Commentary Magazine


The Killing of Bonnie Garland, by illard Gaylin

Triumph of the Therapeutic

The Killing of Bonnie Garland.
by Willard Gaylin.
Simon & Schuster. 366 pp. $16.50.

In the early morning hours of July 7, 1977, Richard Herrin, a recent Yale graduate, sat in his estranged girlfriend’s bedroom at her parents’ home in Scarsdale, New York. He was watching the Tonight Show and leafing through Sports Illustrated while she slept, when the notion came to him to kill her. He left the room, wandered through the house in search of an appropriate weapon, returned with a hammer, checked to make sure the girl was still asleep, and proceeded to bash her skull in. Then, covered in blood and brain tissue, he grabbed her car keys, got into her car, and drove around for several hours until he found himself at a Catholic church in Coxsackie. Herrin roused the priest and announced that he wished to turn himself in for the murder of Bonnie Garland, twenty years old.

Joan Garland, Bonnie’s mother, was awakened at eight that same morning by the police, who inquired whether she knew Richard Herrin, whether she had a daughter, Bonnie, whether Richard and Bonnie were in the house. Mrs. Garland ran upstairs to look; she found Bonnie’s room spattered with blood and brains, and she found her daughter lying naked and unconscious in a pool of her own blood, gasping for air. Bonnie died at 10:38 P.M. that evening.

Richard, meanwhile, was becoming the focus of a campaign of love and forgiveness among the Catholic community, at his alma mater and elsewhere. As soon as word of the “incident” got out, the community rallied around, chiefly in the persons of two assistant Yale chaplains, Father Peter Fagan and Sister Ramona Pena. They hurried to Herrin’s side, equipped with messages of support and understanding, lawyers’ names, and petitions for bail—not to mention the bail money itself.

And so it was that thirty-five days after Bonnie Garland gasped her way out of this world, Richard Herrin was out on bail, living in Albany at a school for delinquent boys run by a Catholic order called the Christian Brothers. During his months among the Brothers, Herrin worked in a religious bookstore and for a time attended state-university classes under an assumed name, while his Yale support group continued its fund-raising and politicking, and while his lawyer, Jack Litman, prepared his defense.

There was, unfortunately, no question of fobbing the crime off on the gardener or on some itinerant burglar; Richard’s confession and the evidence worked overwhelmingly against such a tactic. Nor had any of the defendant’s constitutional rights been violated; Herrin had not been browbeaten, physically assaulted, left by the police to languish without food or drink, or forbidden communication with the outside world. On the contrary, he had been treated politely, even gently, throughout.

The only course thus left to his attorney was the insanity plea. Even Litman himself did not expect to succeed with this defense. What he planned was to use the plea in order to introduce otherwise inadmissible evidence. That evidence, Litman believed, would convince the jury not that Herrin was legally insane but that at the time of the murder he was functioning under “extreme emotional disturbance.” Whatever such a phrase may mean to mental-health professionals, legally in the state of New York it means the difference between a murder conviction—carrying a minimum sentence of 15 years—and conviction for manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 8? to 25 years.

Litman’s strategy paid off: the jury found Richard Herrin guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. Even so, the attorney, who had expected to get his client off with a couple of years, was dismayed to hear the judge pronounce the “grossly unfair and unwarranted” sentence of 8? to 25 years in prison.

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Nor, according to Willard Gaylin, a psychiatrist in whose book this information appears, was Litman the only one who found the sentence unfair and unwarranted. Richard Herrin’s friends in the Church were also distraught at the severity of the sentence, inspired as they were (in Dr. Gaylin’s words) by the “Christian vision of the purpose of life [as] man’s relationship to a God of love and forgiveness [which] preempts the primary importance of life on earth.”

Brother Thomas, leader of the Christian Brothers, might indeed be said to hold life in rather low esteem. “Oh,” he told Dr. Gaylin, “I think there are worse crimes [than murder in cold blood]. When millions of people are going to bed hungry, isn’t that a great crime?” Brother Thomas, having found Herrin “a very loving person, . . . a fine person,” was doubly distressed at the sentence because of his aversion to the very notion of prison. “I have,” he confessed, “a problem with incarceration. It’s barbaric putting people into cages.”

