Stranger Beside Her

RuleI tend to read a lot of true crime stories, in magazines like Texas Monthly, Philadelphia (where I’m writer at large), Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and every other mainstream publication where they appear. Calvin Trillin is best known as a humorist, but his book Killings is just as good as his lighter material. Plus, the book’s mere existence seems to confirm the fact that, if you’re writing nonfiction for any length of time, you might specialize in food, music, art, architecture or politics, but I suspect you’ll at least give some thought to trying your hand at a good murder story.

I’ve written a lot of true crime pieces. I count this story, of a young Philadelphia girl killed execution style in the basement of her home, as one of the most moving, for me, that I’ve done. I recently wrote this story for Philadelphia, about one of the most perplexing unsolved missing persons cases in recent American history. And I once even talked over a glass of wine with the alleged head of the Philadelphia mob. I even wrote a story that I believe explains the average city homicide—the how and why that petty disputes explode into mortal anger.

I’ll be writing a lot more true crime stories in the future, and I’ve just begun reading some full-length true crime books. You can’t get very far in that pursuit without coming across Ann Rule, a former detective magazine writer who has published about 30 titles. Rule’s personal story is compelling. She and her husband separated. She raised four children as a single mom, supporting herself with freelance detective magazine articles before rising to national prominence with The Stranger Beside Me. Rule, it turned out, worked at a suicide prevention hotline with Ted Bundy in the years before he became known as a serial killer.

The conventions of true crime writing, the foreshadowing and sometimes hyper-dramatic pacing, are often derided, like the staples of any genre. But I turned the pages as fast as I could. The book is transfixing, not least because the narrative forces you to confront a time when the name “Ted Bundy” was not already synonymous with murder. By the end, however, the story was so bleak, so much blood was shed, that I felt somehow unclean. For a few days, as images from Bundy’s murders rose, unbidden, into my mind, I wished I could unlearn the grisly details. I suppose that is a mark of how well Rule put the story across. That said, I think one of the most profitable reasons to read Stranger is to see the author who emerges over its length.

The newest paperback features all the updates Rule has written, for the many editions of Stranger published over the years. To her credit, she seems never to have been numbed by her proximity to Bundy or the many homicides she’s written about over the years. She seems unsure of how to process all this violence. And she has the added challenge of trying to understand how she sat so close to Bundy, talked to him about personal issues over glasses of wine, without ever realizing that he was, all the while, pursuing dark, psychopathic fantasies. In each update, she seems to land on some new way of viewing the story. At one point she even admits that at the time she first published Stranger—a best seller among best sellers—she didn’t fully understand Bundy or psychopathology.

What’s most remarkable is that she retains the ability to see Bundy with compassion, saying his lack of any real morality probably always made him feel like he was “from another planet”—a facet of his personality that must have caused him both to feel a tremendous sense of alienation and loneliness, and also enabled him to look at his victims in the cold-blooded way he did. I admire her for her ability to retain some feeling for him, yet finally identify him, I think, in starkly accurate terms, as a man who was somehow not fully human. That is, if qualities like compassion and empathy are what enable us to cooperate and form the sorts of communities and societies that propagate the human race, Bundy was not one of us—not fit to live free in a civilized world. The Rule who emerges, at the end of this process, seems a little worse for the wear—but clear eyed and ready to keep working.

Mystery Solved

This “strange creature” video went viral last week. A Singapore fisherman reeled in a catch that seemed part-octopus and all crazy. He videotaped the thing, hoping someone could tell him what he landed. For a short while, the media seemed to be crediting the wrong angler with the find and the creature really was portrayed as a mystery, maybe even some new species. The “alien creature” description was also popular. Now the smart money is betting the animal is a rare, but well-understood cousin of the starfish, dubbed the “basket star.”

Here’s a link to a video of a basket star as it appears in its natural habitat. I think what you’ll find is that the basket star is pretty creepy wherever you find it but seems somehow less startling and more recognizable in the water. It’s seeing the creature out of context, in the open air, that really caused all the hub-bub. Either way, check out the icky video that is closing in on its first million YouTube views.

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Where I Live Now

IMG_2075And I quote: “Smokey, a large gray 18-month old house cat, escaped his home at 219 N. Locust St. September 30 and wound up having quite an adventure.”

That, folks, is the lead of an article that ran on the front page, above the fold, of the community where I live now.

Each morning, I wake up and read the online versions of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, a necessary addiction of my role as Writer at Large for Philadelphia Magazine. Stories from Philly run the gamut, but rap sheet material—allegations and investigations—dominate the news diet.

