How did you first become involved in the Sylvia Likens case?
I was a "beat reporter" for the Indianapolis Star, and my beat was the county government and the higher courts of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana (the "municipal" courts were covered by the police reporters). From the time the Sylvia Likens case went to the grand jury, it was on my beat; and I covered it. And so I wound up covering the trial.
What were your impressions of the film AN AMERICAN CRIME?
I was surprised to find what an interesting film it was. I had dreaded seeing it because I had thought it would be revolting. But it wasn't. It was handled tastefully; the action flowed; the casting was good, and the acting was good.
And the movie, by dramatization, brought a level of motivation to the story that could not really be told nonfictionally. That is not to say that the motivation portrayed was factual (there is insufficient evidence to make that determination), but it was credible.
What about the casting?
Who can argue with Ellen Page as Sylvia Likens?
As for casting Catherine Keener as Gertrude Baniszewski, there are two schools of thought. Forrest Bowman, attorney for two of the youthful defendants in the case, thought Keener was far too pretty to play Gertrude Baniszewski. "She couldn't show you how homely Gertrude was," he told the Indianapolis Star.
The Star quoted me as agreeing with him; but actually I disagreed with him, strongly. Catherine Keener does have a classic beauty in and about her, but she is no Angelina Jolie or Sharon Stone. She was perfect for the part of Gertrude Baniszewski -- because Gertrude Baniszewski probably was much prettier in her younger day than the haggard, homely woman Forrest Bowman saw in court, and because enough of her beauty was yet evident to the boys for whom she played the neighborhood siren to get them to do things they might otherwise not have done.
It was Gertrude Baniszewski's eldest child, Paula -- played by Ari Graynor -- who was too pretty in the film, not Gertrude. Paula was slovenly and not at all a sympathetic character in real life.
Do you think it was an accurate depiction of what took place?
In the broad sense, yes.
But in the detail, no. There were numerous departures from the facts of the case as I understood them. But that's what nondocumentary films do: They take liberties with detail for dramatic effect. I thought that some of the liberties taken were unnecessary, but I don't think they essentially alterered the truth of the crime.
What were some of the "liberties" taken that you refer to?
The Likens girls did not meet the Baniszewski girls in church, as the film showed; they met through a mutual friend. Ricky Hobbs did not go to the same high school the older Baniszewski girls and Sylvia Likens went to, although the film indicated that he did. The film suggested also that Ricky had a crush on Sylvia; but the evidence suggests that if he had a crush on any female in the neighborhood, it was on Gertrude Baniszewski. And the "Andy" character in the movie was almost pure fiction.
As I said, these discrepancies, as I see them, do not essentially alter the truth of the crime; but the last two, I think, are misleading as to motivation and responsibility. I cannot shed the thought that the Hobbs boy's motivation lay largely in a sexual fascination with Gertrude Baniszewski. And as for "Andy," in real life there was no other adult on whom Gertrude Baniszewski could foist some of the blame.
Is there any way that you might have portrayed the story differently for film?
I'm not a movie-maker, nor a playwright, nor an actor. I'm not going to second-guess what those who made the film did. There is one particular digression from fact, however, that I thought was misleadingly unnecessary. There is no evidence that one prominent character in the movie, "Andy," was there in real life. I've already touched on this.
"Andy" was a character based on Gertrude Baniszewski's latest boy friend, Dennis Wright, who was 20 years old at the time of the birth of Gertrude Baniszewski's youngest child, Dennis Wright Jr., age 1 at the time of the murder (Gertrude Baniszewski, known as Gertrude Wright at the time of the crime, was 36 years old at the time of the birth of baby Dennis, and 37 at the time of the crime). Dennis Wright was not around by the time the Likens girls were boarded at the Baniszewski house, and there is no evidence I know of that he ever reappeared. "Andy's" in-and-out appearance in the movie, however, gave Gertrude another adult (however young) with whom to share the blame, and -- more significantly, in my mind -- diminished her need for male attention, which I think was a mutual motivation between her and the boys involved in the crime.
I would have left "Andy" out of the film. I do not see the artistic necessity of his inclusion.
How have your impressions of the case changed in the decades since you first became involved with it?
My impressions of the case have not changed at all. It was horrible, and it is still horrible -- to read about, to think about, to see.
What has amazed me, however, is the continuing interest in this particular crime so many years after it happened. It did not occur to me, at the time I was reporting on the case, that Gertrude Baniszewski would become another Lizzie Borden in American folklore; nor did it occur to me four years later, after the crimes committed by Richard Speck, Charles Whitman and Charles Manson and his followers, that she would rank among them, too, in history, literature or folklore.