Monday, February 03, 2014
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
|Becky (r) and Amy (front)|
What have we learned in these past 40 years? God. Something, I hope. Personally, I now know evil is a force of nature, no more within our ability to deflect than a hurricane or an earthquake. Goodness can be turned aside and silenced, but wickedness is unstoppable. We must deal with it when it blows through, when it shatters our homes and lives. There is no insurance that will rebuild us, so we must struggle on our own to give it a proper meaning and weight, then go on.
Just go on.
On a frosty February morning, thirty years after the crime, I visited Amy and Becky’s grave. A fresh snow had fallen overnight. Approaching the grave, I saw one set of footprints from the path to the grave, where someone had lingered and walked back to the path. I don’t know who visited that morning, but it suggests the memory remains fresh.
And their story continues to echo in the small town of my childhood, and in many hearts, because in death they, too, were invested with memory and hope. To me, they were literally the girls next door, but to everyone who felt the sudden, chilly wind of fear in the hours, days and months after the crime, they represented every girl next door. Their fates were entangled in our fears.
|Fremont Canyon Bridge near Casper, WY|
The first ingredient is calamity. After a dark night of the spirit, resilience is genuine dawn, where we can begin to trust in an orderly and predictable universe again.
Some never survive until dawn, and others survive but never see it.
True survivors of extreme adversity — war, a life-threatening disease, rape, murder, childhood abuse and terrorism, to name a few — are able to repair themselves. The rest die physically, emotionally or both.
What makes a survivor?
Bernard Kempler was born to Jewish parents in Poland in 1936. As a mere child, he endured life in ghettoes and concentrations camps, a barbed-wire escape, a clandestine and penniless existence on the run, in which he dressed as a girl and hid in crawl spaces in burned-out buildings. After the war, he emigrated to the United States and became an eminent Jungian psychologist.
He credits his survival to his flexible psyche as a child, not taking the horrors personally, a sense of spiritual protection, his temperament, and his ability to dissociate from the terror at hand.
When psychiatrist Dr. Robert Lifton studied survivors of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, he also found that truly resilient people have many adaptive mechanisms. His conclusions: They are able to integrate seemingly incongruous ideas and actions, seek consistency and ordinariness, remain connected to human events, and search for spiritual meaning.
Becky tried. For almost nineteen years, she struggled to wriggle free from her demons, waiting for the first light to break, just as she had on her horrific night in Fremont Canyon.
But in the end, the dawn was false.
It never really came.
|THE DARKEST NIGHT|
Evil had existed in Casper, Wyoming, long before me, and all around me. I hadn’t seen, heard, tasted, felt nor smelled it, but it was there. Ronald Kennedy and Jerry Jenkins were from that town, just like me. They’d always been there.
No, this was a story about evil coming to me, to my heart, not my town. It would have come sooner or later anyway, as it does for each of us. Whether it settles in like dust or blasts through like a tempest, we cannot avoid it. We can only build our homes and our hearts strong enough to weather it when it comes, and hope the damage is reparable.
Survival is an instinct, not a choice. Perhaps Becky’s courage came from fear: She was afraid to die. Her only hope — hope distilled to its ethereal essence — was the next breath. Not tomorrow. Not next week.
But we all fall eventually.
Like gravity or wind itself, evil is a force of nature.
Excerpted from THE DARKEST NIGHT © 2007
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Is Chris Lane's killing less outrageous than Trayvon Martin's?
A 40-year-old mass murder might offer clue
charged with first-degree murder. Police say Edwards danced while they were booking him; then they found Tweets in which he'd written "90% of white ppl are nasty #HateThem" (and that, incredibly, isn't the worst of it). Luna is the suspected shooter. (A third teenager, white, faces lesser charges as the driver of the getaway car.)
America just endured a year-long spasm of racial agony that followed a different shooting. When neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, a Hispanic, shot unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in a Florida scuffle, the reaction by media, celebrities, and race profiteers was swift. Long before Zimmerman went to trial he was pilloried as a racist, wannabe cop who stalked and murdered a defenseless, gentle child in cold blood. Evidence eventually showed neither characterization was true, but it didn't matter. Sides had been drawn and nobody was budging. Even after Zimmerman was acquitted, the airwaves were filled with continued angsting about the case. Justice, some of them said, didn't happen because the jury didn't come to a different conclusion.
