Raising JonBenet: A Review of Cowboy's Sweetheart by Walter Davis
Plus an Interview With Walter Davis
We all remember the baby face that launched a thousand hard-ons (at least) the Winter of 1996-1997. She dressed like Mae West and moved like Josephine Baker and she was only six years old. Those who remember the commotion caused when the twelve-year-old Brook Shields bared her hypothetical boobs in "Pretty Baby" can only imagine what might have come between THIS twelve-year-old and her Calvins. They can only imagine because JonBenet Ramsey never reached the ripe old age of twelve. She barely lived past six.
In Cowboy's Sweetheart, the play accompanied by two essays in the book, "An Evening with JonBenet Ramsey," Walter Davis imagines what might have been had JonBenet survived the bloody Christmas of 1996 when she was brutally murdered and, according to evidence documented in one of the book's essays, "There Is Another Court," sexually assaulted.
I give Davis credit for approaching this issue most wouldn't dare touch with a ten foot pole. I remember when the stories first came out about this little girl murdered by some pedophile freak and since it wasn't "world news," I felt bad for the girl and left it at that. Then they, the "media" showered us with photos and video clips. Not just JonBenet, but all these kids decked out like little Rockettes and I thought, "Zowie! Get these freaks away from me! Who on earth would do that to their kid?" And it wasn't a question of who the murderer was. Until a suspect comes to trial it could be anybody. Maybe even YOU, or ME, or the same guy who killed O.J.'s wife, Nicole, (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). No, that's not the issue. The issue Davis deals with in "An Evening with JonBenet Ramsey" is how (or why) a society that calls itself a society can tolerate such arrant "peddling of philia," that is, the selling of it's very, very young for vicarious fame and not-so-vicarious profit.
Davis Handles this issue masterfully, not by grave-digging (the mainstream media's M.O.), but mind-exploring. For those of us without the Messianic Touch, the resurrection of the dead can only be done in fiction. The heroine of Davis' play, Jolie Brady, lives the life JonBenet could not. Instead of dealing with details and conjectures about one particular murder case, we have a dramatist's rendering of the general. That is, what such a well-publicized tragedy means to an entire culture. One thinks of E.L. Doctorow's "Daniel;" Mary Shelley's "Monster," and J.D. Salinger's Glass family saga as similar examples of celebrated innocents, abused and publicly humiliated, who found in adulthood a "voice" with which to articulate their sorrows and accuse the perpetrators of the worst of crimes: neglect, abuse, indifference to the sufferings of the helpless.
Davis allows Jolie Brady to "grow up," if only in fantasy, if only, as events suggest, in the interminable nano-second between life and death, which Ambrose Bierce examined so effectively in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The dying mind's projection of the life it might have lived. And it's not pretty. How can it be pretty? It is the life of one who knew no other love but that of an audience cheering her for playing the strumpet in costumes that would make even Madonna blush.
What kind of girl, adolescent, woman can we expect her to become after spending her most impressionable years under such weird "adulation?" Davis examines the degradation of Jolie at the source: her parents, Mitzi and Jonathan Brady.
Jonathan, a wealthy, fifty-year-old business man has recently lost Rachel, his teen-age daughter from a previous marriage, to a fatal accident. Experiencing his first real tragedy in life, he spends sleepless nights writing sentimental poems to his dead daughter and seeking solace not from Mitzi, but from six year old Jolie. What begins as an unhealthy role reversal -- the father crying in the arms of his child -- "matures" as Jolie's body matures, until Jonathan is seeking a lot more than solace from his little nymphet. It is apparent that he sleeps with her and that he does not sleep with the aging, overweight Mitzi.
Mitzi is a prototypical "tennis mom," driving her daughter relentlessly, with the aid of her own mother, Pauline, to perform magic at these child beauty contests. That is, to win, win, win. By any means necessary.
"You want to be Miss America someday it begins here Missy," comments "Grandma" Pauline during a particularly grueling, humiliating rehearsal.
Mitzi herself was a beauty queen as a young woman, though not so very, very young. She's frustrated with the six-year-old Jolie's inability to move the way she has to move--and we the audience know how she has to move--though it doesn't quite "click" with little Jolie, whose child's imagination doesn't stretch far enough to understand the significance of waving her tiny butt and feather costume to entice and arouse a mature audience.
Mitzi is infuriated that Jolie still wets the bed at six years of age. Hence, she further humiliates her by forcing her to wear diapers to bed.
