Many moons ago (high school) I wrote a paper about Nazi Germany, with which I was (and still, to some degree, am) mildly obsessed. My paper was on the very topic that so fascinated me about the Nazis, and myriad other large-scale abdications of morality. Who, in short, were the Nazis? Monsters, capable of gleefully (or at least not un-gleefully) executing one of the most intense genocides in history? Or ordinary dudes, caught up in a whirlwind of power and authority and perhaps some misguided notion that theirs was a laudable mission?
The answer, of course, lies somewhere in between. Because the question is really the point. Are people bad and if so why? Or are people good and if so to what degree?
Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is one of a series of adaptations of the 1965 case of Sylvia Lekins, an Indiana teen who was held captive in the basement of her de facto foster mother, the bouffant-ed Gertrude Baniszewski. Along with her two daughters, son, and a group of neighborhood children, Baniszewski tortured Sylvia, and at times her younger sister Jenny, in ways that I almost feel uncomfortable writing here. Sylvia was burned with scalding water, forced to eat her own feces and sexually abused with a Coke bottle. She ultimately died in the house, and Baniszewski was later convicted of first-degree murder.
The Girl Next Door is only loosely based on the Lekins case, but many of the details are the same (I also feel it’s necessary to appreciate the severity of the true story; TGND is different, but in some ways less violent.) Fourteen-year-old Meg and her younger sister Susan are sent to live with their aunt, Ruth Chandler, after their parents die suddenly in a car crash (which has left Susan in leg and arm braces). Ruth also has three sons—Donny, Willie and Ralphie—and they are all part of a large group of neighborhood kids, including Eddie (a budding sociopath with an abusive father) and David, our mild-mannered and generally “good kid” narrator.
TGND is very much a story of escalation. Ruth’s abuses of Meg begin subtly, as backhanded insults and overzealous chore assignments, but intensify rapidly, and before you know it Meg is in the basement, bound, gagged, and blindfolded. We the reader are left wondering what the fuck happened, and how and why and in what way could it possibly end?
People intrigued by criminality—fans of Law & Order, CSI and Hannibal—would in some sense do well to read TGND, because it forces a confrontation with human malevolence that the aforementioned shows can’t. It is in many ways about Ruth—her animosity towards Meg, her issues with women, her apparent descent into madness and allowance of her children’s cruelty—but it is also very much about David, and Willie and Donny and Ralphie and Eddie and the other girls and boys who parade in and out of the Chandler house to witness or even participate in Meg’s torture. It’s about the ease with which Ruth might have been caught if any of them had gone to the police. It’s about the moment when Ruth is passed out, Megan is downstairs being tortured and David and Susan sit in the living room, completing a puzzle. Or the time Eddie dunks Megan’s head into a sink of scalding hot water—almost blinding her—while the rest of the boys watch. It’s about what happens when people become cruel together, drunk on power, susceptible to moral anarchy.
There are nuanced moments in The Girl Next Door, subtle nods to the complexity of deciding on How People Should Live Their Lives. For example, everyone in the neighborhood knows that Eddie’s father beats him, and yet there is an unspoken and universal refusal to intervene. Later in the novel, one of the neighborhood kids tells his parents what’s going on in the basement; strict Catholics, they suggest Meg likely deserves whatever punishment Ruth is meting out. And in a broader sense, we know that Ruth’s husband left her, that David’s father cheats on his mother, and that Ralphie has an unnerving enthusiasm for animal torture. Certainly Meg’s treatment ranks highest on this list of grievances, and yet: the implication is of a world full of injustice, where Bad Things are behind every curtain, and Bad People, perhaps, inside all of us.
I can’t in good faith recommend The Girl Next Door to anyone. It’s truly difficult to read, a chest-tightening ascent in brutality, an exposé on the worst side of humankind. It’s a book absent the optimism inspired by a plucky protagonist, and lacking even the black humor of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Ultimately, the book asks us to decide who we are in the Ruth/Megan/David equation, and to accept that facilitating, participating in, or at the very least ignoring atrocity is all too frequently the human inclination.
TITLE: The Girl Next Door
AUTHOR: Jack Ketchum
ALSO WROTE: Offspring, Off Season
SORTA LIKE: Lord of the Flies meets Carrie
FIRST LINE: “You think you know about pain?”
P.S. I picked up this book after reading Richard Thomas’ “3 Essential Books You Should Read In Every Major Genre.”