Diane Downs · Calvin Trillin · Heroin: Cape Cod, USA

It's Archive Monday at Best Evidence.

From the blog archives: my review of the surprisingly effective Small Sacrifices.

*******

The crime

Diane Downs, a postal worker, claimed a burly stranger had carjacked her and her three children, shooting one fatally and leaving the other two permanently impaired. At least she didn't blame an African-American male…but of course it's actually Downs who tried to kill her kids. Forensic evidence alone likely would have sealed her fate, but other factors made her conviction inevitable: the superficial wounds Downs gave herself; witness accounts of her trip to the emergency room, apparently conducted at a leisurely 5-10 mph; letters and journals indicating that her married lover didn't want children; and an emotional affect so consistently inappropriate that it's almost funny, in that "she shot her own three-year-old, so it's either laugh, or barf myself inside out" way.

The filicides stay with us. You could probably name three, besides Downs, off the top of your head; the idea that a mother, the first touchstone of protection and comfort for most of us, could turn on and end her babies is horrifying and disorienting on a primal level. But Downs is especially indelible, in no small part because that's what she wanted all along: The Diane Downs Show, starring herself, with everyone else just playing their parts and not real to her. And she did what she had to to keep the ratings up, including seducing a man on her postal route and getting pregnant, the better to appear sympathetically fecund at sentencing (Downs, who claimed she could get pregnant easily, at one time wanted to open a surrogacy center; the business plan thereof consisted entirely of her…getting pregnant easily and cashing large checks). She also broke out of prison in 1987, remaining at large for ten days.

Downs's applications for parole have been denied to date. She is not eligible again until 2020.

The story

Adapted for TV from Ann Rule's book of the same titleSmall Sacrifices changes a bunch of the names, but is otherwise a straightforward and very watchable overview of the case. I don't recall if Rule also did this in the text, but for the first hour or so, the film does allow to a degree for the idea that a carjacking could have gone down the way Downs claimed -- more to let Downs hang herself with the audience than anything else, and in that it's successful.

So is Farrah Fawcett as Downs. Fawcett in general is limited, and it's unclear what she's trying to do with that gargling-with-the-city-of-Chattanooga accent (an Arizona native, Downs committed the crimes in Oregon), but "not very good" is actually spot-on for the role. Tossing her hair a lot, reading her lines with cue-card flatness -- it's perfect for Downs's discomfiting responses. John Dean as prosecutor Frank Joziak does yeoman's work with literally dozens of "behold my misty-eyed concern for young Karen as she uses crayons to express her sociopathic-mom trauma" reaction shots. He is also required to snarl at NYPD Blue's Gordon Clapp, "I do not know, Frank, what happened to the damn kitten!" Not only does he not break character and start giggling; it's actually a pretty good line.

The Karen subplot is a minor pacing problem. "Karen" is actually Christie, the surviving Downs daughter who had to testify against her mother, despite suffering a stroke thanks to the shooting that left her unable to speak -- and trauma thanks to the shooting by her mother that required months of lead-up therapy and desensitization to ready her for court. Small Sacrifices treats the issue respectfully, but that process is almost another movie. (Emily Perkins as Karen is called on to do a lot of bulge-eyed fear staring, and she's a champ, especially when she's glaring dully at her mother.) The editing also falters during Downs's monologues; the point is to emphasize her unearned self-pity and tendency to incriminate herself with contradictory details, but Joziak would not stand in a public park listening to her litany of kook for ten straight minutes.

But SS more than makes up for the occasional lull. Unintentional awesomeness includes the classic '80s-crime-miniseries wih ih ih ih ih ih ih synthesizer, and the fake version of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf" the production had to make do with (probably to afford Ryan O'Neal as the married boyfriend; possibly because Simon Le Bon et al. helled to the no any association with the case). Detective Frank refers to Downs at one point as "a fugitive from a puzzle factory," a perfect mouthful that I'd never heard before, and that's even better coming from a character who went to search for the gun in the middle of the night…and fell asleep in the underbrush. The plaster model of the car/murder scene in the courtroom is neat…until the shot cuts to a wide-angle of the dummy inside that looks like an oversized, passed-out-drunk Cabbage Patch doll. And the roller-boogie gold spandex Fawcett has on when Downs is taken into custody for the last time is probably intended as a character beat, now that I think about it, but it is awesome, in the "inspiring awe" sense. I mean, forget "camel toe" -- she's got the entire camel down there, and it's running a thriving OB/GYN practice.

