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"A tortured young girl is dead": Is this art or exploitation?
July 26, 2007 7:32 PM   Subscribe

On October 26, 1965, a sixteen-year-old girl named Sylvia Marie Likens was reported dead to Indianapolis police. It was soon discovered that her death was the culmination of weeks of torture at the hands of an adult caretaker and several neighborhood children; when the case went to trial, the prosecutor declared it "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana." In 2007, not one but two films inspired by the case make their debut: The Girl Next Door (trailer), based on a fictionalized version of the events, and the docudrama An American Crime (trailer). One person, at least, will probably be skipping both -- the victim's sister, who says of the latter film, "No one ever even asked us about it. It's their gain, our pain."
posted by kittens for breakfast (118 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's one of the most depressing things I've ever read.
posted by ColdChef at 7:46 PM on July 26, 2007


However, the most remarkable injuries, by far, were the words in block letters that had been burned directly onto her stomach: "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!"
posted by ColdChef at 7:48 PM on July 26, 2007


kittens, watching that last trailer made me cry.
posted by nola at 7:49 PM on July 26, 2007


Jesus Christ Shitting Steak Knives, I can't get past the first page. And it goes on for 25.

She had such a sweet face.
posted by fleetmouse at 7:54 PM on July 26, 2007


At first, I thought you'd mistanen The Girl Next Door for Captivity, and then, when I watched the trailer to make sure, not only were you right, but it was much, much worse...


I kinda just wanna go cry now.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:57 PM on July 26, 2007


I cant begin to even understand the kind of mind that could do this to a deserted, and defenseless little girl.

I couldnt stomach much more than the basic description .....but I'm guessing the people who did this to her are all drawing social security and living in a nicer trailer now

f***in humans
posted by timsteil at 7:57 PM on July 26, 2007


Reading about this is making me nauseous. This story is horrifying.
posted by FunkyHelix at 7:57 PM on July 26, 2007




A story which is a vote for capital punishment for all of the perpetrators, minors or not. (If you enjoy torturing you're broken, and we have at least several billion other people who aren't. You're a waste of space. Good bye and good luck with whatever afterlife you believe in.)

I kinda wonder, never having been a kid who blew up frogs or burned ants, do adults who joyously tortured other creatures when they were kids reflect back on their crimes as adults and wonder what is wrong with them, and whether it is going to surface again?

Ugh. This makes me so angry. What a fucking tragedy. Maybe we should (reversibly) sterilize people at birth and only allow them to breed once they've proven they're a human being and have a fighting chance of being a decent parent?
posted by maxwelton at 8:12 PM on July 26, 2007


This story is really heart breaking. The impression the trailer for An American Crime gives is that both the victim and the perpitrator share the experience of being brutilized by one who has power over them, This seems to be backed up by the article linked above. The desperation of not just the victim but the perpitrator , is what is so overwhelming about this story.
posted by nola at 8:14 PM on July 26, 2007


Every time I read these kinds of stories, the most horrifying part to me is how many people see or hear things that they simply never act upon.

Is it so hard to make the phone call?
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 8:16 PM on July 26, 2007


I notice that the Girl Next Door is the film version of Jack Ketchum's novel. The novel is worth reading before seeing the film.

Ketchum is probably the best horror writer working today. Stephen King acknowledged as much in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award.

For those looking for an introduction, start with his collection of short stories Peaceable Kingdom. His stories are bleak, dwelling on the wretchedness of the human condition. They are a welcome change from the "action horror" ghetto that the genre's been stuck in ever since King wrote Bag of Bones.

The plight of the kidnapped girl or forced sex slave is a recurring theme in Ketchum's stories and novels, and he explores to a disturbing depth the psychology at work in kidnapper and victim. You wonder how this writer knows what he knows.

When I first came across Ketchum, I wondered if he was a new alter ego of King's, an outlet for King's darker, Night Shift and The Shining side to express itself, while King scratched his "epic cycle" itch on the Dark tower series.

It doesn't look like the film is going to capture this dimension, as it seems focused on duplicating the plot points (which was a fictionalized account of the Likens story). Still, it's nice to see Ketchum get some respect and recognition. For a while there it looked like his books would fall out of print and he'd disappear forever.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:17 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


That's one of the most depressing things I'll never read.
posted by sidereal at 8:17 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


The book By Sanction of the Victim is also based on the story of Sylvia Likens.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:18 PM on July 26, 2007


here's an idea: let the killer robots win.
posted by vrakatar at 8:20 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Falconetti at 8:25 PM on July 26, 2007


Ttrying to take a step back from what I've just read and watched, it seems like "An American Crime" will be the better of the two movies. It stars four actors (Keener, Page, Whitford and Franco) and from what I saw in the trailer, it appears that they're all doing great work and making the most powerful film that they can.

Still, the title (of this FPP) comes up. Why do we need to see this? Is it just so that we can be appalled? Or does the film truly make the point of the neighborhood deciding that it isn't any of their business? I've read these posts, and so I know that there's no way the the story can end for me in any way that could be considered "satisfactorily," so is this simply the legitimization of torture-porn?

Or is it simply a vehicle for talented actors and filmmakers to try for an Oscar?
posted by Navelgazer at 8:33 PM on July 26, 2007


that should be "stars four actors whom I respect.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:33 PM on July 26, 2007



I kinda wonder, never having been a kid who blew up frogs or burned ants, do adults who joyously tortured other creatures when they were kids reflect back on their crimes as adults and wonder what is wrong with them, and whether it is going to surface again?


You forgot bed wetting and starting fires, in addition to animal cruelty. It's called the homicidal triad. And no, they don't think back on it, unless they've had intervening therapy that forces retrospection.

This is where compulsion meets sociopathy to form psychopathy. They don't do it (the anuimal cruelty as kids) joyously, they do it to feel better, to numb themselves from some pain.

Children who are compulsively cruel to animals are basically sadists, and they need intervention and treatment before they hit puberty (and get flooded with testosterone) and become much much worse.

The bedwetting is a response to subconscious stress. Humans are animals, and animals void themselves when they become terrified. You can imagine the kinds of dreams these kids have, who when awake hurt animals, that causes them to piss themselves. The animal sadism and pyromania are attempts to re-establish control and power over themselves because in reality they are totally subjugated and dominated (usu. by some awful parent).

Part of their condition is the inability to feel empathy for a victim (animal or human), so no, they never look back.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:48 PM on July 26, 2007 [5 favorites]


It is incomprehensible that their sentences weren't harsher. That is disgusting. How heartbreaking and what despair that poor girl must have felt, what absolutely bottomless despair.
posted by pywacket at 8:53 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I grew up right down the street (at New York & Gladstone, for those of you Googling the map address) from where this occurred; I suppose technically that makes me one of the "neighborhood children", although I was perhaps 5 years younger (I would have been about 11 years old).

What I remember was the fact that the adults in the neighborhood were very secretive about it: it was always discussed sotto voce, and out of earshot of the kids, usually, but everyone, and I mean everyone in the neighborhood knew about it, after the fact. It was part of my childhood lore or legend, the girl down the street who was tortured and had coke bottles shoved in her, and we, as kids, made sure we told everyone who moved into the neighborhood the story, and made the house part of the "tour".

I ought to drive by and see if the house is still standing.
posted by pjern at 8:57 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


well, that was completely disgusting.

I'd like to think that a movie can be made that can approach veneration for this sort of martyrdom, but I also realize that it's too miserable and unconfrontable for anyone to cling to for hope.

It's the sort of thing that I'm conscious of needing to forget.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:05 PM on July 26, 2007


This is tragic, disgusting and depressing, but I'm trying to remind myself that their are billions of good people on this planet.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:10 PM on July 26, 2007


Is it so hard to make the phone call?

Well, the nearest pay telephone at the time was, as I recall, in front of the market at Grant & New York, or possibly at Sherman Drive & Washington Street. I can remember having to go there to make calls. Having a telephone in your home was not, as I recall, common in our neighborhood.
posted by pjern at 9:12 PM on July 26, 2007


Ugh. This is the most horrible thing I've read about since I stumbled on the Hello Kitty Murder in Hong Kong.

pywacket has it. These monsters got no punishment at all. They would have fared worse had they been caught selling cocaine, instead of group-torturing an innocent girl to death. These things proved by their actions that they are not human. You might say that mental disability and fear played into it, but with the shear number of people involved, everyone wasn't insane or terrified. Not one of the many people who did this stopped for one second to think what they were doing was beyond evil? And not just the people who directly hurt Sylvia; many people in the neighborhood must have at least known something was wrong but chose to look the other way. Monsters. Animals. I guess some random story on the Net shouldn't bother me so much, but it just fills me with rage that this horror happened, that no one at any point tried to stop it or help, and that none of the perpetrators suffered for it beyond some slaps on the wrist.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:13 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I notice that the Girl Next Door is the film version of Jack Ketchum's novel. The novel is worth reading before seeing the film.