So far, the media hasn't been angsting about the tragic Oklahoma ambush, at least nowhere near its wall-to-wall coverage of the Zimmerman case. No celebrities have printed T-shirts demanding "Justice for Chris Lane." The president hasn't mused wistfully that he might have been Chris Lane. The Attorney General hasn't recalled a time he was jogging and got shot in the back. The Justice Department hasn't mobilized to investigate whether Chris Lane's civil rights were violated. The race profiteers, who show up like corpse flies in white-on-black crimes, are silent and absent. No surprise there for the people who think the media, politicians, and pop culture refuse to divert from their perversely and politically correct narrative.
Guess what? It isn't new.
|Kansas kid Mark Essex|
racism while in the Navy
When I researched this mass shooting for my 2011 book, DELIVERED FROM EVIL, I found surprisingly little press coverage of the event, and even less analysis in the months that followed. But while mainstream media were comparatively quiet about the massacre, black outrage erupted within hours of Essex’s death.
Even before Essex’s body had been shipped back to Emporia in a simple wooden crate, black militant leader Stokely Carmichael praised Essex for “carrying our struggle to the next quantitative level, the level of science.”
And within days, columnist Phil Smith of the Chicago Metro News, an activist black weekly, eulogized Essex as a “new hero in an old struggle.”
“Essex may not have been in love with white people, but that made him as normal as thirty million other Black people,” Smith wrote.
He suggested Essex was framed by a “sick white racist society” bent on the “systematic extermination of young Black men.” No young black man, he said, would ever “go berserk and kill white people for no reason.”
"White people hate the idea that Black people, by virtue of their very existence, force whites to deal with their own dishonesty, deceit and criminal intent … White people truly believe ‘the only good nigger is a dead nigger,’” Smith seethed. “If there was one lesson that [Essex] had learned in his short life, it was that Black men are the most dispensable item in this country.”
|Mark Essex's New Orleans apartment had racist and|
radical slogans on its walls
“I do think Jimmy was driven to this,” she said. “Jimmy was trying to make white America sit up and be aware of what is happening to us.
“I don't want my son to have died in vain,” Mrs. Essex continued. “If this terrible thing will awaken white America to the injustices that blacks suffer, then some good will have come from it.”
Although the Howard Johnson attack swiftly resurrected the ghosts of Charles Whitman’s 1966Texas Tower massacre, it quickly fell out of the national media spotlight. Many observers believe stories about black rage ran counter to the media’s efforts to portray a nation where African-Americans should be seen as innocent, noble, civilized victims of white oppression, more Rosa Parks than Nat Turner, a messianic slave who, inspired by an eclipse of the sun, led the mass-murder of fifty white people in 1831.
And the current narrative in the mainstream media hasn't changed much. It wants to perpetuate certain myths, or at least not destroy them. It covers Zimmerman in depth, but barely notes hundreds of other crimes in which the killers and the victims don't fit the casting call. The editors and producers exploited Trayvon Martin and caricatured George Zimmerman into a despised symbol of white oppression, but have fumbled cases such at the New Orleans mass murder and (so far) the thrill-killing of Chris Lane because they didn't fit the politically correct narrative.
The point should be justice, not color-coding.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Monday, March 18, 2013
This is where obsessed baseball groupie Ruth Ann Steinhagen--whose 1949 shooting of ballplayer Eddie Waitkus inspired Bernard Malmud's The Natural--lived ou the rest of her deluded life. She died in obscurity last December, but the death was only just discovered accidentally by a Chicago Tribune reporter. Read about it here.
Saturday, November 05, 2011
This week, the Huffington Post went deep into my new memoir, THE SOURTOE COCKTAIL CLUB, the true story of my extraordinary road trip to the Yukon with my teenage son Matt to find the infamous cocktail containing a mummified human toe.
Friday, May 20, 2011
1. Apocalypse Now (The Doors)
2. End of the World As We Know It (REM)
3. Don't Fear the Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult)
4. Knocking on Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan)
5. Sympathy for the Devil (Rolling Stones)
6. I Shall Not Be Moved (Elvis Presley version)
7. God Bless Saturday (Kid Rock)
8. DOA (Bloodrock)
9. Waiting for the End of the World (Elvis Costello)
10. Rapture (Blondie)
11. Eve of Destruction (Barry McGuire)
12. Disintegration (The Cure)
13. The Four Horsemen (Metallica)
14. Something to Die For (The Sounds)
15. The Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash)
16. Ride of the Valkyries (Richard Wagner)
17. It's Not My Time (Three Doors Down)
18. Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
What would you add?
