book reviews, family

Repost: 20 years… or things I have in common with Pat Conroy

This is a repost. I composed this on December 7, 2013, when we lived in Texas. A lot has changed since I wrote this post. My father died in July 2014. My husband now has contact with one of his daughters and they have done a lot of reconciliation. This post was true as of 2013, at least from my perspective. It’s now 2023, so please bear that in mind… I’m just reposting this because it includes a book review. Incidentally, I believe Pat Conroy’s daughter, Susannah, eventually came around, too.

Yesterday, was my husband’s daughter’s 20th birthday.  Surprisingly enough, we didn’t talk about her.  We usually talk about my husband’s kids on significant days like their birthdays or on Christmas.  I don’t know if he thought about her at all, though I did, in a fleeting way.  I have only met her once, but she’s still my husband’s kid and he loves her, despite her painful rejection of his affections. ETA: My husband’s daughter is a totally different person since she got away from her mother.

I don’t like my husband’s kids.  I liked them when I met them and I know they’ve been used as pawns and were lied to.  But that doesn’t change the way they’ve behaved.  I never had enough time to get to know them and understand why they are the way they are.  I’ve only seen the aftermath of their actions, which were devastating and deeply painful to their father and to me, simply because I happen to live with and love their dad.  And so, as curious as I am about them and as sorry as I am that things are the way they are, I don’t want to know them. ETA: I’m glad I know younger daughter better today.

Curiously, as I write this, I am also thinking about Pat Conroy’s latest book, The Death of Santini.  Pat Conroy and I share some common experiences.  We are both children of alcoholic, abusive military officers.  Pat and I were both born and raised in the South.  We have lived and spent time in some of the same places.  We both have Celtic origins.  And like my husband, Pat Conroy has a daughter who doesn’t speak to him. 

Conroy’s daughter, Susannah, is a product of his second marriage.  She was born in Italy, where Conroy and his second wife, Lenore, were living at the time.  If you read Conroy’s novel, Beach Music, you get a sense of her.  It seems to me it was around the time that novel came out that Susannah quit talking to her father.  I’m sure the book and her parents’ divorce had a lot to do with that decision.  As I don’t know what it’s like to live with Pat Conroy, I can’t say whether or not the decision was ultimately justified.  I will say that based on what Conroy writes in The Death of Santini, his second wife had things in common with Bill’s ex wife.

Conroy’s latest book also deals a lot with the divorce and death of his parents.  He adored his mother, though admits that she was a very flawed person.  Conroy’s books always feature a beautiful mother figure who is both vain and ambitious.  He had a complicated love/hate relationship with his fighter pilot father, whom he alternately describes as a heartless tyrant and a comical, larger than life, hero of a man. 

While my own parents aren’t quite as vivid as Conroy’s parents apparently were, I am familiar with the roles.  My dad was an Air Force navigator who had ambitions to be a pilot and once told me that had he done it over, he would have joined the Marines and been a fighter pilot.  My mother is a beautiful, classy woman who always seemed to aspire to better living.  Without benefit of a bachelor’s degree, she ran her own business for about 30 years and played organ for local churches.  They are still married and will celebrate 56 years of marriage three days after Christmas.  Or… maybe my mom will remember it. My dad has pretty severe dementia these days.

Conroy’s book has him sort of reconciling with his parents.  I don’t know if it really happened the way he describes it, though it makes for a hell of a story.  It’s unlikely I will reconcile with my dad because my dad is not in his right mind and lives about 1500 miles away from me.  I mostly get along with my mother, when she’s not in a mood. ETA: My mom is a totally different person since my dad passed.

I have three sisters, too.  They are much older and we’ve never been very close.  I have a cordial relationship with two of my sisters and pretty much avoid talking to the third one.  Like me, Conroy has a sister who is at odds with him.  However, my sister is not quite as brilliant or batshit crazy as Conroy’s apparently is.  Carol Conroy is a poet and, reading her brother’s book, I’m led to believe that she’s brilliant.  I see on Amazon.com that she has one book currently available called The Beauty Wars and on the book’s cover, she’s called Carol “Yonroy”.  I don’t read a lot of poetry, but somehow I don’t doubt that Pat’s sister is talented… though not nearly as famous as he is.  She might deeply resent that. 