My interest (if you want to call it that; it's more along the lines of total horror that fueled brief obsession) in the real life case was sparked by reading The Girl Next Door, which is an amazing novel that I would not recommend to ANYONE. All I knew about it was that it had a reputation as being shocking as hell, and that it had the worst, most ridiculous cover ever slapped onto an original paperback horror novel (I tried to find a picture of it for this post, but sadly came up empty), but I didn't actually know what it was about. I found a copy in a thrift store three or four years ago (before it returned to print, and back when it was scarce enough to command good prices on eBay) for about eighty cents. Took it home, feeling like I'd won some kind of horror nerd lottery. Oh, but I had so, SO not. The joke was on me. I'm sure whoever had originally purchased that book -- with its silly-ass skeleton cheerleader pom-pom girl cover -- had been only too happy to divest him/herself of it. I read a lot of horror, but this wasn't that. It was more like sitting down to watch Hostel and getting Schindler's List or something, only without the part where the kids don't go into the ovens.

So...yeah, I'd have to go ahead and say maybe interested parties actually shouldn't read this book. Not because it's crap, but because it really isn't.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:31 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Thank you, pastabagel, for moderating my visceral reaction with your humane insight into how these things happen.

(I would be a piss-poor dictator, probably as bad in my own way--lashing out at those involved in these sorts of crime--as the criminals who tortured this poor girl.)
posted by maxwelton at 9:42 PM on July 26, 2007


Wait, so are you saying you liked the book or you didn't?
posted by Pastabagel at 9:46 PM on July 26, 2007


maxwelton,
A reason is not an excuse. And this crime is unique in the large number of people involved. With one killer, you might argue that circumstances and mental illness led to this. But with so many involved, it seems very hard to argue that all of them were so incapacitated that at no time could any of them have done something. And remember, if you read the article, there were several times when outsiders had clear knowledge that something was wrong and did nothing. A neighboring couple even visited the house repeatedly, saw beatings and abuse take place in front of them, and said nothing. This couple even later talked with a cop during an odd incident involving the false arrest of another man triggered by the mother but didn't mention what they had seen. Beyond them, there was a report to the local health authorities that a girl with open sores was seen there, which means that the neighbors must also have seen and known something wrong was happening. Given this complete failure on the part of everyone, I don't think a visceral reaction is unwarranted or wrong, and clearly the killers got off too easily. One of them even says so later.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:53 PM on July 26, 2007


.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:59 PM on July 26, 2007


She baby-sat and did ironing (ironically, the same jobs Gertrude Baniszewski held).

oh wow, the irony! a teenage girl babysitting? that's like saying it's ironic that sylvia had long hair and wore dresses, JUST LIKE GERTRUDE!! dun, dun, dun.
posted by andywolf at 10:00 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is the closest I've over come to being physically ill after reading a MetaFilter link.

If there is one redeeming quality to the films, it is as a possible purgative antidote to to the recent, and deeply disturbing, trend of "torture porn" : Saw, Hostel, Captivity and the likes. Maybe a few "fans" of the fantasy snuff films can get a long, hard look at the brutal, sordid reality of torture.

But really, in a world featuring Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, why is this stuff even entertainment? War and violence I can understand - but torture on a 60-foot screen?
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:09 PM on July 26, 2007



Thank you, pastabagel, for moderating my visceral reaction with your humane insight into how these things happen.


The visceral reaction is normal. And as Sangermaine wrote, the reason they do it is not an excuse.

And you don't have to go back to 1965 for a terrible story like this.

Michael Devlin kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped 11yr old boy for 51 months.

Girl escapes kidnapper after 8 years of torture and rape. She spent those 8 years locked in a dungeon.

So by all means, go ballistic.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:16 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is why when kids are involved you ALWAYS should make the phone call. Fuck staying out of peoples business. I would rather be wrong and look like a nosy asshole then let this ever happen to someone else.
The article was long and horrifying, but it left me with a question. Once the court case starts there is no mention at all of Sylvia's parents. What was their reaction, was there any remorse or recourse for leaving their children in a pit of despair? How did they not attempt to take out all those people for whom the charges were dropped/ short sentences were served?
posted by rubyeyo at 10:18 PM on July 26, 2007


I'm going to go cuddle the kitten now.
posted by honeydew at 10:21 PM on July 26, 2007


Part of their condition is the inability to feel empathy for a victim (animal or human), so no, they never look back

i think this is the key to what goes wrong everyday with us humans- we lose any sense of others suffering. today i was nearly run over by a car twice, and the drivers glared at me as if i deserved it, though they were running the red light. we're born good, then we get old and learn or decide that if anything gets in our way, it gets what it deserves. maybe that is oversimple, and in the likens case i sense a mob mentality facilitated by "adult" approval of extreme cruelty. but it is hard not to think that we just are so desensitizied and ego driven that we lose sight of certain basics. we reward the wrong things as a society.
posted by vrakatar at 10:25 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


this is why i support the death penalty.

odd note on page 4, the author of the indiana torture murder, john dean, apparently became self-conscious at sharing a moniker with a watergate character, so he changed it - to natty bumppo, james fenimore cooper's best known character. why not daniel boone or paul bunyan?
posted by bruce at 10:26 PM on July 26, 2007


I read the story on The Crime Library site and tried to get it posted to a site called "Catch" that doesn't really exist anymore. I read a lot of pop crime and this is one of the saddest stories I have ever read.
posted by squidfartz at 10:28 PM on July 26, 2007


Good god... I feel physically sick to the point of weeping.

My brother and co-worker just came up to see me about something and said 'are you ok?'

I don't know what to ask of film-makers other than to treat cases like these with sensitivity and compassion. Like bora horza and kitchens for breakfast, I don't know who wishes themselves to encounter such depravity. Who wants, worst of all, such deep, human suffering re-wrapped and sold as torture-chic for horror aficionados?

Fucking hell, I'm actually shaking.

:'(
posted by eek at 10:33 PM on July 26, 2007


This is pretty terrible, but not really unsurprising. When the conditions permit (say, in war) people can be very cruel creatures. I am very disturbed, though.

I do have some concerns about the number of works inspired by this event. I see a lot of true crime books and films 'based on a true story', etc., and I've always wondered about the morality of these things. I was about to say that I'd never create any creative work based on such terrible sufferings like these, but then I remembered that I had just written a poem based on a pretty shocking murder case that happened recently.
posted by Karcy at 10:41 PM on July 26, 2007


You forgot bed wetting and starting fires

Awesome. We have an arsonist at work here on the island right now.
posted by maxwelton at 10:42 PM on July 26, 2007


And this crime is unique in the large number of people involved. With one killer, you might argue that circumstances and mental illness led to this. But with so many involved, it seems very hard to argue that all of them were so incapacitated that at no time could any of them have done something.

This bears repeating. No pseudo-scientific psychoanalytical excuse can be dredged up to explain the horrible behavior for an entire neighborhood and draw any comforting barrier between 'normal' and 'sick.' This almost certainly has nothing to do with psychopathy or the like. Nor is this story as unique and shocking as one would like to believe. This treatment is pretty much identical to the 'total objectification' of women that has occurred during times of war and privation since the beginning of time. One is tempted to believe that there was a time in human history, before morality and law evolved, where such behavior was the norm and totally acceptable.
posted by nixerman at 10:47 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


i take back the above flippant remark. i was just a little overwhelmed by how horribly the essay was written and wrote that before i (skimmed) got through it all.
posted by andywolf at 10:53 PM on July 26, 2007


everyone, and I mean everyone in the neighborhood knew about it, after the fact. It was part of my childhood lore or legend, the girl down the street who was tortured and had coke bottles shoved in her

AFAIK it is technically illegal to not report suspicion of child abuse or neglect in BC (perhaps all Canada).
posted by five fresh fish at 10:56 PM on July 26, 2007


If there is one redeeming quality to the films, it is as a possible purgative antidote to to the recent, and deeply disturbing, trend of "torture porn" : Saw, Hostel, Captivity and the likes.

