Hysteria blazes in the heartland, exposing gay men to the worst of their communities, in this examination of two mid-20th–century murders.
In the early 1950s, two young children, Jimmy Bremmers and Donna Sue Davis, were brutally killed in Sioux City, Iowa. The ensuing mania provoked the groundless incarceration of dozens of gay men. Miller (Journalism/Tufts Univ.; Out in the World, 1992) sifts through the murder investigations, the roundups of innocent men, and the repercussions of these events on the lives of all concerned in the 50-plus years since then. Within this complex web of narrative, he captures a range of memorable personalities: the ostensibly liberal district attorney who prosecuted the gay men; the chief suspect in the case, a traveling salesman convicted of the Bremmers murder but freed many years later; and the all-American high-school English teacher who fought to clear his name and record after being arrested in a bathroom. By opening this painful chapter in American history, Miller showcases yet another example of panic ripping apart neighbors and neighborhoods, providing a timely reminder (given the current international situation) that hysteria destroys the freedoms Americans hold most dear. Unfortunately, it’s all related in pedestrian prose that lumbers along with little spring in its galumphing steps. What should be a true-crime–based exposé with a gay slant on mental institutions’ cruelties deflates into a sequential narrative offering little insight beyond the obvious, little style beyond the prosaic.
One of the footnotes of history that demands a full accounting.