On the other hand, Conroy seems to have a mostly convivial relationship with his brothers, two of whom worked at “Bull Street”, which is where the state mental hospital in South Carolina was located. I am familiar with that complex because I, too, worked there when I lived in South Carolina.  It was when worked for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) as a graduate assistant.  I want to say the state mental hospital had been relocated by that time… I think it’s now on Farrow Road.  But the buildings are still there and if you read Conroy’s novels, you will read his references to it.  It’s where they used to send the crazy folks. 

Pat Conroy’s youngest brother, Tom, had schizophrenia and spent a lot of time on “Bull Street”.  He spent a lot of time as a crazy derelict, wandering around Columbia, getting into legal trouble, and eventually taking his own life.  Pat writes about this in his book and it was eerie to read, since his brother killed himself by jumping off the 14th floor of the Cornell Arms apartment building, which is just kitty cornered to the South Carolina Statehouse.  I used to walk and jog around that area a lot and I know just where that building is located.  Tom Conroy died in August 1994, just months after I finished my college degree at Longwood College and only a few years before I would matriculate at the University of South Carolina, where Conroy (after earning a degree at The Citadel) and his siblings also studied. 

In one part of his latest book, he writes about delivering a eulogy for James Dickey on the campus at USC… in the Horseshoe, where he could easily see the building where his brother died.  I spent a lot of time on the Horseshoe, a beautiful, historic, lush part of campus.  And when I was a student at Longwood, I had a couple of professors who earned their doctoral degrees at USC.  One of my professors studied under Dickey and went drinking with him.  

Though I didn’t study English at USC, I often felt a tug toward that department when I would see writers come to speak there.  Pat Conroy spoke at USC in 2000; he was a last minute replacement for the late Kurt Vonnegut, another favorite writer who had to cancel because of a house fire.  I would have gone to hear either of them speak, but I was delighted that Conroy visited… I even flunked a healthcare finance exam so I could attend.  Granted, I probably would have flunked the exam regardless, but Conroy gave me a good reason to quit studying.  In the grand scheme of things, passing the exam ultimately wouldn’t have made a difference in my life.  Technically, I got a D on the exam, but ended up passing the class with a suitable grade.

Anyway… this post has rambled on long enough.  I just wanted to put in words these thoughts, which don’t really belong in a book review, but are still in my head.  I really feel a kinship with Pat Conroy, not just because he’s a southern writer, but because his life has many parallels to mine.  And we both share a love of ribald humor.  If you’re a Conroy fan, I recommend reading his latest non-fiction effort.  In fact, I would say that as much as I like his novels, his non-fiction books are far better in my opinion.  But I guess he had to become famous by fictionalizing his life story in several novels before people would care about the real story.

And below are the comments on the original posts…

AlexisAR

December 10, 2013 at 8:29 AM

I took a class in regional literature last year. The only thing of value I took from it that I didn’t have going into it was exposure to Conroy’s writings. I’m not a southerner but enjoy his works nonetheless. 

Replies

  1. knottyDecember 10, 2013 at 3:16 PM Most of Pat Conroy’s books are basically the same story. But he has such a way with language that his novels can be a joy to read. I didn’t like his last one, South of Broad, so much, but the others are very entertaining. I love his non-fiction books even more, though. He has led a very interesting life. I imagine he’s not too easy to live with, though.

The Author

January 22, 2019 at 4:32 PM

Pat Conroy’s brother didn’t jump from the 14th floor. I lived there at the time and was with a friend on that floor at the time and actually saw him fall past the window. He may have jumped from the 15th floor as he was helping a wheelchair-bound tenant there. But more likely the roof, as it was easily accessible at the time. After the suicide they made it virtually impossible to access the roof.

Replies

  1. knottyJanuary 22, 2019 at 5:02 PM Interesting… and very sad. Thank you for commenting. This post gets a surprising number of hits. Pat obviously meant a lot to many people.

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book reviews, law, true crime, Virginia

Reviewing Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas, by Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson…

Recently, I mentioned that I would be reviewing an honest to God book, rather than a Kindle download. Thanks to a snowstorm and concerted effort, I’ve just finished reading that book, Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas. It wasn’t easy to read this well-researched 2009 book, written by Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson. Not only was the subject matter difficult and depressing, but the print was also very small for my 50 year old eyes. I ended up investing in a book light to help me with the process. Even with multifocal contact lenses, I still have some trouble with fine print!