Back on the subject of horror fiction and film (and away from the real horror stories), my feeling has always been that the horror film (going back to the 20's) is deeply personal in a way that ordinary films are not, but which is similar in character to pornography.

In other words, the horror film must bypass the viewers reasoned, civilized facade in order to attack the viewers subconscious. Pornography does the same, except it is superficial. Pornography hits the limbic system because humans have short circuits in our head for sex and signs of arousal.

But horror is different, more complex in this regard, because the triggers are not obvious, are often culture-specific, and personally idiosyncratic. There are some instinctive fears - blood, and skeletons (only elephants and humans recognize and fear the skeletons of their own species) - but most great horror films have to approach the problem through subtext. As the genre is explored, we learn more. For example, the awkward gait of the well-dwelling girl in The Ring, when combined with the film's cutting edge use of electronic jitter is just non-human enough to cast her into the uncanny valley. Furthermore, the use of visual proportions and sonic dissonances that are the antithesis of the golden ratio reveals that while there are geometries and sounds we find pleasant, there are also those that we find repulsive.

The strength of the horror film is that it allows for very personal deconstruction - why am I afraid of this image, or this dialogue, or that sound? How can a film that makes so llittle rational sense textually, such as Lynch's Lost Highway, still seem creepy, or even terrifying?

The torture porn movies are not horror movies in the true sense because they do not scare you, they shock you. The appeal is the spectacle of it, like a nineteenth century public hanging. What make this films perverse is that they knowingly and deliberately appeal to an audience that is pathologically compulsive about seeing death. And this compulsion demands ever more graphic brutality to satisfy it. Thus, like a porn addict will move from basic sex to sex out ever kinkier and more fetishistic sex to satisfy their craving, the torture porn afficianado will need more red meat.

These films still are deeply personal, though, and they appeal to the self-centered misogynist who wants to see the Other (usually the "beautiful people", jocks and attractive girls that are unattainable to them in real life) get its comeuppance.

There's a lot of writing out there hat suggests this stuff is a response to Abu Ghraib and the war, but I disagree. Rather waht the soldiers and guards did at Abu Graib is very much in the spirit of these films, which traces its roots to the shock shlock films of the 70s and 80s (Faces of Death, I Spit on Your Grave, etc).

What we have is a nation of borderline sociopaths and a film industry that is so desperate for box office hits that it now sensationalizes what it used to marginalized a generation ago.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:09 PM on July 26, 2007 [51 favorites]


should be "Thus, like a porn addict will move from basic sex to sex seek out ever kinkier and more fetishistic sex to satisfy their craving,"
posted by Pastabagel at 11:15 PM on July 26, 2007


I find it disturbing that the reaction of many of the people in this thread is to call for the murder of more people. I am glad that I do not live in a world where people like maxwelton get to decide who's human and who isn't.

The cooptation of visceral reactions to serve the needs of the State is an old story, and it is sad that self-reflection has not supplanted the authoritarian impulse.
posted by nasreddin at 11:19 PM on July 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


Pastabagel: I liked the original formulation better.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:32 PM on July 26, 2007


And the jury "showed mercy" and didn't execute her. Disgusting.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:36 PM on July 26, 2007


While I appreciate what you are saying, nasreddin, I can't agree with you. There are some people who are so unable to coexist within a society they have to be removed. When you not only kill, but torture someone that you have been trusted to care for, you prove to others that you cannot live within the social contract. In the past, banishment would have been acceptable. But since we can't just push them onto someone else's lap now, we should remove them. Permanently.
posted by the_royal_we at 11:40 PM on July 26, 2007


we should remove them. Permanently.

Why do you, or twelve of your peers, get to decide whether people should be (as you so deliciously put it) "removed"? If you are so committed to the State that you entrust to it the power to murder you, you are bound to abide by its decision, reached by appropriate legal means--in this case, clemency. The only alternative within that framework is vigilante justice; the same impulse, ultimately, that drove Sylvia's killers.

I think Gertrude Baniszewski coexisted in society just fine after her release. Are you a Christian? How about "judge not, lest ye be judged?" Do you believe that a criminal can sincerely reform? If not, why not?

I can accept Catholics who believe in mortal sin, because at least they have the humility to acknowledge that the ultimate arbiter is God, not Man. I can even accept a sacrifice to Moloch, because it's justified by a belief in a just afterlife. But sacrificing people to your amorphous Social Contract? I prefer the concentration camps.
posted by nasreddin at 11:53 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


wow.
just... wow.
How about "let the punishment fit the crime"? We're talking about someone who made a teenage girl strip naked and shove a coke bottle up her vagina while the neighborhood kids pointed and laughed.
And no, I'm not a Christian, but the view's pretty damned clear from where I'm sitting. You do that to another human being, you forfeit your right to run around and do as you please. You had your freedom and you abused it.
posted by the_royal_we at 11:59 PM on July 26, 2007



And no, I'm not a Christian, but the view's pretty damned clear from where I'm sitting.


I am happy that everything is so clear-cut for you. I wish I had such a sharp, black and white view of human life, and that it was so easy for me to find a ready scapegoat. Do you support murder as a punishment for all crimes that are distasteful to you? Where do you draw the line?
posted by nasreddin at 12:07 AM on July 27, 2007


nasreddin, as I stated, I'd be a poor choice of leader. I feel, however, my desire to lash out at the perpetrators comes from a different place than their desire to torture and torment the helpless. Ridding society of assholes seems different than torturing schoolgirls.

Perhaps it isn't. ¿Quién sabe?
posted by maxwelton at 12:11 AM on July 27, 2007


maxwelton, I like the cut of your jib - perhaps there's some newsletter I could sign up for?
You said it: Ridding society of assholes seems different than torturing schoolgirls. I guess I don't get it, or maybe I am just coming from a more honest place. What if this was your sister? Or your child? Are you honestly saying that there's a gray area there for you? Because there's not for me. Now, life for me is a pretty big gray area, but letting some fucker who tortures a little girl to death get off with an "I'm sorry" just doesn't leave a good taste in my mouth. And no, I do not support murder for a punishment for most crimes. But torture is a pretty far cry from say, dealing pot. Or am I just coming off like a big, raw nerve here?
posted by the_royal_we at 12:19 AM on July 27, 2007


I guess I should clarify - everything but the first two sentences in my last comment are in response to nasreddin's comment. okthxby.
posted by the_royal_we at 12:20 AM on July 27, 2007


I feel, however, my desire to lash out at the perpetrators comes from a different place than their desire to torture and torment the helpless. Ridding society of assholes seems different than torturing schoolgirls.


I wasn't really being clear, I'm sorry. What I mean to say is that the involuntary, atavistic impulse of revulsion and hatred is natural, and not in itself bad; it's part of what makes us human. The other part, though, is a sense of charity, compassion, humility, and perspective--which is being dangerously neglected in your position.

From the warped point of view of the perpetrators, Sylvia was one of those "assholes." There is no objective standard--as Hume proved--for calling one morality more true or valid than another. Sure, we can say: we're all assholes, but we have the guns and the courts to make our morality legitimate. But where does that leave us as thinking, feeling human beings? And does it not justify Stalin?

It's easy to call me a moral relativist and dismiss my arguments. It's a lot harder, though, to actually construct an objective foundation for a moral system. I think human life--or rather, human freedom--is a value which we all, to some extent, share. If we don't have a really good reason to forfeit it, we must renounce the privilege of judgment.
posted by nasreddin at 12:25 AM on July 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, royal_we, I can't respond to your arguments. They're emotive, not logical. I think emotion has its place; I'm not a robot. But I don't think my emotions are a good enough reason to kill someone. If you think your emotions are, then you should explain why.
posted by nasreddin at 12:29 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


nasreddin, I take it you don't view society as a living organism? Your body mounts vicious attacks every day against harmful creatures and substances in order to stay alive. Society will do the same to rid itself of poisons.

I don't know if capital punishment is the correct response, and I certainly don't think it works as a deterrent. A mosquito isn't going to be deterred from sipping my blood just because I've slapped 100 of her cousins from my arms -- but it doesn't mean I'm going to stop slapping them.

