By the time I meet him I don’t think of myself as someone who has been raped, but rather someone with a taste for danger. He is eleven years older than me. Eleven, which I have always considered the ideal comedy number since eleven of anything is much funnier than ten of that same thing. I am twenty-two: young. He is thirty-three: older. In his apartment, which looks like a flophouse conceived by an unimaginative film director, he usually turns me onto my stomach and once, in a pilled-out haze, he punches me hard in the chest.
He loves violent movies and true-crime stories and so, full of love and hope, I buy him a book called The Night Stalker, about the serial killer Richard Ramirez, who terrorized wider Los Angeles in the mid-’80s with a series of violent home invasions. The thirty-three-year-old seems happy with the gift and I watch from my parents’ window as he heads toward the train in his navy turtleneck, swinging the paperback jauntily.
One night as we are falling asleep on his bare bed I ask him if all his sex is so “aggressive,” a word I pick because it seems within the bounds of normal, unlike violent or perverted. He says no, that he’s just picking up on the signals I am putting down. I guess this is who I am and what I demand. I guess I will always hurt when it is over.
These days it seems like you can’t turn on the TV without watching a woman get murdered. Half the shows being produced revolve around a troubled but ultimately righteous man trying to solve the violent, elaborately sexual deaths of a slew of girls and women. Sometimes he’s doing it to avenge his murdered wife, daughter, or mother. Sometimes it’s to atone for his own sins. And sometimes there’s a twist and it’s a woman who must solve the deaths of these other women, coming face-to-face with the killer (and the killer inside her) in the process. Modern viewers have a seemingly bottomless appetite for female corpses, their skin marred by bruises and burns, gone blue-gray on the table.
After my mother’s best friend died, my mother swore off these kinds of shows. “I don’t need to feel any worse than I already do,” she said, and it seemed like sound logic. Her friend had fallen down the stairs and had lain comatose for a day before her children unplugged her life support. My mother wasn’t in a place to be contemplating prone female bodies, sudden loss that stretches on eternal.
But my father and I can’t resist and after the memorial service we sneak off to watch The Fall, in which brunettes, exclusively, are bound, gagged, and strangled before their cadavers are fucked by a beautiful former Abercrombie & Fitch model (who will go on to star in Fifty Shades of Grey). My mother storms in, betrayed: “You couldn’t just leave it alone for just one day?”
In the ’70s, during the months that David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz roamed New York, my mother dreamed almost nightly that she caught him. She fit the description of his targets (young, on dates in urban locales, also a brunette) and contemplated buying a wig or dyeing her hair an ashy blond. But instead she just seized him in her dreams, delivering him to the waiting police and saving dozens of other women in the process. Good job, Laurie.
Freshman year of college I am still a virgin, a fact belied by my penchant for patent heels and satin negligees cut short into slinky tops. In my Creative Nonfiction 101 class I catch the attention of a handsome senior named Joey, who asks for my email address and says (via AOL Instant Messenger) that he’d like to take me out on a date to a ball game and hold my hand. The offer is gentle enough on the face of it but I’m not sure I’m ready to think about what holding hands with a college senior actually means. He says he likes the way I dress up for class and my “cute rabbit face” (not the effect I was going for).
We are asked to write a true-crime piece for our final assignment, five thousand words on the event, the victims, the culprit, the aftermath. I start by googling “lady murderer.”
I’ve spent many a night headed down an internet rabbit hole, reading about unspeakable crimes committed by those we expect to nurture us. One particularly heinous point of fascination is the story of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, a young, attractive couple who together raped and murdered a number of teen victims, among them Karla’s sister Tammy (a Halloween costume I regret pitching on Twitter). Karla, blond as a beach-volleyball player, looks far more likely to be given a job as a calendar model than to be accused of violent sex crimes. But here the story is, laid out online in lurid detail. Then there’s Myra Hindley, a British bird with a bubble of teased hair who helped her boyfriend hide the bodies of murdered children on Saddleworth Moor in England. When I bleach my hair I’m told I look like Blondie but she is all I see. The worst bogeyman I can imagine (bogeywoman?) staring back at me.
Ultimately I decide to focus on the killing of Sylvia Likens. Sylvia, the sixteen-year-old daughter of wandering carnies, was killed in 1965 by her foster mother and a group of neighborhood children: slowly starved, tortured, sexually abused, then scalded in the bath and left to die on a bare mattress in a fetid basement in a heavily populated Indianapolis slum. It’s a horrific story—a group of children treating rape and torture like a kickball game—and my paper is equally bleak.