Monday, May 02, 2011
Killed yesterday in a daring night raid on his compound in Pakistan, Osama's corpse was whisked away by American Special Forces so they could prove that the world's most feared monster had been dispatched.
But now that this colossal dragon had been slain, what would we do with his carcass? Certainly many among us fantasized gruesome indignities, or at least something akin to being trapped in a jet fuel-soaked, burning skyscraper as it crumbled to dust.
But in civilized societies, fantasies and societies often diverge. In this case, DNA and photos were taken and before the sun set again, Osama was quietly sent on his way to Allah and whatever rewards awaited him in Jannah, the Muslim heaven.
Today, a U.S. government official said, quite simply, that Osama was buried at sea and his body was “handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition. This is something that we take very seriously, and so therefore this is being handled in an appropriate manner.”
For being on the short list of history's most hated and feared monsters, Osama received a more respectful burial than many lesser enemies of the state. In fact, for all our self-righteous preening about our superior civilization and manners, the United States has actually treated the corpses of its worst antagonists with contempt and irreverence, occasionally bordering on post-mortem sadism.
History is full of examples. Ordinary criminals and evil-doers generally were usually dumped in unmarked graves outside the fences of our "proper" cemeteries. Some were lynched and their bodies defiled in grisly ways (such as Old West train robber "Big Nose" George Parrott, whose skin was turned into a pair of shoes for the governor, and whose skull became a candy dish.)
In 1942, eight Nazi saboteurs landed secretly in America to wreak as much havoc as possible, but their evil plot came unraveled. Six were executed and buried in a remote potter's field in Washington beneath wooden slats bearing only numbers. In time, the graves were lost completely, and that was just fine with American authorities.
Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth (ironically, also mortally wounded in a bold night raid by soldiers) was dissected and initially packed in an old musket case and buried in an unmarked grave on a Washington Army post in 1865. Later, his box was moved to a warehouse where it sat for several years until it was returned to his family (who buried it in another unmarked grave.)
Almost 40 years later, a strange story arose that Booth had eluded his captors and had committed suicide in an Oklahoma hotel room. On the off-chance that the body they tended was, in fact, Booth, the local morticians mummified him and propped his corpse in a rocking chair (reading a newspaper) in their front window for several years, until his body was claimed by a Tennessee lawyer who sold Booth's Mummy into the carnival sideshow circuit. It toured freak shows for decades until disappearing in the 1970s.
In fact, presidential assassins never fared well.
Charles Guiteau, who murdered President James Garfield in 1881, was hanged and dismembered before all but his brain (shipped to a doctor in Pennsylvania) was dumped into an acid vat. His bleached bones and a few other morsels are still in the U.S. Army's National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.
Leon Czolgosz, President McKinley's anarchist assassin, died in the electric chair in 1901. His body was laid in an acid-filled casket and buried unmarked in New York.
JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was treated slightly better in death, but hardly with generous respect. His funeral in 1963 was deliberately scheduled at the same moment as JFK's services because authorities knew all eyes would be glued to the president's televised funeral, not on Oswald's. In fact, not even Oswald's wife attended his simple graveside service in Fort Worth. Six reporters had to be drafted to act as pallbearers ... because only reporters showed up.
So while it's not known if an imam said any final words over Osama's corpse as it was assigned to The Deep, it's clear he got a slightly better send-off than many of America's enemies have gotten. And in the end, maybe there's some reason to think we're actually starting to get the hang of this civilization thing.
UPDATE 12:12 PM CDT: "Today's religious rites were conducted on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian sea. The ceremony started at 1:10am and finished at 2:10am ET," the second official said. "Procedures for Islamic body were followed. The body was washed and placed in a white sheet. A military official read prepared remarks, which were then translated into Arabic by a native speaker. The body of Osama bin Laden was placed on a flat board, which was then tipped up, and allowed to slide into the sea."
Monday, March 28, 2011
Are you a collector of signed books? Waiting for a better price at Amazon? Just haven't gotten around to buying these books yet?
Well, now's your chance of a lifetime (or at least of April) to get Ron Franscell's two newest books, both signed by the author, at a bargain price!