And sister Ramona Pena, a New Yorker of Spanish descent who was radicalized as a child by the Spanish Civil War, questioned the judge’s objectivity in handing down such a severe sentence. “You had,” she explained to Gaylin, “a Westchester County judge who was one of the leading figures in the Republican party, and the victim’s father was another leading Republican figure in Westchester.” Politics, however, was of secondary importance to this woman of the cloth; quite apart from the sinister motives of the judge, Sister Ramona objected to the penalty because in her view prison is not the proper route to redemption. Even Adolf Eichmann, she believes, should have “had time to reexamine his life”; rather than punishing Eichmann, Sister Ramona would have preferred “to catch him up and have him think.” According to Dr. Gaylin, Sister Ramona has “the vision, bias, and optimism of a New Testament prophet. . . . She is looking for a Christian world that has yet to come.”

But if the day of the prophet has not yet come, the age of therapy is definitely upon us. As Dr. Gaylin ruefully puts it, “While the mechanisms of Richard’s defense may have been organized from the Christion community, the substance of his defense was defined in terms of the new gospel.” This gospel holds that “we all share the same primordial unconscious [where] we are all killers, rapists, incestual, exhibitionistic, voyeuristic, aggressive, and homicidal. The difference between the criminal and the model citizen is not in his impulses but in his impulse-control mechanism.” Under the new order, “instincts and feelings [and even behavior] are never condemned.”

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Yet while Richard Herrin clearly benefited from the new dispensation as well as from the old, another actor in the “tragedy” Herrin perpetrated has not been so lucky. Paul Garland, Bonnie’s father, who objected vehemently to Herrin’s treatment by both church and state, seems to have been capable of arousing neither love and forgiveness nor understanding. Parental grief and rage, it seems, receive no blessing from either the servants of Christ or the disciples of Freud. Brother Robert, one of Richard’s Albany friends, felt that Mr. Garland had carried things too far: “Oh,” he told Dr. Gaylin, “I think you are [entitled to a certain amount of bitterness], but I do think that time should heal!” A Yale faculty member, the parent of daughters, observed that “Quite obviously the way [Mr. Garland] behaved once the terrible shock of the thing should have passed was irrational.” Another felt the murdered girl’s father spent too much time “moaning about something that cannot return.”

Even Dr. Gaylin finds Paul Garland a bit hard to take. He has nothing but praise for the character of Sister Ramona and Brother Thomas, and he even considers Richard Herrin sympathetic to a certain degree, but the Garlands are simply “not easy people to relate to. . . . Suspicious, angry, resentful, conspiratorial in their view of the world . . . they invite rejection and they get it.” Paul Garland in particular is “corseted and constrained by a personality that demanded self-control.”

No purpose, clearly, would have been served by a false profession of fondness for the Garlands on the part of Dr. Gaylin (though one might have wished for some stronger acknowledgment that they have profound reasons for being “suspicious, angry, resentful”). But what, one may ask, is the relevance of the personality of anyone connected with this case, save that of the murderer? Does it matter in the least whether Sister Ramona is a woman of “energy, warmth, and vitality” or a cold-hearted ideologue; whether Brother Thomas is “the mildest, gentlest of men, with otherworldly qualities” or a conduit of dreary pieties; whether Paul Garland is unlikable or a man suffering the greatest torment of grief imaginable? The only question of importance is what their views are, and where these views lead.

Dr. Gaylin begs this question. To be sure, he asserts that an ordered society cannot live by the precepts of the Church as propounded by Sister Ramona (he leaves aside the staggering question of whether these are indeed the precepts of the Church), or by the credo of therapeutic understanding. He maintains that society cannot afford to forgive all wrongdoing or to regard it merely as illness. But since he declines to invest any of the arguments he cites—even his own—with greater moral weight than any other, the issue appears to boil down essentially to one of order and safety, not justice.

Yet in the end there is no argument against the brand of Christian forgiveness preached by Richard Herrin’s friends except the belief that some acts do not deserve forgiveness, and no argument against Freudian “understanding” except the idea that some acts are simply forbidden. These beliefs Dr. Gaylin cannot bring himself to embrace, and so his book in the end becomes only a more sophisticated symptom of the moral relativism it appears briefly to deplore.

About the Author




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