Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

Sylvia in Marlene McCarty's 'Murder Girls'

In the late 1990s artist Marlene McCarty made a series of drawings entitled "Murder Girls." The drawings were of young women who figured in terrible crimes and showed their sexual parts exposed and emphasized, to suggest a link between their budding sexuality and the crimes. In this series, McCarty drew females who had committed murder, with one exception: Sylvia Likens. In her case, she drew Sylvia, not Gertrude or Paula or any other female involved in harming Sylvia.

Josefina Ayerza
Josefina Ayerza

McCarty's drawing of Sylvia did not portray her malnourished but looking healthy and pretty, her hair long and wavy, a smile on her face. She was depicted in only a short blouse tied between her breasts and has her hands on her hips. Naked below the shirt, the words "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!" are written on her stomach. The combination of happy expression, jaunty posture and stigmatizing words make the drawing extremely disturbing.

Writer Cathy Lebowitz extensively interviewed psychoanalyst and writer Josefina Ayerza about McCarty's "Murder Girls." After noting that Sylvia is the only victim drawn in the collection, Ayerza speculates, "There could be sexual frustration in Gertrude. And now she projects this frustration on the girl, while accusing her of being a prostitute. Gertrude hated the girl, still she could have been sexually aroused by her. What she certainly was is aroused to kill."

Lebowitz asks the psychoanalyst if she believes Gertrude was psychotic. "Not necessarily," Ayerza replies. "Just envy can draw someone into delusion. Say Gertrude was attracted to Sylvia and didn't really know it. Every time she looks at the girl her gaze is ready to bring up the sexual features from underneath the clothes. That is already a reason to panic. Thus, it affects her to a point that she has to kill her, and then torture the dead body ... possess it."

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