The Victim's Song, by Alice R. Kaminsky
“Only a Murder”
The Victim's Song.
by Alice R. Kaminsky
Prometheus. 268 pp. $19.95.
Years ago, long before I became a mother, a friend of mine was raped and murdered. She was twenty-four. The brutality of the thing was heightened in my imagination by the fact that the act itself, the crime, was committed within earshot (it was later divulged, well after she was buried, that there had been what to hear) of rich people, also no doubt well-educated and civilized people, who in ordinary circumstances would probably have considered themselves to be good people: good neighbors, certainly; charitable; perhaps even brave people. In these particular circumstances they had shut out the sounds they were hearing.
Mind you, my friend always fancied danger—it was thus that she ended up in the car of her murderer—living at the edge, as she used to say, and she liked to have people there with her. I remember telephone calls, always at two in the morning or thereabouts, in which she would report having downed a full bottle of sleeping pills, or Darvon, or whatever, and inquiring as to what I might be prepared to do about it. I remember bulletins from her frightened neighbors about the smell of gas from her apartment below. I remember with particular vividness watching her approach one day and realizing, as when you open your eyes from sleep and the world comes slowly to you, that what I was looking at, poorly hidden under a scarf, were razor-slash marks all over her neck. She had put them there herself. I remember that. And yet, and yet, the people who witnessed her murder, that is who heard it, described a person who at the moment of death struggled only, fervently, passionately to keep herself alive.
At her funeral, and the seven-day mourning period afterward, her mother and father floated like ghosts. God knows the Valium flowing in their veins couldn't have made a dent. I undersood that then, but now I have three children, so I really do know it. I watched them throw their shovelsful onto that box and wondered if they were going to survive burying their child. Later on I surveyed the gathering: in those seven bizarre days the greater part of mourning, remembering, etc. was done by us, her friends, children. At some point in this nightmare her father said to me: “You know, I always knew she was going to kill herself. I just didn't think it was going to be this way.” If that is how they meant to survive, it was some survival. As far as I am aware her murderer has never been brought to justice. Do her parents dream of it?
“With my bare hands. I would kill with my bare hands someone who killed my child,” says a friend who is the mother of an infant. Do I believe her? I have restrained myself, only just, from throttling someone who has hurt one of my children's feelings. I have humiliated myself threatening a six-year-old in the sandbox for laying hands on one of my children. I believe her. Yet I know with gratitude that this is belief in an abstraction. The concrete testimony of Alice Kaminsky on this dreadful subject raises disturbing questions about our ability to secure ourselves in an increasingly slippery world.
Her twenty-two-year-old son, Eric, her only child, a golden boy, was stabbed to death five years ago, for pocket money, in a New York City subway station. The Victim's Song is Mrs. Kaminsky's story. She describes first the murder itself, for of course here again we have witnesses, this time eyewitnesses, who could have saved her child; then the arrest of the two teen-aged addicts who committed the crime; then their trial and sentencing—one received 18 to 25 years in prison, the other, the one who actually wielded the knife, 25 years to life; then the personal aftermath.
Woven through all this, and beyond it in a discrete section, is a violently hot indictment of New York City (she calls it the Rotten Apple), its subways, its criminal-court system, its sleazy public lawyers and overworked judges. At one point during the endless series of pretrial hearings to determine what sort of plea each defendant was to enter, Judge Benjamin Altman expostulated with the prosecutor, who had complained one time too many about the defense's stalling tactics: “This is only a murder, Mr. Greenbaum, and I have heard it over, and over, and over again. Only a murder, and we are talking about an eighteen-year-old.”
There is an excoriation of the literary celebrators of violence, chief among them Norman Mailer, to whom she has devoted an entire chapter. As criticism it leaves something to be desired, but nevertheless provides a useful catalogue of his sins in this vein. “Dealing with scatology, buggery, incest, and violence is a very remunerative activity for him,” she says, and, at another point, “[b]ut nothing that Mailer has written can compete with the sordid story of his relationship with two real criminals: Gary Gilmore and Jack Henry Abbott.”
