Monday, June 4, 2007

The Girl in the Basement

This was the first book review I wrote for Gay Community News, a Boston gay liberationist newspaper published from 1973 to 1992. The review appeared in the fall of 1979. I haven´t changed it except for to correct punctuation here and there. Gertrude Baniszewski, I learned while preparing this post, got a second trial in 1971, and her sentence was changed from life without parole to 18 years to life. She was paroled, despite a great outcry, in 1985, and moved to Iowa where she died in 1990.

The book itself is long out of print, like most of Millett´s work, but the case of Sylvia Likens has not been forgotten. Like any gruesome crime, it has been written about by others beside Millett, in standard True Crime fashion. In fact, a movie about it is scheduled for release in August 2007. I doubt I´ll see it; I´ve never reread the book.

The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice
By Kate Millett
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979

To read The Basement is to have a haunted woman tugging at your sleeve, insisting that she has something important to tell you, demanding that you pay attention. She wants to upset you, and she can hardly fail, given her avowed obsession with her subject and its inherent horror. That it upsets the reader doesn't mean that a book is good, though -- only that it has got our attention, which is only the beginning.

In case you haven't heard, The Basement was inspired by a sixteen-year-old girl named Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death over a period of months in 1965 in Indianapolis by a gang of teenager sled by Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman with whom Sylvia and her younger sister Jenny had been left to board by their parents. Emblematic of her treatment at their hands was the legend killers etched on Sylvia's belly: "I am a prostitute and proud of it!" At Gertrude Baniszewski's trial the Deputy Coroner testified: "At the time I saw the body ... I thought it was the work of a madman."

Kate Millett, at the time a graduate student at Columbia with her own fame years in the future, read of Sylvia Likens' death in Time, and found herself haunted by it. Her first artistic response, since she was primarily a sculptor, not yet a writer, was to build cages with statues of women in them. Not until 1978 did she devote an exhibition overtly to Sylvia, nor did she write about her till then. She was, she writes, "waiting for the time to be perfect, waiting to be good enough."

The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice is written in two modes. One is documentary and analytical: an account of Sylvia's long death and of Gertrude Banizsewski's trial (she was convicted, by the way, and sentenced to life in prison), attempting to find the meaning of Sylvia's ordeal, to put it in some kind of context, to understand how it could happen -- why, for example, Sylvia didn't run away, or why the neighbors, who heard her screams, didn't intervene. There is also some account of Millett's struggle with her material; for example, the story of her meeting a young woman who, years before, had gone to school briefly with Sylvia Likens.

The other mode might be called dramatic and projective: Millett attempts to imagine herself into the minds of Gertrude and Sylvia. These portions of the book, at first interspersed with portions in the first mode but gradually dominating it, consist sometimes of interior monologues and sometimes of narratives with dialogue. It is these sections of the book which give me -- and Millett herself-- the most difficulty. "I am a fraud," she writes, "my Gertrude never the real one. ... One does not say, 'I will torture this child to death.' Torture was surely not a word Gertrude permitted herself"(250). Or again: "Can a child in Sylvia's position, given the degree of her fright, even be said to think ... in the sense of coherent phrases[?] ... Do you think in coherent sentences and achieve Gertrude's acts?" (81). Millett thinks not, and I agree. Nevertheless she spends almost 150 pages out of 342 trying to make them think in sentences. At best, her Sylvia and Gertrude engage in introspection as though they were Kate Millett. At worst they are --well, see for yourself.

"That little slut, hole between her legs and she is gone learn to understan it. Probably thinks it's a toy. Plays with it when weleave her alone, I'll bet. If we could just catch her doin that! The devil's work right on her fingers. Her own dirty little smell" (258). That is supposed to be Gertrude. So is this: "They corner her and I get so excited my asthma flares up but I ain't felt so good in years, like bein young or waitin for a man to stick his thing in, not that we're doin nothin like that but the thing of bein all keyed up. ...Sometimes you wonder maybe it's gonna get outa hand and this much of a good time might be a sin, but all you gotta do is remember it's for her own good and she asked for it" (226). I don't doubt that Gertrude Banieszewski was obsessed with Sylvia's sexuality for sexual reasons of her own, but I do doubt that she ever let them hover so close to consciousness (and so does Millett -- see page 290). More important, I think that Millett's Gertrude is a straw woman, too clearly, too self-consciously manipulated, and that in passages like these the backdrop almost falls down to reveal the puppeteer.