Finally, Mitzi is jealous of Jonathan's dead daughter, Ruth, with whom she can not compete due to Ruth's considerable advantage of being dead, and the inordinate and unnatural affection Jonathan, unable to bear the loss of his teenage princess, transfers to Jolie who, unlike the forty year old Mitzi, is only going to get better with age, to blossom as Mitzi herself withers.
Finally there is Jolie, tragedy in feathers and heels, who is presented to us, (by the same actress; the stage directions strictly forbids the appearance of a child in any part of the play) at ages 6, 9, 12, 15, 30, 35 and 45 years of age.
I knew this woman. That is, I knew women like her, who shared similar histories of loveless mothers, jealous of father's attention and pushing their daughters relentlessly to relive their own failed lives in an attempt to correct them, fulfill the dreams the mothers themselves failed to attain. Fathers who were a bit too affectionate, whose embraces were a little too close, at first, who became more and more ardent in their "love" as "Baby" blossomed into "Daddy's Sweetheart." These women, like Jolie, used sex as a weapon, a probe with which they analyzed the world where adult relationships were impossible, for every relationship was a re-enactment of the primal horrors they were forced to repeat in an endless loop until self awareness or death set them free.
Of the women I knew who suffered the same or similar experiences as Jolie, maturing from child to nymphet to woman until finally escaping to college and the world in which were frozen in a seemingly endless loop of repeating their childhood horrors 24/7, asleep or awake, only one found freedom, like Jolie. She was a voracious reader, like Jolie, obsessed with words, like Jolie, reading compulsively, like Jolie, as if trying to discover truth in the word, like Jolie, relentlessly introspective, like Jolie, and ultimately freed herself, like Jolie, by seeing her situation with the objectivity of an "other," like Jolie, then embracing it, like Jolie, until she was able separate her present from her past, like Jolie, and throw the crimes inflicted on her back at the perpetrators, the victimizers, like Jolie, which, again like Jolie, happened to be her parents.
It was a heroic struggle, like Jolie's, but my friend won, as did Jolie, and was able to reclaim her life as her own.
So adept is Davis at portraying the psychology of Jolie and those like her--and I believe there are many--that I could often "project" or "guess" some of Jolie's words and actions before she expressed them, for I had known such a woman.
For instance, the adult Jolie was married, then shortly divorced. Davis shows us a glimpse of what life was like between her and her former husband, Josh, a college professor, and I felt I knew Josh. I felt I was Josh. When Josh and Jolie converse about issues of intimacy and touch, of Josh's inability to fully understand Jolie, I recalled my own relationship. Josh, though well intentioned, could not truly connect with Jolie, just as I could not connect with my friend, for hers, like Jolie's was a personal struggle with the past, a hero's (heroine's) journey toward a personal freedom that could only be attained through "settling the affairs" of her own the past.
Jolie Brady does indeed "settle her affairs." Like all good ghosts (and literary creations) who have been able to transcend the circumstances of their haunting, the endless loop in which they are doomed to repeat the scenes of life's torment, Jolie abandons the past to her victimizers, her killers. It is they, not she, who must suffer the crimes that they, not she, will never escape. Jolie reclaims the present for her self, while transferring the horrors of her past to the present and future of the parents who victimized and betrayed her. It is Mitzi and Jonathan who must now dance the dance of the "endless loop" with the ugly phantoms of their own creation.
Thus, Jolie knows peace.
Adam Engel can be reached at email@example.com
Free, White and Six Years Old: An Interview with Walter Davis
by Adam Engel
ADAM ENGEL: My first reaction, in 1996, to the JonBenet thing was "yuck. Freakazoid Americana. I don't need this perverse shit in my life etc." Sending little girls to do an adult exhibitionist's job was just too weird for me. It wasn't a "major" news event, so I just flushed it out of my mind. What inspired you to tackle this issue?
WALTER DAVIS: The first time I saw a video of JonBenet Ramsey performing I found myself sobbing in an uncontrollable crying. "How could anyone do that to the child?" I asked . Her image and that question wouldn't leave me. Six years later, the book is the result.
ENGEL: As I said above, the whole idea of five and six year olds strutting their non-existent "stuff" in beauty pageants freaks me out. It's gross. Aren't there any feminist or child protection groups fighting this sort of thing?