Our teacher tells us to use “strong details” and so I start the paper like this: “Sylvia Marie Likens was a thin, pretty girl with a pleasant, freckled face and bangs that formed odd cowlicks around her forehead.” But it isn’t long before I descend into manic melodrama, like an old-timey newspaperman on Adderall: “[The murderer] is reported to have played music on her phonograph and danced seductively for at least one neighborhood boy in her front parlor, letting the strap of her dress fall down to reveal one of her pale bony shoulders.” The murderer, a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski, was already old at thirty-six, with seven biological children, a mess of fosters, and no husband to speak of. Her face was drawn and severe. She had chronic bronchitis.
Using my limited knowledge, I surmise that the crime was one of jealousy: unable to compete with her lithe teenage boarder, Gertrude instead decided to remove the competition. The articles do say that Sylvia was receiving attention from neighborhood boys, little bits of affection that probably sustained her as her world grew smaller and smaller. But who knows, maybe they scared her. I write that, after months of abuse, “Sylvia’s body bore a map of pain.”
In our final crit, our teacher seizes on the concept of the “map of pain.” She tells the class that it’s a flimsy metaphor, the kind used by lazy writers going only for dramatic effect: if we break it down, really break it down, it means nothing. I bow my head. I had been rather impressed with myself.
Sitting next to me as I am slowly eviscerated by a woman named Lucille with a sharp silver bob, Joey is drawing determinedly on a piece of lined binder paper. At the end of class, he slips it to me. It says “map of pain” and it depicts the topography of an imaginary state, which he has labeled with names like New Painston, Ouchville, and the Hurtland.
“Why did you feel the need to write about this?” the teacher asks me, pointing to my own words as evidence: “Sylvia’s story is violent and so unrelenting in its violence that its validity as an educational tool is easy to question. Why would someone choose to share this story, apart from its almost pornographic shock value?… Turning the tale over and over in the brain, the author still cannot comprehend what parts add up to such a violent sum.”
“The author” blushed and thought, There are some things you just have to know about.
In a few years I will re-meet Joey on the street outside his graduate school facility on the Lower East Side and I will take him back to my parents’ house and let him stick his hands under my red satin baby-doll dress. He’ll make appreciative sounds that I hate. More than I hate getting hit. More than I hate watching girls get murdered on TV. And I’ll know that’s not how it’s supposed to work. The balance is off.
Pretending to be a dead body is my specialty.
I do it mostly in the shower, lying splayed on the tiles, letting the water hit me in the face, imagining it’s running cold now, starting a flood by the time the cops come. Once I made my sister take a video on my digital camera, just to see how real it can look.
It’s not that I want to die, but I like the way the women look on SVU: their flaws somehow rendered obsolete by the cold marbling of their skin. It’s no longer about beauty, just the facts of their bodies. They are what they are, forever. And someone’s going to miss them.
When I finally get the chance to die on television, my throat is slit. As I lie on the floor bleeding out, I take tiny, shallow breaths, trying to create the illusion of a still chest. How real do I look? Did all that practice pay off? Is anybody watching? No, they are just rigging lights, moving props, powdering the face of my murderer. Eating meatball subs. Going about their lives.
That first true-crime paper doesn’t end my obsession, and sophomore year I decide to rewrite my Likens piece, this time more like a Joan Didion essay, I think. I dream of drawing important cultural conclusions about women and their bodies, maybe even using the word I. In an effort to learn more I reach out to the author of the definitive book on the murder, The Indiana Torture Slaying, a man named John Dean who had covered the case for the Indianapolis Star back in ’65.
What I find is that he has changed his name to Natty Bumppo, lives deep in Kentucky, works as a lawyer, has written a guide to playing cribbage solitaire, and is on his fifth wife. He is famous in his county and beyond for having placed a write-in vote for Big Bird on his presidential ballot rather than give Reagan a second term, and he has also campaigned to allow children to vote. He has a fake assistant named Hank whom he pretends to be when he isn’t in the mood to talk to clients, and a real lady assistant whose plump ass he discusses constantly. Fascinated by his makeshift website and his perfectly quirky life (it’s 2005, the apex of quirk), I reach out:
Dear Mr. Bumppo,
My name is Lena Dunham and I am a student at Oberlin College. Last year I wrote a paper on the Sylvia Marie Likens case and your exceptional book was a huge help to me. I have looked at your websites and am fascinated by the very interesting life you have led. I am currently working for a college magazine that publishes long-form pieces, often profiles of very interesting people. Would you be willing to submit to an interview or even allow an article about you to be written? In any case, I’m a big fan!
Natty Bumppo wrote:
Lena Dunham wrote:
Dear Mr. Bumppo,
Thanks for allowing me to pick your brain. Everyone at the magazine is excited about the article as well (the magazine it will be appearing in is a new college publication entitled The Journal of Proper Thought).
My friends and I are at school in Oberlin, Ohio, but we are seriously considering taking a road trip to Kentucky on the weekend of December 16. Would you ever allow me to have a brief audience with you in your office? Anyway, some initial questions attached.
