May 2nd, 2010 15:00 EST
Ann Rule`s "Small Sacrifices" and the Golden Age of True Crime!
What could possibly motivate a mother of three to shoot her own children? This very question is posed and answered in Ann Rule`s best seller, Small Sacrifices. Diane Downs is a complex character and most assuredly a sociopath of the highest caliber. Amazingly, we the readers get to channel her pathos vicariously as we read Rule`s masterpiece of the unthinkable. How is Ann able to make us feel so strongly about this woman`s outlandish life?
As a result of excruciating research, first-hand interviews with Diane and letters from this troubled woman, Ann Rule paints a crystal-clear, compelling portrait of pathos where sex and murder disguise themselves at every hand. Here I must throw in rock music, because Diane loved MTV and the New Wave band Duran Duran. She listened to the album Rio religiously, and latched on to Hungry Like The Wolf like a magnet to an iron rod.
Small Sacrifices is a best example of a literary genre known as True Crime. This genre came into its own in the 1980s with books like Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, Blood Will Tell by Gary Cartwright, and Careless Whispers by Carlton Stowers. This form blossomed forth at this time and experienced a renaissance of sorts. My own intuition is my only source of wisdom in the pronouncement of this revelation.
True Crime is a genre that examines an actual case from the news, but is three-dimensional in its coverage of character, motive and the police investigation. Some literary device may also be employed to enhance the reading experience. Truman Capote, by way of In Cold Blood, was the first writer to merge literary techniques with what is fundamentally an off limits, exclusively reserved for journalists.
Ann Rule`s The Stranger Beside Me about serial killer Ted Bundy was one of the first True Crime books to popularize this new genre. Oddly enough, Small Sacrifices out-sold the earlier Bundy paperback, and this begs the question of how could this be? I believe this is true primarily because it`s about a lady killer who shoots her own siblings, and this is a forbidden taboo by the bible of agreed upon societal mores
What are some of techniques employed by Ann Rule that make this such a compelling page-turner? One technique for certain is that she puts you back into the moment in time. Her research is so thorough that she has enough of the salient facts to do what I will call a "Reconstruction.` An example would be when Diane Downs pulls into the McKenzie-Williamette ER with her mortally wounded kids.
Ann achieves the "Reconstruction` by interviewing the nurses and doctors who were there in Springfield, Oregon the grizzly night of May 19, 1983. Ann inserts the memory of their exact words as they experienced the horror of this quadruple gunshot trauma. That is, it`s not in past tense, but rather in real time, as if you were watching them topsy turvy in action at the hospital.
Ann describes the nurses Shelby Day, Judy Patterson and Dr. John Austin Mackey; they each give their own vivid accounts of receiving the wounded mother and her three children. Ann weaves precise dialogue into the narrative that makes it direct and natural, as if it were happening right before your very eyes. Obviously, Ann had interviewed these hospital staff several times to provide her with the grit in creating this revelatory reconstruction.
The daughter, Christie Downs, testifies against her own mother in the court room, and refutes the account of Diane, that it was a shaggy haired stranger " who had shot the family. Christie also testifies that that the cassette Rio by Duran Duran was in the tape deck on the night of the shooting.
Specifically, the hit MTV song Hungry Like The Wolf was playing while Diane was actually shooting her own children with an automatic 22 pistol. Ann features excerpts from Christie`s actual testimony at the trial. It`s so in the moment and realistic; this kind of precision goes a long way in making this a very good read.
The notion that rock music may have played a seminal role in Diane`s motive to kill was not explored to my satisfaction in Ann Rule`s book. It was suggested though. But in Diane`s twisted imagination did she not see herself as the wolf in the monster of an MTV hit by Duran Duran? Here`s the final chorus; so see what you can read into these lyrics by this British glamour band with puffy hairdos.
Burning the ground I break from the crowd
I`m on the hunt I`m after you
Scent and a sound, I`m lost and I`m found
And I`m hungry like the wolf.
Strut on a line it`s discord and rhyme
I`m on the hunt I`m after you
Mouth is alive with juices like wine
And I`m hungry like the wolf
In the delusional mind of the killer she must stalk her lover like a wolf; furthermore, she has to eliminate her kids who are just getting in the way, in order to free herself up for her lover, Lew Lewiston (not his real name).And is there a possibility that this song may have programmed Diane in such a way that it enabled her to pull the trigger? This is feasible, hey I`m just posing the question, that is all.
