Kate Millett, author of “Sexual Politics” and whose moves in the terrifying trollpit of feminist academia were sufficiently elegant and formidable to earn her a cover of Time magazine (when that accolade meant something), died last Wednesday at 82.
The obituaries have been rich and plentiful, (although the New York Times lost their audience before the end of their first sentence: “…is credited with inciting a Copernican revolution in the understanding of gender roles…”) and the Telegraph went heavy on her televised encounter with an Oliver Reed so drunken and oafish that producers had to cut to “a grainy 1950s documentary about the coal industry.” (Paywall)
Yet while all the obits run through her considerable achievements, few even bother to mention her extraordinary true crime work “The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice.” (1979)
The Basement tells the story of a gruesome 1965 murder in Indianapolis, in which a 16-year-old Sylvia Likens, left in the care of neighbours by parents who go off to follow the carnival, is imprisoned and tortured to death by a woman called Gertrude Baniszewski.
Gertrude enlists local children – including her own – to help her.
I first heard of this book in John Waters’ Carsick, in which he hitchhikes across America, filling out his story with imagined “Good Rides” and “Bad Rides”.
One of the bad fictions involves being picked up by the late Gertrude and imprisoned himself, as punishment for holding a launch party for Kate Millett’s book, in which the icing on a cake spells out “I am a prostitute and proud of it.”
This phrase was originally carved by Gertrude’s sadistic gang into Sylvia’s torso.
It’s fair to say opinion on the book upon publication was not universally glowing.
Kirkus, the American trade reviewers organisation, had this to say: “Dreadful…Self-indulgent mess…This crime, it seems, has haunted Millett ever since she read about it in Time, and now she’s let her obsession with it run on for 300-plus pages of angry incoherence.”
The fact that the book has been long out of print also suggests it failed to find an audience.
But Millett spent four years trying to imagine herself into the shoes of the victim, and came up with an extraordinary account that illustrates just how casual and indifferent the perpetrators of this appalling crime were to Sylvia’s suffering, and tells it in the most chilling language.
“ ‘Let’s see you nod your head again Sylvia. Keep noddin – no more shaking it back and forth now, you hear. Ever. That’s a good girl. Now lift up your leg so I can pour some alcohol on it. You’re darn tootin it hurts. Sposed to hurt. Good for you as well. Good medicine always hurts. You ought to know that if anyone does.’
‘Gerty, we been paddlin her like you said but she don’t cry no more.’
‘Dummy, she got a gag on.’
No, Gerty, what he means is, her eyes don’t even cry anymore.’
‘So we been using the cigarette, Mom. Paula got some from upstairs. But it’s hard to get a rise outa her that way even.’
‘She’s borin, Mom.’
If they get bored it’s over. That’s how kids are.”
Has any murderer ever before speculated on the challenges of sustaining the interest of one’s own children in torture? Gertrude is quite indignant at how this whole grisly business has become such a huge inconvenience for her.
Waters became a huge fan of the book. “After reading Kate Millett’s wonderfully obsessive account of murder, The Basement, I became fascinated with the main character, Gertrude Baniszewski, perhaps the nastiest woman who ever lived… When pressed for a motive, Gertie could only repeat, “To teach her a lesson…to teach her a lesson.” (John Waters, Shock Value)
In honour of the late great Kate, then, is it time for The Basement to once more see the light of day?