The combined cover price for DELIVERED FROM EVIL and THE CRIME BUFF'S GUIDE TO OUTLAW TEXAS would be $43 (plus tax) if you bought them at most retailers. You can get them for $30 at some online stores. Here's the best deal you'll see anywhere: Until Ron's small supply of books runs out, you can get them both for only $29 with free shipping! And signed!
To get instructions on how to take advantage of this deal, just email Ron today at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once your order has been placed, you can pay by check or PayPal, and your books will be shipped right to your home!
Email Ron today!
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
The same old debate about capital punishment is, of course, unfolding. Let it. As with all hijacked conversations in our hollering society, it ignores a large majority that can see times when the death penalty is appropriate and times when it is not. We've heard all the radicals' talking points before, ad nauseam.
What we haven't heard very often is the sound of gunfire in the death house. Firing squads date back to the invention of guns, but only two killers have actually been legally and officially shot to death in the United States, in 1977 (Gary Gilmore) and 1996 (John Taylor). It's not a default method anywhere, but remains an option for condemned inmates in Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma.
Gardner chose the firing squad because it was "easier" and maybe quicker. The process is cloaked in some secrecy, but in the past five sharpshooting volunteers from law enforcement agencies are chosen. The condemned man is strapped in a backless chair, wearing a hood and a target over his heart. The squad is set up on a sturdy firing platform 20 feet away. On a command, they fire simultaneously. One of the shooters' .30-caliber rifles is loaded with a blank cartridge so that any one of the five might reasonably surmise he didn't fire the fatal shot.
Is it cruel? If you radically oppose capital punishment, even lethal injection is cruel. If you radically support capital punishment, it isn't cruel enough. There have been difficulties with all methods (although not with firing squads in the USA because they are used so rarely). But should four bullets not shatter a human heart as expected, an alternate shooter stands by to administer the coup de grace.
Some have argued that firing squads offer a soldier's death, and that hanging more befits common criminals. Opponents say it is a grotesque, "old style" method that's needlessly cruel and messy; proponents say it is swifter and surer than lethal injection, and therefore less cruel.
What are your thoughts about firing squads as a method for carrying out the public's promise to killers? Better or worse than other methods we've used for more than 200 years?
Journalist Ron Franscell is the author of the upcoming DELIVERED FROM EVIL, an extraordinary study of 10 survivors of American mass murderers and serial killers. It will be released in January.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
This software will crunch the kids' criminal history, home life, drug habits, gang ties and peer associations -- and more -- in a scientific attempt to predict which juveniles are more likely to be future problems. The idea is that the hard cases can be separated from the rest and given more intensive rehabilitation. Florida officials stress the software will be just one way they try to zero-in on the most dangerous young offenders and tailor rehab and punishment more suitably to all the 95,000 young criminals they get every year.
"Predictive analytics gives government organizations worldwide a highly-sophisticated and intelligent source to create safer communities by identifying, predicting, responding to and preventing criminal activities," said Deepak Advani, a predictive analytics expert at IBM. "It gives the criminal justice system the ability to draw upon the wealth of data available to detect patterns, make reliable projections and then take the appropriate action in real time to combat crime and protect citizens."
Similar systems are already in use in the United Kingdom with adult prisoners. No data on the effectiveness is yet available.
Although it sounds a lot like the plot for "Hal 9000 Gets a Job as a Profiler," it will be hard to argue with this high-tech crystal-balling if it can be shown to reduce juvenile crime and recidivism. I mean, all we had before was Father Flanagan's intuitions. Questions remain (in my mind, anyway) about what kind of a computer-concocted, digitized, and possibly errant "permanent record"might follow these young offenders around for the rest of their lives, even if they never offend again. I also wonder about the unproven effectiveness of these robotic analysts to really see into a human heart. Thoughts from you expert crime-watchers?
Bestselling true-crime author Ron Franscell's haunting study of 10 mass-murder survivors, DELIVERED FROM EVIL, will be released in January 2011.
Friday, March 12, 2010
That's right. In 1770, British merchant William Addis was doing time for causing a riot. That's when he decided that the customary tooth-cleaning of his day -- rubbing your teeth with a sooty, salty rag -- wasn't the best idea. So he cadged a small bone from a piece of prison meat and bribed a guard for some horse-hair bristles, which he tied in tufts and inserted in small holes in the bones. Voila! The first modern toothbrush was created.