DAVIS: Not to my knowledge. Patsy Ramsey sexed up JonBenet act with revealing costumes and got an eighteen-year-old, a veteran of "adult" beauty pageants, to coach JonBenet on how to sex it up. The mass media then played it up voyeuristically. I was struck that no feminists or child advocacy groups investigated this issue. What the media were saying, in effect, is "it's your child, your property, you're free to use it to fulfill your psychological needs, your fantasies of stardom or celebrity or whatever." Patsy put the spin of her own psyche on a general belief that far too many parents share. She'd been a beauty queen herself and would now reinvest her narcissistic needs in her child. Joe X does it by making his son win at all costs in youth football. Etc. Painfully, I've found that far too many people I've talked to and corresponded with are willing to see almost everything pernicious about the Ramsey case, but want to deny that there's anything wrong with child beauty pageants. By the way, there are 6 times as many child beauty pageants held annually now than there were the year JonBenet Ramsey died. The epidemic grows.
ENGEL: From what I understand, you're taking some heat for writing this book, especially the play, "Cowboy's Sweetheart." I checked out a website called Webbsleuths, but it turned out to be a bunch of feral yahoos who apparently hadn't read the book. Nevertheless, they had some pretty nasty things to say about Walter Davis.
DAVIS: Actually, www.webbsleuths.com, is a pro Ramsey chat group. (Not to be confused with websleuths, an intelligent forum.) What they've done is taken excerpts from some portions of the play that appeared in an online journal and quoted them out of context to claim that the play is "porn" and, incidentally, that I should be investigated by the FBI. The woman calling herself Jameson, who runs this group, has waged a series of campaigns against those she (and those behind her) label anti-Ramsey. I understand from sources that she's caused several people a lot of trouble. But that's secondary. I'm interested in how this uninformed attack on the play as porn will play out in a media eager for sound-bites. And so let me take this opportunity to state explicitly what will be obvious to anyone who reads the work: it isn't "porn," but a serious and informed study of the psychosexual identity of a very complex woman. The real porn, of course, is what the Ramseys did in sexualizing their child.
ENGEL: What would lead a reader to classify the work as "porn?"
DAVIS: Jameson used quotes cited out of context to claim the work was pornographic. The quotes are graphic, but in order to oppose pornography. What I try to do in the play is create a complex adult woman who is wrestling with the conflicts of her "psychosexual identity" and their connection with the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and later. The attempt is to help audiences see the consequences of sexual abuse. In context, I also think it becomes clear that she is a beautiful and courageous woman: not a victim but a genuinely tragic agent. Pornography is what is done to a child when she is sexualized the way JonBenet Ramsey was. To be theoretical: pornography is an attempt through representation to excite illicit sexual drives. This is the kind of thing one does when one teaches little girls to parade around in beauty pageants and act as "sexy" as they can be taught to act.
ENGEL: Well, why can't people see this? I mean, when the whole Ramsey thing came out, one of the things that struck me right away was the sight of little girls strutting around like extras in a sexed-up Busby Berkeley extravaganza.
DAVIS: My guess is because it strikes too close to home! It's too obvious. That is one of the ways ideology operates. The obvious is what must be denied! But that's another story. Though also a current one re. CBS chickening out on the Reagan movie. Apparently we can't have a representation that would suggest anything but sainthood about one of the most mean-spirited human beings whose ever held that office.
Non-pornographic representations of sexuality (Lawrence, Joyce, etc) are serious and of necessity graphic representations of the conflicts that define this central area of human existence so that we can understand it. Because that is what I do, I should not be surprised that the true pornographers accuse me of pornography.
ENGEL: And they're trying to censor you as they tried to censor Joyce and Lawrence.
DAVIS: Well that may be too grandiose, but it is nice to be even a minor chord in such eloquent company. What's significant here for me is again the need to understand the violence done to children. I've found that some people who hate the Ramseys and have great compassion for JonBenet still resist my work because they want to preserve a pristine memory of her. For them idealization is the only form mourning can take. All I can say to them, and in a spirit of shared compassion, is that my play is an act of love. For her and for all the other violated. Love for all of us takes many forms. Mine takes the form of psychological honesty. To love is to suffer with those we love and to internalize their suffering, not to preserve memories that falsify it or protect ourselves from it. Some readers will be shocked by my main character. And so I can only say, openly and honestly, that I love her and hope you will come to love her. For me she is the most honest, courageous, and beautiful woman I've ever imagined. She lives out the "ethical imperative" that is the only true existential possibility for those who've been sexually abused: "I was wounded to the core in my sexuality--it was taken from me--and I will reclaim it or perish in the process." Like all silly writers, I hope readers will come to share my love for her--or at least to see that there is nothing pornographic about her. She comes from a place of great psychological trauma--and the honesty that a direct confrontation with trauma brings. Which is, incidentally, my view of the nature and purpose of drama.
