Cash Out Your Kids

There are many ways for a parent to view their children: as a claim to immortality, as a living legacy, as an awesome responsibility to the future, etc. To Dr Dale Cavaness his children where like money in the bank and once in a while, like certificates of deposit in tough times, he had to cash them out.

It takes a true crime great like Darcy O'Brien to tell the story of a small town in southeastern Illinois so enthralled by the local doctor that the inhabitants overlook his increasingly bizarre and criminal behavior. In lesser hands this would have been an indictment of the small town or, worse, the sort of book that the dimwitted front cover review quote from the NYT deserves: "an indictment of a culture that condones and encourages violent behavior in men." Fortunately, O'Brien is smarter than that and the NYT reviewer clearly didn't read this book. This isn't about male violence, it's about America's hidden underclass.

If Dale Cavaness's mother purposely set out to create a narcissist she couldn't have done better than she did through sheer foolishness. From birth Dale was told that he was special, better than those around him. He absorbed this message from his mother and the belief that a man never runs from a fight from his father, the result was a "star" athlete and doctor in waiting. It says a lot that the sport Cavaness excelled in was basketball since he was, well, a little height challenged. This was a man who liked to beat the odds.

He was also a man who wanted to be on top. As a child he quickly realized that the equivalent of being a king in Egypt was being a doctor in Little Egypt. With the literal and metaphoric power of life and death in his hands, Dale Cavaness exerted the power his narcissism demanded. He had the opportunity to practice medicine elsewhere but Cavaness chose to return to where he could be king, and where he could settle old scores. Whether through genuine medical skill or his willingness to treat those who couldn't afford medical care, Dr Dale quickly became more than a king to the people of Little Egypt, he was viewed in almost godlike terms. When he left his wife to take up with the town floozy, acquired an epic drinking problem and finally killed two people in a drunk driving accident, the town didn't just turn a blind eye, they convinced themselves that this was just the price of greatness.

All of which goes to its insane extreme when Cavaness is indicted for murdering his third son and is under suspicion for the murder of his eldest, the people of Little Egypt back him up. This isn't mere support of a neighbor in tough times. This is out and out enabling, as in one man voicing the opinion that maybe "Doc" had a good reason for killing his sons. I guess it depends on how good a reason you think killing someone for their life insurance money is.

O'Brien does a brilliant job with some very dark material. The people of Little Egypt have lived generations on reduced expectations yet O'Brien resists any temptation to demonize or absolve them of their complicity in Cavaness's crimes. He simply tells the story and lets the facts provide the horror. This is a true crime classic that every fan of the genre should check out.

1 comment:

Gregg Olsen said...

I came here because google alerts picked up your nice review of my book, Cruel Deception...but I just thought I'd let Constant Reader know how much I miss Jack Olsen and Darcy O'Brien. Nobody writes true crime like those two did. Nice guys, too.