What Does That Make You? Public Narration and the Serial Murders of Black Women

True_crime_books-

An urgent, freely downloadable ebook, Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo brings together new and previously published articles on sexual harassment and sexual violence in the wake of #MeToo. Leading activists, feminists, scholars, and writers describe the shape of the problem, chart the forms refusal has taken, and outline possible solutions. Importantly, they also describe the longer histories of organizing against sexual violence that the #MeToo moment obscures — among working women, women of color, undocumented women, imprisoned women, poor women, among those who don’t conform to traditional gender roles — and discern from these practices a freedom that is more than notional, but embodied and uncompromising.

Below we present Terrion L. Williamson's contribution to the book. 

What made me mad about it is like . . . it made him famous. Then they be like, “What was your mom name?” It really irks me . . . like she didn’t have a name. You don’t remember who the victims are, you don’t remember they family, you just remember this man. — Carmea Erving

Usually they could hear her coming. The bangles she wore from her wrist to the mid-point of her arm would announce her arrival well before she stepped in a room. And when she did, finally, grace them with her presence, the rings she wore on every one of her delicate brown fingers only emphasized that she had indeed arrived. There was one ring in particular, the one her daughters called the “spoon ring” — the top of the ring looked like the bowl of a spoon, the handle of which wrapped around her finger — that was her signature. They never saw her without it. It was, they said, a piece of their childhood. So when they received the call that changed everything, the one that informed them that their mother’s lifeless body had been found discarded along a dirt road at the rural outskirts of the city, naked except for her socks, it was the absence of any jewelry on her body or even at the dumping ground itself, including the spoon ring that meant so much to them, that deeply punctuated their loss.

Brenda Erving’s three daughters wouldn’t find out what had come of the spoon ring until more than six years after her death. That was when Tyrhonda, the second oldest, purchased, against the protests of her older sister Carmea and other members of her family, the “true crime” book that purported to tell the story of what had happened to their mother and her killer’s other victims. It was there that they learned that the ring they had been desperately searching local pawn shops for at the behest of the police was, in fact, in police possession and had been all along. According to the book, the spoon ring had been found in the killer’s residence early in the investigation, even before he had been charged with Brenda’s murder. As had happened so many times before, the sisters discovered that they had been deliberately thwarted in their attempts to come to terms with the death of their mother.

Written by a journalist-turned-author from the Boston area, a white woman, whose research apparently did not go much further than reading newspaper accounts and culling public records, the book was a source of anger and frustration for many of the victims’ family members. Carmea initially refused to purchase or even read the book, while Tyrhonda bought it twice — the second time after a family member absconded with her initial copy. For Tyrhonda, the book was nothing more than a journalistic retelling of the facts of the case, some of which, as the revelation about the spoon ring attests, she and her sisters had never been privy to or just did not know how to access and about which Tyrhonda understandably wanted to know more. “She’s a true-crime writer. . . . That’s just what she do,” Tyrhonda said of the book’s author.

But, for Carmea, the book was deeply offensive. It represented the continuation of an extensive list of violations that peaked, but certainly did not end, with their mother’s brutal killing in October 2004. The public narratives surrounding the circumstances of Brenda’s life and death that had been crafted by other people bore no resemblance to the mother she had known — the one who made sweet cornbread for her grandchildren and let them eat it like cake, the one who was such a good cook that she’d briefly owned her own chicken restaurant, and the one who shared everything with her daughters and gave them “morals and values and paths to take and paths not to take.” But while Carmea was clearly upset that the author had purported to tell what she understood to be “her story” without ever even attempting to talk to her or anyone else in her family, she was even more upset that the book had become yet another artifact of the morbid fascination with her mother’s killer to the almost total disregard of her mother herself or any of the killer’s other victims. As she told it:

Even with the news when it happened, they had how he was football star and did all this. But you got a mug shot of the person he killed — how did you make him greater than her? And he was on the same page, he used drugs too. So — they equal — he less because he murdered her for the same reasons — he lived his life the same way she lived hers. But you took her life, because you felt like she was worthless. So what does that make you?

Carmea’s critique was thus not only that she and her family were not consulted by the book’s author. What she inherently understood was that the disregard with which she and her family had been treated in the aftermath of her mother’s death was but an extension of the disregard with which Brenda had been treated in life. By asking, “What does that make you?” she was not simply posing a rhetorical question. She was leveling an indictment at the systemic privileging of her mother’s killer over her mother herself and challenging the public narratives that worked to reduce the story of her mother’s life to nothing more than sensationalist tabloid fodder.

When I first sat down to talk with Carmea and Tyrhonda on October 6, 2013, almost nine years to the day of the discovery of their mother’s body, Carmea still had not read the book for herself, though she had been briefed on some of its contents. There came a point, she said, when she felt she was finally ready to read it, but by that time Tyrhonda’s second copy of the book had also disappeared and Carmea still refused to purchase it herself. Although the book is, at least in this author’s opinion, utterly vile, it is also exemplary of the conditions that help to produce and perpetuate violence against women such as Sabrina Payne, Barbara Williams, Shaconda Thomas, Shirley Ann Trapp, Laura Lollar, Tamara Walls, and Linda Neal. Along with Brenda Erving, these seven black women became the victims of a serial killer, a white man named Larry Bright, between July 2003 and October 2004 in Peoria, Illinois, the Midwestern hometown I share with Carmea and Tyrhonda.1