In fact, more contributions to the betterment of the world have come from prison than you might imagine. In a bawdy recent post at Cracked.com, blogger Manhammer (?) listed five of the most notable inventions or ideas to come from behind bars, including William Addis' toothbrush.
You might be surprised to learn the Erie Canal and the modern carbine were prison products. You've heard of the Birdman of Alcatraz (pictured above, looking nothing like Burt Lancaster)? How about Don Quixote?
OK, so these guys were the overachievers of the hoosegow. Face it, most inmates devote their imaginations to tattooing naked women on their scrotums and trying to figure out how to make a shank out of a cockroach. How many times have you said to yourself, "If only these criminal masterminds would put their creative energies to work for the benefit of mankind, the world would be a better place?"
Well, here you have it. Isn't it nice to know that some inmates have put their "time" to good use?
You can now follow author Ron Franscell at Facebook and Twitter.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Howard Unruh, who has been called (somewhat errantly) "the father of mass murder," has died in the New Jersey mental hospital where he has lived since gunning down 13 people in Camden, N.J., in 1949. He was 88 and spent more than 60 years in the asylum.
He was not, in fact, America's first mass murderer, nor even the first one to snap, pick up a gun and start killing people. He was, however, a rarity, in that he didn't commit suicide after his rampage.
Charles Cohen, a 12-year-old boy whose parents and grandmother were slaughtered in Unruh's angry, 12-minute spree, became the most outspoken survivor of the so-called "walk of death." When Unurh was seeking less restrictive accommodations in the hospital, Cohen campaigned to keep him under the strictest control. He kept artifacts of the killings in an old suitcase and yearned for the day the seriously psychotic Unruh would be dead, so he could bury the suitcase -- and his memory. Alas, Cohen himself died at age 72 less than two months ago and was buried on the 60th anniversary of the shooting.
Ironically, Unruh was a WWII veteran who might now be eligible for a burial with full military rites. No services have yet been announced.
The story of Howard Unruh's rampage and Charles Cohen's extraordinary survival will be part of a 2010 book by Ron Franscell about survivors of mass killers.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Recently, a local TV crew (the station manager asked that it not be identified) embarked on a story about the 50th anniversary of the murder that changed the face of Beaumont forever. As the crew prepared to videotape a reporter at the long-abandoned hulk of the Hotel Rouler, the videographer was startled to see a misty figure in an empty window. Later, he noticed that an open mike also picked up an eerie sound: A disembodied human voice whispering what sounds like a name.
If you want a real-life scare for Halloween, take a look at the video at BeaumontEnterprise.com and judge for yourself if this ghost really exists. Personally, I'm dubious. The image is verrry faint and the sound is hardly a whisper ... make up your own mind.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Here's a taste:
"[Validation] is when a reader comes up to me or writes letter and tells me how one of my books touched her in a memorable way. For me, this has always been an intimate contract between me and readers. Agents, editors, booksellers, publicists, reviewers, media are all necessary in delivering the book to a reader’s hands, but when the reader completes the circle and tells me something marvelous about one of my stories, that’s when I know I told a good story."
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
C'mon folks. Was the normally prosaic path of your life significantly (or even slightly) altered by any of these knuckleheaded squawks? Sure, depending on your view, maybe you were entertained or enraged briefly, but really ... did any of them truly matter?
Long ago, media critic Jeff Jarvis spoke words that should resonate with us far more than "hope and change." He said:
"The cardinal sin today is to offend (and) the clearest badge of victimhood is to be offended."
Kanye West did nothing more than extend his brand. He's the quintessential gangsta wannabe who can't control his self-centered urge to blurt out inappropriate blather at exactly the wrong moment. It comes to him more naturally than foreign accents come to Meryl Streep. After making unscripted racist comments about President Bush during a fund-raising commercial, and other awards-show interruptions, should we really be surprised by Kanye West? His comments might have hurt Taylor Swift's feelings, but how did they hurt anyone else but Kanye West?
And, oh boy, let's get our panties wadded over a potty-mouthed tennis player! Ever since John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors -- now both cultural icons -- picked up a racket, it's been the template for professional tennis players. But suddenly we're shocked -- shocked, I say -- that Serena Williams has a ghetto mouth.
