LIFE FOR DEATH by Michael Mewshaw


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Novelist Mewshaw (Land Without Shadow, 1979) turns to nonfiction to narrate the grim story of Wayne Dresbach who, at age 15 in 1961, shot to death his adoptive mother and father. Mewshaw, two years older than the killer, was a summertime neighbor on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay; his family tried to help Wayne--raised money for his appeal, visited him weekly, took in his surviving (and disloyal) younger brother. Using that firsthand experience, interviews with Wayne and other family members and friends, and various documents (from the trial transcript to Dresbach's high school records), Mewshaw retells the formerly inexplicable story of parricide. It is not a pretty tale. Wayne, a quiet, soft-spoken boy whose aim is to be nice to everyone, is driven gradually into inarticulate rage and paranoia by his father's constant mockery, unflattering comparisons to his favored (and physically bigger) younger brother, unrealistic demands, rigorous punishments, and frequent beatings. Daddy Dresbach, a successful Washington divorce attorney, regularly beat his wife as well, drank excessively, led home-made wife-swapping and ""daisy chain"" orgies on a white fur rug in the living room, amassed and probably sold pornography; and when Wayne repeatedly ran away from home, he had him arrested and thrown into jail. Mrs. Dresbach, Wayne's other and apparently unintended target, is portrayed as a terrified battered woman, largely a victim but partly an accomplice in the psychological destruction of Wayne. Those who had hints of Wayne's plight--neighbors, school and juvenile authorities--never quite got around to helping him. And after the killings, little of the Dresbach home and social life--which included prominent Washingtonians--was judged ""relevant"" to the trial. Sentenced to life, Wayne grew up in prison; after ten years he was paroled to odd jobs. And even today, Mewshaw found, few people would talk about the bizarre suburban life style that drove a boy to murder and then let him take the rap. A terrible story of all-American destruction, quietly and feelingly told.

Pub Date: June 6th, 1980
Publisher: Doubleday