka the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. He even plays favorites. It galls James that the enterprising serial murderer H. H. Holmes has been the subject of only one book, Erik Larson's acclaimed The Devil in the White City, when by contrast "Jack the Ripper, as much as the British love him, was just some dumb jackass with a knife who ran around slashing hookers. And there are 75 books about him." Only Bill James could view a man who built a "torture castle" near the 1893 Chicago World's Fair like an undervalued infielder who draws a lot of walks.


The book is at its best when dealing with how crimes are reported and by extension remembered. James astutely assesses the evolution of the American press, noting that in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping—Bruno Hauptmann done it, in James's opinion—media consolidation kept sensationalistic impulses in check until the next "Crime of the Century," O. J. Simpson (also guilty), when the cable news landscape resembled the earlier era.


James consumes true crime books, rightly observing that aside from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood the form is largely ignored, and peppers Popular Crime with terse, unsparing reviews. While he admires The Devil in the White City, James disdains the author's "turn-up-your-nose-at-the-crime-story attitude … Did you ever know one of those people in college who was a good guy but so responsible that you always wanted to set his shoes on fire? It's 5 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, and he's studying his Latin. Larson is kind of like that." Jolene Babyak's book on Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," suffers because it includes excerpts of Stroud's own unpublished manuscripts. "Stroud's writing is trim and graceful, while Babyak's is harsh and blocky." James also comments regularly on the once de rigueur TV movie and miniseries adaptations spawned by these books, which rightly or wrongly are as much a part of the recollection of such crimes as police reports and trial transcripts are.


But 500 pages of such detail-oriented fixation takes it toll. The opening chapters are like falling into conversation with a cantankerous but engaging fellow at a bar. A few drinks later, you find yourself eyeing the exits and wondering "Is this guy nuts?" James compares the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, which presented the two radicals "as simple men swept up in a tide of onrushing events," to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro "finding themselves portrayed by their lawyer as Gilligan and the Skipper."


An obvious observation made in a book about the Jon-Benet Ramsey case—the Ramseys are innocent, by the by—is met with the timeless rejoinder "No shit, Sherlock." He interrupts his train of thought for digressions both relevant (the excesses of the Warren Court) and not (how to save the American automobile industry). He addresses readers directly, identifying passages written years earlier and hinting at ideas he's hoarding for a future book.


The last third of Popular Crime is something of a slog, focused largely on a subject James doesn't care for:


The stories of serial murderers are repetitive and gloomy, but I will tell a few of them and then meet with my editor to decide which ones to throw out, and the ones we throw out I will throw up on the internet.


And then—then—are James's efforts to bring his vaunted statistical analysis to bear, crafting a sabermetrics of crime. James lists his eighteen categories for classifying a crime by level of public interest; devises a new ten-level penal system; and develops a six-tiered ranking of witness descriptions offered to the police. Most impressive and deeply foolhardy by turns is the value system he assigns to evidence, weighting various types in wholly arbitrary fashion with a score of 100 required to convince a skeptic.


Michael Lewis wrote that Bill James set out to prove in baseball "that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible." But here James's efforts fall woefully short. Evil, for lack of a better term, is a lot like that ineffable quality in sports known as heart. It's an intangible. It cannot be measured.


But that willingness to make the attempt is why I found James's bizarre opus so compelling. He claims, "I am trying to write here about the serious consequences of the trivial events."


At other times, Popular Crime is a prickly defense of his interest in a subject frequently frowned-upon by cultural arbiters. Ultimately, though, the book is a sincere attempt to identify what it is about the darkness that fascinates and lures so many of us.


See also Bill James's memorable appearance on the Colbert Report….



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Published on August 01, 2011 12:31 • 162 views

July 26, 2011

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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Published on July 26, 2011 06:07 • 137 views

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 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)



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Published on July 26, 2011 06:03 • 195 views

July 18, 2011

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




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Published on July 18, 2011 05:18 • 163 views

July 4, 2011


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.



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Published on July 04, 2011 07:33 • 258 views

June 29, 2011


For a time, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the book (and movie) Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, which famously told tale tale of "Sybil," the psyeudoynm of a young woman treated by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur for what the doctor came to feel was multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) .


