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gut wrenching true stories,
This review is from: An American Crime (Blu-ray) Import (Blu-ray)
Warning: this is a true story and may cause distress to the viewer. Viewer discretion (as they say) is advised.
Sylvia Likens and her sister Jenny were left as borders with a woman, locally known as Gertrude Baniszweski, and her children. Unfortunately for the Liken children, especially Sylvia, Gertrude was a sadist and she had just found her victim in Sylvia. When the agreed payment was late she beat both girl, and this was the start of the rot.
When Gertrude heard that Paula (her eldest daughter) was pregnant she said that Sylvia had started the rumour by lying at the school, and her daughter was not pregnant (she was later to be proved that the rumour was true when Paula gave birth, but it was too late for Sylvia who had been locked in the basement).
This is a story of a woman and the control she had over those around her. A control which she used to manipulate others into destroying an innocent girl.
Shown in flashback form during the trial of Gertrude Wright, and this isn't a bad thing as it breaks up some of the relentless abuse that Sylvia had no breather from.
The acting in the film is superb. At time it is gut wrenching.
Ellen Page plays Sylvia to perfection and, though only young at the time, was the equal of the more experienced cast members. Catherine Keener, who originally turned the role of Gertrude Baniszweski down, makes a chilling Gertrude.
The majority of the rest of the cast were young but each one played their part wonderfully.
As a tribute to Sylvia Marie Likens, and so that no one forgets what happened to her, this movie makes it point.
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This part of the review contains SPOILERS regarding the true story of the murder of Sylvia Likens.
Sylvia Marie Likens - born 3 January 1949, died 26 October 1965 - aged 16 - from injuries received at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski and others
Gertrude Wright (real name Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski) - born 19 Spetember 1929, died 16 June 1990 - aged 60 - cause of death: heart failure while suffering from lung cancer
Carnival workers Lester and Betty Likens were the parents of 5 children - 2 sets of twins (Danny and Diane, and Benny and Jenny) and Sylvia. Sylvia was the middle child. During the spring months (while the children were at school) Lester Likens and his wife would off-load them on relatives while they travelled with the carnival.
The boys were easier to place because those taking them in could see that they could work, but Sylvia, who was a pretty lithe girl and Jenny, who had been crippled by a bout of polio, were harder to palm off on to relatives. Likens oldest daughter Diana was married and did not want the two girls hanging round with her and her new husband, so Lester had to look elsewhere for someone to take the girls in.
The girls had first met Gertrude's eldest child, Paula, when they were walking down the street (not on a bus as in the film) and they were invited back to the Wright's house. Sylvia and Jenny spent the night. When their father came looking for them he met Gertrude for the first time and agreed that Sylvia and Jenny would stay with Gertrude and her children, for a payment of $20 a fortnight. Lester Likens barely knew Gertrude.
When the cheque for $20 was late Sylvia decided that the girls must pay for their father's error and she beat them both with a wooden board/paddle. The cheque arrived with the post the following morning, but it was too late because the floodgates were now open and things were only ever going to get worse. Gertrude found any excuse (including making up reasons) to beat and humiliate the girls.
Sylvia, to her credit, always placed herself in the way of Gertrude's malice and hatred in order to protect her younger sister and so took the brunt of everything, eventually becoming the sole victim of Gertrude's demented behaviour. Gertrude made her children join in the abuse of Sylvia, although some were less reticent than others to inflict pain, suffering and degradation on the 16 year old.
Once the pack behaviour had begun others in the pack (neighbourhood children who were used to the situation in the house) started to join in. Gertrude was the pack leader and what she couldn't inflict herself she got the children to do. Often starting it, just to show them what it was she wanted done and how it was to be done.
The main problem was that Gertrude was a sadist who enjoyed seeing the girl in pain. It was known that she had beaten her own children prior to the arrival of the Likens girl. Once Gertrude had started inflicting pain on the child she could have stopped, but she didn't want to.
Obviously, the film could not include the more horrendous things which were done to Sylvia, but what is shown is bad enough.
Gertrude was only 36 at the time and looked like a woman in her 60s or 70s, but a hard life is no excuse for what she did. After that first incident she had the choice to stop, but she didn't and she continued to take out her frustrations and spite on the innocent child who was in her care.
By the end it became obvious that Gertrude was going to kill Sylvia, and poor Sylvia must have know she was going to die when she was forced to write a letter blaming a gang of boys for beating and torturing her.
Gertrude tried to use that letter as proof that she and her brood had nothing to do with what happened to Sylvia. When her plan didn't work she tried to palm all the blame on the children.
Gertrude and her daughter, Paula, were charged with murder. The others were charged with various levels of manslaughter.
Some licence has been taken with the film and certain things had been altered, including:
- How they met the Baniszewski children - they met the eldest child, Paula, when they were walking down the street, not on a church bus
- Gertrude had 7 children not 6 - Paula, Stephanie, John Jr, Marie, Shirley and James Baniszewski and Dennis Lee Wright Jr - a child from a different father. Gertrude called herself Mrs Wright, but she had never been married to Dennis Wright Sr. Dennis Wright having left her before Dennis Jr was born.
- The Likens visited their children early on, but claim not to have noticed any bruising or anything untoward
- The girls contacted their older sister (Diana) and told her about the abuse, but she ignored thinking that they were making it up. Until, that was, she tried to see the girls and was refused access.
- It wasn't just Gertrude who inflicted pain on Sylvia; Paula took a very active part in the abuse too.
- Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, used to practice his judo moves on Sylvia, throwing her across the room into walls and onto the floor.
- Gertrude would lie to the neighbourhood children saying that Sylvia had said things about them in order to convince them to beat her.
- the neighbours knew about the abuse and frequently heard Sylvia screaming and did nothing about it.
During her parole hearing Gertrude told the hearing "I'm not sure what role I had in it ... because I was on drugs. I never really knew her". Gertrude eventually accepted that she was responsible because it had happened in her house, but blamed her own children and the neighbourhood children for the injuries caused to Sylvia.
She was released due to her good behaviour and the fact that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1985, having reverted to her maiden name and using her middle name she became Nadine Van Fossan.
A number of attempts were made to stop her release but they failed. She complained after being released how living with what had happened was "terrible" for her. I can't imagine what Sylvia felt while she was being so brutally tortured and beaten to death, and I very much doubt that Gertrude ever put any thought into the fear that she and the others inflicted on that child.
A Minister said that the community should "forgive and forget", but (in my opinion) forgiveness is up to Sylvia and God and, as for forgetting, we should never forget what happened to this innocent child at the hands of this psychopathic woman - for, as George Santayana said: "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it", and one thing we don't want is a repeat of such a horrendous crime.
If you are interested in further information about the case then there are a number of publications available. The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens' Ordeal and Death is one of the better ones when it is available.