Tuesday, May 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: DEVIANT



GIVE THE MAN A HAND
The sad, strange life of Ed Gein still shocks…
By Don Stradley




He was the village oddball, the geezer who might make a few bucks shoveling snow or mending a fence. He’d also spent many years breaking into the cemeteries of Plainfield, Wisconsin and bringing dead bodies home. The surprise was that Eddie Gein, regarded by most of his neighbors as a simpleton, got away with his crimes for so long. Of course, we know that Gein would provide inspiration for dozens of horror movies, including Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We may also know that the discovery of human remains in his derelict farmhouse shocked the country in 1957, earning several weeks of newspaper headlines and a six page spread in Life. He was judged insane and spent the remainder of his years getting fat on state hospital food and polishing stones for costume jewelry. Not surprisingly, the earnest folks of Plainfield didn’t feel this was a just punishment, not for a man who’d raided the graves of their loved ones, and had once made a soup bowl out of a woman’s skull.

When the Gein story broke, America was under the sway of two trends – the Pop Psychology movement, where every suburban housewife and quiz show panelist spewed cheap mental health bromides like cut-rate Freuds, and the “sick humor” born in high school parking lots. The latter brought about some pretty good “Geiners” (“Why did they let Ed Gein out of jail on New Year’s Eve?” “So he could dig up a date!”)  and the former resulted in the stone belief that poor Eddie never stood a chance, not with that ball-busting mother of his. Motherhood took a beating when we learned about Augusta Gein, Eddie’s crazily religious, sexually repressed, man-hating mom. With her overbearing personality, she kept Eddie isolated and in a state of arrested development, to the point where he seemed childlike well into his 50s. Once Augusta had died and Eddie was alone on the old farm, he gradually shut himself off from the rest of Plainfield. He spent many lonely nights reading stories about Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” who used the skin of concentration camp victims as lampshades and book bindings. Gein’s interest in Nazi atrocities mingled with his fascination with Christine Jorgensen, America’s first well-known sex-change recipient. An interest in voodoo led Gein to believe he could will the dead back to life. 

The Gein case was like a magnet, attracting such ghoulish but untrue extras as cannibalism and necrophagic sex. It wasn’t enough that he was stealing dead bodies and mutilating them, or that he was a suspect in several murders  – the public and press wanted him to eat the corpses and fuck them. If there’s an underlying message in Harold Schechter’s Deviant (originally published in 1989, now available as an audio book from Blackstone Audio), it’s that the masses crave people like Gein, if only to wallow in the weirdness. Gein also showed that America gets the right bogeyman at the right time. What better way to show the dark side of small-town life than to have the windswept plains of Wisconsin haunted by a grave robber with a mommy complex?

Schechter is to American murderers what Bert Sugar was to boxers, or what Bob Costas is to the New York Yankees. He’s written several books about mass killers, and tells their stories without being overtly academic or judgmental. I like him best when he writes with a nod toward to the lurid pulps of the past: “Gein’s house looked grim even in broad daylight. On a frozen winter’s night, with icicles hanging from the porch roof and dead clumps of weeds poking up through the snow, its desolation was so extreme that even a brave man could be spooked by the sight of it. It was hard to believe that anything human could make a home in such a place.” Schechter also succeeds in helping us understand Gein’s unfathomable psyche (“…a schizophrenic personality isn’t so much split as shattered…”) and even attempts to explain something as brutal as necrophilia, devoting a section to some peculiar lads in the 1800s who may not have been as deranged as Gein, but were every bit as nasty. 

There are no heroes in the book. The cops aren’t especially bright, while the people of Plainfield seem provincial and slightly thick; in hopes of distracting the locals from the Gein case, the postmaster proposed a commemorative stamp praising the prairie chicken. As often happens in a book like Deviant, the only character who stands out is its star. Few could match a fellow who, following the death of his mother, “tried to slake his unbearable loneliness by seeking companionship in the community of the dead.”

Whether, as Schechter suggests, Gein killed more people than he admitted, or robbed more graves, I neither know nor care. What has stayed with me after reading Deviant is that the Gein farm was without electricity. Augusta, you see, was too frugal to indulge in such a frivolous expense. Hence, Eddie spent much of his life in darkness, or by candlelight, or oil lamps. It was also intriguing to learn that, along with hoarding bags of noses and other body parts, Gein had a stash of musical instruments in his home, including a violin and a harmonica. There’s no reason to think he could actually play these instruments, but I like to imagine that, when he wasn’t fondling human bones, he’d pull down one of those dusty harmonicas and give it a blast.

 

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