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Murder By Numbers

Local author looks at the forgotten victims of serial killers

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow

Brottman has “the kind of interest in [victims’] lives that is commonly deemed ‘unhealthy.’”


Stacy Moskowitz first appeared in the pages of The New York Times on Aug. 1, 1977. On July 31, Moskowitz, a 20-year-old secretary, had been on her first date with Robert Violante, also 20. They had seen a movie and were parked in Violante’s car near Dyker Beach Park, by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn, when four gunshots were fired through the passenger-side window, hitting both in the head. They were the 12th and 13th victims of the “.44-caliber killer,” who had been shooting victims in Queens and the Bronx for almost a year. Moskowitz survived for 38 hours before succumbing to her injuries, and over the next few days, weeks, and months, her name appeared in The Times related to its coverage of the case, culminating in the 1978 reporting on her murderer’s trial. To date, Moskowitz has appeared in The Times 61 times; her assailant, David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam serial killer, has been mentioned slightly more often: more than 1,800 times.

Such is the calculus of murder. Killers are often better known than those they kill. As local author Mikita Brottman writes in the afterword to her fascinating new book, Thirteen Girls, murderers “have been magnified by the long shadows they cast over our cultural imagination, but their victims remain unknown and unmourned, except by those who knew them best, or who, like me, have the kind of interest in their lives that is commonly deemed ‘unhealthy.’”

Brottman has spent her considerable career looking into such “unhealthy” reaches of the human mind. A Sheffield, England, native and Oxford-educated cultural critic, she is a professor in the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Department of Humanistic Studies and her interests run from true crime to horror, the occult to the history of psychoanalysis. She’s written about laughter as a form of shame and anxiety (Funny Peculiar), America’s morbid fascination with celebrity automobile deaths (Car Crash Culture), an overview of movies deemed too extreme for the mainstream (Offensive Films), and, well, cannibalism (Meat is Murder).

For Thirteen Girls (Nine Banded Books), Brottman has turned to another intense subject, murder. Instead of taking the usual approach of tidily examining a homicide from before it happens, through the investigation, and to its journey through the criminal justice system, Thirteen Girls is a collection of stories of how victims are killed, told from 13 different points of view. Some are told by medical examiners, some as a police report, some from neighbors who knew them, and in one harrowing case, from a survivor. All are based on serial-killer cases: Ted Bundy, the Boston Strangler, Richard Speck, the aforementioned Son of Sam. It’s a plunge into murder without resolution, a Law and Order episode stripped down to the pre-credit sequence.

“I wanted to write a book that was nothing but the parts I like,” Brottman says during an interview at the Belvedere apartment she shares with her partner, film critic David Sterritt. In conversation, Brottman is as direct and unfussy as her writing and marked by the same gift for acute insight and gallows humor. Academics often earn their reputation for rigid prose, but Brottman playfully shirks straitjacketed sentences and sensibilities: her Offensive Films is a compendium of what she calls “cinema vomitif.”

“I wanted to write a true crime book for people like me—who aren’t interested in police procedure or courtroom scenes or the hunt for the killer,” she continues in a follow-up e-mail exchange. “That all seems like filler, and I usually skip over those parts. I decided I wanted to write about the ripples around a sudden loss—how people on the periphery are affected (or not), and the repercussions of the crime in wider circles, which is something we usually don’t hear about.

“I like to use an analogy with Bruegel’s painting of [‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’]—the legendary event occurs, but it’s happening in the background. Most people don’t even notice. Everyone goes on with their day.”

The book makes for an intensely potent read. Thirteen Girls is a slender volume, fewer than 200 pages, and each case story can be read in a brief sitting. This brevity delivers a huge impact. It’s surprising how few words are required to dramatize the violent taking of life. In the chapter “Vicky,” inspired by alleged Zodiac Killer victim Donna Lass, Brottman tells the story of her disappearance in the form of a journal kept by one of Vicky’s casino nurse co-workers. It’s a mundanely inspired choice, an ordinary Bridget Jones format for what becomes an extraordinary moment in one woman’s life.

This everyday approach to murder highlights how we process—or attempt to process—homicide. Even in a city as violent as Baltimore, murder isn’t something that everybody learns about firsthand. Most of us first experience death as a natural part of life—the loss of a grandparent or parent, the childhood death of a beloved pet. Murder is an act often experienced at a remove: as a news item, an entry in a crime blotter. Or it’s even more abstracted and smuggled inside of genre—in true crime’s fictional kin, the murder mystery or more extreme, horror. Slasher movies are merely excessively stylized murder stories with their own conventions. Murder’s extremity is easier to digest when it’s part of a larger narrative that includes some kind of resolution, dramatic or judicial.

This focus on true crime’s typical starting point—the disappearance, the discovery of the body, etc.—doesn’t allow room for the usual genre machinations that cushion the act. What’s left are the nonlinear and disjointed facts of killing, which gives Thirteen Girls’ stories a sometimes overwhelming weight.

Brottman likens true crime’s first acts to “a series of concentric circles,” she writes. “Or like a poem rather than a narrative. It’s about a moment in time, a vanishing, and it’s not about the process of police investigation or the courtroom, which is often a very masculine institution. I’m not interested in violence, but loss, and its implications.”

The implied loss of Thirteen Girls produces a feeling that is, of course, only a fraction of what it’s like to grapple with murder in real life, where the sudden end of a loved one’s life can’t be adequately addressed by solving the crime in the appropriate running time or a jury’s guilty verdict. Murder simply becomes as blunt and everyday as the milk in the refrigerator and yet something utterly disorienting at the same time.

Such discombobulating loss might also crop up in Brottman’s next book; she’s currently looking into suicides that have taken place at the Belvedere Hotel. She says she’s found about 10 so far, most dating from the hotel’s early days, when the city’s affluent maintained suites there. “They’re little vignettes in themselves, windows to history, with details about the introduction of cars, telegraph, telephones, the Great Depression, segregation, and the changing nature of the hotel trade,” Brottman says. “They’re also full of hints about social class, parents who are alienated from one another, sons with too much money, businessmen suffering from existential ennui. They’re really fascinating.”

Mikita Brottman speaks at the 5ive:Ten Reading Series (at the Minás Gallery) Oct. 20 with Karl Taro Greenfeld, James Magruder, and Barrett Warner. For more information, visit 510readings.blogspot.com. For more information about Mikita Brottman, visit mikitabrottman.wordpress.com.

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