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Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and MurderSmall Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder by Ann Rule

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ann Rule wrote mediocre books, good books, and excellent books. This is one of the excellent ones.

It makes an interesting companion to The Stranger Beside Me; Diane Downs is strongly reminiscent of Ted Bundy, even down to the chameleon quality they share; just as with Bundy, any two photographs of Diane Downs might, on a casual glance, seem to be of two completely different people. And, of course, like Bundy, Downs is a sociopath.

(There are a lot of different words to describe people like Bundy and Downs. "Evil" is one. "Antisocial personality disorder," "psychopath," and "narcissist" are others. Downs isn't quite the same sort of sociopath as Bundy; he was, as he himself admitted, addicted to murder, and in a particularly sexual way. Downs simply doesn't care whether, in removing obstacles to her goals, she kills people.)

It's not 100% clear why Downs shot her three children, killing one daughter, very nearly killing the other, and paralyzing her son. The prosecution's best theory was that she thought that, if her children were dead, the object of her sexual obsession would agree to divorce his wife and marry her. Downs herself pointed out that the man, who had been her lover and who she was riding the ragged edge of stalking, was a man who hated fuss and bother, and the attack on her children created a huge dramatic fuss that he was (in point of fact) repelled by.

Downs also has, in the language of the DSM-III, a Histrionic Personality Disorder (to go with Narcissistic and Antisocial), meaning basically that she needs always to be the center of attention and creates drama around herself to ensure that that stays true. My guess, after reading this book, is:
(1) Her children, as they grew older, were becoming less and less the pure sources of unconditional love that she craved (I think it's significant that the child she shot first, the child she made sure was dead, was Cheryl, her least favorite child, her whipping-boy child--dead Cheryl complied with her mother's fantasies much more satisfactorily than living Cheryl had ever been able to; it's also telling that she insisted that her son would be able to walk again through the power of her love--if she was just given access to him--as if she could take away her actions with "love").
(2) As the prosecutor at her trial pointed out, in her head, children were fungible: interchangeable parts. She aborted one baby, but balanced that out with the child she bore as a surrogate mother; she killed Cheryl, but balanced that with the child she got pregnant with just before she was arrested, whom she was planning to name Charity Lynn until her conviction for Cheryl Lynn's murder convinced her that was a bad idea. (She named the baby Amy Elizabeth; the child was adopted, named Rebecca Babcock, and made a lot of headlines in 2010 with the story of how she discovered just who her biological mother was). Just like Downs thought she could cure her son's paralysis with "love," loving the baby in her uterus somehow was supposed to wipe out the anti-loving destruction of the previous child.*
(3) Because she was a sociopath and didn't fully understand how other people's emotions worked, she did think that, without the children, she might be able to get her stalkee back.
(4) She saw a chance to be the ultimate center of attention, to be the Heroic Young Mother and the Grief-Stricken Parent at the same time, sort of like cashing all your Munchausen's by Proxy chips in at once.

Most of her reasons were bad reasons, but that doesn't mean they weren't her motive.

The other reason to compare Small Sacrifices and The Stranger Beside Me is Rule's attitude toward her subject. When she wrote TSBM, she didn't understand what being a sociopath meant (she says so herself in one of the innumerable afterwords, forewords, and updates that surround the main text in the 2009 paperback); she thought Bundy was mentally ill, which he was not. Sociopaths are sane by both legal and medical definitions; they understand perfectly that what they're doing is breaking the law and going against societal codes, but that just makes them enjoy it more. They completely lack any internalization of societal codes, just as they completely lack empathy, the ability to comprehend another person's feelings as you comprehend your own. A commenter on my review of The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and Its Analysis left a link to this blogpost about psychopaths and rules (remember that "psychopath" and "sociopath" are words for the same condition; I prefer "sociopath," because "psychopath" leads by connotation and popular usage to Psycho, which is just unhelpful). That study is fascinating, and shows exactly the difference between conscience (internalized societal code) and rules (purely external). I don't think the blogger is right when they say, "I really don't think psychopaths have a choice about being bad, because in order to chose not to be bad, you need to understand what 'bad' is." And I disagree because sociopaths understand extremely well that what they are doing is breaking the rules. For proof, I offer the number of sociopaths (e.g. Donald Harvey (who was beaten to death earlier this year, thirty years into his 28 life sentences)) who do extremely well in prison environments, where all the rules are spelled out and enforced. Sociopaths can choose to follow the rules; they just have to be given a cogent enough reason for doing so. So, no, while they don't have an internalized sense of either ethics or morals--and I agree, must find both, especially "morality," confusing--that doesn't mean that they don't know that what they're doing is wrong. They know, they just don't care. Or, even worse, it gives them pleasure to get away with breaking the rules, which you can see in the homicidal careers of a number of sociopaths, including Bundy, Ridgway, and Brady.

Okay, wow, long digression. My point is that when she wrote TSBM, Rule didn't understand the difference between socio/psychopathy and psychosis, and I don't think she ever fully managed to integrate the signifier of her friend Ted Bundy with the signified of Ted Bundy the serial killer and necrophile (Rule does not talk about his necrophilia). Which is absolutely 100% not a slam. I don't think I could do it, either. But she has no such difficulty with Diane Downs (just as she has no such difficulty with Gary Ridgway); she is very clear that Downs is a chameleon, a gifted mimic who can imitate feelings she neither experiences nor understands. And who is baffled and infuriated when other people don't operate according to her rules (which you also see in Bundy, who kept trying to push emotional buttons long after they had stopped working). So one of the things Rule achieves in Small Sacrifices is working through the contradictions that she could never resolve in her understanding of Ted Bundy. And she's able to loathe Downs whole-heartedly in a way she could never do with Bundy. (To be clear, I think both Downs and Bundy are deserving of whole-hearted loathing. Understanding them is not the same as condoning or forgiving what they did.)

Rule's ability to tell a story shines throughout Small Sacrifices, which is absorbing and full of narrative tension, even when you know how the whole thing turned out. And her portrait, in Diane Downs, of a sociopath is riveting.

*I am adamantly pro-choice. And I don't think children are fungible. I'm trying to describe Downs' thought process, not my own.

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Date: 2017-05-20 07:23 pm (UTC)
sovay: (Rotwang)
From: [personal profile] sovay
Sociopaths can choose to follow the rules; they just have to be given a cogent enough reason for doing so.

Finding and reinforcing a sufficient incentive for following the rules seems to be much of what the programs discussed in this article are about. "What's a clinician to do if the emotional, empathetic part of a child's brain is broken but the reward part of the brain is humming along? 'You co-opt the system,' Kiehl says. 'You work with what's left.'"
Edited Date: 2017-05-20 07:24 pm (UTC)


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