ENGEL: Jameson wrote on the Webbsleuths site, "You have misrepresented her life, her story. You didn't do the research. For that I hope Lin Wood takes you to task." Who is Lin Wood? A relative of the Ramseys?
DAVIS: Lin Wood is one of the most high profile lawyers in country. He's on Larry King frequently. His brainchild is the aggressive PR campaign the Ramseys have run, especially by suing any book or publication that presents views that fail to gain their imprimatur. Wood has had considerable success at this, his biggest one coming in an out of court settlement of a suit he brought against St. Martins Press and Steve Thomas. Steve Thomas, the head investigating detective on the JonBenet Ramsey case, after a three year investigation from which he obtained from the FBI crime lab the conclusion that there was sufficient evidence for a probable cause indictment of Patsy for the murder, wrote a book which included that warranted conclusion. Wood sued. St. Martins didn't want to risk a large judgment and so they caved and settled. I've been told on good authority that Wood's basic strategy is to find out a publisher's insurance provision and then sue for a lesser amount so that a settlement becomes desirable. Of course, he then goes on TV and claims the settlement has vindicated his clients and "proves" their innocence. Wood is also, by the way, the lawyer for Gary Condit. Wood is also the master of the Larry King media sound-byte. And the next step in the "logic" begun in the O.J. case. Now the game is get out in the media and intimidate investigators, prosecutors, etc. in order to assure that your client will never be indicted. Jameson, by the way, prides herself on her connection to Wood. In a sense, she's his Agnew. And so I can anticipate another attack that will be waged on me. In fact, Wood promised the following in an email correspondence we had after I sent him the long footnote in the book that describes his activities. In his inimitable and singularly revealing words: " publish your accusatory book and I will bankrupt you with a suit... I will buy another Jaguar and thoroughbred race horse with the proceeds from another legal victory for the Ramseys." Nice to know his true motives. His current power is another matter. I had to publish my book myself at my own expense because publishers are now afraid to handle negative things on the Ramseys for fear of being sued. In the spirit of Ashcroft, Wood is a clear enemy of and danger to The First Amendment. He had no right to attack Thomas' book, which was totally within the bounds of freedom of speech. By the way, Wood has made a lot of money off JonBenet Ramsey and will continue to do so. As he said recently on Larry King Live, "If the Ramseys had gotten me as their lawyer in the beginning they'd own all the tabloids by now."
ENGEL: Meaning he might have gotten them even more money?
DAVIS: Indeed. The Ramseys continue to make money on this. Lin Wood told Larry King that he "cuts them in on the profits." (There's something illogical yet grandiose about this statement from Wood. I'm also told it is of questionable legality.) But profiting off JonBenet is a team Ramsey cottage industry. When the Ramseys wrote their book they said all money "after legal expenses" would go to a Foundation named after JonBenet Ramsey. As a result the Foundation, now defunct, received a pittance. I saw the Tax return from one year and the amount was under fifty dollars. The Ramseys, however, continue to turn a tidy profit off their own child's death.
ENGEL: Well, I hate to bring this up, but what about you? Aren't there people who might claim that by writing and selling this book you're also making money off the case?
DAVIS: I want to hasten to point out here that I'm not making a penny off this book. If you turn to the page just after the table of contents you'll see that I've established The Davis Trust for Aid in the Prevention and Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse. All money due to me from the sale of An Evening With JonBenet Ramsey and from any productions of the play, Cowboy's Sweetheart will be donated to this Trust. Funds from the trust will be given to organizations who work on behalf of sexually abused children. I am placing a copy of the legal papers establishing the Trust on my website.
ENGEL: I would think the Ramseys would want to keep a low profile. They seemed to have gotten a lucky break in that the case didn't go to trial, but there's no statute of limitations for murder.
DAVIS: Patsy Ramsey wants to be a celebrity. She was once a beauty queen and in the limelight herself. JonBenet Ramsey was the meal ticket of her narcissism.
ENGEL: So it's kind of like O.J. Simpson playing golf while waiting for the "real killers" to show up.