Sure, a better solution is to empty the pools where they breed, wear long sleeves and use bug spray, but sometimes one will get through anyway, or it's too hot to wear a shirt. There's no way the infiltrator is not getting slapped. (Now accepting nominations for "worst simile"...)

My visceral reaction to the criminals here was "shoot them." I'm not proud of it, but I stand by it my "natural" reaction.
posted by maxwelton at 12:29 AM on July 27, 2007


...and I'm going to let maxwelton take this one.
posted by the_royal_we at 12:29 AM on July 27, 2007


I don't know what to ask of film-makers other than to treat cases like these with sensitivity and compassion. Like bora horza and kitchens for breakfast, I don't know who wishes themselves to encounter such depravity. Who wants, worst of all, such deep, human suffering re-wrapped and sold as torture-chic for horror aficionados?

Speaking as a fan of gorno films, when I looked at the trailer for "An American Crime", I didn't associate it with "Hostel" and the like. While it deals with torture as a theme, it doesn't appear that gratuitous depictions of violence are going to be the focus of the movie. The focus is what the fuck makes a whole neighborhood ignore that this is going on. That's a confounding enough question to make for a potentially good movie.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:33 AM on July 27, 2007


nasreddin,
You're setting up strawmen, false analogies, and false logic. I don't want greater punishment because I want to serve the State, as you put it. I want it because a basic principle of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime. You seem to be framing this in terms of subservience to authority, but what of justice? Their acts were horrible, their punishments not nearly as so. I wouldn't advocate the exact same thing happen to them, but certainly longer prison sentences than 2 years for some of them and 20 years for the ringleader seem reasonable. Even death for the primary parties seems reasonable, given the nature of the crimes.

You set up ridiculous strawmen like "The only alternative within that framework is vigilante justice; the same impulse, ultimately, that drove Sylvia's killers." Sylvia's killers did what they did out of sadism, or desire for power, or any number of reasons, but certainly not out of a desire to see a societal wrong rectified, and it is facetious to equate them. Just because violence is done doesn't mean that all reasons for it are equal. Further, you ask why we entrust juries with the power of death. It's the same reason we empower them to imprison you, or fine you. We have a social contract to create laws that constrain some of our freedoms for the benefit of all, and the system we have enacted for this is the criminal justice system. However, it is demonstrably not perfect, and it's silly to say that either you totally accept the system or you take matters into your own hands. You work to improve the system, and one way to do this is to try to ensure that crimes are fairly prosecuted and justly punished. I mean, seriously: "Do you support murder as a punishment for all crimes that are distasteful to you? Where do you draw the line?" Do you even know what the law is concerning capital crimes, or the rational for it? I assure you it's more than "we love killing, let's do more of it". In fact, the entire trend of US law has been to increasingly limit the circumstances in which capital punishment can be used, to clearly define instances in which a crime is so heinous that death is appropriate. Please try to be a little more reasonable and a little less full of righteous condemnation.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:34 AM on July 27, 2007



nasreddin, I take it you don't view society as a living organism?


Well, I'm an anarchist. I don't think "society" in the Comte-Weber-Durkheim sense has any rights above and beyond the rights of the individuals that comprise it. But I don't want this to be about my political beliefs.

Assume you view society as a living organism. In that case, killing Gertrude is more or less the same as popping a pimple: it fulfills no legitimate biological purpose, it does nothing to prevent further pimples, but it does make you feel pretty good.

Gertrude was not a poison. If she had moved to a different state and done something similar, maybe there would be a case for it. Gertrude was a pimple: ugly, harmless, and indicative of deeper problems in the societal organism.
posted by nasreddin at 12:35 AM on July 27, 2007


i hope this isn't too much of a derail. but, do the folks that talk about letting the punishment fit the crime honestly believe that human beings are infallible? it's an absolute impossibility that every single individual that's been put to death is guilty. name any human endeavor that hasn't had some failing. you can't. in stories such as this i fully appreciate the sentiment, i was wishing for these folks to be drawn and quartered, or worse, the whole time i read. but not every case is nearly this cut and dried. is your sense of injustice so much more important than the rare innocent individual's life that will inevitably be killed to make you feel better? as long as you feel good, some schmuck caught in the wrong place at the wrong time should lose his life? to say that the death penalty should be enforced is to bestow upon the court system the unbelievable assumption that humans can create a perfect system. i'm sorry, but that's just fucking asinine. you must have an amazing belief in yourself to never misinterpret reality. btw, the world isn't black and white, it's pretty complex, if you haven't noticed.
posted by andywolf at 12:37 AM on July 27, 2007


It's not that surprising that others did not raise a red flag. The neighbour family just saw one girl attacking the other girl. Twice. That's the kind of thing that happens and calling the police isn't going to do anything. In another instance, an 11 or a 12 year old girl told her mother that they were beating and kicking Sylvia something bad. She must have thought it's not nearly as bad as it was in reality, and an 11 year old can't express the degree of how far it's going because she isn't sure of where the line is between overly rough and criminal/hint of an electric chair in the air. When someone gave an anonymous tip about the girl in the house was possibly a tip from one of the kids who participated but thought it's starting to go too far. On the other hand, he'd likely mention that at the trial. On the third hand, maybe he/she was one of the kids who were not even charged.

It could have been stopped by her sister when the woman denied her access telling her that her parents told her not to let the sister in, and threatening to call the police. The sister should have of course told her that she will call the police herself unless she sees them. For some reason she backed down. Maybe she was in trouble with the police herself or did not look reputable or had some other things she had to do that day; either way she didn't have any indication of how bad things are. All she heard from the girls is that they're punished unfairly sometimes, but that's what you hear in like 90% of all punishments, from the receiving side. Being denied entry is suspicious but there could be other reasons for that.

So, this is the case of one girl who was too impressionable and vulnerable, and a hysterical and psychotic woman.

This is terrible of course but, to put things into perspective, similar things happen pretty often except they drag on for years and decades and the perpetrators stay calm and cunning enough not to kill the victim. They come up with various justifications and they and the victim believe those to varying degrees. And then a case like this comes up and due to some peculiarities of what happened it captures everyone's imagination, and in people's minds it becomes a 100 or a 1000 times more heinous than other similar proceedings. Consider for instance that she didn't plan to kill her at all and tried to feed her and at least from reading the web page it sounds like she extracted the letter just to have some hope of explanation.

Maybe crimes like these but done in cold blood are even much more terrifying and despicable? And they're the ones we are much less likely to hear about.
posted by rainy at 12:37 AM on July 27, 2007


Sangermaine, you're crying for blood, and you're accusing me of righteous condemnation? Please.
posted by nasreddin at 12:38 AM on July 27, 2007


And I must have been responding while you were typing, maxwelton. Kind of an attempt at some levity. Good answers, both of you.
Nasreddin, I really respect your argument. I think you choose a terrible case to advocate for, and that is why I am having such a problem being rational. I cannot rationalize why someone who does something so reprehensible should be allowed to function within the greater society. We teeter on the brink of chaos. Society, as a whole acknowledges that and accomodates it with the social contract. Today's laws and morals and taboos and mores all are, to some extent built out of what we all agree are necessary for this thing to keep chugging along. It's a living, evolving thing that relies on cooperation from all it's members: be they monkeys with pants, or without. When someone upsets that balance, it threatens the whole group. That is why we can't let baby-raping assholes ruin our good thing we've got going here. Because we are just monkeys in pants.
posted by the_royal_we at 12:38 AM on July 27, 2007


Oh, and I love killing. Let's do more.
posted by the_royal_we at 12:40 AM on July 27, 2007


nasreddin,
Sorry, should have previewed. I'm surprised at your last post, because it seems to undermine your point. By denying an objective basis for morality, you destroy your own assertion.
"The other part, though, is a sense of charity, compassion, humility, and perspective--which is being dangerously neglected in your position." Why would we need to think of these things, if there was truly no basis for anything? A system that ignores them is as good as one that doesn't.

But, I actually agree with you re the subjectivity of moral codes. Luckily, we don't need it, necessarily. When making policy decisions about punishment, we need to consider their effects on society. Do these punishments help deter future crimes? Do they leave a sense of disatisfaction which can lead to vigilantism and a loss of faith in the legal system? Simple blanket statements about compasion and such are good in abstract, but you need to consider the entire situation. There seems to be an imbalance of justice here; why not rectify it?
posted by Sangermaine at 12:42 AM on July 27, 2007


I think you choose a terrible case to advocate for, and that is why I am having such a problem being rational.