These days, each Thursday, I also run out to a local coffee shop, grab a cup, and buy a copy—for 35-cents—of the weekly Lititz Record Express. This last week, on Oct. 9, the aforementioned story on Smokey, a large gray house cat, really caught my eye. Smokey, you may already have guessed, climbed up into a tree, and that’s when the drama really began.

Now, it’s true, I probably qualify as somewhat jaded. Years of covering often violent stories will do that to a guy. But I haven’t lost the capacity to whistle through my teeth at items like these two, fresh from Philly, about an alleged plot to steal a deceased woman’s house, and a recent accusation of gay bashing. And as I marveled at Smokey’s plight—the Fire Department here has stopped rescuing cats from trees, calling the practice “inordinately dangerous”— I realized I was about to learn something about myself: Just how does a city reporter like me react to a story about Smokey?

The item served a couple of purposes for me. It helped me geo-locate myself here, in Lititz, where stories on the family cat claim the most precious real estate—page one, above the fold—in the local paper. My wife and I made this move for all the things families usually move for—a little more real estate and good schools for the kids. Smokey forced me to reflect on something else, too. Cats, and dogs, and all manner of cute, furry things, move newspapers. And if you’ve read thus far, you’re probably hoping I’ll reveal what happened to Smokey.

Well, let me tell you, he was in that tree for three days, and then… . Wait. I’m not going to steal the Lititz Record‘s thunder. If you want to know what happened to Smokey, you’ll have to click here.


Boy With A Coin

This is one of Sam Beam’s finer moments, a surreal, spiritual stomp to get your week off to a questing start.

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EandJonBeachOur boys are learning to count. Jack, several times, sang out the numbers one through ten, in order, just last month. Eli imitated him but didn’t get farther than five.

They sometimes falter. This morning, I assembled their little toy cars in a line in front of them and counted one through four.

Jack responded by pointing at the cars and saying “Two, three, five!”

He seemed very proud of himself, and I didn’t tell him he was wrong. Instead, I actually found myself electrified, for a moment, with a sense of possibility. In the moment, my first thought was, “What if he’s right?”

A moment later, I laughed out loud.

I love my boys so much that I see a sense of genius in them all of the time.

Eli’s strange affection for wires—he started moving toward all electrical devices from the moment he could propel himself at all, and he has never stopped—makes me think one day he will be a very successful electrician or engineer.

When Jack picks up a pair of spoons, holds them just like drum sticks and starts banging on his high chair tray, I think perhaps he will be a musician.

I didn’t know till this morning, however, that my love for them is so great, my affection so boundless, that I will go wherever they point me. After I started laughing at Jack’s “two, three, five” and my own reaction to it, I still found myself wondering, whenever my attention drifted, if we have failed to unlock the secrets of the universe because we don’t count correctly: It’s not one, two, three. It’s two, three, five. What might the implications be?

These thoughts, of course, make no sense. But there they were—funny little gifts from the magic world of my toddler boys, where so little has been learned that everything is new and the boundaries of the world are yet to bind us.


THE DAD FILES: Smile For the Camera


Jack (foreground) smiles for the camera.

In the run-up to having twins, I spent about half my time thinking about the adventure my wife and I were starting. I spent the rest worrying.
I bear the great misfortune, and blessing, of hyper-vigilance.
The upside is that when something goes wrong, I am rarely caught entirely unaware. By the time anything goes wrong I’ve usually figured out all the painful possibilities. The downside, which occurs more frequently, is that I worry about events that haven’t happened yet and, usually, won’t.       Meditation, which I learned while writing Fringe-ology, helped tremendously. But watching my wife’s belly swell with our twins overwhelmed me to the point that focusing on my breath, or observing my thoughts and letting them pass away, often proved impossible.

In the weeks and months before the children were born, I worried that they might have some birth defect. My wife and I were both around 40 years old, increasing the chances something would go wrong. I feared becoming responsible for a baby that might never grow to be responsible for itself, and worried that my anxiety somehow reflected a small heart, a diminished capacity for fatherhood.

I also spent a lot of time worrying about the changes in my own life. I love my work, writing and reporting, and feared giving up my ability to drop everything and get on a train or plane to go conduct interviews. I’ve always held that being a journalist is a rare privilege, and the thought of giving up some of the adventures the job provides scared me. These thoughts, too, suggested that I might not be cut out for this—that having kids might turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life.

I’ve been reflecting on this period of time a lot lately because Lisa and I were fortunate enough to have two healthy boys, fraternal twins we named Jack and Eli. They turned two years old at the end of July, and their vocabularies seem to expand every week.

Most of their speech is primitive. “Daddy—milk,” means “Give me milk.”
But recently, I learned just how much they understand beyond what they can say.