Of course, Joe Wilson's is worst of all. He said, "You lie!" during President Obama's speech to Congress (and was correct) but now the House of representatives stops its work on, oh, fixing the economy, health care, terror and everything else to admonish the poor guy who has already apologized to the president. And nobody admonished Democrats for booing President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union speech. If delays in health care reform were so fatal, how many people died while Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed her outrage that a Republican would shout at a president who was, indeed, lying?
Let's get past our righteous indignation about people mouthing off. Stick and stones and all that. We are not hurt, nor even significantly diminished, by these outbursts. What should be minor blips on the media radar are being played above the fold in papers and looped endlessly on TV and radio. Talk radio is nothing but a series of these inconsequential outbursts (OK, conservatives will say it's patriotism and liberals will say it's Nazi-racist-anarchist-greedy maundering, but to most of us it's simply inconsequential.)
Maybe we should take a page from Facebook's notebook. Wouldn't it be convenient if, when one of these outbursts erupts, instead of getting all panty-wadded, we could just "un-friend" the offender and never have to listen to him/her again? Can you imagine how Kanye's record sales would fall if the USA suddenly un-friended him in one fell swoop? Or how Serena's pay-days would be suddenly thinner if nobody was watching?
If we continue to just float on the erratic stream of pop-culture like idiot leaves, we will simply continue to be offended, which makes us all victims. Screw that (sorry, folks, but that's as offensive as I can muster.)
Sunday, September 06, 2009
Yeah, it couldn't possibly be that Jones harbored a belief that the Bush Administration secretly ordered or allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen. Jones admitted last week that he signed a 2004 petition calling for an investigation into "evidence that suggests high-level government officials may have deliberately allowed the September 11th attacks to occur."
And it couldn't possibly be Jones confession that he labels himself a communist.
And it couldn't possibly be Jones' admitted membership in radical, anti-establishment groups like Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM, which based itself on the teachings of Marx and Lenin.
Nor could it possibly be that he regards all Republicans (in his own words) as "assholes." (I mean, do we really have a man who hates half of America whispering to our President?)
No, it must be talk radio's fault. What a joke. Being someone who really wants "green jobs" to become an important trend in America, I resent that President Obama has subjected it to the extreme views of this one political pervert. Like too many people today, Van Jones proves to be extremely ordinary: he just can't take responsibility for his own behavior.
Good riddance. Let's hope he's replaced by someone with a realistic, honest, positive view of America's potential.
Friday, September 04, 2009
On a day I expected to sit with him and hear stories about his extraordinary life, I will instead attend his funeral.
Over the past several months, I developed great affection for Charles, who found himself suddenly alone in the world at 12 years old. Every time some deranged gunman would kill a large number of people, my phone would ring and we'd talk for a long time about what had happened. Of course, these killings aroused dark memories in Charles, but he always wanted to talk about the survivors and the families of the dead because he had a direct, empathetic connection to them. They were his family, too.
I will miss my friend, but tonight, he knows what we don't.
Monday, August 24, 2009
And there's a rumor that copies of my previous novels ANGEL FIRE and THE DEADLINE will be available, too! So c'mon down and say hello!
Saturday, August 15, 2009
She was a rebel among rebels. She ran away from home in Port Arthur when she was 17 and went to California. Drugs and disappointment sucked her dry. She wasn't ready for the bright lights and the big city. Withered to 88 pounds, she came home to Port Arthur -- a place legend says she famously hated -- in the summer of 1965 to dry out, to regain her equilibrium and retrace her steps. The road had taken her farther from where she started, closer to where she was from.
But in at least 64 letters from Port Arthur in the last half of 1965, we catch a glimpse of a Janis Joplin remarkably different from the whiskey-soaked, blues-drenched insurgent of legend: She comes across as a dreamy, insecure schoolgirl in love, a homebody who dreams about her wedding day, reconnecting with her faith, being mesmerized by a man flying in space and distant train whistles, not being able to fix her hair right, and being torn between spending a recent windfall on yarn to make her boyfriend a sweater or buying a guitar.
The letters were written to her fiance Peter de Blanc. They'd met in California, but when she returned to Port Arthur, he went home to Manhattan. The letters were made public in 2000, shortly before de Blanc died of cancer in 2002. The 64 handwritten letters, some very short and others as long as 8 pages, were broken up into 28 lots and auctioned off, perhaps never to be seen publicly again.