I agree that this is a terrible case to advocate for, and that's precisely why I chose it. It's easy to be righteous when you're defending the poor old man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family. A case like this really tests the firmness of our principles--at least, of mine.

But we disagree on what society is, and what our role as members of it is. I find repugnant any attempt to suggest that what is fundamentally an academic and philosophical construct has rights that supersede those of living, breathing humans, even icky ones. You see exceptions to that, and that's a legitimate argument too, but it needs more support than the unargued assertions that have been bandied about in this thread.
posted by nasreddin at 12:44 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


In fact, the entire trend of US law has been to increasingly limit the circumstances in which capital punishment can be used

does this include texas?
posted by andywolf at 12:45 AM on July 27, 2007


I welled up so much that I had to pause halfway through, but I read all 25 pages of the CrimeLibrary story. The story is deep, but not deep enough; in these articles, books, and movies there is a compelling need for the auteurs to try to understand (and maybe show) the psychological machinations behind the crimes, and everyone just comes up short as to why anyone would do this and why no one who knew of it did anything about it, the acts were so terrible.

The thing is, by the time Sylvia had mustered up enough courage to tell someone about the tortures being inflicted on her, no one believed her! That to me is the most horrific thing of all.
posted by Lush at 12:47 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why would we need to think of these things, if there was truly no basis for anything? A system that ignores them is as good as one that doesn't.

Because I'm not talking about the system. I'm talking about me; I care about my own alleged compassion, etc, even if they're not objective. The system doesn't care what we think; the woman's already paroled and dead. I'm puzzling out an ethical position for myself. Which is the most that anyone can do.

Can you enumerate what you think the policy effects of killing Gertrude would have been? Do you really believe that people like Gertrude are rational actors that are subject to deterrent influences? The other question--"sense of dissatisfaction"--is a dangerous slope; Brown v. Board led to vigilantism, after all.
posted by nasreddin at 12:49 AM on July 27, 2007


"A tortured young girl is dead": Is this a chance to talk about a movie about a torture victim, or is it a chance for people who like to debate the merits of the death penalty to hijack a thread?
posted by 23skidoo at 12:56 AM on July 27, 2007


andywolf,
The doctrine of the punishment fitting the crime and actual determination of guilt are different things. The punishment should fit the crime. The question is, who do we punish? Yes, the courts do get that wrong sometimes, and that's why I, as a rule, am against the death penalty (which you perhaps might not believe given my other statements here, but it's true). As a general rule, since death is irreversible, and since you can't be 100% certain, there shouldn't be a death penalty. But then you get cases like this...there is a clear imbalance between the act and the punishment. The guilt of the parties has been confirmed by confessions and evidence. Still, if we want a consistent legal rule, we'd have to not kill these people either, so I suppose I'd have to hang up my anger and allow that. But, what's so frustrating is that even the non-death punishment was so light. Surely life in prison without parole is possible here?

I think this is also why what nasreddin is saying is bothering me, because to me it seems like pointless mumbo-jumbo. Righteous talk about compassion and such in a non-objective system is meaningless. You should judge it on the facts and the effects, such as opposing the death penalty because it is an absolute sentence and you can't have absolute certainty.

On preview: andywolf, do some reading about the history of capital punishment as it has evolved from English common law as a whole and you will see what I mean. Of course it's not perfect and uniform, but even in Texas you can't be killed for many of the things that were allowable in the past.

nasreddin, That's fair. You are entitled to your own personal questions. I think we may be speaking about different things. I'm talking more about what the general rule in cases like this should be, and whether what happened was the right thing to happen in those circumstances. There are multiple things to consider when making legal policy decisions; retribution and satisfaction are merely two to keep in mind. It's not a simple thing, as you've said. People like the mother may not be rational actors, but what about the others? Some of the accomplices got off with less than 2 years, and they certainly seemed sane. Could this be a problem? Those things need to be considered.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:57 AM on July 27, 2007


Sangermaine, I'm going to bed, but I disagree that there is a "clear imbalance." I think you are trying to camouflage your own, very subjective, instincts of revenge in a language of "objectivity" and "societal effects." If you think these things "need to be considered," then why does it seem that you have already made a decision? Have you carried out a study, on the broad scale that your lofty language suggests? Without this sociological data, the position you are appealing to is "mumbo-jumbo," and you need to accept that it is based on a purely subjective judgment.
posted by nasreddin at 1:03 AM on July 27, 2007


Nasreddin - I'm going to be sorry I asked, but I'm going to: A case like this really tests the firmness of our principles--at least, of mine. How? What principles does it test? And what are members of a society's role? (I promise, I am not baiting. I really want to know more about your thoughts. ) Feel free to answer in the morning. Goodnight.
posted by the_royal_we at 1:09 AM on July 27, 2007


I agree that this is a terrible case to advocate for, and that's precisely why I chose it. It's easy to be righteous when you're defending the poor old man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family. A case like this really tests the firmness of our principles--at least, of mine.

I'm with nasreddin on this. Reading this, getting to the sentencing, I felt a desire for Gertrude to be killed. I wanted the death penalty, at the gut level. I've never felt that way before.

So I understand now. But I still turned on that feeling, examined it, and discarded it as I moved past it. I had to go through the same process again reading about her parole. It sounds like she lived quietly and decently after that. That's the best I could have hoped for.

I force myself to move past these feelings because I don't believe in justice as a motivator. I believe in a criminal system which is focused first on the safety of the public, and second on the rehabilitation of criminals to where they can rejoin society in some way safely. I believe that, failing that, they should be kept from harming themselves or others, as appropriate to their crimes. I simply don't see where the the justice scheme of things has actual positive merit. Creating more hurt doesn't make the world a better place. We can only try to minimize the hurt.

Cases like this make it much harder to maintain this position. I still do, but I think I understand the emotionally based argument a little bit better now.
posted by Arturus at 1:20 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


To be clear, I am not a trigger-happy proponent of capital punishment--I'm against it, because it is an emotional reaction, one which is very final, and one which has no deterrent value for the crimes it is usually applied to. However, that doesn't stop me from having the gut reaction that it's what the punishment should be in this case.
posted by maxwelton at 1:24 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


metafilter: What a disgusting outrage that GB and the others were not punished adequately for their crimes!

nasreddin: Why? Morality is relative anyway; you're just as bad as they are.

metafilter: As human beings, we demand JUSTICE!

nasreddin: But why? That is an emotional response, not a logical one.

metafilter: The yearning for justice is an irreducible axiom of morality. It requires no proof, derivation, or explanation.
posted by metaplectic at 1:25 AM on July 27, 2007


In my opinion, capital punishment is never the correct option.

Even if we conveniently allow ourselves to be infallible on the subject of a person's guilt, we should not apply a death sentence to them.

It probably comes down to whether the prison system has as its primary purpose, punishment or reform/rehabilitation. I believe that while there is a punishment factor, the overarching purpose should be an attempt at reform and rehabilitation.

We should never allow anyone the right to take human life, not even (or should I say especially not) the state.

More on topic, this is a horrific crime and I don't believe a film with entertainment as its objective is the right vehicle for its representation.
posted by knapah at 1:30 AM on July 27, 2007


Hey, I know... let's cash in on this tragedy. I'm off to write the mini-series. FOX will air it (you know they would).

Profit derived directly from human misery is the BEST SORT of profit. Ca-ching, amirite?
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:07 AM on July 27, 2007


Note that GB was sufficiently rational and aware of the wrongness of her actions to deceive the nurse who came to her house about Sylvia, and also to engineer an alibi well in advance of Sylvia's death (the letter she made Sylvia write to her parents). The heinousness of her crimes is completely irrelevant to this question.

Furthermore, she denied her crime (even to the parole board!) and never expressed genuine remorse. (Who cares that she was well-behaved in prison afterward? Her crime was victimizing a defenseless child in her care, not fighting authority.)

GB was an evil and sadistic person of the highest degree, who deserved nothing less than immediate destruction. Those who argue against justice in this form are simply out of touch with their own humanity.
posted by metaplectic at 2:09 AM on July 27, 2007


People who cannot understand how a group of people could torture and vilify one member seem not be familiar with bullying and victimisation. I find it amazing that anyone could go through the school system (or any organisation where people are brought together in our society) without experienceing something akin to this, granted on a less physical level perhaps.

