THE BASEMENT: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice by Kate Millett

THE BASEMENT: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice

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Dreadful. Millett takes a grisly item from the police blotter and swathes it in a shapeless mass of quotation, commentary, and speculative fantasy. At the core of this self-indulgent mess is the fact that on October 26, 1965, police in Indianapolis discovered the body of a 16-year-old girl named Sylvia Likens in a house on New York Street, where she had been imprisoned in the basement, starved, beaten, burned, and murdered. On her abdomen were carved the words ""I am a prostitute and proud of it."" Sylvia and her younger sister Jenny, whose parents were-away in Florida, had been boarders for almost four months with a 37-year-old woman named Gertrude Baniszewski. With the help of her three teenage sons, an 18-year-old daughter, and two neighborhood boys, Baniszewski had tortured the apparently innocuous Sylvia with demented savagery. This crime, it seems, has haunted Millett ever since she read about it in Time, and now she's let her obsession with it run on for 300-plus pages of angry incoherence. In lieu of an intelligible story, she gives us swatches of courtroom testimony (from trial transcripts), newspaper clippings, and random bits of information from a book on the murder by a reporter on the Indianapolis Star-News--all tossed together in a jerky, confusing collage. And still worse, instead of serious reflections on this nightmarish incident, Millett pads the book with endless imaginary interior monologues by Sylvia and Gertrude. In the end we know very little more about them or any of the other characters than we did at the beginning, and we can only write off Millett's claim that the fate of Sylvia Likens was emblematic of ""the nightmare of adolescence, of growing up a female child, of becoming a woman in a world set against us"" as hysterical exaggeration. Millett did no leg work, interviewed nobody, and never got past the surface of this ghastly mystery. An insult to responsible feminist writing.

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 1979
Publisher: Simon & Schuster