The bereavement racket, the death-and-dying people who are making a killing, so to speak, in the self-help market, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her ilk, and the grief therapists, get at long last the sound drubbing they so richly deserve. So, too, do those most mysterious of all beings, the forgiving parents of murder victims:
I despise their inherent dishonesty. . . . All the well-meaning inanities offered by all the well-meaning spiritualists are lies. . . . Eric Walbridge of Essex Junction, Vermont, made the following comment concerning the two youths who raped and murdered his twelve-year-old daughter: “I've no hate for them. They're sick. I've prayed for them.” These people are incomprehensible to me. Forgiveness under these conditions seems to be an obscenity.
In one of the most poignant passages she rails against herself:
[L]ike . . . all the mythological figures who have the courage to avenge foul murder, I feel this intense desire to destroy those who have destroyed what I love. Unfortunately, I am also like Hamlet, incapacitated by my so-called rational mind. So I think and write, and rage and hate, and I do nothing while the memory of my dead son beckons me to action, to revenge . . . whatever the law does will never relieve me of the conviction that I am a coward. I had plenty of opportunity to kill [the murderers] when they were a few feet away from me at the hearings and the trial. Security was lax enough so that I could have shot them. But I really understood for the first time why Hamlet did not just get to it and kill his murderer uncle. Even to kill Evil is abhorrent to the normal human soul.
And in an extravagantly researched chapter on the death penalty Mrs. Kaminsky surveys the arguments, hopping urgently from Camus to the Koran, from Ernest van den Haag to Pope John Paul II, from Walter Berns to the ACLU, to get where she is going, namely, to put it to us that in a society struggling to remain civilized in the face of an explosion of criminality, the execution of murderers is the only way to meet what honest people acknowledge are necessities: deterrence, incapacitation, and, ultimately, revenge. These, in turn, being the only proper means of safeguarding that society. She quotes extensively from the works of Berns and van den Haag on the subject to support her position, and argues, as though across a dinner table, literally yelling, with the likes of Henry Schwarzschild of the ACLU, who has apparently gone so far in his opposition to capital punishment as to have said publicly that he would not have recommended it for Adolf Hitler. She cites figures from Gallup and Media General/ Associated Press polls indicating overwhelming approval in this country of the death penalty.
Yet for Mrs. Kaminsky, as a citizen of New York State, this form of justice is unavailable. Of the governor who is now largely responsible for this state of affairs, she has this to say:
When Cuomo vetoed the death penalty he wrote, “I do not believe that responding to violence with violence or death with death is the answer. It does not undo the loss. It has not proved effective in this State or anywhere else; there is no reason to believe it deters future loss. It does not uplift or ennoble our State. It does nothing more than demean us.” In my view, Cuomo's veto of the death penalty demeaned my dead son Eric. His argument reveals that it is possible to care more about the murderer than the victim. Why in the world should the act of killing a murderer “ennoble or uplift the State”? No one who argues for the death penalty uses this kind of irrelevant rhetoric. We kill a murderer to show that the life of an innocent person is worth more than the life of a murderer; we do it to punish him, to prevent him from killing again, and to express our moral outrage.
The Victim's Song is a prodigious piece of work. It is probably fair to call it a piece of madness, of dementia. Mrs. Kaminsky herself might concur. It is not a book, really, though it tries to follow orthodox outlines. It is a rage masquerading as a book, and thus incoherent at many points. Lava flows from these pages. Deprived by the strictures of her own consciousness and the world she inhabits of the ability to avenge personally the murder of her son, and deprived as well of the possibility of seeing imposed the only punishment which for her would fit this crime, is it any wonder that Mrs. Kaminsky's “normal human soul” can find no rest? “Do not,” she pleads finally,
forget my son, and the murdered like him who fill the graves in every cemetery in this land. . . . Do not forget the spilling of the blood of one innocent being. Abhor it. Abhor it and work to prevent the murderers in our society from presenting us with the statistics that one person is killed in the United States every twenty-three minutes, and one out of three families is victimized by the scum of society.
For Alice Kaminsky and the parents of my murdered friend there is no justice. For the rest of us, how many murders will it take before we lose our footing altogether?