The (understandable) initial emotional responses to this story remind me of the reactions on this site to the attacks on the WTC at the time. A good proportion of people were advocating a worldwide pogrom against anyone who doesn't like the US.

The abuse of those without power and influence by those with power and influence is commonplace in our world on many levels. When a government uses it's military to intimidate and attack sovereign nations and will brook no criticism, I see that as an example to all those with less power. The message is - abuse power, persecute the weak and defenseless.

It is possible to live your life in such a way that you minimise the likelyhood that your actions will contribute to the suffering of others. That is where I would hope that the energies of people were focused if they felt that they had to do something after hearing of such a story as that of Sylvia.

I am sounding like a bit of a Buddhist here, which I am not. I believe that anger can be a useful motivator, but wishing physical violence on people is not a healthy response independent of whether it is a 'natural' response. As maxwelton expressed, would you be able to weald ultimate power responsibly, were you given it?
posted by asok at 2:23 AM on July 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


What we have is a nation of borderline sociopaths and a film industry that is so desperate for box office hits that it now sensationalizes what it used to marginalized a generation ago.

Er, yeah. The Romans used to force their slaves to fight to the death and feed people to lions. Were they all sociopaths too? The Persians used to impale entire tribes. Were they all sociopaths? And I trust I don't need to revisit the endless atrocities of the twentieth century. Calling everybody a sociopath is lazy. Try to step outside this narrow and prudent view of humanity and see that this sort of violence, torture, and degeneracy is no stranger to human experience and has, in fact, been the common case for the overwhelming majority of history. Americans love to do this little dance where they condemn criminals (either literally, or using psychology) and thereby avoid all blame upon their ever-pristine selves. It's stupid. Reading this story what saddened me isn't so much details but that it occured in America. It's absolutely ridiculous that we still haven't gotten everybody to agree that torture is evil and it's simply not okay to treat people like this, ever, for any reason.

GB was an evil and sadistic person of the highest degree, who deserved nothing less than immediate destruction. Those who argue against justice in this form are simply out of touch with their own humanity.

And thus the example is provided. It's the hallmark of barbarism that those who advocate it must always appeal to some fuzzy, mysterious Platonic Idea to rationalize the destruction of another human life. This is the irrational appeal of human sacrifice as the goal is never to punish the transgressor but to use her as a symbol. You can imagine when those people tattooed that poor girl they also felt perfectly righteous about the affair.
posted by nixerman at 2:28 AM on July 27, 2007 [4 favorites]


The Romans used to force their slaves to fight to the death and feed people to lions. Were they all sociopaths too? The Persians used to impale entire tribes. Were they all sociopaths? And I trust I don't need to revisit the endless atrocities of the twentieth century. Calling everybody a sociopath is lazy.

The Romans and Persians were many centuries ago. Perhaps what he is saying is, "It's time to grow the fuck up."
posted by Legomancer at 6:12 AM on July 27, 2007


Ah, 1965. The Good Old Days. How I love nostalgia. I have a book, somewhere, called The History of Torture Throughout the Ages and it makes it fairly clear that, if these folks in 1965 are all sociopaths or whatever convenient label you can slap on them to pull them away from the crowd and purify yourself, why, so are a significant fraction of the population throughout history.

This is nothing more than human behavior, built right into the organism. From the tickling of babies to watch them squirm on through elaborate and secret dungeons created in various ages to defend society from The Threat, people have itched to find a convenient and excusable victim to bind, to degrade, to multilate, and ultimately nullify. Such zeal, such invention! Some of the more anatomically correct ancient statuettes, those with full limbs unlike Venus of Willendorf, if you look closely, may have little arms terminating in such a fashion to indicate that she is bound, and she is most certainly faceless. Slavery is the oldest profession, not prostitution, and I don't doubt that one of the first uses of rope was to tie someone down, that we might do something horrible to them. Now it's more dressed up, we have contracts, we insult, we mock, we sentence, we villify. It's civilized and will be discarded just as soon as we can get that little bitch back in the shed where she belongs, in a little room where We Are God.

We are homo atrocicus.
posted by adipocere at 6:57 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Calling everybody a sociopath is lazy.

You know, nixerman, you're right. I didn't actually intend to call everyone a sociopath. Obviously not everyone likes or watches these movies. I meant to say that we have more borderline sociopaths than ever before, not that most of us are. It was late and I was tired.

It's absolutely ridiculous that we still haven't gotten everybody to agree that torture is evil and it's simply not okay to treat people like this, ever, for any reason.

The problem is that we know this but sociopaths don't know this because they do not know what is okay. They know that other people may not like it, but they do not see it as being inherently wrong.

At some point you have to ask not only whether committing torture is wrong but whether watching it and seeking out simulated torture is inherently wrong. If it is, then you have to ask why so many people do it, and the conclusion is that the people who do seek it out, who do like watching it, are broken in some fundamentally important way.

And again, understanding the minds of people who are like this or do these things in no way establishes an excuse for it. The criminal justice aspect is entirely separate motivated more by balancing civil order and safety with personal liberty and treatment for the ill.

I guess I'm more focused on the kids who watched than the mom. What happened to them? Did they grow up to live normal lives, or did they become violent themselves?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:09 AM on July 27, 2007


This is nothing more than human behavior, built right into the organism. From the tickling of babies to watch them squirm on through elaborate and secret dungeons created in various ages to defend society from The Threat, people have itched to find a convenient and excusable victim to bind, to degrade, to multilate, and ultimately nullify.

Wait, now you are are saying that all people have this capacity. They don't, that's the point. It is human behavior, in the sense that the people who have this behavior are humans, but not all humans have the same behavior.

And tickling babies, and putting out cigarettes on their arms is pretty much as far apart as two things can get before the universe wraps back around.

And here's where I reiterate my disagreement with the notion that Abu Ghraib is the same thing. Relative to the guards it is, but to a distant authority, even one that orders torture and delegates it many layers down to keep its hands clean, it is not. You could argue about the morality of an authority keeping sociopaths on the payroll to do the dirty work, but the morality of it doesn't enter into the psychology of it.

We're talking about the direct physical act of torturing person, not to get information, not because the pressure and adrenaline is racing, not because of blind rage, but calmly, methodically, and conscientiously.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:20 AM on July 27, 2007


Pastabagel, I agree with a lot of your observations, but I'm not sure I understand your overall view. You seem to feel like Jack Ketchum deserves praise for writing about this kind of torture while people who are interested in watching these films are in need of counseling. I get the sense that your objection to the films are sociological.

Where is the line for you between appropriate and inappropriate interest? What makes Ketchum's writing about this subject superior to films?

I'm also curious what made you want to read Ketchum's work in the first place. I'm very interested in abnormal psychology myself, but this subject matter turns my stomach to the point that I know my curiosity would be overwhelmed by nausea.
posted by zebra3 at 7:22 AM on July 27, 2007


My mother went to school with Jenny Likens. They were in a separate school from Sylvia and everyone else because they'd both had polio, and both wore leg braces. The only thing my mother ever said about this tragedy was that Sylvia was a hero because she tried to take all of the abuse so GB and her little band of monsters wouldn't hurt Jenny. I think she deserves credit for that. She wasn't just a victim, she was a hero.
posted by headspace at 7:58 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


At some point you have to ask not only whether committing torture is wrong but whether watching it and seeking out simulated torture is inherently wrong. If it is, then you have to ask why so many people do it, and the conclusion is that the people who do seek it out, who do like watching it, are broken in some fundamentally important way.

Please finish this sentence:

Seeking out gorno films to watch is wrong because ____________.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:04 AM on July 27, 2007


Wow, another Group Hate. With obsessive voyeurism, narcissistic self-congratulation at being "so much better than THOSE people," mawkish pity for a no-longer-existent total stranger and fantasies of equivalently sadistic retribution thrown in. It's almost as much fun as doing BDSM yourselves. Later in the thread y'all even turn on and Hate one another.

Compared to this I'd rather read Mefites discussing Lindsay, Britney and Paris.
posted by davy at 8:15 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


And for your hipster delectation, necrophilia is legal in Wisconsin.
posted by davy at 8:20 AM on July 27, 2007


This has nothing to do with davy's comment at all.

This case reminded me strongly of a recent case in Portage, Wisconsin, where a motley group of adults who tortured one of their own to death and abused a child of hers. Of course, none of them has the excuse that they were minors led astray by an adult.
posted by dhartung at 8:47 AM on July 27, 2007


Where is the line for you between appropriate and inappropriate interest? What makes Ketchum's writing about this subject superior to films?

