“Insanity is a strange, peculiar thing.”

Book review: Not Just Evil: Murder, Hollywood, and California’s First Insanity Plea
by David Wilson

Shortly before Christmas in 1927, a twelve-year-old girl was kidnapped from her school in Los Angeles. After a ransom was arranged with her father, Marion Parker’s horrifically mutilated body was returned. Her killer, a young man named William Hickman, was quickly apprehended following a media frenzy and public outcry.

Hickman was a strange guy, a Kansas transplant who came to L.A. not for dreams of movie stardom like so many have done, but simply to be closer to where the magic was being made. He was obsessed with cinema, and his primary enjoyment in life was losing himself in a dark movie theater.

Also brewing at the time of Hickman’s crime and trial was a sense of uneasiness over the direction that the burgeoning film industry was heading. As technology enabled sound to be added to films, some worried that Hollywood would become more bold, scandalous, or sexual. It was very much a “Please, think of the children!” outcry. And in a very public trial, Hickman uses a new defense – claiming he was insane when he committed the crime, thus not fully responsible for his actions and unable to face capital punishment. His lawyers used his complete absorption into the fantasy world of film and cinematic escape to argue that he wasn’t aware of reality.

One particularly interesting section laid out how difficult such an argument is, a Catch-22. In order to be insane and use that as your argument for an action, you have to be sane enough to understand and appreciate the difference between these two mental states, thus negating your original claim of insanity.

Insanity is a strange, peculiar thing. I don’t know how to define it. It is like many other workings of the mind, it is difficult to define, because the organ that attempts to define it is the one that is also attempting to define its own condition; so it makes it an extremely difficult thing to do; but there is a type of insanity…that we have attempted to establish here, a type of insanity that I think we are absolutely justified in advancing here, and that is the type of delusional insanity…

That’s Richard Cantillon, one of Hickman’s defense lawyers, trying to explain what would become a difficult defense by reason of insanity.

But it feels like there’s more to the story, or that the connection intended to be proven just didn’t exist. Pieces of Hickman’s past are there, but I didn’t see the link between his committing crimes to pay for movie tickets and the violent effect or influence of those movies on his thinking. He didn’t want to hold a normal job, he didn’t want to live in reality, he used entertainment as escapism to an extreme and committed crimes to pay for this hobby that became his life.

More intriguing than the thin connection between movies and violence was that his self-interest and lack of concern for others was very inspiring to Ayn Rand. She brought up his case and personality as examples of her world view in her writing and talked favorably about him often to those in her circle, much to their consternation. A weird but fascinating detail, I thought.

Long passages are taken verbatim from courtroom arguments and judge’s statements, and although several of the attorneys have a dramatic flair for words (see above), I think it’s  only interesting for readers with a specific interest in legal nonfiction, and less for those like me who prefer compelling general narrative nonfiction.

But it’s an interesting look at the origin of the problems America has faced in terms of media’s effects and influences on the general population, or as this book seems to show, those who already have a mental predisposition towards being susceptibly influenced.

“The core issue is whether or not over-indulgence in electronically based forms of stimulation diminishes a child’s ability to effectively engage in critical self-evaluation, or if it creates a tendency to live in a delusional world created by fantasy.”

As Wilson points out, the blame widened from concerns over film in the 1920s to include television, and most recently, the glamorization of violence in computer and video games. He doesn’t offer much of his own analysis on the topic, rather the book functions as a sort of case study of what might have been the starting point for this famous line of defense.

Not Just Evil: Murder, Hollywood, and California’s First Insanity Plea
by David Wilson
published December 6, 2016 by Diversion Books

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I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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