Because the boys are fraternal twins, they do display strikingly different personalities. Eli, for instance, is pretty much oblivious to cameras. From the beginning, however, Jack stopped whatever he was doing as soon as he saw us pull out our smart phones. The result is that a lot of wonderful moments escape into memory. The time Jack walked with one of my shoes on one foot and one of my wife’s slippers on the other? Gone forever. The time he sat on the couch with his stuffed monkey encircled in one arm and a toy car balanced on his head. That’s gone, too.

For parents, these are the every day joys we want to capture on film, to look at—and cry—after our sons leave for college. But Jack prevented us from taking so many pictures that I took to referring to the sweetest things our children do as “Bigfoot sightings.”

Whatever pictures we did get were too blurry to discern, as Jack waved his little hands furiously in front of his face.

“No picture!” he shouted. “No picture!”

Finally, I was so frustrated enough to try something radical: I talked to him about it.

One morning, as I sat with my sons and ate some eggs I’d fried up for the three of us, I started the conversation.

“Jack,” I said. “Do you know how you always stop mom and dad from taking pictures?”

“Yes,” he said, still chewing.

“Do you know why mom and dad want to take pictures of you and Eli?”

“Yesssss!” he said again.

“I’m not sure you do,” I said.

I paused for a moment and checked to see that both boys were listening.
“Mom and dad take pictures,” I continued, “because we love you and Eli so much. And we think you’re so cute that we want to be able to look at as many pictures of you as we can, forever. Some day you’ll ask to see them, too, so we want them for you and for us because we love you that much.”

“Yessss,” Jack said.

“So Jack,” I said, “will you please let us take pictures of you now?”

“Yesss,” he said again.

Intellectually, I wasn’t sure if the conversation worked. He is on the early side of two, after all. But emotionally, in what passed between my gaze and his, I felt a shared understanding click into place. I leaned over and sealed the deal with a kiss I planted on top of his head. Then I kissed Eli. A few minutes later, I started taking pictures. For the first time ever, Jack looked right into the camera and smiled.

A few days later, Lisa told me the conversation really worked. She showed me a bunch of pictures she shot in which, she said, Jack “cheesed for the camera”—smiling as broadly as he could.

This talk with Jack taught me a lot. Our boys are two now. They are past infancy. They understand a lot of what we’re saying, and as parents we need to respect that.

That talk also filled with me with that sense of satisfaction so peculiar to parenthood—when a small, private victory fills me with an almost otherworldly sense of accomplishment. This particular little expression of love and understanding showed me how far I’ve traveled in a very short time.

Before Eli and Jack were born, I worried mostly about escaping them—about finding time to carry on my career, about finding some way to bear up under the weight of caring for them till they’d grown. Two years later, I no longer worry about getting away. The time apart comes when it’s necessary. And when I am out of town, I feel a small ache. I wish I could reach out and touch them, could see them and confirm their happiness. I still worry. But now I worry about deepening our relationship, about making sure they know I bear the responsibility of their care gladly. I can see the toddlers they are, the infants they were and the adults they’ll become. And I worry about preserving our memories.

Troubled Man

John Mellencamp has quietly set about building a later period career that eclipses his early work. I haven’t had the chance to listen to his new album yet but the single is arresting—his voice haggard and worn, the lyrics conjuring a mythically bleak, malevolent figure, “I won’t do anything but hurt you if I can.”
Such sobering material isn’t normally what we put on repeat. Yet “Troubled Man” has such depth to it that there seems little choice but play it again and again, trying to sort through the various levels of mourning, beauty and acceptance Mellencamp—a painter—has layered into the song.

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The Misery Parade

DrKermitGosnellKermit Gosnell won’t ever go away. A longtime Philadelphia abortion provider, Gosnell was convicted in 2013 of inducing the live birth of three viable babies—past the legal gestational age for abortion—and killing them in his West Philadelphia medical office.

The details of the case against Gosnell, reported in the most blood-soaked fashion in a thick Grand Jury report, hardly even matter at this stage. What counts are the images left behind. Here in Pennsylvania, the Republican Party is currently trying to tie Gosnell to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. Never mind that Wolf, who I profiled for Philadelphia Magazine, is pro choice but bears no direct links to any aspect of the case. Opponents mailed out fliers with pictures of Wolf and Gosnell, asking: “Will Pro-abortion Tom Wolf take us back?”

This morning, an Associated Press report on the flier doesn’t mention that prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Gosnell with seven murders. Instead, the article quotes from the Grand Jury report, where prosecutors estimated that he killed “hundreds” of babies by inducing their live birth and snipping their necks with scissors.

