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‘An American Crime’ Is a Journey into the Depths of Human Cruelty

By: Pedro García Otero - Sep 28, 2015, 11:40 am

EspañolFew people involved in the social sciences are unaware of the 1963 experiment conducted by US psychologist Stanley Milgram. In his research, the psychologist observed how people tend to follow orders, including when asked to inflict harm on others.

"An American Crime", de Tommy O'Haver, se sumerge en el mundo de la maldad incomprensible contra una jovencita indefensa. (Amazon)
An American Crime puts human cruelty on full display. (Amazon)

However, the reason for why human beings can be so cruel, despite their personal consciences, remains a mystery. How could an advanced society allow the rise of National Socialism and consent to the ethnic cleansing of neighbors, friends, and relatives? How can we reconcile what Hannah Arendt dubbed the banality of evil with Adolf Eichmann’s claims that Nazi soldiers were “just following orders?”

Around the same time that Milgram carried out his experiments and Eichmann stood trial as a war criminal, another case of human cruelty emerged in a different part of the world: Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1965, Gertrude Baniszewski, along with her daughter, son, and two neighborhood children, tortured 16-year-old Sylvia Likens to death.

The case raises many of these same questions, as those in the community who did not actively participate in her torture simply looked the other way.

The murder of Sylvia Likens has been portrayed in both fiction and non-fiction works numerous times, most recently in the film An American Crime (2007). In this movie, director Tommy O’Haver, himself from Indianapolis, attempts to decipher his city’s most infamous crime.

Likens was by all accounts an exemplary daughter, who attended mass every Sunday and maintained good relationships with those she knew. Sylvia’s problems began when her parents left her and her sister Jennifer in the care of Baniszewski, an asthmatic, alcoholic, mother of six, who barely made ends meet ironing her neighbors’ clothes.

Syliva’s parents had agreed to pay Baniszewski $20 per week, but when these payments stopped, Baniszewski began taking out her frustrations on the Likens sisters.

Baniszewski then focused her rage exclusively on Sylvia, locking her in a basement, and beating and abusing her. Later, Baniszewski’s own daughters, her daughters’ boyfriends, and her neighbors and friends took part in the torture, following her orders.

While the entire story of Sylvia’s murder is absolutely terrifying, the most shocking element is the reaction from the community; the neighbors who did nothing when they heard Sylvia’s cries.

Cold indifference was the attitude from neighborhood residents, as Sylvia suffered cigarette burns, beatings, disfigurement, rape with glass bottles and other objects, and her eventual death on October 23, 1965.

Ellen Page (Juno) bears a striking resemblance to Sylvia Likens, and effectively conveys the young girl’s innocence faced with unfathomable torment. Hayley McFarland portrays the terrified Jennifer, Baniszewski’s (Catherine Keener) other victim.

An American Crime is not an easy movie to watch, especially if you bear in mind that it only shows part of the horror that Sylvia Likens lived through. The Indianapolis Police Department maintains a small memorial of Likens to this day, as a reminder of a tragedy that could have been avoided.

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Everyone involved in the crime was sentenced to prison, including Gertrude Baniszewski’s 13-year-old son John, the youngest inmate in Indiana’s history.

Baniszewski’s cold-blooded nature is as surprising as Adolf Eichmann’s or those who took part in Milgram’s experiment. Although she received a life sentence for her crime, she was eventually released 20 years later. Baniszewski managed to avoid responsibility, blaming her children and neighbors, despite witnesses affirming that she was the mastermind.

Lester and Betty Likens, Sylvia’s parents, went unpunished, even though they left their daughters under the care of someone they barely knew. The film, however, does not focus much attention on Sylvia’s parents, or what happened to Jennifer after Sylvia’s death.

Many websites, such as Murderpedia, SylivaLikens.com, and ForTheLoveOfSilvia, still attempt to explain what happened back in October 1965. How is so much evil possible? How can an entire community abuse and kill an innocent girl? Fifty years later, we are still waiting for answers to these questions.

Translated by Adam Dubove.

Pedro García Otero Pedro García Otero

Pedro García is the Spanish managing editor of the PanAm Post. He is a Venezuelan journalist with over 25 years of experience in local newspapers, radio, television, and online media. Follow him @PedroGarciaO.