Well, I can't speak for the films in the fpp because I have only seen the trailers, but for the film version of his book, their approach seems to be to show everything that happens in the book. But what made the book interesting was its elaboration on the thoughts and feelings of characters not expressed in dialogue. This kind on internal monologue is difficult to reprodcue in a film, unless the director chooses to be more creative with sets, lighting and sound to achieve the same effect. The trailer didn't leave me with that impression, but I could be wrong. (the "docudrama" linked in the fpp seems to be trying to do that).

My criticism of films above relates to the "gorno" genre as 23skidoo calls it, which these films don't seem to fit within.

The line for appropriate an inappropriate interest begs two questions - one, what is the "interest"? and two, in what context are we considering appropriateness? My interest was in looking for a good scare (I didn't know the story beforehand). The book has some graphic moments, but I can sort of skip ahead a sentence or too and avoid them. But most of the book isn't those kinds of things. And most of the books I read aren't like this either.

Films like Saw and Hostel dwell on the violence. If you closed your eyes through these parts, you'd have your eyes closed for half the movie. And the movies don't really offer anything besides the violence. There's no intricately woven plot or character development.

The problem arises when interest in these films becomes obsessive. If the interest is in seeing "cool new ways to kill people" I think that might be problematic psychologically, in the sense of why does someone want to see lots of people getting killed, and what makes one manner of killing particular cool or interesting? If the interest is seeing how the good guy makes it out (i.e. you want then tension and you want to see the positive resolution of it) then that seems normal to me (I'm not any sort of arbiter of these things, these are just my personal opinions of how I would feel about myself).

I'm also curious what made you want to read Ketchum's work in the first place. I'm very interested in abnormal psychology myself, but this subject matter turns my stomach to the point that I know my curiosity would be overwhelmed by nausea.
posted by zebra3 at 10:22 AM on July 27


Again, I didn't know the story before I read the book, and I didn't know the story was supposed to be real as I read it. I don't think I would have read it if I had known, because I don't read usually read true crime.

I suppose it is a personal question really. Like I said above, horror is a personal, visceral art form, so I suppose I have to admit that this kind of writing, psychological horror, not red meat and gristle, illuminates some personal darkness. Do I find them scary? Not really. It's like reading the book or watching the movie is a chance to put all the not-so-nice bits that accumulate in the psyche into a little box, which is then cataloged and shelved away, like a case closed.

I guess I'm saying that the line between appropriate and inappropriate is the difference between reading or watching a movie for the purpose of collecting and confronting the darkness within you, vs. reading or watching to feed and create more darkness that spills into and infects your conscious mind.

Aside from the gore/graphic violence issue, why does this particular case turn your stomach? Is it the mom, the kids, the townspeople who kept quiet? What about your personality triggers the response you have?
posted by Pastabagel at 8:48 AM on July 27, 2007


What is it with Catherine Keener and her need to one-up everything?
posted by Reggie Digest at 9:00 AM on July 27, 2007


"What is it with Catherine Keener and her need to one-up everything?"

So she belongs on Metafilter!
posted by davy at 9:10 AM on July 27, 2007


Fucking hell, I'm actually shaking.
posted by eek at 1:33 AM


heh.
posted by quonsar at 9:15 AM on July 27, 2007


Pastabagel,
There are a lot of things that bother me about this. The facts of the original case are just heartbreaking. But I suppose it's that personally, the idea of someone helpless being victimized sickens and horrifies me more than almost anything. The idea that this was a group egging each other on makes it even more sickening. The fact that this was a child makes it considerably worse. The humiliation makes it worse. And the fact that someone out there decided that this was something the world needs to see and relive makes it worse yet.

I understand why people here are wishing death on the perpetrators. I still don't understand, on some level, why someone would want to hurt or humiliate a person who had done nothing to deserve it. I read your description above about the homicidal triad; I'm certainly familiar with it from my own reading. I could have given that answer myself. But it's not enough somehow.

As a film geek, I have brushed up against elements of this genre at times, in films like Sybil, A Killing in a Small Town, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I can say that those are all well-made films, yet I never want to see them again and rather wish that I hadn't in the first place. The events they portray are too memorable and too ugly.

The trailers for these new gorno films (certainly Captivity) give me the same feeling that I get when I think of the horrible things in the films I mentioned: nausea, dread, and something approaching shame over the whole thing. A trailer is meant to get people's attention by showing them something they'd like to see more of; if that's really the kind of thing people want to see more of nowadays, then that's both fascinating and frightening to me. I'd like to understand why, but it seems like the sort of thing that will be better illuminated with the distance of time.

I think the true-story aspect of this film is also relevant. I remember seeing The Accused when I was in middle school. As a female, I felt a solid half hour of stomach-churning dread in the beginning. I thought it was horrible (was the slow-motion of that guy's rape face really necessary?), and I saw little value in it aside from being educational in terms of what it's like to be part of a rape prosecution. It was preaching to the choir. So what is there left with a film like that? I couldn't help but to wonder at the time, did the real Sarah Tobias ever watch that film? What would she think of everyone who did see it, and what would she hope that they would feel about it all? I felt like the film could never live up to her hopes, and I very sincerely doubt that it did.

Maybe I'm an idiot for having watched thousands upon thousands of films and still getting the kind of in-their-shoes empathy that I do every time I watch a coherent film. From what I see most of the time, I feel like I'm in a very small minority for some reason. The fact that some people think that the kind of compassion that is exhibited in this thread must be false gives me that sense. So something is wrong. With what, or who exactly, I don't know. This is all a little too gray for me to find a satisfying answer on my own, but it's interesting.
posted by zebra3 at 10:37 AM on July 27, 2007


Is this a chance to talk about a movie about a torture victim, or is it a chance for people who like to debate the merits of the death penalty to hijack a thread?

Wikipedia Metafilter is not paper. That some people are debating the death penalty does not prevent others from talking about the movie.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:37 AM on July 27, 2007


The idea that "the punishment should fit the crime" is interesting, in as much that, no one here is advocating that a torturer should be punished, in kind, with torture. I think it would be worthwhile to examine the moral reasoning behind drawing the line at that point, because I think those reasons would parallel the exact same reasons why others here draw the line at execution.
posted by Skwirl at 10:38 AM on July 27, 2007


Wait, so are you saying you liked the book or you didn't?

"Like" isn't really the word I'd use. I think it's a very powerful novel that's so emotionally upsetting that I would be hesitant to tell anyone s/he should read it.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:43 AM on July 27, 2007


As a film geek, I have brushed up against elements of this genre at times, in films like Sybil, A Killing in a Small Town, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I can say that those are all well-made films, yet I never want to see them again and rather wish that I hadn't in the first place. The events they portray are too memorable and too ugly.

Ok, I think I understand. "Henry" is unbearably ugly (and is a remarkable film for pulling that off so effectively without very much gore or violence at all, relatively speaking), but I think what you find ugly is precisely the mentality at work in the real people who do these things.

You say: I still don't understand, on some level, why someone would want to hurt or humiliate a person who had done nothing to deserve it.

You don't understand it because it isn't rational and therefore can't be explained rationally. The simple answer is that to the attacker, the victim deserves it. Every slight is perceived to be an outrageous offense. It's a hypersensitivity to feeling weak.

It sounds crazy because the people who think that way are insane, not to put too fine a point on it. The rapist thinks the girl was asking for it because of the way she's dressing. That's not the attacker's way of judging her attire, it's the reason he tries to have sex with her, "because she wanted me to." Again, crazy.

This is why generalizations of all people as capable of these things are wrong. You can't even tolerate witnessing a fictitious portrayal of the mindset in a movie, so there's no way you are going to arrive at that mindset on your own independently without some intervening life-altering ordeal.

You say you get "in-their-shoes empathy" when you watch these movies. That puts you in the majority. You're suppose to empathize with a character, that's what films do.

Although you didn't say it, I bet your "in-their-shoes empathy applies only to the victim. The problem is people who feel empathy for the killer. In these people's minds, the killer is suffering, and this is his response.

Remember, the villain is the hero of his own story. Somewhere someone is watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and nodding along. They understand Henry. They have so much in common with him (childhood abuse, rage, lack of emotional control, no self-worth, depression, etc), it makes sense.

