Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



December 2015

“It was part of an assignment to examine our own literacy habits, in the same way that psychoanalysts are required to undergo analysis in order to better understand the power of that treatment.”




The Red Binder: A Look at Obsession

Dear Reader,

At a recent reading, I introduced a poem by telling its inspiration: a brief newspaper story about monkeys in Calcutta. After I read the poem, someone asked when the item had appeared. I couldn’t remember, but made a note to search for it.

I rummaged through containers in the cellar, but couldn’t locate the clipping. However, I came across a red binder full of clippings that I assembled in 1990, during a summer reading/writing institute at the University of New Hampshire. It was part of an assignment to examine our own literacy habits, in the same way that psychoanalysts are required to undergo analysis in order to better understand the power of that treatment.

The password for learning at UNH was “reflection.” Before that summer, my clippings collection and sentences, or images taken from them, ended up in my journal or in envelopes. I gave myself the assignment of organizing them by topic to see what I would learn. We were asked to write an essay and share it with the class.

The binder contained articles about: How Writers Behave (in the event I forgot how to, or wanted to model myself after another writer); Common Things Made Uncommon (e.g. watching an amaryllis grow and bloom); Literary Criticism (especially the mean-spirited, barbed variety to help me grow a thicker skin); Literary Praise (the smallest group); Stories & Pictures That Surprised/Startled Me (Seeing Isabel Canova’s long pink evening gloves, embroidered with tiny black ants, still earned a reaction – or maybe it was the $1250 price tag); and the largest collection, Morbid/Gruesome Articles. The last category became the subject of my essay because it was supported by my shelf of books about serial killers.

I dutifully described the contents of the Red/Read Binder to share with the class. As people took their turns, I felt a growing sense of discomfort. In what became a classic case of pre-Facebook oversharing, here are some excerpts:

It’s the headline that first attracts me: Wood Chipper Jurors Meet for the 12th Day; Doctor Admits That He Sold Corpses; Man Wounds Six, Kills Self after Cat Kills His Rabbits; Killer of Two Is in a Care Home, Free to Leave; Man Kills and Boils Girlfriend in N.Y.

If the details shock me into disbelief or laughter, then I decide if this story is worthy of my collection of morbid/gruesome newspaper articles.

Seventy-three year old Robert Hamm sat stuck in a garbage can up to his armpits on his front porch, dressed in a nightshirt for at least three days in 20 degree weather. He died, causing more embarrassment than sympathy to temporarily invade Rochester, NY. The postman and the news girl saw him, but neither sensed that he was in distress. The news girl’s mother didn’t believe her when she described what she thought she had seen. The postman told of Hamm’s waving to him on one of the days, just as he had done ‘hundreds of times before.’ So he returned the wave and left the mail. ‘It was a nice day and I just assumed he was sitting there reading the paper and smoking a cigar, just like always.’ As the postman walked away, however, he thought something didn’t look right, but he said he didn’t ‘go back to take a second look.’ Father Gaudio said it all at Hamm’s funeral when he urged friends and relatives not to lose faith despite his ‘senseless death…in a ridiculous situation.’ [This story inspired a poem, “A Final Self-Evaluation in Rochester, New York.”]

Another story told of someone in serious need of problem-solving alternatives: John Wise [his real name] raised rabbits to feed his pet alligator. He had called the animal control officer a week before complaining about a ‘cat who had been eating a total of about 100 rabbits over three years’ and wanted to know if he could shoot it. Wise ‘was just fed up,’ according to Derrek Brown, who took his emotional call and told him an officer would investigate within a week or so. Not soon enough. His shooting spree wounded six people. L.A. police found Wise, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, inside a shed near the alligator’s pond. The cat ‘remains at large.’

We all have had occasion to mix up calendar dates. But not as seriously as the next story: Melville Henwood shot six relatives, because he believed it was Father’s Day and thought they had forgotten him. He killed his daughter, son-in-law and wounded his wife and three of his grandchildren. Father’s Day was actually a week away. Through a few quirks in Michigan law, Henwood ended up in an adult care home, free to come and go. When a reporter followed up on this story, he was told he could not interview the murderer since ‘it would upset him.’ Sounds like a wise decision.

In an L.A. crack house, Sharmaine McClure-Gilliam made two mistakes. First, she bumped into a gang member, and second, when he slapped her, she protested, ‘That’s no way to treat a woman!’ Evidently, he was in no mood for consciousness-raising and shot her dead.

There’s more, but you may have had an adequate dose of my obsession. The cruel, the inhuman and the stupid among us get caught in the light of the newspaper and provide a brief drama that we don’t want to believe is true, but is.

After class, I wrote myself a note: What was wrong with sharing my essay? I revealed too much about myself. One person commented, ‘We know now what makes you laugh.’ Another slipped me a simply vulgar article that I would never have considered – after all, I have my standards! She thought she knew that part of me. It was a long three weeks. I heard myself characterized as ‘the one who likes wacko reading.’ People would approach me with: ‘YOU would like THIS one, Judy,” and ‘Here’s one for your red binder!’

My morbid/gruesome reading obsession has cooled somewhat over the years, but has not disappeared completely. Searching for the monkey article brought me back to the binder – I have accumulated dozens of loose clippings, now waiting to be placed between those red covers. Maybe a new category will emerge, or I will find an article that will inspire a poem or a painting.