In any case, I did finish the book this afternoon, and I’ve been very eager to review it. Based on hits on previous true crime blog posts about Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas, I know people are still interested in reading about this 1990 murder case out of Middlesex, Virginia. On December 17, 2022, this blog received a huge influx of hits. Someone linked an earlier blog post mentioning Jessica Wiseman on Reddit. The post in question wasn’t even just about Jessica Wiseman. It only mentioned her case in relation to another true crime case out of Wisconsin.

I decided to seek out more information about the murders and, sure enough, discovered Peppers’ and Anderson’s book. Anatomy of an Execution is not available on Kindle, although the printed version is available through Amazon Prime for $29.95. I don’t often read actual books anymore. Kindle makes reading after lights out easier, plus the print is larger and more adjustable. I also like Kindle books because it’s easy to share passages and make notes. Nevertheless, I was so intrigued by this murder case that I decided to order the physical book, even though it meant temporarily being a Luddite. It arrived a few days ago and I quickly devoured it.

Who are Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas? Why is there a book about them?

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in Gloucester County, in the Middle Peninsula of Virginia. Gloucester is adjacent to rural Middlesex County, which is just north. On November 10, 1990, I was a freshman at Longwood College (now Longwood University). It was just before Thanksgiving break. On that night, a horrific murder took place in Middlesex. A 14 year old girl named Jessica Wiseman, and her 17 year old boyfriend, Chris Thomas, murdered Jessica’s parents, James Baxter and Kathy Wiseman. The two thought they were in love, and Jessica’s parents– specifically her father– had forbidden them to be together. Chris took a shotgun from his uncle’s house and snuck over to Jessica’s house in the middle of the night. Then, together, the two made the worst decision of their lives.

Jessica had greased the window in her bedroom, to make sure it didn’t squeak as Chris climbed through it on that fateful November night. Even as he entered Jessica’s bedroom, Chris didn’t think he’d actually go through with the plan to commit murder. Jessica was determined. She had spread drug paraphernalia on the floor, to make it look like a drug deal gone bad.

As Chris stood by, Jessica warned him to shoot her daddy before he woke up, lest he kill Chris. Chris fired, and J.B. Wiseman died instantly. Then he shot Kathy Wiseman, but she got out of bed and staggered into Jessica’s bedroom. That time, Jessica fired, and Kathy Wiseman died. In a tragic display of misguided chivalry, Chris Thomas confessed to killing both parents. Because he confessed to firing the shot that killed Kathy Wiseman, Chris Thomas was charged with capital murder, which made him eligible for the death penalty.

I’m not sure if I was aware of the Wiseman murders when they happened. That was before everyone was online, and I was busy with college. I read the local newspapers a lot in those days, and I do remember that Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas were frequently reported about in the newspapers. The case had caused quite a scandal because, at that time in Virginia, no one under the age of 15 could be tried as an adult, regardless of how serious their crimes were. Jessica Wiseman was fourteen years old when she convinced Chris Thomas to murder her parents. She spent just under seven years in juvenile hall, and was released on July 26, 1997, which was her 21st birthday. Chris Thomas, by contrast, was tried as an adult. He was executed on January 10, 2000. He was 26 years old when he died.

Who are Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson?

At this writing, author Todd C. Peppers is a lawyer and a visiting professor of law at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He is also on the faculty of the Department of Public Affairs at Roanoke College, in Salem, Virginia. He’s written several books besides Anatomy of an Execution, and specializes in the Death Penalty, Judicial Behavior, Supreme Court History, and Torts.

Co-author Laura Trevvett Anderson taught special education at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, Virginia, part of Chesterfield County. For two years, Chris Thomas was one of her students. Anderson formed a special bond with her former student. She served as his spiritual advisor before he was executed on January 10, 2000.

Chris’s tragic story…

Chris was born to Margaret and Billy Thomas, a couple who met in 1972 at Donk’s, a pool hall and concert venue in nearby Mathews County. Donk’s is another name that everyone living near Gloucester knew of, back in the day. Sadly, although the two got married, they were not a love match. Billy was abusive to Margaret. She was also a lesbian. The two got divorced in the months following Chris’s May 29, 1973 birth.

