Monday, February 11, 2008

Darcy O'Brien, "The Hillside Stranglers"

Despite the beacon of joy that has recently arrived in my life, I still find myself inexplicably drawn to darker materials. I've told myself that I'm going to lay off the true crime genre, but it's more difficult than I thought it might be. It is actually getting harder to explain why I like reading this type of book in the first place. I suppose I could offer some pretentious theory about the totemic nature of defending oneself with the artifacts of killers. Maybe in some small way I am de-fanging the fear that accounts of such extreme behavior invoke. Or alternatively, in some ugly but indisputable way, I find a perverse satisfaction in learning about what other human beings have been capable of throughout history. Perhaps it reinforces my own sense of internal restraint and humanity.

For whatever reason, I chose to read Darcy O'Brien's account of the "Hillside Stranglers". Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi were convicted of killing ten women in California in the late 70's. They were cousins of Italian-American descent, and seemed to have fueled one another's worst instincts. They shared a hatred for women, and an aggravated lack of compassion for other people. Before almost every incident of murder they perpetrated, they visited violent sex and torture upon their victims. Their crimes inflamed the entire city of Los Angeles with paranoia and panic, and they evaded justice for their actions for far too long. Unfortunately they both received life sentences instead of the death penalty. While Buono died in prison of a heart attack in 2002, Bianchi is currently incarcerated in Washington state.

What makes the case of the Hillside Stranglers so interesting is the interplay between the killers. It is widely thought that Buono was the dominant partner, yet Bianchi continued to kill on his own after being forced out of California by his cousin. Bianchi was actually caught first, after slaying two women in Bellingham, Washington. At first he tried to fake a multiple personality disorder under hypnosis, but he was eventually discredited in a dispute between psychiatrists. He only implicated Buono as part of a plea bargain that ended up saving his own life. Even though he had agreed to testify against Angelo Buono- he continued to lie through his court appearances, and almost sabotaged the trial with his unreliable participation. Fearing a jury's potential distrust of Bianchi's credibility, the District Attorney made a motion to dismiss the charges against Buono. If not for an unconventional decision by the presiding judge (an order to deny the prosecutor's motion), Buono would have walked on the charges of multiple murder.

Darcy O'Brien explains in his forward that he knew he needed to write The Hillside Stranglers in order to tell the stories of the traditionally ignored participants in the events- primarily the investigators, the victims and their family members. He does describe several of the murders in detail, and justifies this choice by explaining the necessity of portraying the horror of the crimes themselves, as well as the cruelty of Buono and Bianchi. Apparently he pieced together his accounts of these events from tapes that various parties made with Bianchi after his capture. I have no idea how O'Brien has reconstructed entire conversations that no one besides the accused men (and the victims) ever heard, or on what he based his analysis of the intricacies of their relationship. In fact the author doesn't include any endnotes, sources or references. This is a glaring omission, and makes me doubt the content of his book.

There seems to be a very specific agenda on O'Brien's mind. He is particularly laudatory of the detectives and sheriffs from Los Angeles. At every step he goes out of his way to praise their honor and integrity. We can only rely on our own perceptions about people, along with suspicions that some things are being left unsaid, to challenge O'Brien's idealistic depictions of these men. One officer in particular has left his family after undergoing a torrid affair with someone involved in the case, yet O'Brien still manages to portray him as completely compassionate and selfless in his drive to prosecute Bianchi and Buono. It is continuously suggested that this character considers "stepping over the line" into abuse and other forms of unprofessional conduct- and it seems like O'Brien regrets the fact that he didn't. The author repeatedly laughs over this same officer's repeated put-downs of women he doesn't like. At one point he publicly calls a defense attorney a "cunt"... and then explains his choice of words by suggesting that she "likes it". All of this while simultaneously focusing on the misogyny of the Stranglers.

O'Brien constantly pines for the "olden days"when things were simpler, and there weren't so many pesky protections for those accused of crimes. He is not mistaken in his assessment of Buono and Bianchi- they are/were complete scum. Yet O'Brien's habit of furnishing all the cops with white hats seems neither appropriate nor particularly convincing. This is not a black-and-white world. It never has been. It is a shame that a reasonably-skilled writer felt such a pressing need to deliver so much stilted moralizing.

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Blogger Dagrims said...

How old will E be before you sit on the comfortable couch with him and pop one of these films into the DVD player?

6:10 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Actually this was a book. I think it will be a while before he reads anything like it. As far as movies are concerned... it's going to be a little while before he understands anything at all on the television.

8:52 PM  

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