But, consider some introspection, and this next statement is completely unloaded, value neutral, and rhetorical - why is it so easy to empathize with the victim? Do you think women in general empathize more deeply and more often for victims, regardless of their gender, than men? Do you think a non-insignificant percentage of men can identify with the killer in a movie like Hostel, Saw, or Captivity, because a lot of men out there are carrying some latent hostility towards women?

Do we at some subconscious level believe ourselves to be victims, because in reality we are powerless in the face of some vague terrifying authority?
posted by Pastabagel at 11:32 AM on July 27, 2007


Skwirl: I advocate torture, so count me in that set.

I believe that with people like this... there's a strong desire in me that they be subjected to the exact same treatment (the horrors this Sylvia received, or reading from dhartung's link that the 11-year-old boy was severely tortured, with burns so brutal it resulted in mummification of the skin and the inability to move his hands), but not to the point of death.

Why? Because I want to believe that there will come a moment, a Faustian moment, where those people fully, completely, and totally empathize with their victims, not just in a "poor me, I'm a sad old woman who was beaten by her husband, and I was on drugs, and ego ego ego please forgive me!" way, but in a truly Jesus McBuddha enlightenment of the soul where they understand, to every fiber of their self, what they really did. Where by undergoing the same pain, the same helplessness, they will finally cross that near-infinite chasm that separates one human being from another, keeps us so distant, and will understand exactly what their victim was feeling, and the sheer horror of being Sylvia, not just the physical torment but that no one believes you, no one helps you, that there is finally no escape except death itself. I want to believe that there is some way, some act, some thing we can do not to rehabilitate them, but to get them into that mental state, even if for a moment, where they have achieved an enlightenment, where they fully comprehend what they did not intellectually but physically, viscerally, and totally.

Then, when they've had that moment, that clarity hits their brain... when the sheer enormity and inalterable finality of what they did to another person washes over them, when their shame, and guilt, and remorse, and empathy are so great, they wish to die for their sins. At that moment... that's when we can finally put them to death.

I want, I guess, more than anything for people like the monsters described in this account to want to die themselves, to hate themselves so completely for what they've done. The thought that Gertrude died probably believing she was always the victim, first to her husband, then to drugs, then to the State and its prisons... the thought that some of those kids are quite happily living their middle-class lives... and they will go to their own deathbeds without every truly paying the price in their heart and mind for what they did.

That they haven't taken their own lives to me means they are still evil people. I want them to want to die for what they've done.
posted by hincandenza at 11:38 AM on July 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


The ultimate form of authoritarianism is the authoritarianism that demands control not only over your body, but your soul as well. I shudder.
posted by nasreddin at 11:43 AM on July 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


People are free to be evil, cruel, sadistic. People are not free to take that out on others. They're souls are their own for whatever best they see fit to believe and feel. But they're bodies, in so far as they can affect other bodies, are not. I can sit here wishing for you to have pain inflicted upon you all I want, but the moment that I move from pure wishing to actually harming you is the moment that I have broken the most basic rules of society, of human interaction. I can be a person whose vile nature cannot adequately be judged by anyone other than a god, but I cannot act that way.

Humans interact. We're social creatures, so goes the old adage, wise in its way. I grow so sick of the excesses of relativism that avoid that very basic fact. I grow sick of the viewpoint that each man is a moral island to the extent that when horrible pain beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not felt it is inflicted on an individual, this is but a test of our ability to remain detached from moral soapboxes. I do not care if relativism is true, if it really is the case that it can be true for some people that the torture of a young girl is morally good. I also do not care if there are universal moral truths beyond our insight that do not spell out that same torture as morally reprehensible. The fact is, we need society to run. We need to feel safe in our homes, we need to protect those around us with whom we, through some strange trick of the mind, are able to empathize and sympathize. If the only good that moral condemnations of GB does is reaffirm to us that we would not wish that same treatment among others, that we will protect our children and each other's children from similar treatment, and that we wish it were not the case that the human animal is capable of such things, then it is still good enough.

Obviously, I have had too much caffeine and felt like sharing the effects of it with all of you.

So far as the status of the movie as art of exploitation goes... I think the answer to that is closely tied to how we feel about inspirational true stories. We love a good movie based on an underdog who has overcome horrible, wretched conditions, proving that we humans are capable of such honor and courage. This type of movie only seems like the other side of the coin--if we want to understand in what conditions humankind is worthy of admiration, we need also understand the conditions in which we are not.
posted by Ms. Saint at 12:13 PM on July 27, 2007


But, consider some introspection, and this next statement is completely unloaded, value neutral, and rhetorical - why is it so easy to empathize with the victim?

I suppose it's simply instinctive to empathize with someone on screen, and I, as I have admitted, have difficulty understanding (or perhaps I should say feeling) the motives of perpetrators of these kinds of acts, so it is more likely that I will identify with the victim. If I don't understand a character, I can't empathize with them, in the same way that you can't empathize with underdeveloped characters in badly-made movies.

One film that comes to mind is Mike Leigh's Naked, in which the main character is a cruel and arrogant man who rapes someone before the credits even begin; it's an outstanding film, though, and I tolerate that character because I can identify with the loneliness and frustration that he portrays throughout most of the film. I want nothing to do with him when he is behaving destructively--he's a bad karma factory, but there's a lot more to him and there are many parts of the film in which I really feel what he seems to be about.

Do you think women in general empathize more deeply and more often for victims, regardless of their gender, than men?

I think women are more prone to nurture... I think an answer to your exact question would be near impossible to quantify. It's an interesting one and if you know of any relevant information on that I'd like to see it.

Do you think a non-insignificant percentage of men can identify with the killer in a movie like Hostel, Saw, or Captivity, because a lot of men out there are carrying some latent hostility towards women?

I think it's possible; there is definitely a gulf between the genders when it comes to this sort of entertainment. Note that in the Saw films, which are singular for having male victims, the victims are held captive but forced to make a choice that results in their harm. From what I can tell, the films with women and children as victims portray them as being at the whims of their captors.

Do we at some subconscious level believe ourselves to be victims, because in reality we are powerless in the face of some vague terrifying authority?

I'm not sure who you are referring to when you say 'we'.

If you mean 'everyone', or just 'Americans' then I think that's true; I think it's natural because of the way the mind works, and the political changes of this last decade could provide some answer for why these films have become more prevalent.

If you are female also and mean 'women'... that's a whole other can of worms.
posted by zebra3 at 12:35 PM on July 27, 2007


Note that in the Saw films, which are singular for having male victims, the victims are held captive but forced to make a choice that results in their harm.

The Saw films are not exactly alone in featuring male victims, even within the "gorno"* confines.

(*I should mention that I really hate this term kind of a lot, in that it's a perjorative that ascribes the same [low] level of quality to a number of films that aren't necessarily artistic equals at all.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:07 PM on July 27, 2007


Gorno, gorno goooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrno.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:23 PM on July 27, 2007


Gorno, gorno goooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrno.

Bah!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:28 PM on July 27, 2007


Yes, upon further reading, I see that I was wrong about that bit.
posted by zebra3 at 1:29 PM on July 27, 2007


This is just too devestating.
posted by hadjiboy at 7:58 AM on July 28, 2007


Since somebody brought up Henry the Serial Killer, the actual person behind that movie character had his life spared by George Bush. That's more ironic than "rain on your wedding day."
posted by davy at 9:12 AM on July 28, 2007


If one monitors Rotten.com's news page, there are stories like this several times a week.

The outrageous one this week is some sick bastard who travelled to Florida to watch a mother drown her kids while he masturbated. Fortunately, the "mother" was an FBI agent.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:58 AM on July 28, 2007


I didn't see that one, but I saw this one in New Zealand.
posted by davy at 12:42 PM on July 28, 2007


Oh wait, I didn't look hard enough.
posted by davy at 12:44 PM on July 28, 2007


solopsist writes "I ought to drive by and see if the house is still standing."

Way at the back of the story they tell of plans to convert the house into a shelter.

bruce writes "became self-conscious at sharing a moniker with a watergate character, so he changed it - to natty bumppo, james fenimore cooper's best known character. why not daniel boone or paul bunyan?"

Bet there are a lot fewer Natty Bumppos out there than Daniel Boones or Paul Bunyans. Having gone to the effort of changing your name away from a famous person's you wouldn't want to have to do it again.
posted by Mitheral at 12:02 PM on July 29, 2007


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