I understand how the distinction between the initial report, the charges and the actual convictions seems unimportant now. The images raised at Gosnell’s trial, of large, healthy looking babies, past 24 weeks gestation, with gashes in their necks from his surgical scissors, were that powerful. Few convicts, of any kind, commit crimes so horrifying that television news reporters advise parents to usher children from the room before commencing. Gosnell chased kids from the room for months as his case wound through the courts. Besides, for a man to stab three newborns suggests he’d be willing to stab hundreds more. And maybe he did.

I attended Gosnell’s trial and remain the only reporter to have interviewed him after his conviction. He called me from prison, more nights than not, for many weeks. Even from jail, he conveyed such an elevated sense of himself that it was easy to see how he started playing God. He criticized the prosecutors, his own defense attorney and the judicial system. He portrayed himself as a victim of the culture wars. What became clear to me is that, long before he was arrested, he declared war, too. He believed so ardently in abortion rights that he ignored the law prohibiting abortion after 24 weeks whenever he thought it necessary. He also casually mistreated the women in his care, making neglect a part of his business model. Most notoriously, he instructed unlicensed staff to dispense strong doses of narcotics and anesthetics to his abortion patients. At trial, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of one woman, Karnamaya Mongar, who was killed by the drugs administered during her abortion. Her daughter testified in court, and maintained her dignity even as she cried and cried and cried.

I wrote an e-single about Gosnell, in 2013, and usually I’d have re-read it once or twice by now. The crazy-making nature of writing long, nonfiction pieces is that we can always torture ourselves by looking back at past work to see what we’d do differently today. But thus far, I just can’t bring myself to pick that story up again. The Gosnell trial was a parade of human misery, and in some respects it doesn’t really seem to be over.

His name is now a touchstone in the culture wars, and I’d expect his story to be recycled in various ways for a long, long time. But more importantly, the images projected at trial just don’t fade.

The Jamiroquai Conundrum

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I ran across this item last week and wanted to share. I confess. In the mid-90s, I happily watched whenever a Jamiroquai video appeared on MTV. The music station still played music in those days, and Jamiroquai seemed built to rule the medium—thin and scruffy as any vagabond, and born to dance like, well, like no one was watching. And that was sort of the rub right there. I lived alone in those days, and always had the creeping sense that somehow Jamiroquai’s spacey disco thrum was a guilty pleasure—not to be taken seriously as any sort of advance for funk or anything else. Would I have watched Jamiroquai just as happily if one of my friends was over? I suspect I might have watched the video and my friend at the same time, to see if they were entertained or succumbing to the same heebie jeebies ‘ole Jay Kay gave me.

So, with all that as background, I was stunned to find, after all of these years, others struggle with the same feelings around Jamiroquai. The Guardian ran this piece, in which the writer wonders “Why does nobody reference Jamiroquai?” and quotes Pharrell Williams—a guy at the tippy top of the game—admitting he digs that Jay Kay space funk, too, but feels like he shouldn’t cop to those feelings.

Well, to hell with it. “Canned Heat” features more dancing, but the above, “Virtual Insanity” still sounds, 17 years later, like a hit—and a fine set-up for a Friday.


“Born Lazy”

Rep. Paul Ryan really stepped in it today, and probably did so deliberately.

s-PAUL-RYAN-WORKOUT-large640“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” he said on Bill Bennett’s “Morning In America.” radio show.

Think Progress has a recording here.

Ryan even upped the ante by name-checking Charles Murray, a social scientist who has suggested that poverty shall be forever with us because, well, “a lot of people are born lazy.”

This is an old Republican meme, which I find particularly scandalous. I’ve covered a lot of stories in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, one of the poorest cities in America; and when I travel to these communities on a weekday I consistently find a world that would undoubtedly surprise Paul Ryan and Charles Murray, too. For one thing, a lot of people are out, working. I also find that most of the people who are home or out in the street are happy to talk to me, often about wanting a job. I’ve sat and talked to many young men about the vast difficulty of landing employment. Many of these men face problems getting hired for a variety of reasons—from no high school diploma, to criminal records, to the lack of established businesses nearby. Simply put, there are lots and lots of inner city men out there papering the city with job applications without getting a call back. And even writing all of this feels silly. Because I am amazed that there are people, let alone elected leaders, who don’t understand all this already.

We could talk about a lot of issues that contribute to this crisis. There are exceptions but most of this city’s public schools are notoriously bad. Poor kids face sanctions for drug use that well-off kids, who I’ve watched stroll through North Philly for heroin, simply don’t. But there is another, deeper issue here, which I’ve written about in a couple of places in the past: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The same problem that afflicts so many of our war veterans runs rampant through our neighborhoods. And it’s one more reason these communities struggle. You can read about that here.

UPDATE: Beep! Beep! Beep! Ryan is backing off these comments.