Because of Margaret’s lesbian lifestyle, and the fact that she worked as a prison guard, she decided to have her parents adopt Chris. Then, she moved to Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond, Virginia. Consequently, for the earliest years of his life, Chris Thomas was raised by his grandparents, Herbert and Virginia Marshall. Peppers writes that Margaret was jealous of her son, because her parents provided better for him that they had her when she was coming of age. Margaret also had siblings nearby who helped raise Chris in his early years.

In 1985, when Chris Thomas was about eleven years old, he experienced a trifecta of tragedies. His grandfather, Herbert, died of a brain tumor. A few months after that, his grandmother died of ovarian cancer. He also lost his favorite uncle, Winfrey. Chris went to live with Margaret and her lover, and her lover’s children, in Chesterfield. He hated Chesterfield because it was too urban for him. Chris loved to hunt and take solitary walks. He couldn’t do that in Chesterfield, which is much more populated. Chris also resented his mother’s lifestyle, and the fact that she helped raise her lover’s children, but hadn’t been raising him. Chris found a friend in Laura Anderson, a very dedicated special education teacher. With her help, his grades in school improved. But he was still miserable in Chesterfield, and eventually went back to Middlesex.

Chris went to live with his Uncle Herbert and Aunt Brenda Marshall. Herbert had been abusive to Chris when he was younger. He’d even told Chris that he was the reason his parents had died. Nevertheless, Herbert and Brenda provided him with a home in Piankatank Shores, a housing subdivision in Middlesex. Jessica Wiseman also lived there with her parents, along with her grandparents and great-grandparents. Jessica was reportedly a spoiled girl, whose grandparents and great grandparents provided her with everything she could want. She even had her own golf cart for getting around the subdivision. When she wrecked it, they bought her a new one. She had her own bedroom in each of their homes, too.

Chris was a good looking kid, who’d had a number of “girlfriends” younger than he was. Jessica caught his eye, and it wasn’t long before they were spending all of their time together. Chris was also getting in trouble with the law– committing petty, non-violent crimes. Without Laura Anderson’s committed mentorship, Chris’s school performance plummeted. He didn’t care. Neither did Jessica, whose family members didn’t seem interested in instilling a sense of responsibility within her. She and Chris were sexually active, and Jessica worried about pregnancy. She wanted Chris to marry her, but her father, who worked as a truck driver, forbade it. That was when she came up with her plan to murder her parents. Sadly, Chris Thomas let her talk him into helping her with her plan. He paid for that mistake with his life.

My thoughts on the book

I found Anatomy of an Execution a fascinating read on so many levels. Again, I grew up in Gloucester, Virginia, and some of the judges and lawyers involved in the Wiseman murders were from my hometown. Although I was never unfortunate enough to meet any judges or lawyers from Gloucester in an official capacity, it was impossible to read our local newspaper in the 80s and 90s and not see the names of the people who worked on this case. Peppers does a great job of telling Chris Thomas’s story, starting from the tragic beginning.

This book is extremely well-written and researched. There are some typos in the book, as well as a few very minor fractured facts. Peppers refers to Clover Hill as being in Richmond, for instance, when it’s not. I used to drive past Clover Hill on my way to Longwood and had a roommate who graduated from there. Richmond is its own city. However, this is a very minor quibble, in my view. Peppers has jam packed Anatomy of an Execution with information, as well as notes for further research. Chris Thomas’s case is also very poignant. Peppers and Anderson do a fine job of humanizing Chris Thomas and other people on death row.

There was a time when I was in favor of the death penalty. Gloucester County and its environs are chock full of political conservatives, so it’s hard not to go with the locals, especially when you’re a teenager. I have since become more of a (GASP) liberal, and for the most part, I disagree with capital punishment. It was amazing to me when Virginia abolished capital punishment in 2021. I never thought I would see the day.

Anatomy of an Execution was published in 2009, when the death penalty was still legal in Virginia. I’m sure Peppers was as surprised as I was when it was outlawed, as Peppers makes it very clear how very eager Virginia politicians and lawmakers were to maintain it. Peppers is very thorough as he explains the history of capital punishment in Virginia and the many injustices defendants faced in capital murder cases. I found it all fascinating and even wound up looking up a lot of the people involved in this case. Many of the main players are now deceased.