PS: Dear Mr. Bumppo,
I did not proof read the last email and one question included the word “seeked.” That is clearly not a word, so I apologize.
Grammatically yours, Lena
Natty Bumppo wrote:
Good catch. What do you suppose is the past tense of “wreak,” as in “to wreak havoc”?
Lena Dunham wrote:
Could it be “wrought”? Somehow “wrought havoc” doesn’t sound quite right.
Natty Bumppo wrote:
That’s exactly right. Rhymes with “sought.”
Think of the first words transmitted on Samuel B. Morse’s invention the telegraph: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”
Did God ever wreak havoc?
Ubetchu. God is a terrorist.
It’s another year and a half before I make it to Kentucky. In the meantime I lose my virginity, have sex once with someone I think I love, have sex twice with someone I think I hate, and am raped in the twilight of a party. A few months after that, I start dating a kind but tortured boy whom I just can’t seem to make come, and am simultaneously in love with his curly-haired best friend, who is in love with a beautiful blond named Lucy, and we all pile into a car with our friend Jeff, who claims to have seen Bigfoot, and drive to Kentucky for what I have now decided is a documentary. We film the dark approach to Natty’s cabin like it’s a scene from The Blair Witch Project, but when we arrive he is all smiles and shows us to sweet adjoining rooms with handmade quilts. His Polish wife, Jadwiga, asks us, in broken English, whether we’re hungry and lays out a plate of cold cuts and Wonder Bread.
We spend two nights on Natty’s property, drinking beer and shooting guns and attending a banjo jam that lasts deep into the night. At night I cry next to my boyfriend in our single bed, imagining the curly-haired boy and Lucy in the next room, Jeff snoring on the floor. I can hear Jadwiga and Natty fighting and a thud and someone else crying. My shoulder hurts from where the gun “kicked” me. I stare at the crescent moon out the open window and shiver.
The next day Natty and I go alone into his office, where the walls are hung with an impressive range of guns and diplomas, and I set up my broken tripod and get ready to ask him questions: about his jobs, his wives, his passions. When we get to Sylvia Likens, I am stunned to remember that she is what brought me here, to this room, alone with a man I barely know for reasons I don’t even understand.
Years later, once I am on television, Natty sends me an essay he has written about me. It says, among other things, that I am much prettier in pictures.
When my obsession with Sylvia started, my obsession with second-wave feminism had not, so I was unaware of Kate Millett’s book The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice, an exploration of the crime through a feminist lens. I try to read it again and again but instead find it far easier to read interviews with Millett about it. I am thrilled by her ability to articulate the story’s significance, even if I cannot claim as pure or as political an understanding as hers.
“The Basement concerns the sexual abuse and murder of a young girl (Sylvia Likens) by her foster mother, Gertrude… I wanted so much to help her, (Sylvia). I wanted us all to help her, but if we couldn’t save this particular Sylvia’s life, we’d get right on it and see it never happened again.”
But it did happen, over and over, while the Kate Milletts and Shulamith Firestones of the world moved into hovels unworthy of their histories and succumbed to mental illness and struggled to keep a foothold in the critical dialogue.
After my first film comes out, I receive a beautifully prepared package from a woman I have never heard of, containing a book written by a bisexual, feminist academic named Maryse Holder entitled Give Sorrow Words: Maryse Holder’s Letters from Mexico (with a forward by Millett, whose name I now know). The book is a collection of Maryse’s letters home to her best friend (the woman who sent me the book, and who edited and fought for the book for many years) from her travels in Mexico, where she went in 1977 to explore her sexuality and was, ultimately, bludgeoned to death. But before her death, the book is a whirlwind of colors, smells, fabrics, bodies, the kind of life experience we all fantasize about having, growing brown in the sun as we fill our coffers with sensual knowledge. Maryse describes her body gaining in muscled strength through nights of dancing, then thinning out from cigarettes and black coffee and desolate sadness. She describes all the sex, some of it ornate and some of it tragic and perfunctory. She is trying to understand her purpose.
The best friend and I communicate via email for months, planning to meet, until one day she sends me a note with an entirely different tone: I am a liar, she tells me. No values. Not a true feminist. An attention seeker who uses my newfound fame to give the movement a bad name. I have “cudgeled” her. The essence: I understand nothing since I have experienced nothing. I deserve nothing.
I delete the email because I cannot bear it and cannot stop reading it, and I try to move on. I give my copy of Maryse’s book to someone else traveling to Mexico. “Do all of this except the getting murdered part,” I joke.
A few months later I receive an email from Millett herself.
[Redacted] tells me that you have expressed an interest in Maryse Holder’s book, Give Sorrow Words. As you may know, I wrote the introduction to the book and I would welcome an opportunity to discuss your interest.