At around age ten or eleven, the TV movie must have been re-run because I remember many conversations with girls at school, detailing with giddy horror, the terrible punishments Sybil underwent under her psychotic mother's care, or so the movie relayed. It's funny to think of it now–I'm embarrassed the palpable excitement we all seemed to feel in the particularly lurid details of the punishments. But it was the nervous laughter of coming upon something deeply secret, or a taboo, or something maybe like our own darkest Grimms-spun nightmares of abuse at the hands of our parents. (If you read Flowers in the Attic, consider the many titillating scenes of maternal and grandmaternal abuse and you will see this particular childhood fascination in full bloom.)


But I wonder if a key part of my interest in the book, as in many books like it (Three Faces of Eve, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) that focused on women in mental health crises, was the notion that these books conveyed something about womanhood that I may have been uninterested in hearing through plainer vehicles (e.g., a book on a female hero, or even feminism!).


The reason I ask is that I recently read an advance copy of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan, which comes out in October. It is an utterly riveting, troubling and troubled book that traces the intertwined fates of the real Sybil (her identity was finally revealed in the 1990s), Dr. Wilbur and the author of the original Sybil, Flora Schreiber.  And it is a harsh exposé that calls into question nearly every aspect of the original book and certainly every aspect of Dr. Wilbur's treatment of her patient (which apparently involved daily injections of "truth serum" to such a degree that her patient became a full-blown drug addict).



Without getting into the specific charges raised within, Sybil Exposed also stands as a fascinating study of what is was like to be a woman in the midcentury—in particular women who chose alternative paths, or for whom those paths chose them.  The book description notes:


Exposing Sybil combines fascinating, near mythic drama with serious journalism to reveal what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her devoted shrink, and the ambitious journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.


That trio of women at the center of the book all suffered mightily under the professional and personal limitations that their era (1940s-60s). Sybil, struggling with mental health issues (mostly, obsessive compulsive disorder, as we might see it now) that were poorly understood in her small town and within her strict Adventist faith, fought the threat of poverty, a sense out outsiderness and strong stigma. Dr. Wilbur faced the challenges of being one of very few women psychiatrists, coming up at a time when female patients much less female doctors faced strong bias and sometimes abuse. And the book's author Flora Schreiber spent decades trying to make her name in journalism, to move past the women's magazine gossamer she was repeatedly hired to spin in favor of something meatier, more significant. Something big.  


One can see the crucible stirring. To Nathan, the result was Sybil, Inc., a multi-millionaire dollar business built on a foundation of lies. (Or, at the very least, well-meaning fabrications and half truths.)


Tracing these women's paths and their crossing—the way their lives interlocked as they became enmeshed (and enmeshed themselves) in something far beyond their dreams or their capacity to control—it is spellbinding. But the response to the original book and movie is perhaps the best part of the story. Thousands of mostly female readers writing letters to all three women for years about how Sybil spoke to them, about how they too felt they were divided into two, three, four or more women. How they too felt split, divided. Lacking a center, a self.


Much like the women in the 1950s, facing that era's constructions, made Three Faces of Eve a best-seller, the women of the 1970s, living amid a time of dramatic social tumult and changing gender expectations, Sybil struck a nerve. (And while, according to Nathan, the vast majority of those who wrote to Schreber were women, one can see the appeal across many populations, all of whom face constricting social expectations, the pain of feeling you must wear different masks through life.)



Maybe (probably) this is a massive justification for my own dark childhood reading habits, but I wonder now about we school girls tearing through Sybil's pages behind locker doors. I wonder if it wasn't just the sharp horror of tales of abuse (though those of you who remember the book have likely never forgotten these scenes, which are rendered vividly and endlessly) that haunted and drew us in. (And perhaps which most of us read the same way we read V.C. Andrews, missing the point entirely.)  I wonder if, somehow, the book was a our preadolescent way of trying to understand the way we, all of us, must prepare to leave childhood behind and take up the various roles we feel are demanded of us, prescribed for us. We must start donning the mask, and then another, and then another. And we want to see how it's done.






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Published on June 29, 2011 05:40 • 124 views

June 27, 2011


A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens.  In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, "wherever you go, there you are."


After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I've had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.


Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?


*                *                *


It's a time machine. That's what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I'm age ten again, with a ten year old's wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.


When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.


It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)


courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society


At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen's Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers's movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.


Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.


Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast "nailecrete" panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it's a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.


Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I've come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.



Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I'm in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It's the classic Freudian "uncanny"—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I'll pass the Witts's bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson's front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven't set eyes on in 13 years.


Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I'll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that's not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it's the same, only different. Or you are. And that's everything.



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Published on June 27, 2011 07:34 • 142 views