The Blotter Presents 140: True History Of The Kelly Gang and Catch & Kill pod v. book

Plus, a left-field limited-series pitch, and "Hidden Valley Road" reviewed

For Episode 140, Alex Segura kindly joined me from “the epicenter of the epicenter” to talk about two properties that didn’t quite work. First up is yet another take on Ned Kelly, this one from a director who’s also tackled the Snowtown murders (…no relation), and while it tries to do some new, non-linear things with this very old story — and it’s smart to do so — it loses its nerve when it comes to gender-identity questions, and good performances (including a dirty ditty from Russell “Hold The Phone” Crowe) don’t quite save it. Australian readers, we’d love to get your perspective on where Kelly, his gang, and his oft-stolen remains are in your cultural firmament.

We know where Ronan Farrow’s book is in the cultural firmament; it’s a bright star. So we had high hopes for the podcast, but they weren’t met, and Alex and I talk about why that might be. Is it a failure to apprehend what makes a podcast different? Is it just a matter of our own bad timing? All this, plus Mick Jagger not singing folk songs about the folk hero he’s playing (although that Waylon Jennings joint is a fun one)…

…in Ep 140. Listen right here! — SDB

After all the April showers we had in the New York area yesterday, what’s blooming in the garden of true crime? Dillweed! Today In True-Crime Buttholes is short today, but pungent as ever:

  • Podnews reported last week that a Swedish pod got clocked, formally, for plagiarism by Swedish courts, and the podcast’s researcher was fined. This does not appear to be the same podcast that got busted last year for lifting from a blog, either, although the pods share a publisher, Bauer Media.

    UK’s Murder And More podcast claims that the Ghost Town pod read MAM’s work verbatim on the GT podcast…and acknowledged “their mistake” privately, but haven’t updated the episodes in question or credited MAM in the show notes. I have to say, I do not “get” plagiarism of this sort, but I won’t even read an IMDb summary without crediting it and saying the quotation marks out loud*. Y’all, do your own work.

    I should probably stop subscribing to these People true-crime updates, but how else would I learn that Mary Kay LeTourneau is back in the online dating game? The “source close to” LeTourneau is throwing some pretty funny shade here — “She’s not someone who does well by herself” is brrrrrrisk, baby! — but I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d like to see a limited series about LeTourneau in the culture, a la the Lenora Bobbitt series, because there are parallels in their stories as far as generating late-night-monologue joke fodder for years, and in the discomfort we have with these women culturally that means we can’t take them seriously. Obviously the tracks diverge because LeTourneau is a predator, but I don’t think an un-sleazy look at her life in the headlines is the worst idea for a Liz Garbus to take on in three parts over two days. What do you guys think? (And I’d love any recommendations, written or filmed, should they exist.) — SDB

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Hidden Valley Road: Inside The Mind Of An American Family is, per Wikipedia, “an account of the Galvin family of Colorado Springs, Colorado, a midcentury American family with twelve children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became subjects of researchers investigating a genetic origin for schizophrenia.”

* See how easy that is? Do they not teach this shit in schools anymore?

The crime

This isn’t a true-crime story per se, although Kolker did mention in his conversation with me and Kevin Smokler that there’s a murder-suicide in the book. The prevailing crime, however, is one sibling’s preying on at least three of the others sexually…and generally speaking, Hidden Valley is a longitudinal account of a single family, alongside the evolving science of the disease that ravaged it.

The story

I gave it five stars on Goodreads, but my journey to a fifth star is the rationale for a fifth star. Said journey isn’t that complicated, but let me back up — again to Goodreads, where a couple of people asked me how the book was. Not just whether it was good, but literally how it was to read. My answer was more or less that the writing and pacing are excellent, but it’s difficult going, both tonally/emotionally and logistically. There are 12 kids here; they’re all named exactly what they would have been named in the middle of the last century — no Percivals or Mackenzies — so it’s hard to keep Michael and Matt distinct, or Matt and Mark; and Kolker is going back and forth among the various kids, the parents, the researchers…it’s a heavy narrative with few happy outcomes, one I can’t really advise you to read in one or two sittings. But at the same time, if you don’t keep a hand in with a chapter a day, you lose track of the players (even with the chapter-heading list device, which is helpful, but this insomniac bourbon-drinker still struggled to keep everyone straight).

So that’s part of my review: that there is simply a gargantuan pile of data here. Another part is that it does seem like the murder-suicide is…well, “rushed past” isn’t accurate, and in Kolker’s defense, sometimes there just isn’t a lot to say about that particular brand of tragedy, beyond that it happened. But even if other members of the family didn’t prefer to avert their eyes from it, as most seem to, there’s information in that preference. This is a book about how schizophrenia made and re-made this family over half a century, after all; I don’t come from a rubbernecking place with this, but I think it’s got to be lingered over a bit longer, willing participation of the residents of its blast radius notwithstanding.

But we come via that note to my fifth star. Reaching the back of the book, the notes and biblio, I already felt somewhat drained; leafing through the research, and Kolker’s careful acknowledgment of everyone’s participation and explication of his sourcing, I felt awed. Kolker generally is what I would call a duck writer…you know, serene above the surface, paddling furiously below it. That’s a frumpy way of describing a rare skill, but it is rare, as regular readers will recognize given my frequently expressed impatience with splashy (see what I did there) showing of the work in non-fiction — like, I appreciate the time and focus that goes into researching and reporting, but an author standing back from a performatively dense graf all “smell the archival dust I SAID SMELL IT” is not it. Kolker does not do this, though if ever he’d earned the right, it’s with Hidden Valley. The list of chewily titled academic papers on brain chemistry he had to digest alone is not short. The interview process took years, across several media, often with interview subjects whose…well, symptomatic estrangement from reality, let’s say, makes their record of the past challenging, and challenge-able. And did I mention there are 12 children to keep track of here?

Hidden Valley is well written, and given how often writing about mental illness can purple itself without meaning to, Kolker’s crisp prose is particularly impressive. Opening Chapter 2 with the almost sarcastic “It makes a certain amount of sense that the most analyzed, interpreted, pored-over, and picked-apart personal account of the experience of bing psychotically paranoid and wildly delusional would be almost impossible to read” has a grey humor to it that I think is necessary when you’re living with this subject matter. But it’s well conducted as well. This is a family, and a subject, and a scientific history that could easily see an author’s sorcerer’s apprentice completely overwhelmed by marching brooms and pails of water by page 50; the job of weaving together the family history and the clinical understanding of mental illness is hard to do period, never mind smoothly. Not every switch-out to the study of schizophrenia is as compelling as the Galvins’ story/stories, but it’s still compelling, and more to the point, it’s done thoughtfully and seamlessly. Serene; furious paddling.

Non-writers may not get as much out of it from a process standpoint as I did, but you’ll still get something out of it. It’s a fascinating topic, thoroughly reported and expertly constructed. Unqualified recommend. — SDB

Kind of a bite-size edition today…I’ve got interview prep to do and two bonus books to finish, and I need to get cracking. Want to know what I’ll have to say about Rap On Trial and American Sherlock? A paid subscription’s only $5 a month. We know times are tight — for us too! — but if you can manage it, we’d really appreciate it. If you can’t, we get it, and I hope you’ll enjoy all the free stuff in the archives as we all wait to re-enter the world. Stay safe.

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