The killer’s face, a mug shot, is reproduced on the book’s cover, while pictures of his confessed victims, also mug shots, are reproduced within its pages. The image of Brenda Erving is the same one that her daughters worked diligently to try to keep out of the local paper, that they asked to have replaced with a picture of their own, a picture not a mug shot, to no avail. The images of Brenda and the other victims exist in stark contrast to the professional head shots of the police officers and other officials who were involved in the case, almost all of whom were white men, that are also reproduced in the book — courtesy, mostly, of the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office. In between the mug shots of the women, which position them as the criminals they were often thought to have been, and the clean-cut images of the white city officials in their suits and uniforms who the book positions as the women’s upstanding avengers, are other “shocking photos!” that the author reproduced from the files of the county sheriff. In one, “the bed in Larry Bright’s apartment where he raped and murdered his victims,” in another, the “burn pile in Larry Bright’s yard where he burned his victims,” and in still another, bits of charred and unidentifiable “remains of the women murdered by Larry Bright.” The author also reproduces the accounts given to police by other women who were survivors of Bright’s various sexual and physical assaults, the horrid details of their torment and trauma offered up as gratuitous entertainment for the true-crime aficionado.

It is a vicious memorial.

The serialized dead, whatever their race or gender, often become grist for the true-crime mill, their individual stories collapsed under the weight of their killers’ infamy. Names like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy take on a cultural significance that, albeit macabre, resonates deeply within the national psyche. And when their given names are unknown or simply not provocative enough, nicknames do the work — the “Green River Killer” and the “Cleveland Strangler” and the “Son of Sam” making horror movie fluff of the real-life terror that conditioned the fate of their victims. The sensationalization of serial murder has, of course, beget entire industries. Not only is it a mainstay of the true-crime genre and the impetus of filmic and televisual monsters from Freddy Krueger and Candyman to Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan, it has also spawned the growth of online businesses that deal in “murderabilia” — collectibles and artifacts owned and created by killers, with the items associated with the most notorious and deadly of offenders typically going for the highest prices — and the production of serial-murder kitsch, as in the Ted Bundy adult coloring book or the serial killer trading cards currently being offered for sale on various websites.

But despite the ubiquity of serial killing in pop culture and the reams of print devoted to certain high-profile cases, the real-life victims of serial killers are rarely afforded any meaningful attention by the media. Many times the lack of attention paid by the media is a direct outcome of the lack of attention paid by local law enforcement and city officials. Often, it’s not until the body count has risen substantially that the threat of a serial killer or killers is taken seriously and made known to the community being preyed upon. This is especially the case when the victims are black women or girls. In Peoria, it wasn’t until after the death of Linda Neal, who was the seventh similarly situated black woman to turn up dead or go missing in a span of a little more than a year, that a task force was formed to investigate the deaths. It wasn’t until after the murder of Brenda, who was the final victim, that the community became more actively involved in advocating for the women and began pushing local officials for a more robust response to the violence being waged against them. Carmea and Tyrhonda felt that the increased attention to the case was at least in part because of their refusal to simply “let go” of their mother’s death, as some people were suggesting they should. Instead, they organized and participated in prayer vigils, spoke to media outlets as often as possible, continuously pressed the police for information and, once Bright was identified, attended every court hearing they could. As Tyrhonda put it, they just “wouldn’t shut up.”

The refusal of black women to be silent in the wake of violence enacted both directly and indirectly upon them and their communities is nothing new. Neither is the attempt to neglect or discount that violence. Since the early 1970s, no fewer than 500 black women and girls have been the victims of serial murder throughout the United States. Counter to the myth that serial murder is only committed by white men, the vast majority of the people convicted in serial murder cases involving black women and girls have been black men (although the Peoria case is an anomaly in this regard). In recent years, the case of Lonnie David Franklin, the so-called “Grim Sleeper,” who in 2016 was convicted of murdering ten black women in Los Angeles between 1985 and 2007, and the case of Anthony Sowell, in whose Cleveland, Ohio “House of Horrors” the bodies of eleven dead black women were discovered in 2009, have brought some national awareness to the fact that black women can be and have been the victims of serial murder. Yet, even in these cases the coverage largely focused on the men who did the killing rather than the women who were their victims. Moreover, the need to make monsters out of the killers typically obscured or failed to adequately address other significant issues that are often attendant to serial murder cases involving black victims — namely, that the murders occurred in low-income black communities that have been devastated by socioeconomic disinvestment, that they involved survivors who either attempted to report their assaults and were not believed or did not even attempt to report for the same reason, that apathetic police response hindered investigations in the early stages, and that all of the victims were known to be or thought to be drug addicted and involved in street-level prostitution.

By and large, contemporary social movements have failed to account for victims like those killed in Peoria, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. Women like Brenda Erving, with their inconvenient addictions and less-than-reputable lifestyles tend to cut against the image of the undeserving victim who is the typical social justice martyr. But if a campaign like #MeToo is going to be about the “radical community healing” that Tarana Burke began advocating for more than ten years ago, it must attend to the communities that have been most obviously ruptured by social, economic, and physical violence, as well as the women and girls who inhabit them. And, if it is going to be a critical intervention and not just another hashtag or tool for the elite, #MeToo must come to terms with something the insurgent black feminist group Combahee River Collective wrote more than forty years ago: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” 2

Notes

1. A ninth black woman, Frederickia Brown, was also killed during this same stretch of time, but because Bright did not confess to her murder and there was never enough evidence to bring charges against him for it, Frederickia’s murder is still officially considered unsolved. The same is true of the murder of Wanda Jackson, a black woman who was killed under similar circumstances as the other victims, but whose death occurred in March 2001, more than two years before Bright’s confessed killings began

2. Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).

Terrion L. Williamson is an assistant professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, where she is also jointly appointed in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and American Studies. Her first book, Scandalize My Name: Black Feminist Practice and the Making of Black Social Life was published by Fordham University Press in 2016. She is currently working on a book about black women and serial murder.