They contain no bombshells, no startling new facts, no skeletons uncloseted ... just the private Janis, not the iconic Janis. You might never see what they contained, even in this blog, because the Joplin Estate has so far asserted its copyright ownership of them -- Janis did write them, after all, and as such they are like a lyric that is owned by her and her estate. I received copies of 24 of those letters in 2005 from a rock memorabilia dealer, but when I asked Joplin's sister Laura's blessing to reprint them in my newspaper at the time, her lawyers responded emphatically: No way.
Why? The estate feared it would reduce the letters' future value. In other words, they wanted to be able to get top dollar for the contents later.
So, I'm sorry. I cannot excerpt substantial parts of the letters because their contents are legitimately owned by the Joplin Estate, even if the letters themselves are owned by collectors. But I can summarize for you some of the 24 letters I saw, and in a few spots, I will quote her words that have appeared in other reports about the letters.
[Aug. 21, 1965] After Peter visits Port Arthur, she reports that her family likes him. Mom thinks he's very refined and "has potential." She tells Peter her hope chest is filling quickly and that she, Laura and their mother will soon begin stitching a new quilt.
[Aug. 24, 1965] Janis is panicked about money -- or lack of it. She wants some, but the bohemian Janis is suspicious of the Material Janis. Peter comes from a wealthy family and all she's ever known are "ordinary people." She wants a little struggle, but she wants something to hold onto. "I don't want to just live a useless bored life of ignoble ease," she writes.
[Aug. 28, 1965] Janis is delighted to report she got all B's at Lamar and the family got a new light green Volkswagen. She tells him wistfully of lying in bed at night and looking out her window, hearing train whistles in the distance. "It's really a nice sound," she says. "I've never been so happy before ... because of you."
[Aug. 31, 1965] Janis begs Peter to mail Spiderman and Marvel comic books that she can't get in Port Arthur, to fix her fantasy-escapism jones. She tells Peter, who came to be an accomplished recorder musician, that she was practicing on her recorder but wasn't very good. She closes by telling him her mother is starting to work on some linen napkins, "a wedding gift sort of thing."
[Sept. 8, 1965] Janis excitedly reports that a guitar-playing friend from Beaumont is going to take her to a Houston folk club where the two of them might be able to get a gig for $125 a week. Right after she mails the letter, she's going to Beaumont to sing in a small club with "an old spade blues piano player."
[Sept. 9, 1965] Janis has taught herself a few ballads on the guitar "but it scares me much more than the blues," she writes. She chalks it up to her vulnerability, but doesn't really want to go deeper into it before signing off.
[Sept. 27, 1965] Janis tells Peter she wears hose and pins her hair up and "boys flirt with me. Blush. I really like it." Her guitar playing is improving, she says. And she writes that she thinks her head is "really straight now" and she's happy.
[Oct. 1, 1965] Janis is worried about Peter, who has been hospitalized for a drug problem. She gently chides him, saying she shouldn't take tranquilizers because they depress him. She wants badly to be with him as "a wife or an old lady or whatever I am."
[Oct. 13, 1965] Janis giddily reports that she has bought the "first thing for our house"-- a set of cups. She tells Peter he may visit Port Arthur again, but warns that he shouldn't do it simply to escape loneliness because "you won't be lonely long & then you'll be stuck in Texas."
[Oct. 19, 1965] It's been a while since she got a letter from Peter, but Janis reports that she bought a new pair of shoes this day and sounds a little surprised herself that she spent the night before scouring the Sears & Roebuck catalog for her trousseau. She's made A's on all her tests so far. "Isn't that good?" she asks.
In January 1966, Janis Joplin and Peter de Blanc are no longer together. She leaves Port Arthur for Austin and then San Francisco, where she joins a local band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. It's still 18 months before her breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and almost three years before Woodstock, but she's on her way at last. Somewhere along the way, the Quilting Schoolgirl disappears and the Consummate Rebel emerges. On Oct. 4, 1970, she was dead and her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
She was only 27 ... the same age as singer Adam Lambert.
Her star burned bright for only 4 years. And although she visited Port Arthur in that time, she never really came home again. The little girl who lit a candle in her room every night to write to her boyfriend, who dreamed of being a bride, who once sought asylum in a place she reputedly loathed, whose personal blues were belted out in some of the greatest rock anthems ever recorded, became ashes long before she could become dust.
She was a shooting star, not a sleepy, permanent planet.