The column a few weeks about South Carolina's most notorious criminal, Pee Wee Gaskins, elicited response calling for an examination of why Pee Wee became who he was. Accordingly, it becomes easy to develop sympathy for almost anyone-including Pee Wee-when taking into account extenuating circumstances such as childhood family trauma, physical and emotional abuse and so forth that might have influenced personal development.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not making excuses by any means, but most people are capable of sympathy, even toward those who might appear to deserve it the least. This gets me to thinking about a classic in American literature, Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," published way back in 1925, which inexorably creates a sympathetic feeling toward a murderous protagonist (a thinly disguised character out of a well-known criminal case at the time) through the sheer artistic emotional renderings of the book's author.
It happens despite Dreiser's ponderous writing style, once described by H. L. Mencken (The Baltimore Sun's famous journalist, curmudgeonly reviewer, essayist, intellectual and philologist) as a thing that "rambles, staggers, trips, heaves, pitches, struggles, totters, wavers, halts, turns aside, (and) trembles on the verge of collapse..." And yet, "there is in him, hidden deep-down, a great instinctive artist, and hence the making of an aristocrat. In his muddled way.he manages to produce works of art of unquestionable beauty and authority, and to interpret life in a manner that is both poignant and illuminating.. Dreiser describes the thing that he sees, laboriously and relentlessly, but he never forgets the dream that is behind it (or, quoting another critic) 'the infinite sadness and mystery of human life.'"
A letter writer who asked to be anonymous had the following to say about Pee Wee (in part), "I agree that Gaskins should not be glamorized, but neither should he be forgotten-any more than Vasili Blokhin (a Soviet Major-General who served as the chief executioner of the Stalinist People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) or Genghis Khan should be forgotten. Without the historical context that includes Gaskins, his victims cannot be distinguished from any other person who dies from, say, car crashes or terminal cancer. Their memory is therefore diminished, not enhanced.
"There are indeed many lessons to be learned from the Gaskins biography, and they can be learned without glamorizing him. As you alluded to, his upbringing was a nightmare of abuse, which certainly purged any empathy out of him he might otherwise have possessed, and probably ignited his sadomasochism. Indeed, his very sobriquet, 'Pee Wee,' immortalizes his diminutive stature and life-long humiliations, which also no doubt decisively influenced the course of his personality development. In a dark irony, it was this unimposing appearance that also allowed him to lure in so many victims.
"Fortunately, child rearing practices have come, for the most part, a long way from those undertaken in rural 1930's Florence County, but those like Gaskins should be remembered as a sad warning to what can happen when a culture of abuse is tolerated by society."
I never met Alicia Rhett, (who played India Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind") and yet she has touched my life in at least three ways, by creating a pastel portrait of our daughter 16 years ago (and I guess I touched the artist's life in return by paying for it), and with two separate renderings done of my wife during her childhood and late-teens.
Whereas I respect Rhett's artistic talents, I further like what she had to say about her GWTW experiences - which was essentially nada. Or at least that's my general understanding. She didn't like to talk about it, knowing fully well that once she started she wouldn't be able to stop and that people would drive her crazy.
Her brushstrokes did all the talking that was necessary. And Lord knows there's a lot of her conversation going on in this city and elsewhere.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at email@example.com.