Thomas’s defense lawyer, Damian T. Horne, and his now wife and then co-counsel, Sydney West, are still living and have moved to New Mexico. Peppers doesn’t seem to think much of Horne or West, neither of whom were experienced enough for the case. But he also points out that back in the early 90s, Virginia only paid $600 total to criminal defense lawyers who represented indigent clients.

Chris Thomas’s original lawyer, the late Benton Pollok, was very experienced and had a passion for criminal law, but he had to be replaced due to a conflicting case he was handling involving a private client willing to pay him for his time. The late Judge John Folkes (from Gloucester) apparently didn’t like Pollok, and would not work with him to reschedule the court appointments. Consequently, Pollok was forced to withdraw from the case. Ironically, Pollok had to sue the his “paying client”, who wasn’t so eager to pay him, after all. If Chris had been able to keep Pollok as his lawyer, it’s likely he’d still be alive today.

I also shook my head as I read some of the letters exchanged between Chris Thomas and Jessica Wiseman. It’s pretty plain that Jessica manipulated the hell out of Chris. No, he shouldn’t have committed murder and he absolutely deserved punishment. But he was just a kid when he committed his crimes, and he did not have good counsel. His story is tragic and poignant. It’s a good reminder of how young people can get caught up in terrible situations that lead to their destruction. It’s crazy to me that Jessica spent less than seven years locked up in juvenile hall. She’s out now, has changed her name, and is free to live her life. Meanwhile, her former boyfriend is long dead, and people are haunted by his memory.

Final thoughts

I highly recommend Anatomy of an Execution to anyone who wants to know the whole story behind the Wiseman murder case out of Middlesex, Virginia. I only wish the type in this book were a bit larger and/or it could be downloaded on Kindle. I’m definitely not sorry I took the time to read this book. I especially enjoyed reading about the former Virginia State Penitentiary. He also writes about the former death row in Mecklenburg, where Chris spent most of his years on death row (and where a different former college roommate’s father used to work). Chris was later moved to Sussex I Prison in Waverly, Virginia, where death row was moved in 1998 and remained until the death penalty in Virginia was abolished in 2021.

Peppers writes about how local eighth graders were allowed to visit the Virginia State Penitentiary when it was empty in 1991. I wonder if Peppers knows that other schools took students there to visit it before it closed. I have mentioned before that my government teacher took our class to the Virginia State Penitentiary in the spring of 1990, before all of the inmates were moved. We saw one of the cell blocks, as well as the death house. The electric chair was still in use at the time. Some of my classmates even sat on it! I think that’s when I started to change my mind about capital punishment. I’m glad I changed my mind.

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book reviews, true crime

A review of Click Click Click: From the Say My Name Series, by Karen DeVanie and Anne Varner…

A couple of days ago, an old college friend of mine sent me a private message on Facebook. Initially, I was a little concerned, because the message began with the words “Click Click Click,” and an unfamiliar link. I was afraid she’d been hacked. It turned out my friend had sent a link to Amazon.com, where a book titled Click Click Click: From the Say My Name Series was for sale.

This book, written by sisters Anne Varner and Karen DeVanie of the Sugar Coated Murder podcast, is a “true crime” account of a notorious murder that happened in my friend’s hometown in February 1990. I have written about this murder a couple of times in this blog. My old friend wanted my opinion of the book. She wrote that she found the writing “amateurish”. She hoped I could offer an unbiased opinion, since I’m not from her hometown and don’t know the people involved.

I already had big plans to start reading Prince Harry’s book, Spare. However, I’ve noticed that a lot of people have been hitting my two links about the murder of seventeen year old Raymond Trent Whitley, perpetrated by Whitley’s classmates, Frederick “West” Greene and Michael Jervey. Click Click Click, only consists of 133 pages and promised to be a fast read. I told my friend, who had also been a high school classmate of Trent’s, Mike’s, and West’s in tiny Franklin, Virginia, that I would read the book and write a review. True to my word, I’m now working on the review, as the book was a very quick and easy read. I’m sad to say, my friend was right about the writing.

First thing’s first…

I am not from Franklin, Virginia. Although I am from Virginia, I have never so much as visited Franklin. I don’t have a connection to the city or this case, other than knowing my friend, and meeting West Greene once, when my friend brought him to visit our alma mater, Longwood College (now Longwood University). At the time, West was a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, the military college my father, uncle, and several cousins attended. The fact that he went to VMI is probably the main reason I remembered West Greene. I remember my friend really liked West. Indeed, he’d seemed like a nice enough person when I briefly met him that one time.