Small Sacrifices holds up today because of the deliberate wow moments, though. Downs rocking out to Duran Duran while handcuffed in the courtroom is still creepy, as is her clueless complaining to the press about the scars she's going to have on her arm. And the morning-after brunch with her postal-route seductee is agonizing. She's so needy and squirm-inducing, and Matt's slow transition from "this situation is awkward" to "this person is scary" is really well done by Garwin Sanford.

If you'd like to (re)read the book but you don't have time, throw Small Sacrifices on your YouTube playlist and listen to it while you wrap presents. It's a solid rundown of the case, equal parts genuinely gripping and funny in a dated way. — SDB, 12/27/12


Another one from the archives — one of the best books I’ve read in the genre, an anthology from Calvin Trillin. The cover of Killings says it’s “more about how American live than about how some of them die,” which is about right.

*******

That man in a small town who's "from away"

The crime

Killings is a collection of Calvin Trillin's writing on "sudden deaths" from The New Yorker, ranging in time from the late sixties to the early eighties and covering (alleged) murders in rural Kentucky, southern California, Miami, and elsewhere.

The story

Trillin's writing is that quintessentially New Yorker blend of genuine curiosity and the inability to resist making the "under-sophisticated" figures of fun. Trillin's writing is also wonderful, elegant and funny, nodding politely at black humor without crossing any lines, like his description of a town's reaction to the news that an accused may have committed a hit-and-run and not served any time: "When people mention the case, they seem angry not only that a child died but also that Berry seemed to have got away with something" (32). He also knows how to give you a sense of the story he's about to tell, as he does in that same article: "Jim Berry came to Center Junction in 1962 and didn't do much that anybody approved of from then until the time he left, rather suddenly, last June." You can see right away that the story is about that man in a small town who's "from away," and about whom everyone snorts, "Oh, that one."

Trillin does condescend to his subjects at times -- "with a terrified look on his face, he ran down the street -- at a speed he later estimated at five hundred miles an hour" is one of those smartest-one-in-the-room locutions you can either tolerate with New Yorker reporting or you can't -- but he's equal-opportunity about it, and the occasional city-mouse turd doesn't take away from his gift for capturing what life in the country, all over the country, was like at that time, before cable TV and the internet and various other cultural evolutions made various American regions more uniform. He sketches scenes efficiently but artfully; in his introduction, he describes the bleak sameness of a certain type of Florida victim,

a composition of a woman who might be the victim any time an unidentified body is discovered on the West Coast of Florida. She used to work as a cocktail waitress at a place called the Pink Panther or as a go-go dancer in a place out at the beach called Eddie's Seaview Lounge. She has a couple of children, but the children have been left with an ex-husband or with her mother up north. The ex-husband has threatened her. She runs around with kind of a wild crowd. (xiii-xiv)

Firm broad strokes, filled in with little details like the name of the lounge and the "kind of a wild crowd" that evokes precisely what her primmer sister might have told the police, make Killings a quick and flavorful read, as much for crime-solving and small-town times gone by as for the stories of the deaths themselves. — SDB, 10/20/13


Enjoying Best Evidence? You can get access to bonus podcast Briefs (…hee), book reviews, discussion threads, and more if you subscribe! It’s just $5 a month, and if we have 2000 of you paying lovelies by this coming August, we’ll cover the Theranos trial in person! Tell a friend or millionaire!


Whenever I hear or type the phrase “opioid crisis,” which is sadly often, I think about HBO’s 2015 documentary Heroin: Cape Cod, USA. Here’s my review from Previously. (It was a “Spectrum Analysis,” in which we graded certain kinds of shows along certain typical axes. I had a specialty version for HBO documentaries.)

*******

Compelling Subject

7/10

Your mileage may vary here. This loyal Intervention watcher and Cape honeymooner is primed to find it interesting. On a recent solo visit down there, I got to talking with another guy eating on his own at the bar, and he mentioned in passing -- while managing to imply that this was probably not surprising or infrequent information for me to receive -- that he'd lost a child to drugs the year prior. Chyrons in Heroin: Cape Cod, USA note that overdose deaths have quadrupled nationwide since 2001, and that Massachusetts alone had 1,256 opiate-related deaths in 2014, so it was a bit surprising to me, but perhaps shouldn't have been. Certainly one subject's shrugging VO that, in the off-season, the Cape is deathly boring, and, "like, you either work and you're normal, or you do drugs" wasn't exactly a revelation.

