05 September, 2011

Fiction vs. Reality — A Personal Struggle

Some time ago, I read Jack Ketchum's "classic" of psychological horror, The Girl Next Door. I tried to read it as just a novel, but since it is based on real-life circumstances—and horrific ones, at that—I could not help but superimpose knowing that this "fiction" took place, that this "character" was a once-breathing, living girl, an actual human being who endured suffering which even surpasses what Ketchum wrote, I could not "simply" read this novel. I could not break my awareness, like a phantom hovering above every page, every deed, that this had truly occurred.

The Girl Next Door claims to be "loosely based" on the true story of Sylvia Likens, a teenage girl found dead at a run-down Indianapolis home in 1965. She had been tortured, beaten, burned, mutilated, and starved to death at the hands of her 37 year-old guardian, Gertrude Baniszewski, the Baniszewski children, and a group of other neighborhood kids. Her parents, as Carnies, left Sylvia and her disabled younger sister, Jenny, in Baniszewski's care so they could travel the country without "disrupting" their children's education. A few months later, Sylvia was dead, mutilated and tortured to unspeakable excess, mostly at the hands of a bunch of kids and an enabling "guardian," a woman just a few years older than myself.

As I began reading Ketchum's book, I immediately took note of the things about the story he had changed—the names of characters; the setting (much more idyllic than the run-down neighborhood of its reality); in the book, the girls' parents have died in an accident, and Baniszewski's character is their distant aunt, now their legal guardian. Perhaps what stood out more, however, were the similarities: Sylvia's character (named "Meg") arrives with her crippled younger sister, complete with the leg braces Jenny Likens wore. The dynamic between the neighborhood kids and Gertrude's fictitious Other (Ruth) were also nearly identical, as well as Baniszewski's drinking, chain-smoking, chronic illnesses, coughing, and the unique smell of recent ironing in the house. The note of how much silverware was in the kitchen—in Ketchum's book, a set for five; in reality, three spoons. The arrival of Carnies to set up a fair seemed an obvious nod to the Likens family. And then, further into the destruction of Meg's body and person, certain particulars of humiliation and torture.

Ultimately, the most troubling aspect of Ketchum's book became, for me, the character through which he told the story. It is written in a first-person account of one of the neighborhood kids, David, telling his story decades later, the next-door neighbor to the transplanted Baniszewskis, the"Chandler's" (and, hence, The Girl Next Door). David is at first enamored of Meg, and there is a slow descent into her being the new girl on the block to an estranged and enforced Other whose punishments she must, inevitably, deserve, to the tortured captive who somehow both embodies and defies Sylvia Likens.

What troubles me about Ketchum's depiction, through the eyes of David, is that David is the only one of the kids who refuses to take direct part in brutalizing Meg. At first, he is both mesmerized and horrified, troubled and confused, but ultimately, he defies the other kids and attempts to help Meg escape. He is the one, when Meg's body is discovered, who stands up and says to the police, "I'll tell you everything you need to know," as opposed to Jenny's real-life, courageous rebellion. He is the hero, the long silently-suffering survivor.

But I think what most bothers me about this portrayal is the sympathy we feel through David, whereas, in Sylvia's case, she found none. I've attempted to piece together Ketchum's intent through this strategy—is he trying to offer Sylvia, via David and Meg, some sense of the solace Sylvia never had? Is he trying to play hero to a girl, largely forgotten in the annals of American crime, whose life was so senselessly, so horrifically stripped away? Or is he just exploiting this story to paint an abominable portrait of what humanity is capable of? Does he give a damn about Sylvia Likens at all?

I don't know.

When reading the reviews for this book online, some people declared it little more than literary snuff. Many marveled at Ketchum's ability to tap into and show us the darkest colors of the human soul. I doubt most readers realize that this is based on a true events and just how closely Ketchum followed the Likens case. Authors can dream up a lot, after all, but it is reality and the details, motives, and horrors we inflict upon one another that are always the most shocking, and Ketchum is quite aware of this.

Ultimately, I think Sylvia Likens' story is one that should not be forgotten. If nothing else, I suppose that I wish Ketchum had acknowledged this girl and the suffering she experienced in some way, some form, some inscription, something to let his readers know that, for all the torment he inflicted in fiction, it is nothing compared to what Sylvia Likens had to endure. But there is nothing—just the superimposition of fictional heroism, whereas reality offered only helplessness, pain, and a death that remains, today, largely ignored.

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