Sometimes Millett's efforts at lifelike banality veer over the edge into the ridiculous: "A Coke bottle. Coke aint like that. Just the sight of it makes you feel good, the green bottle and the brown syrup. You stop and have a Coke. Pause that refreshes they always say and really it's the best damn thing on a hot day" (235). That is supposed to be Sylvia, musing on having been forced to jam a Coke bottle into her own vagina. I can't help feeling that Millett's craft is not yet up to the task she has set herself, that she is not yet good enough for Sylvia.

In Part Two of the book, when Millett's inventions alternate with excerpts from trial testimony, I found they came as a relief from the latter's horrifying simplicity and artlessness: "I have seen her cry before but I imagine the reason she did not cry [when they beat her] was because she did not have enough water" (91). That is Sylvia's sister Jenny, from the trial transcript. This is Gertrude's daughter Marie, telling what Gertrude did while one of her teenaged accomplices practiced judo on Sylvia by throwing her against a wall: "She just sit there and crochet" (178).

And yet, toward the end of the book, Millett's depiction of Sylvia's last days is powerfully affecting:
All in the dark. And I come to and hear the quiet. Cause after all I couldn't. Don't know how long. Tryin and it turned out I couldn't. Waited too long before I started. ... Never mind. I'm gettin out anyway. I got a way. I know one way still and it's less trouble than shovels. Just wait and you make it anyway. One way or another [337-8].

It don't matter. Finally it don't matter. You all go under, everybody gets to see the light comin through a window once just when it stops comin in your eyes [340].
Is this because Millett finally has gained control of her material, or is it because the reality she invokes is so overwhelming that she can't miss? I suspect I will go on rereading this part of the book for a long time, trying to decide.

The documentary / analytic parts of The Basement seem to me brilliant, a reminder that Kate Millett is one of the finest minds writing today. It is in these sections that I think she comes closest to achieving what appears to be her objective: a fusion of the impersonal analysis of Sexual Politics with the passionate personal witness of Flying and Sita. Of course, Flying and Sita were not raw journal entries, but the product of revision after time had permitted some perspective and distance; nor should Sexual Politics' doctoral-thesis style obscure Millett's intense personal concern with its subject. If I'm not mistaken, she must have become involved with the women's movement not long after she read about Sylvia Likens, with whom she identified so deeply: "Because I was Sylvia Likens. She was me. ... She was the terror at the back of the cave, she was what 'happens' to girls. ... We all had a story like this, and I had found mine" (14).

The reader of this review -- much less of the book -- is likely to wonder why Kate Millett wanted to write about such a repellent subject, and why anyone else should want to read about it. A reviewer in the September issue of The Atlantic complained that Gertrude Baniszewski's crime was "too eccentric to exemplify anything"; it had nothing to do with the everyday relations of adults and children, women and women, or men and women. Or, as Nancy Walker wrote in GCN last January a propos the "boylove" controversy, "Americans ... love their children." Only a minority abuse them, and that minority doesn't count.