Please let me know if you would like to meet for coffee to talk about how we might give this book a new life.
I look forward to hearing from you.
I respond, telling her that I have actually received quite a hostile email from [redacted] and therefore don’t know that I can be of any real help. (Let’s file it under life’s too short, I think. It wasn’t my best friend who was murdered.)
Yes, let’s just meet. I was sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience with [redacted.] It is best to move on…
I remember what Kate said about Gertrude in the interview quoted above: “We’re breaking the necks of our daughters, and that’s what Gertrude passes on: the stone that says we are a defeated people and this kid (Sylvia) will not learn.”
That is what the aging feminist wanted me to know, in some roundabout way: they will never hear you. They will never change. Stop acting so happy. Prepare yourself.
The day after I was raped, a friend of mine stopped by unannounced.
“What’s up?” I asked, tidying my room like an actor given a bit of business by the director of a Broadway play. (“Just arrange the sweaters,” the director recommends, “as if you’re trying to distract yourself.”)
He stayed in the doorway as he told me that my rapist had, in fact, been dating someone. “She saw you leave with him,” he said. “I think she’s pretty upset. Whatever, their relationship is bullshit anyway.”
Hot fear rose up in me as I imagined her in a circle of sympathetic girlfriends: “Ugh, you can’t trust anyone. She never even seemed like a threat. That’s who he fucked!?”
When I wake up from surgery the first thing I feel is my catheter, burning me up inside. I moan for some pain medicine and it’s injected into my backside, the nurse rubbing the injection site like I’m a piece of Kobe beef, before they pull the offending tube out in one swift motion. The doctor warns me that my cervix is dilated and I will probably bleed for a few days, maybe a week, but I am nothing if not an outlier and so I bleed for a whole month. He says they found plenty of endometrial scar tissue inside of me, on my organs and the walls of my abdomen, but they managed to remove most of it, some through my vagina. I mumble a joke about how he could have bought me dinner and a drink first.
Back at home my boyfriend helps me carefully to the toilet, where I sit for forty five minutes, trying but unable to pee, leaning against his leg as he checks his text messages. I remember that right before I went under, the doctor pulled my gown up and my gauze underpants down and dry-shaved me from my belly button to the top of my vagina.
The bandages fall off after three days and I see the scars, more like holes, really, angry and purple, dotting my lower abdomen. If you look carefully you can also see that my belly button has been sliced and sewn back together. This is meant to be less invasive than an old-fashioned incision (“Oh, laparoscopic? Amazing!” everyone says cheerfully) but right now it just feels like a scene from a low-
budget horror film.
As the scars fade they’re indistinguishable from bruises—the kind I get every day from bumping into coffee tables or being overly ambitious in a yoga class that’s past my level. The kind that used to come from his fingers, pressing me down down down into the bed.
The image that accompanied all the coverage of the Likens case, and that lives on her Wikipedia page, is a class photo of Sylvia, neck up, head cocked and smiling into the distance. She looks vaguely bored, on autopilot, possibly not that smart if you’re feeling uncharitable, and beautiful like a TV daughter I would see on Nick at Nite. But more than anything she looks innocent, maybe even ignorant, deeply unwise. Things will be fine that day and the next. She will drink sodas and flirt and maybe even wear a skirt that hits just above the knee. She will shove off boys who want to heavy pet before she’s ready. She will get better at doing her own hair. She will learn at her own pace. She has nothing to fear.
Dead Sylvia is unrecognizable. In a photo too grainy to look like much, she lies, lifeless, arms crossed over her chest, hair matted and dark with grease. Carved into the flesh of her stomach are the words I’m a prostitute and proud of it in the blocky handwriting of a third grader or a psychopath. Supposedly, when asked by her assailent what she would do now, Sylvia said, “I guess there’s nothing I can do. It’s on there.”
I trust women. I trust them. When they reach their hand out to me, I take it. When they ask for mine, it’s given. What does it mean for evil to exist inside another woman’s heart? It’s impossible for me to explore or explain without resorting to platitudes like the “map of pain,” the kind my teacher sneered at. Be nice, I thought then. I’m just a girl like you. But she didn’t owe me anything because we’re both female, did she? She wasn’t even moved when I wrote about the fifth grade teacher who had tried to make me reach down his shirt.
I have never felt stronger than in seventh grade when Natalie Schimmel and I walked straight into Hunter Barker in the cafeteria after he had dumped us both right in a row, two weeks apart. Alone, we were sad girls, saving the cards that came with the flowers he had given us for the school play and Valentine’s Day, respectively. But together we were agents of righteousness. There was no blame placed on each other, only faith that the pain would subside if we linked arms. I think I am always just chasing that feeling. Women gathered together. Against violence of all kinds. Taking turns shielding each other.