Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

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Patte Wheat brought the story into the 1970s in By Sanction of the Victim. The story is told from the viewpoint of the victim, young Marjorie who is, along with her little brother Bruce and their dog Rocket, boarded at the home of Florrie Genoud. It is a powerful work of compassion and depth. Co-founders of Parents Anonymous, a group for potential or actual child abusers, give both a foreword and an after-word to the novel. However, the title, suggesting that the tormented child "sanctioned" her own abuse (a suggestion that is not made in the body of the work) is obscene.

It is possible, although not certain, that the Likens case served as an inspiration for Mendal Johnson's only novel, Let's Go Play at the Adams'. The parallels are not nearly as strong as in The Girl Next Door and By Sanction of the Victim. Johnson sets his story in affluent suburbia. There is no adult ringleader. A group of kids ranging in age from seventeen to ten tie up Barbara, their twenty-year-old babysitter. None of the moral accusations that were leveled against Sylvia — that she was a glutton, a thief, a slanderer, and a prostitute — figure in this novel. However, there is enough resemblance between the Adams' tale and the Likens murder to suggest a connection. The teenaged Dianne is described as "bony" like Mrs. Wright. The main torturers of Sylvia were two females and three males as is the case in Adams.' Finally, the murderers burn Barbara with a hot poker before finishing her off. They do not, however, make words out of the marks.

If Johnson was influenced by the Likens case, he, like Craig Kelly, saw it as "the ultimate example of how cruel children can be," a sort of Lord of the Flies scenario come to life. Mr. Kelly believes that the Likens torture "was about fun (twisted and perverted as it was). The neighborhood kids were having a great time. I think GB was a complete whacko and the kids were the major villains." After all, Mr. Kelly notes, Mrs. Wright. lived in a house with ten people in it and only one spoon which convinced him that she was "a total basket case, incapable of raising children or managing life."

Although not about the Sylvia Likens case, a book called Dear Corinne, Tell Somebody! Love, Annie was inspired by it. It's author, poet, playwright, and composer Mari Evans, told The Indianapolis Star that she first became concerned about child abuse because of Likens' horrible death. Evans was deeply involved with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and her book is directed primarily at African American youngsters.

A never-published play called Hey, Rube was also inspired by this slaying and that leads us to a most bizarre coincidence. The author of that play, Janet McReynolds, is the wife of the man who played Santa Claus at the Ramsey family's Christmas party just a couple of nights before six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was murdered. Two of the factors in young JonBenet's life that may have played a role in her death were her bed-wetting and the early sexualization of the tiny beauty queen, making the parallels to the murder of Sylvia Likens eerie indeed.

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