In fact it would be much more accurate and honest to say that Americans (like adults everywhere) are intensely ambivalent about their children. What Millett is trying to do in The Basement is explore the depths of the ugly side of that ambivalence, in the belief that the extreme illuminates the ordinary. She isn't the first feminist writer to tie the oppression of children to that of women. In The Dialectic of Sex (1970) Shulamith Firestone concluded a long analysis of children's place in a world of adults by saying,
Childhood is hell. ... We must include the oppression of children in any program for feminist revolution or we will be subject to the same failing of which we have so often accused men: of not having gone deep enough in our analysis ... merely because it didn't directly concern us. ... The mother who wants to kill her child for what she has had to sacrifice for it (a common desire) learns to love that child only when she learns that it is as helpless, as oppressed, as she is. ...
In Of Woman Born (1976) Adrienne Rich devoted a chapter to "Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness". "When we think of motherhood," she wrote,
we are not supposed to think of what infanticide feels like, or fantasies of infanticide, or day after wintry day spent alone in the house with ailing children, or of months spent in sweatshop, prison, or someone else's kitchen, in anxiety for children left at home with an older child, or alone [276].
Writing of a woman who murdered two of her own children, Rich made`observations not inapplicable to Gertrude Baniszewski:
She became a scapegoat, the one around whom the darkness of maternity is allowed to swirl. ... So much of this heart of darkness is an undramatic, undramatized suffering: the woman who serves her family their food but cannot sit down with them, the woman who cannot get out of bed in the morning, the woman polishing the same place on the table over and over and over, reading labels in the supermarket as if they were in a foreign language, looking into a drawer where there is a butcher knife. ... The scapegoat is different from the martyr; she cannot teach resistance or revolt. She represents a terrible temptation: to suffer uniquely, to assume that I, the individual woman, am the "problem" [277].
Millett might have used material like this, for Rich could easily have been writing about Gertrude Baniszewski, who suffered chronically from asthma and so couldn't hold a job, whose common-law husband beat her (when he was around at all), who took in ironing -- and Sylvia and Jenny Likens -- to earn a little money. It is one of the flaws of The Basement that she did not, for it may be that a reader who has not read Firestone or Rich or, for that matter, John Holt's excellent book Escape from Childhood, may fail to understand why Sylvia Likens' ordeal was unique mainly in degree.

Consider why Sylvia didn't try to run away from her torturers. Millett gives a number of good reasons: she couldn't abandon Jenny to them, they had broken her spirit, and she had no faith in other adults' willingness to protect her. Indeed Millett argues correctly that before Sylvia's bruised and starved condition was visible -- after which she did make at least one futile attempt to escape -- she would most likely have been sent back to Gertrude's house by any adult she sought out. But would anyone believe this who hasn't read John Holt's account, in Escape from Childhood, of a six-year-old Chicago boy who begged social workers not to return him to his father from the foster home where he had been placed? Those benign adults sent him back to his "real home," where four months later his father beat him to death.

One reason Sylvia Likens' story is so threatening is that it shows that adults don't necessarily know what is best for children, and I am not referring here to Gertrude Baniszewski. I am talking about the neighbors who heard Sylvia's screams but accepted Gertrude's explanation that the girl was incorrigible, boy-crazy, a thief, a tramp. How frighteningly easily she seems to have convinced them. No one seems to have bothered to ask about Sylvia's side of the story until it was too late -- not the neighbors, not the pastor, not the public health nurse who came to see Gertrude because she had been told there was a child in the house with running sores. (Everybody wants to be reassured that Sylvia wasn't a prostitute, as if that makes any difference at all.) And if adults can make such errors of judgment in such an extreme case, who can doubt that they err every day in less extreme ones? And if they do, how can anyone argue that adults should have the power to punish children, to correct them, to direct their lives? My word, we can't even direct our own. There is no question that parents, including mothers, have all too often compensated for their own feelings of helplessness by exercising power over their children.

The "boylove" controversy that raised so many hackles in these pages during the past year is relevant here. Opponents of child/adult sexual relationships who argued that such relationships were necessarily exploitative were amazingly uncritical of the unequal power distribution in all other child/adult relationships. Usually they called for more "protection" of children by adults. When men offer to "protect" women we know what is really meant. I think children can best be protected by giving them more real control over their lives. Certainly one lesson of The Basement is that Sylvia Likens died partly because she had too little autonomy even though she was accused of having too much.

The only trouble with The Basement is that it doesn't go deep enough. It touches on the plight of children, but too briefly. But more important, Kate Millett has let herself hide behind her projections of Sylvia and Gertrude, which do not connect us to them or to her. I kept wishing she would say something about the sculptures she created out of her obsession with Sylvia, and more of the process by which she came to understand the meaning of that obsession, her identification with the girl in the basement. After fourteen years, Sylvia Likens and Gertrude Baniszewski remain opaque to her, if we are to judge by her attempts to imitate their voices. If she had told us more about Kate Millett, she would have told us more about them as well -- as in her previous books, by telling us about herself she has told us about ourselves.