This specific treatment of the topic is well done. It could have stood more law-enforcement perspective, in my opinion, especially given the opening shot set-up and the stat that 85% of crime on the Cape is opiate-related, but Heroin: Cape Cod provides numbers and information, and access to articulate addicts past and present (and...both, sometimes), that gives you a good sense of the unmanageable size and scope of the problem and doesn't judge anyone.

A+ C.V.

8/10

Director Steven Okazaki won an Oscar for a documentary short in '91, and also directed White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction Of Hiroshima And Nagasaki. Most of his other output has concerned drugs, and particularly heroin: Crushed: The Oxycontin InterviewsRehab, an America Undercover on black tar...you get the picture.

Doin' Your Homework

2/10

Not particularly, though longtime watchers of Intervention and its ilk may find the structuring familiar, especially in the manner and timing of certain outcome reveals. The innate likability of the majority of the subjects cancels that out, though, mostly, like when Marissa -- in a salty Cape Will Hunting accent, through a mouthful of the candy she's always fiending -- objects to her family's hiding their purses when she's around, not because she wouldn't steal, though she avers she would not, but because the purses themselves are bullshit: "I don't want your fake Louis Vuitton, bro, get over yourself."

...Poor Marissa.

Great Depression

5/10

It's bearably grim, but it's still grim. The shots of Ryan's hands alone -- more sore than skin -- are tough going; that this chyron

is not actually the worst of it for Arianna is definitely tough going. Watching Heroin: CC, I kept thinking of that line from, I think, P.J. O'Rourke about how, whatever politicians said or pretended to want to do about the crack epidemic in the late '80s, the only thing that stopped it was...crack, by killing enough people who used it that eventually the numbers of said people began by arithmetical necessity to dwindle. And in the case of Cape Cod or the small eight-months-winter towns of New England generally, this may be the "solution" we're faced with.

...Haaaaaappy New Year!

It's An Outrage!

2/10

Well, I'll say! How dare Okazaki and these junkies drag the good name of Dunkin Donuts through the mud in this manner!

...Not really. Mostly it's sad, for these people, for their families. Colie tying off with an iPhone charger and shooting up in the bathroom while, just outside, Daniel's having some high-blather faux-velation all "you know that saying, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" about shooting up? Sad.

The businesslike explanation of why drug cartels have flooded the market with cheap, strong heroin, so they can replace the profits lost in states that have legalized pot? Sad. Daniel insightfully saying that his life is the same "repetitive bullshit every.single.day." over time-lapse footage of him injecting into his neck wearing several different outfits? And the fact that this is nothing we haven't seen before on whatever documentary show? Yeah.

Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda

2/10

Again, I'd have liked to hear from local PDs, the same way we do from the pharmacist and the ER doctor, just to get a sense of how the rise of smack has affected their day-to-day (and it's not like they don't know the addicted personally; Brian's brother-in-law is a cop, for instance). But I don't feel like Okazaki excluded their POV on purpose. The film is fairly determined to stress that, mostly, these are good people from good families and addiction is a disease, so if you're more of a hard-liner about that stuff, you might find Heroin: CC frustrating.

Exclusive Footage/Materials

8/10

The filmmakers have very good access: present at drug deals, allowed to witness intra-drug-house scraps over the stash and nighttime-high bull sessions, sitting in on the Parents Supporting Parents group session.

Talking Heads

7/10

Really good; Okazaki chose his subjects very wisely. On the one hand, you've heard some of the self-hating "I wish I could stop" monologues that end in tears and nodding many times before, but these subjects seem both more wised-up and less canned than Intervention's sometimes can. Ryan interviews in hushed tones at one point that he's pretty sure he'd be doing better if his parents just gave him the boot already, "and I've told them this" -- and then he makes this tiny "and here we are" hand gesture that's heartbreaking.

And Marissa. Marissa! What charisma; what a Renaissance forehead. Natural storyteller. Sigh.

Further Research

0/10

...If you are new to the concept of heroin as a highly addictive blight, then sure. You aren't, so: no. — SDB, 12/29/15


Tuesday on Best Evidence: Casting news; A&E goes on-demand; and you can’t spell “bird thievery” without “Eve,” now, can you.


What is this thing? This should help. Follow The Blotter @blotterpresents on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to The Blotter Presents via the podcast app of your choice. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.