Sunday, November 06, 2005

Green River, Running Red: the real story of the Green River Killer - America's deadliest serial murderer

by Ann Rule (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)

I chose this book out of what was on offer in paperback in a small airport bookstore. Aside from the fact that there was little else in my price range, I chose it for two reasons. One was that I had recently read Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders [see my review in this blog] and I wanted to continue my education on femicide and compare the two books. The other reason was that I had heard about feminist protests around the Green River murders in the 1980s, but had not seen any details about the killer being caught. Rule only published this book in 2004, after his conviction, though she had been keeping notes for many years.

Rule is a writer who specializes in true crime stories. Unlike Truman Capote, she is not very literary. Her style is clear, but tends to be repetitive, and this book could have been edited somewhat for brevity. It weighs in at 661 pages, not including the acknowledgments. The only book this long I can remember reading all the way through was The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, which had the redeeming feature of being very funny. I'm not sure if I will ever finish this one, so I am writing it up though I'm only on page 383.

If I do finish reading it, it will be for the same reason she says she finished writing it at such a length -- i.e., because of her commitment to giving a human face and a personal story to most if not all of the women who were murdered by Gary Ridgway. There are 47 women's faces pictured at the front of the book. All of them are named during the course of it, and their situations described; and in many cases their friends' and families' reminiscences are included. Many of them were teenagers, and many but not all of them made money from street prostitution, a class of persons that Gary Ridgway both patronized and despised. Quite a few of the women had children. Some came from unhappy homes, others not. Many lived with their boyfriend/pimps; others with mothers, real boyfriends, husbands, or friends. Some were young and rebellious; some financially desperate; some were hitchhiking; some were only in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were white and many black. Some were pregnant. There's a feeling of the cautionary tale hovering about this story, but because Rule is scrupulous about including masses of detail, the cautionary aspect is not played up. True, you could get killed for being a teenager sexually out of control; or, you could be killed because you walked down the street to visit a relative.

As a crime writer, Rule works closely with the police, and she devotes a good part of the book to their work. During the course of the so-called Green River Killer's sequence of murders, Rule writes, the term "serial killer" was coined, the use of computers for police work was pioneered, the art of profiling suspects was further developed, and forensic science went through major changes. The amount of money and the numbers of people working full time on solving this long series of murders also grew vastly. There were several changes of command. According to Rule, the police withheld most of what they were doing from press and public in order to build a prosecutable case when the killer was found. They also had to wade through tens of thousands of leads and many false confessions, and eliminate many likely suspects. They did have police watching the area where women picking up johns were most frequently abducted, and they also had police decoys. Eventually, through reading this, I'm sure I'll find out what it was that worked for the police, how they caught the killer.

In taking the part of the police, Rule gives short shrift to the feminists, stopping just short of demonizing them for causing the police additional grief. If you want to find that section, turn in the paperback to page 281 ff, where Rule talks briefly about the Women's Coalition to Stop the Green River Murders and the U.S. Prostitutes Collective having a parade in March of 1984. I'll quote from page 282:

". . .Women's Libbers were often strident because they felt there was no other way. 'The issue is the killing of women,' [Melissa] Adams said. 'But we are showing unity with prostitutes who are the victims of this killer --and victims of a sexist society.
"'Violence against women is an all-American sport.'
"Perhaps it was. . . . But the coalition had chosen the wrong target, and it wasn't the Green River Task Force, whose members yearned to catch the man. . ."

Rule breaks up the story by jump-cutting back and forth among descriptions of the women and their lives at the time they disappeared; their families; a few people who interjected themselves into the case as psychics and police wannabes; the finding of bodies (mostly in clusters); the identification of the mostly skeletonized dead; stories by people who knew and interacted with the killer; and, the most imaginative part, a description of the life and state of mind of the killer himself, apparently boiled down from interviews with Ridgway. Her portrait of the murderer shows a not very smart child who was dissed by his family and found power in killing animals, went through a phase of religious fundamentalism, suffered some losses in divorce, and discovered prostitutes as both a source of pleasure and easy marks, whom he could rationalize killing. He was both a sex addict and a murder addict.

Most shocking from a female point of view is that Ridgway seems to have managed to appear like a reasonably nice guy and even a gentle lover or a normal husband to some women, while abducting and killing others. And he was good enough at dissembling that even though he'd been questioned by police, other people seemed more likely suspects.

The crux of this book seems to be that it's unlikely one can tell by looking whom to be afraid of, and it's unwise to trust your guts about whom to trust. I'm reminded of the credo of Vancouver Rape Relief: "Every man is a potential rapist." But shouldn't there be better ways to tell which ones are?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

autobiography of a blue-eyed devil: my life and times in a racist, imperialist society

by inga muscio (Emeryville CA: Seal Press, 2005)

Usually when I read books of personal essays, I don't start at the beginning and work straight through to the end, I skip around in them and dig out things I like. I did that with Inga Muscio's previous book, Cunt; but this book pulled me straight through very fast from beginning to end. It's well-written, fresh, full of different tales and varied approaches to telling the stories; yet there's a logic that builds from chapter to chapter and becomes very convincing. The theme is that a young woman from a not-terribly-privileged white background who is open to others and desires social change learns from both her experiences and her research, not only that there is racism in her society and that it is much deeper and more serious than she imagined, but also how it has put its tentacles into her own mind and behaviour. To me, this is a book about working to overthrow colonization of racist ideas in a person's own brain. Yet it's never too heavy, always giving you that breath of poetry or narration or whatever it takes to keep you hanging in. Very interesting and valuable and refreshing book.

Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002

by Sharon Olds (NY: Knopf, 2004)

I was in a big argument once (it was 1985) with Saul Sosnowsky, a scholar of Latin American literature. He was chairing a panel of consultants deciding which authors should be included in a projected 13-part series profiling Latin American writers for radio; I was writing the grant. I proposed including Gabriela Mistral, whom I knew had won a Nobel Prize for literature. In refusing her, the professor accused that Mistral didn't write about "literary subjects. She just writes about things like motherhood." Everyone at the table, including him, flashed on the deeply sexist scholarly prejudice he had just pronounced.

Sharon Olds is such a good poet that I buy her books new even though I don't personally know her. This collection omits some of my favourite poems of hers but it includes wonderfully meaty poems about motherhood. I use meaty advisedly -- physical selves and bodily acts are very vivid in her work, and the physicality gives tremendous support to the emotional and imaginative aspects.

Olds writes so avidly about her enjoyment of heterosexual marriage and sex in marriage that it rehabilitates my image of that condition. And she managed to arrive at that pleasing state despite a sexually active and activist youth in a time when "sex was a crime." The poem about trying to insert a diaphragm that keeps springing and landing on the floor in a seedy hotel bathroom is so vivid and stunningly original it brings tears to my eyes, especially because of the way at the end she claims the power of this young self who was so determined to control her own life.

What drew me to this book most while I was considering it in the store were the poems about the aging and death of her father, and especially the one about a rat and a cockroach who appear to her after her father's death. Something similar happened to me.

If you don't read anything else in this book, find it in the store and turn to the short poem "The Pope's Penis." The patriarchy really does have no clothes.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Number Ten

by Sue Townsend (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2002)

This is a bit of silly fiction with a few good laughs and tidbits of gratifying political fantasy. The premise is that the Prime Minister of England (Labour Party, but the leadership is looking for another name) skips out of Number Ten and goes about the countryside disguised as a woman, getting in touch with some repressed emotions and feminine parts his personality, while failing miserably in picking up on the political lessons he might have learned. Traveling with him is a policeman who has had to leave his elderly mother in not the best hands. One could wish there was a bit more substance to this story, but its political heart seems to be in the right place, there are occasional good insights, and any sort of laugh is awfully hard to find now, int it? Suzette checked this one out of the Vancouver Public Library. Townsend is also the author of the acclaimed Adrian Mole books, which I have not yet read.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders

by Alicia Gaspar de Alba (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2005)

When I pick up a book from a small press I confess I often have doubts about how good it will be. All doubts were definitely allayed in this case.

Gaspar, who is an associate professor of Chicana/o Studies and English at UCLA, spent years doing research on and even holding a major conference about the large and horrifying number of vicious sex murders of women that continue to be perpetrated in and around Juarez, Mexico, the city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The extensive acknowlegements section at the end gives some insights into that work.

But to go from research to a good work of fiction is not very easy. Most fiction "based on a true story" tends toward the wooden. I don't want to overpraise because discovering that you continue to like a book as it goes along is part of the suspense. But this holds up very well against all the genres it participates in: "true crime" as mentioned, the feminist mystery novel, the lesbian novel, and the bilingual chicana/o novel.

Things I like about this book include: The number of well-drawn and highly original characters; the tight and credible dialogue; the descriptions that carry their weight and don't go on for too long; the terse incorporation of information and ideas through the use of different characters' perspectives. I especially liked that Gaspar didn't try to perfect or apologize for any of her characters' behaviour or thinking or morals.

I found this book in a feminist bookstore (Bookwoman, in Austin, Texas ). I'm sure you can order it from them if you don't find it where you usually shop.

The G-String Murders

by Gypsy Rose Lee, afterword by Rachel Shteir (NY: The Feminist Press, 2005).

This is part of a new series The Feminist Press is issuing called Femmes Fatales, reprinting popular pulp fiction written by women in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. The Publisher's Foreword makes a great defense of the importance of these writers, who were read by many more people than more literary types (say, Proust) were.

The G-String Murders is not all that well plotted (a few weeks after reading it I can no longer even remember whodunnit), but it is interesting in its depiction of the burlesque industry, a sort of transitional form between Vaudeville and the strip clubs of today. The book is full of particulars about costuming, dressing rooms, toilets, food and drink, stage cues, regulations and the violations of them, police raids, and the slang of the period (the book was first published in 1941, but probably written in the '30s).

The afterword with biographical and publishing details added a lot. As a special treat, there is GRL's correspondence with her publisher (or, perhaps a pseudo-correspondence written for publicity purposes). The point is made that Lee was a woman who was proud of her intellect and vocabulary, and enjoyed freaking people out by being an intellectual and a stripper at the same time.

It's One O'Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride: A radio biography

By Susan Ware (NY: NYU Press, 2005). Mary Margaret McBride is sometimes called the creator of the radio talk show. In the 1940s and 1950s she "regularly attracted six to eight million listeners." As a radio woman myself, I loved the descriptions of how she ran her program, getting into deep conversations with people and just throwing in the advertising endorsements when she could fit them into the conversations. She only endorsed products she herself approved of -- often foods. MMM was a great eater, as her pictures in the book definitely show. Ware says the secret of McBride's interviewing success was that she really and warmly listened to people. She also was very generous with her listeners and always wrote back and often mentioned them in her shows. Another secret of McBride's success was her longstanding relationship (likely lesbian at some point, and involving shared housing) with her manager and publicist Stella Karn. Stella is a great character and I wish there were even more of her in this book. Because Stella was in her youth an advance publicist for a circus, I have formed an hypothesis that Djuna Barnes may have known or known about Stella before she created the character in Nightwood known as Robin Vote. Barnes and Karn were not of the same generation, but they did overlap in their tenure in Greenwich Village.


I started this blog so my friends can see my thoughts about books I've been reading.