Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

Earlier Works Inspired by the Likens Case

The murder of Sylvia Likens has been dealt with in at least five, and possibly six, works. The easiest to get hold of is The Basement by feminist Kate Millett. Prior to starting this book, Millett had put on several sculptural exhibitions inspired by the Likens case.

The Basement is an odd combination of nonsense and brilliance, of fact and fiction together with the author's personal reactions to the crime. Millett foolishly reads all kinds of cosmic implications into it and projects her own beliefs — pacifist as much as feminist — onto the dead girl in ways that defy credibility.

On the other hand, the book contains much powerful, poetic prose and astute observations that ring real. Millett's account of the courtroom testimony is riveting. Some of The Basement's fictionalized passages are both lyrically intense and utterly believable: they "burn a hole in the page" (Nadine Gordimer once said this is the point of fiction) and mind. 

Many readers of The Basement, both those who liked it and those annoyed by the author's fictionalizing, close the book yearning for a "just the facts" account of the case. That account is found in The Indiana Torture Slaying, a quickie paperback by reporter John Dean (not of Watergate fame) who was briefly called to testify at the trial. Millett got much of her information from this book and she properly gave him credit.

1966, the year when this book was published, was not a good time for books about true murder cases. It was put out by Bee-Line Books, a publisher specializing in cheap pornography with titles like Peekin Place so it never found its proper audience.

Recently reissued by Borf Books, it is good journalism, written in a restrained and compassionate manner. There are problems with it, however. A student of the case whom this writer will call "Craig Kelley" complains that the "author almost canonizes Stephanie," a girl who, on at least one occasion, helped tie Sylvia up and who might have done more to check the outrages of her boyfriend, Coy Hubbard.

Mr. Kelley makes another good point when he says, "Dean just skips over a lot of really significant things. He reports that GB had only three spoons in the house and then goes on to something else."

The Likens case inspired a horror novel called The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. Ketchum has turned the calendar back a bit, setting his tale in the 1950s. Pretty Meg and her sister Susan have been orphaned and sent to live with their Aunt Ruth Chandler, a mother of three boys whose home is a magnet for neighborhood kids. The Girl Next Door is a repulsively readable story. Ketchum has given the tale a haunting spin by having it narrated by David, a teenaged boy who watches Meg's tortures with a combined sense of titillation and disgust. Ketchum believably depicts David's confusion of conscience and his reluctance to take a stand against the others and stop the show — until it is too late.

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