This is the question I have for Tony Baekeland. Why stop at your mother when your father is plainly the one who NEEDED killing?
I first read Savage Grace when it came out in the mid 1980s. I was in high school and like most teens I was certain my parents were incredibly controlling. Brooks and Barbara Baekeland showed me how very wrong I was. My parents were comparative saints. Most parents not currently serving time on death row are saints compared to Brooks and Barbara. In the book they are compared to Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Sara and Gerald Murphy. I think of them as more like the Medicis.
The book starts with the murder. Tony Baekeland stabs his mother Barbara to death in their London apartment. This isn't a whodunit. Nor is it a whydunit because, really, it's hard to imagine anyway spending significant time around Barbara and not at least thinking about killing her. Savage Grace is more of a slow moving car crash, inevitable and seemingly unstoppable. What sets it apart from most other entries in the true crime genre is how guilty everyone involved ultimately appears to be. Nearly everyone comes across as stupid, dense, selfish, or callous.
They can't blame Nancy Robins for this. The book is told is oral history style - think Edie or Please Kill Me - so it's their own words that condemn. Sure, if you have anyone ramble on for hours and tape the whole thing they're bound to come up with some appalling comments but there are some real gems on display here. Like Tony's grandmother talking about how she was afraid Tony would be left-handed like his mother. Because clearly left-handedness was the problem. And that's one of the saner comments.
The bare bones of the story are simple. Brooks Baekeland, grandson of the inventor plastic, marries beautiful Barbara Daly and they go around the world in pursuit of their pretensions of being a writer (him) and a painter (her). They have one child, Tony, and they keep him around like a pet giving him the same attention, discipline and guidance given to a pampered poodle. When Tony starts to display signs of being more than just eccentric his parents ignore it, but what really sets them off is the fact that Tony is gay. Granted, this was a less enlightened time - the 60s and 70s - so it's hard to blame them for not being totally understanding but their reactions only drive Tony further into mental illness. Meanwhile Brooks and Barbara don't accomplish anything on their own aside from parties, interior decorating, friendships with literary types (the Jones and the Styrons figure prominently), travel and Brooks one and only "adventure" for the National Geographic. Finally Brooks leaves Barbara for a young woman who is at the very least Tony's friend and in the eyes of many (possibly even Tony's) his girlfriend. Barbara doesn't take this well and turns all her mania on Tony. There seems little doubt that she attempted to "cure" him of his homosexuality by having sex with him.
This gives you a good indication of what we're dealing with here. It's full on insane to think incest is a cure for ANYTHING and it's even crazier to TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT. A dozen people at least. Was there nothing else to discuss over dinner?
Tony, who's never given serious mental health treatment, eventually stabs his mother during an argument. He is sent to Broadmoor. Good intentioned but clueless society friends campaign for his release and win it but never give a thought to getting care for Tony once he is released. Brooks Baekeland refuses to help him or pay for his care so Tony is sent to live with his elderly grandmother who keeps a portrait of Barbara on prominent display. Unmedicated and untreated Tony attacks his grandmother and is sent to Rikers where he commits suicide.
So who is to blame? There are plenty of candidates but I can't warm up to any answers that don't start with Brooks Baekeland. He's a horrible, horrible excuse for a human being. Narcissistic, uncaring, ungracious, untalented and a complete jerk. One former friends says he'd like to "take a brick and kill him (Brooks) in the street." Finally, I thought, someone sensible. Consider of few of Brooks lines:
"Psychiatrists - who are professionally amoral - never understood my reluctance to enthuse about their abracadabra." (These would be the doctors trying to treat his son.)
"... in Tony I clearly saw the play of Good and Evil. That was a question not only about him but about a whole generation." (This is about Tony getting kicked out of boarding school.)
"She was attracted to me not only as a mother but as any woman is to an electric young man. We were like lovers." (This is about his grandmother. Nice touch to get in a comment about his own "electricity" and a blithely incestuous coating to their relationship in one paragraph.)
"I was the young Leo she had loved." (Leo is his famous grandfather who invented plastic. Brooks, by contrast, didn't even finish his PhD. But Granny couldn't resist him anyway. He goes on for several paragraphs about how his Grandmother was a little too interested in him.)
To my mind, nothing proves Tony's obvious insanity more than the fact that he didn't kill Brooks. Any sane person in proximity to Brooks had to have wanted to off this guy on a regular basis. My Kindle notes for this book almost all relate to Brooks' quotes and range from "what a jerk" to "just die already."
Nancy Robins does an amazing job of letting people hang themselves with their own words. More impressively, she uses their words to recreate a world, a not very attractive world on close inspection, but one in which murder seems inevitable.
(The title of this entry is a quote from Rose Styron taken from the book. If you're going to get yourself murdered, you'd do worse than to have a bunch of writers for friends. They are SO quotable.)