DAVIS: Well the Ramseys were welcomed into Atlanta society when they moved there and bought a huge house while crying poor. I don't have any information on their golf scores.
ENGEL: On the other hand, regardless of the pageants and what might be considered their exploitation of JonBenet, the Ramseys must be assumed to be innocent unless proven guilty. They haven't been prosecuted for child abuse or murder. You might be causing them a lot of pain by publishing this book.
DAVIS: Of course one is always concerned with appropriate compassion. But the primary object of our compassion must be JonBenet Ramsey. As Walter Benjamin said, "the dead remain in danger." That they'll be sacrificed to our desire to forget anything that causes us pain. The suffering of her parents is, perhaps, a thing between them and their maker. The biblical text in the New Testament is clear: Jesus is opposed to the abuse of children. In fact, it is one of the few topics on which that compassionate man expressed unqualified wrath. That is what those who have compassion for the Ramseys should help them attend to. But real compassion must be for her and for what can be her legacy: that we finally look at the abuse of children and take all the appropriate actions.
ENGEL: There was definitely a racial factor in the O.J. case. White society and media lynching yet another black man. Given the real massive discrimination against black people by "the law" I find this understandable. But what's the deal with the Ramseys? After all, O.J. ultimately got his property taken away by a civil court and lives like an "untouchable," which is a kind of prison in itself. Why are the Ramseys still celebrities and still making money protesting the "wrongs" done to them?
DAVIS: What gives people pain they banish from their consciousness. That, if nothing else, we should preserve from Freud's legacy.
ENGEL: So people would rather believe there's a murderous sex fiend "out there" who might possibly harm their own children than the possibility that a mother would do this to her own child?
DAVIS: Exactly. Projection, displacement, denial. People don't want to look into the ways they may be psychologically abusing their own children. They don't want to see the family as the contradictions of capitalism run amok. And of course the don't want to believe that the sexual abuse of children in their home by parents and relatives is a national epidemic. By the way, the Ramseys deny that JonBenet was sexually abused, but at least six major forensic scientists have examined the autopsy and concluded that she was abused as she was dying, in the days immediately preceding her death, and for an indeterminate time prior to that. But then the pageants go on. Because just like little boys, in capitalism little girls have to learn about competition_and be taught that they have only one thing they can compete with.
ENGEL: You're saying that the "unthinkable" is not only thinkable, it's doable and often done?
DAVIS: Statistics from the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services and presented in all the standard books on this topic such as E. Sue Blume's Secret Survivors and R.L Howard's Journey Together show that 1 out 3 girls and 1 out of 5 boys are molested in their childhood and that a preponderance of cases involve a family member. Sexual abuse is a part of American family life. But as always "we" try to project it outside in the pedophile out there, hiding somewhere near the weapons of mass destruction
ENGEL: Thus the attempt to portray you as a pornographer. Kill the messenger.
DAVIS: Yes. And signs are it is going to get nastier. If possible I'd like to add a sort of request to readers. I'd like to hear from those who read the work and those who might be in a position to advise or support me should Lin Wood wage another attack on the First Amendment. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org . I'm going to keep hearing from crazies who will threaten me in various ways. It would be good to hear from those who take other views. And I can assure you that if it falls to me to defend the First Amendment I will be proud to do so. There won't be any out of court settlements. Also, of course, I'd like to wake up the Theatres. They all remain afraid or reluctant to produce this work. Given the dreck that masquerades as serious theatre today, Cowboy's Sweetheart deserves a chance to show audiences what the real thing is. And as the book of which it is a part shows, sometimes Literature is the only way we can attain a correct, in depth understanding of the psychological and emotional truth of historical events. That truth, I should add, is a tragic one.
ENGEL: Speaking of literature, how would you answer those who claim your play is just 'fiction' and therefore "irrelevant" or "illegitimate?"
DAVIS: What can one say finally? Take that, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright and William Faulkner, etc. As the book shows, in some case "fiction"--i.e., artistic probing into the psyche -is the only way we can get to the inner truth of an event.
Walter Davis, Professor Emeritus in the English Department at The Ohio State University, is the author of a number of books on literature and modern culture, including Inwardness and Existence (U of Wisconsin P, 1989), Get the Guests, Psychoanalysis, Modern Drama and the Audience (U of Wisconsin P, 1994), Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative (SUNY P, 2001) and The Holocaust Memorial: A Play about Hiroshima (1st Books Library, 2000). He can be reached at email@example.com.
Adam Engel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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