Obviously, the characterizations and events in the portion of this work set in 1980 were modeled after those in the case of Sylvia Likens, in 1965. While I changed those events to suit my fictional scenario, all of the major real-life players are represented; Roy Howell is actually a composite of two participants in the crime.
The sentences for those convicted in The State of Indiana vs. Baniszewski are directly matched here by those of their fictional counterparts, as narrated by Jimmy Sheppard. Anyone who has any sense of justice in their soul will undoubtedly feel that these sentences were appallingly light. Of all those who stood trial, only one ever publicly expressed guilt or remorse for their collaboration in the murder of Sylvia—John Baniszewski, Jr. (Jack Bainbridge), who later became a lay minister in Texas.
Despite the hideous nature of the crime, it was not without its positive repercussions. In response to Sylvia’s death, child abuse laws became more stringent. As the sixties gave way to the seventies, even corporal punishment was frowned upon more and more; today, it has all but ceased to exist. Whether this is to blame for the ever-increasing crime rate among teens and young adults is beside the point. Studies have proven that violence typically begets violence, regardless of the “good intentions” which might lie behind physical discipline. The sad fact is that many do not deserve to be parents, due to their failure to distinguish between appropriate punishment and outright abuse. Perhaps this particular pendulum has swung too far to the opposite extreme, but I feel that I am not alone in preferring to see errors made–especially regarding this issue–on the side of humanity.
I would be remiss if I did not point out here that this blog and the creative work for which it serves as a platform is meant to honor not only Sylvia Likens, but the tragically many others who have died under similar circumstances. I mentioned a few of these innocent victims in my dedication to Echo Forest. Dorothy Dixon, a twenty-eight-year-old developmentally disabled woman, was murdered in Illinois in 2008 by the family she and her one-year-old son had boarded with, in a scenario with eerie parallels to that which killed Sylvia Likens. Dixon was starved and used as a target for BB guns, burned, and forced to sleep on the basement floor. The same year, in Austria, Josef Fritzl was found to have kept his daughter captive in an underground prison for over twenty years…along with the children she eventually bore him. Two-year-old James Patrick Bulger, of Kirkby, Merseyside, England, was abducted and beaten to death by two ten-year-old boys in 1993. Shanda Sharer, just twelve, was tortured and burned to death by four teenage girls in Indiana in 1992. Aurore Gagnon, eleven years old, was abused and tortured to death by her stepmother and father in Quebec in 1920. These are but a handful of such cases which have come to public attention in the past, both recent and distant.
So…what conclusions can be drawn here regarding the value of Echo Forest as a tribute to those who have suffered in such abominable ways? Only time will tell. I feel in my heart that I have done right in seeing the project through, although it was not easy. It is obviously too late to change the fates of numerous victims of the sort of inexcusable abuse featured in it, but again, even the worst mistakes of man hold some redeeming value if remembered and learned from. We must be vigilant when we see or suspect things taking place between children and their elders which make us uneasy, and if necessary, we must not hesitate to ask questions and to take appropriate action. We have a responsibility to do so. Apathy in these cases—as in Sylvia’s—is as unforgivable as the violence itself.
On a personal note, I now feel that I can finally put behind me the sad ordeal of Sylvia Likens. This is not to say that I will ever forget her…even others I have spoken with about this poor child have commented that for some reason, her story never stops resonating with them; the same is true for me. And so, given my abilities as a writer and artist, I did my best to rewrite that story, and to share it with the world on this, the forty-fifth anniversary of her passing. It represents my own attempt to, in a sense, lead Sylvia up out of the basement and into the light.