Saturday, May 02, 2009

Book Review: Kids Who Kill by Charles Patrick Ewing

I’m toying with the idea of turning this blog into research journal for the last two months, rolling it around in my mind the way you’d roll an unwanted interloper in feathers after dousing him with honey, or hot tar. The old injunction, “Write what you know,” is a challenge, not a straightjacket. The implicit corollary, “Learn more and you’ll be able to write more,” is my engine, driving a lifetime of education in subjects most schools would rather not touch. Like school shaootings.

In the course of researching my next novel (which is one of those wonderful sentences writers get to write, the kind that just glow at you) I’ve learned a lot about school shootings. Except that’s not exactly accurate. I’ve remembered a good ninety-eight percent of the more memorable stuff, since it began right around the time I began to pay attention to the world outside the bounds of my small, Midwestern town. The ten-year anniversary of Columbine (which I allowed to pass unnoticed) helped me tremendously in this. Time magazine even resurrected it’s deliciously sensationalist article on the subject from December, 1999, reheating the case’s particular blend of hash.

The Portland Community College library provided me two not-so-excellent books on the subject this week. Published ten years apart, they nicely bookend that extraordinary heyday of youth-perpetrated violence still blithely refer to as, “the 90s.”

One end, Charles Patrick Ewing’s Kids Who Kill, rests in 1989. Despite the copyright date (1990), Kids Who Kill is an unabashed product of the 1980s, filled with lucid accounts of heinous “juvenile” crimes, subdivided into chapter-length categories. Its chapter titles read like prime time, news-magazine show bumpers: “Family Killings,” “Senseless Killings,” “Cult-Related Killings,” “Gang Killings,” “Little Kids Who Kill,” and my personal favorite, the nebulous “Crazy Killings.”

Author Ewing is an all-but-invisible presence through all this, filling each chapter with capsule descriptions of theme-specific cases, drawn from the best mainstream media sources of his time: the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, UPI, the New York and Los Angeles Times. A source citation page totally devoid of web addresses is a strange artifact to find, from another, alien time…much like the book itself. Ewing’s tone is equally foreign to those of us on the other side of the great Faux News divide. After a decade and a half of personalized news, delivered unto us by news personalities (celebrity anchors, talking heads, snakeoil information salesmen, pundits), Ewing’s case studies seem fleeting, callous, bite sized examinations of events that garner round-the-clock, team coverage these days, and passed unnoticed in a world just coming to grips with the end of the Cold War and the dawning of our current New World Order. A typical entry, chosen at random, reads like the ticker at the bottom of your TV screen.

[F]our New Jersey youths—members of a much larger, self-proclaimed group of “Dotbusters”—beat a thirty-year-old Indian man to death in a city street. According to the police, these “Dotbusters”—who took their name from the red bindi mark worn on the foreheads of married Indian women—were responsible for numerous violent attacks against Indian and Pakistani immigrants. The youths in this particular case, who ranged in age from fifteen to seventeen, denied any racial motive for their brutal attack. Instead, they insisted that they attacked the Indian man because he was bald. Though charged with murder, they were convicted only of assault.

Another example:

On July 10, 1989 a fourteen-year-old Chicago mother was trying to watch television. After being interrupted several times by her one-month-old son who would not stop crying, the girl smothered the infant with a disposable diaper. The teenager was charged with murder, but a judge ruled that given her “previously clean record” she would not be tried as an adult.

And so long as I’ve Fair Use on my side, have one more:

In January 1988, seventeen-year-old Leslie Torres, a homeless New York City youth, went on a seven day “cocaine-inspired rampage”—a spree of armed robberies in which he killed five people and wounded six others. When arrested, Leslie told police that he committed numerous killings and robberies to support his $500-a-day addiction to the street drug [sic], crack. Charged with murder, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Testifying on his own behalf, Leslie told jurors that crack caused him to eel like God, but that he saw the Devil whenever he looked in the mirror. After examining Leslie, a psychiatrist testified that the teenager suffered from “cocaine induced psychosis” at the time o the robberies and killings. The jury rejected Leslie’s insanity defense and convicted him of murder. Finding that the seventeen-year-old “showed utter and total disregard for the sanctity of life” and “would kill again” if ever released, a judged sentenced Leslie Torres to sixty years to life in prison.

One hundred seventy pages of this is enough to make you take a bite out of capital-C, Crime, whilst simultaneously saying, "No" to the drugs and fantasy role playing games that are destroying our nation’s youth.

If the past is another country, writers must be anthropologists. A good anthropologist will take heed of a culture’s fears and superstitions. Kids Who Kill suggests that a peculiar fear of youth slumbers at the heart of our culture, occasionally rearing its head to freeze us with a Cobra gaze straight out of Rudyard Kipling. It rose up in 1990, and again in 1999, events building upon themselves, sprouting intertwining threads of correspondence and coincidence.

None of which has anything to do with Kids Who Kill, which is a strange, haunting little book that, in its final pages, suggests four commonsensical “known factors” common to killer kid cases: “child abuse, poverty, substance abuse, and access to guns.” School shooters of the now-familiar type (spree-killing monsters in black coats stuffed full of weapons) lying downstream from Ewing in the course of history, go unexamined. History responds in kind by refusing to vindicate the dire predictions Ewing puts forth in lieu of conclusion in his final chapter, “Juvenile Crime in the 1990s.”

There, Ewing predicts that juvenile homicides will reach “record high proportions” by the year 2000, ignorant of the fact juvenile homicide as a whole would peak in the recession years of 1992-3, years of riot and tumult, when American nonchalantly joked about being broke. (A bit like now, come to think about it…) Ewing leaves himself little time to flesh out his “known factors” or do anything more than refer back to a few previously described cases by way of illustration. There’s little analysis here (besides a few tables), and no discernible political agenda. When this book saw print the culture wars that drive (and define) today’s non-fiction publishing industry were barely a glimmer in Rush Limbaugh’s eye. If our wider, societal obsession with vicarious violence bares any blame for creating killer kids, Ewing does not say. Instead, he reminds us that Ronald Regan’s eight year “war on the poor” sure as shit didn’t help. Matter of fact (Ewing says, in his own detached, Joe-Friday, just-the-facts-ma’am way), Reganomics did plenty to exacerbate the four “known factors,” factors ignored and/or exacerbated by the then-current administration of George (HW) Bush.

Busy building a New World Order, America would go on to largely ignore Ewing’s slim little book, or its dire warnings for the future. Each of his four “known factors” remained in operation, resurfacing ten years later in the Great Explosion of school shooting and killer kid literature of 1996-9…some of which we’ll turn to next time, as our research into this negative image of the American dream continues.

Note: Special thanks to Anonymous for catching my Freudian slip involving the author's name. I was thinking of earwigs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great take on the book, excerpt for spelling the author's last name wrong.