When I was a little girl, and I mean a very little girl, maybe 7 or 8, my favorite book was Bloodletters and Badmen by Jay Robert Nash. If you haven’t heard of it, and you have any interest in the “true crime” genre, I recommend it. It is essentially an encyclopedia of (mostly) man’s inhumanity to man. The summary that I remembered the most, though, the entry that haunted me as a little girl and haunts me now still, was for Gertrude Baniszewski.
Gertrude Baniszewski tortured a 16-year-old girl to death. Specifically, this girl.
It was Sylvia’s greatest misfortune to come under the care of Gertrude. The two weren’t related. Rather, Sylvia’s family abandoned her to Gertrude, as they travelled around with a carnival (and “what kind of life is that for a child,” went the thinking). Her parents promised to send money to Gertrude to care for Sylvia and her sister, Jenny. But money was slow in coming, and Gertrude became increasingly resentful of the girls’ presence in her home.
Gertrude took a special dislike to Sylvia. In her terrifying book, The Basement, Kate Millet reflects on “Why Sylvia?” Maybe she was too uppity; maybe she talked back; maybe she was prettier than Gertrude; maybe Gertrude desired her. Over a period of time during which her distress perhaps would have been noticed had she not been the abandoned daughter of carnival workers, Gertrude, some of her children and two neighborhood boys tortured Sylvia to death. When she was found, dead, in the basement of Gertrude’s house, on the abdomen had been carved the words “I am a prostitute and proud of it.”
“I am a prostitute and proud of it.”
This is what Gertrude thinks of Sylvia.
Women should not do these things. Women do, in fact, do these things. The question of why women do these things is explored elsewhere, most notably in Phyllis Chesler’s Women’s Inhumanity to Women.
“Before I began research for this book I was not consciously aware that women were aggressive in indirect ways, that they gossiped and ostracized each other incessantly, and did not acknowledge their own envious and competitive feelings. I now understand that, in order to survive as a woman, among women, one must speak carefully, cautiously, neutrally, indirectly; one must pay careful attention to what more socially powerful women have to say before one speaks; one must learn how to flatter, manipulate, agree with, and appease them. And, if one is hurt or offended by another woman, one does not say so outright; one expresses it indirectly, by turning others against her. Of course, I refuse to learn these “girlish” lessons.”
Gertrude learned them all too well. She died in 1991, having been paroled 5 years earlier.
Was these “a man” behind Gertrude’s depravity? She had several failed, abusive marriages. She suffered from depression. To the extent she learned how to “be a woman” in this world, the answer is, as it is for all women, yes. Does this excuse her behavior? No. No, it does not.
No girl is garbage.
And not Gertrude either.
RetroIndy_ The 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens _ Indianapolis Star _ indystar.
Monster mom Gertrude Baniszewski and teen cohorts torture Sylvia Likens to death in Indiana boarding house of horror – Page 1 – NY Daily News.
Monster mom Gertrude Baniszewski and teen cohorts torture Sylvia Likens to death in Indiana boarding house of horror – NY Daily News.