Needless to say, Diane Downs had other character flaws as well that contributed to her becoming a sociopath. Ann reveals this evidence candidly in Small Sacrifices. Rule writes of her childhood and the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father, Wes Frederickson. And her marriage to Steve Downs had problems that only compounded her "issues` with the male sex. But it was Lew Lewiston who rejected her and said he wanted nothing to do with kids; this may have driven her off a cliff, psychologically speaking.
So there you go, add a touch of rollicking rock music to the mix and you have a hot cocktail that blows the roof off a small town in Oregon. Ann publishes some of Diane`s erotic poetry from her infamous diary too. This makes it real; check out the Masturbation Poem on page 329. Does Diane think that she`s the next Bonnie Parker? My temperature rises, I`m getting hot, you should be with me, and yet you`re not. My fingers touch lightly the place of desire, still I`ve not quenched that burning fire. "
A good True Crime paperback will generally have a pictorial section included in the middle that puts a face to the crime and culprit showcased in the book. Also, other essential characters are included, such as detectives, attorneys, family members and most importantly, the scene of the crime and possibly the weapons involved. Absolutely, the writer must compose compelling captions to accompany the pics that may help to engulf you into the story.
If the photos are in black and white, this only enhances it quite a bit more. They should be somewhat cheesy too, maybe even a little out of focus. This adds to the realism of the account; these are real people, real events, taken from the grimy metropolitan columns of colloquial newspapers. The shot of Diane posing with a cast on her arm for police is worth a million dollars. She has a stoic expression on her face, almost a foxy pose, as if she`s hiding a zillion different thoughts she`s having about these matters.
What makes this such a good read, or how Ann Rule makes such a big contribution to this fairly new True Crime genre, is by probing into the criminal mind and prying into the nature of their sickness. This helps us to understand just where and when this person went afoul. Diane`s disorders were three-fold: Narcissistic, Histrionic and Antisocial. Rule probes these factors with a surgeon`s tool.
With regard to my theory about the role of rock in the shooting, I would point to the Histrionic factor. Why did Diane feel a need to have Hungry Like The Wolf wafting from the cassette player while she shoots her kids? Because she fancied herself in the midst of her own MTV video (shoot oops!), that`s why! The Narcissistic comes in when she knows she`ll be on the news shortly after her arrival at the hospital. Ya see, it`s all about numero uno! Sick, sick, sick!
The children themselves don`t matter what so ever to Diane. She created them and she can dispose of them as she will. She`s God to her kids. Here`s one paragraph from SS: A sociopath`s children are like puppies or kittens brought home on the spur of the moment: dispensable, expendable, and all too often, "fungible.` "
So folks, you will want to pick up Small Sacrifices, it`s an excellent read, and will clue you in on this fascinating genre of True Crime. And Ann has 20 of these TC books in her repertoire and 1400 articles under her belt to boot. However, it`s my belief that this TC genre peaked out in 1980s and the early 1990s, then tapered off a bit in the last decade, or so. It`s still around, but doesn`t experience quite the charge of popularity that it once did.
I like to call this period the Golden Age of True Crime. That`s my own moniker and it`s my own feeling about what has occurred. I lived through it, so it`s just a feeling I have. I don`t have a whole lot of empirical evidence to back it up with, but rather just boxes of yellowing paperbacks that perchance, I still love to peruse. I collect these throw away books, and have an unexplainable nostalgic attachment to these disposable compendiums of rueful horror.
So if this genre is waning, if it flickers in the moonlight, who are the guardians of this moribund art? Who are the soothsayers of True Crime today, who can pass on its traditions-the love of a tale of woe, intrigue and even murder (she wrote)? My theory is that the book form has been passed on to a TV format. I will dare to say that Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell are now our caretakers of True Crime. And it`s still just as popular as it ever was, only now it`s transmitted by way of talking heads, photos, video footage and viewer call ins.
However, this media form can`t come close to touching the traditional book format of TC with a ten foot pole. The original format is always superior in inspiration and in its impact. In the `80s TC movies made for TV attempted to simulate the experience of its book counterpart, but couldn`t come close!
Small Sacrifices, starring the late, great (and very beautiful) Farrah Fawcett put forth a valiant effort, but in the long run, pales in comparison to the book. I`d prefer to see footage or pics of the real Diane Downs anyday! So perhaps this genre will make a comeback! Fool, where`s my iphone, I want to hear Hungry Like The Loves Again? El Fino!
Duran Duran`s Hungry Like The Wolf video, as seen on MTV in 1983.