Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

'Was She a Masochist?'

This leads us to a troubling psychological puzzle. In his foreword to The Indiana Torture Slaying, prosecutor Leroy K. New says "I have been repeatedly asked why Sylvia did not just simply run away." When the crime was first discovered, a newspaper reporter asked, "Was she a masochist?" 

There are several things, other than masochism, which could account for her passivity. First, Sylvia had a limited frame of reference as to what constitutes inappropriate discipline. As noted by Dean, Sylvia and Jenny "were accustomed to being punished, often unjustly." The early "paddlings" the Likens girls received might have been unfair but they were not clearly abusive. Grown-ups frequently make issues out of youngsters' eating habits as in the universally famous "eat your vegetables!" scolding so even the hotdog with way-too-much of "everything on it" would not necessarily be seen as beyond the pale.

Indeed, at least one adult witnessed abusive incidents and, although disturbed by them, did not consider them serious enough to report them to the police.

According to The Indiana Torture Slaying, a middle-aged couple with two kids, Raymond and Phyllis Vermillion, moved next door to the Baniszewskis late in August of 1965. Phyllis Vermillion worked the night shift at an RCA plant and needed a babysitter for her children. She decided to visit Gertrude Baniszewski, thinking that the mother of seven who had taken in two boarders might be a good person to care for the Vermillion youngsters.

The two neighbors sat around a table and drank coffee while kids yelled at each other and baby Dennis fussed and cried. Vermillion noticed a slim, pretty but timid and nervous- looking girl who had a black eye. "That's Sylvia," sighed Gertrude. Paula Baniszewski added, "I gave her the black eye." Just before making this boast, however, Paula filled a glass with hot water and threw it at Sylvia.

Understandably, Phyllis Vermillion decided to look elsewhere for a babysitter. Less understandably, she did not report what she had seen and heard to the authorities.

Early in October, Vermillion paid another social call to the large family next door. Again she saw Sylvia, who looked dazed, even zombified, and who had another black eye plus a swollen lip. "I beat her up," Paula readily volunteered. Later, Paula began hitting the listless girl with a belt.

Again Phyllis Vermillion left the house without believing she had seen something the police ought to know about. If a supposedly normal, responsible adult could not recognize these actions as criminal, why should anyone expect an untutored teenager like Sylvia to be able to do so?

Running away may never have occurred to her. Where would she go? By the time sleeping out in the street became preferable to life with the Baniszewskis, it wasn't an option: she was tied up and/or locked in the cellar.

In fact, there was one instance, which will be described later in this essay, in which she and Jenny did complain about mistreatment. They were not believed. The fear of being disbelieved — which would prove well founded — probably contributed to Sylvia's previous silence.

Another reason for her failure to complain about the mistreatment may be that she anticipated the question traditionally asked of kids who get picked — why don't other people like you? — and knew she could not answer it

Complaining to others would have meant having to tell them what had been done to her. As the mistreatment worsened, it is likely that shame silenced Sylvia.

Both Sylvia and her sister were, for good reason, terrified of Gertrude. They greatly feared the woman's wrath if they should "tell."

Finally, Sylvia was probably fiercely protective of her younger sister and feared that "telling" would lead to revenge being taken out on Jenny.

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