It later came out that West, and his friend, Mike Jervey, had murdered their classmate, Trent Whitley, over an insult. My old friend was devastated when she heard about it. I remember her on the verge of tears, saying over and over again, “How could he do that?” She was absolutely gutted.

In 2013, I randomly decided to write a blog post called “Crime blasts from the past“. It was a post about several cases from my youth that I recalled. I remembered West Greene and wrote about him, never dreaming that my old friend would find the post and comment. Then, we hooked up on Facebook, and she told me more about how this case had affected her hometown, a place where “everyone knows everyone else’s business.”

Now, Jervey and Greene are out of prison, which has rattled many people from Franklin.. That’s probably why I keep getting hits on my blog posts about this case. Obviously, there was interest in a book to be written about Trent Whitley’s murder so long ago. Enter Anne Varner and Karen DeVanie, two sisters who happen to originally come from Franklin, Virginia and run a true crime podcast that marries murder with their love of baking sweets.

What happened?

According to Click Click Click, back in 1988, 16 year old Michael Jervey was in a bad way. His father had not been well, and in spite of visits to doctors, the cause of illness was elusive. Mr. Jervey finally went to Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, where he received a cancer diagnosis. Mike’s father spent a few weeks hospitalized. He never made it out again. Mike blamed his mother for not telling him about his dad’s illness. Her reticence caused Mike to lose precious time with his dad before he died. The young man was angry and reclusive, until he paired up with West Greene, a popular classmate whose father had been a prison warden.

West Greene and Mike Jervey reportedly became obsessed with the idea of killing someone. Based on Click Click Click, the two had an unwritten “list” of people who had crossed them and could be candidates for killing. They would strike names from the list if a person unlucky enough to be on it sincerely apologized. If they didn’t, they were “fair game” for murder. Say someone made a joke at the boys’ expense, or somehow embarrassed them in another way. They might end up on the list. But if they somehow made amends, they would be safe… at least until the next perceived slight.

Supposedly, no one else was any the wiser that these two guys were planning violence, but my friend tells me that actually, there were a few people who knew about the plot. Evidently, no one chose to do anything about it, or take the warning signs seriously. Then, on February 23, 1990, Jervey and Greene lured Whitley to a construction area and shot him in the head.

Varner and DeVanie include graphic details about Whitley’s brain matter splattered all over Jervey’s pants, and the blood stains in the trunk of his car. They had wrapped Trent Whitley in a stolen tarp and used the car, a gift from Jervey’s mother, to take Whitley’s body to Jervey’s family’s farm. That was where Greene and Jervey buried him in a shallow grave. For two years, no one knew what had happened to Trent Whitley. It wasn’t until Jervey had an attack of conscience and confessed, that the authorities finally found his body. Then, Trent finally got a proper burial.

My thoughts on the book…

I think Click Click Click could have been a much better book than it is. It appears that Mike Jervey contacted the sisters after they did a podcast about “his case”. More than once, they write about the email. Below is a screenshot.

Yikes!

Apple describes the sisters’ podcast as “comedy”, and it gets very good ratings. At this writing, Sugar Coated Murder scores a 4.9 rating out of 5 stars. Personally, I have a hard time with the idea that murders can be considered comical, but I will admit I haven’t listened to their podcast. I got the sense that Varner and DeVanie tried to frame their book the way they do their podcast. I don’t follow Sugar Coated Murder, so I was confused.

The book starts in a dramatic way, as if it were more of a novel than a true crime book. Honestly, at first, I felt like I was reading the script for a very watered down Lifetime movie version of a true crime case. I have nothing against using an evocative style in a true crime book, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me who these women are, and what their connection to Franklin is.

The sisters mention their “momma”, and the locals in Franklin, writing in the first person plural, as if they’re part of the story… which they kind of are, since they’re from Franklin. They write about their “daddy’s” pharmacy, the paper mill, the community college, other crimes from the past, and how Franklin is a little town where everyone knows each other. Those details aren’t totally useless, but the sisters initially failed to connect them to the crime story.

Because I am not familiar with the sisters’ podcast, I was confused about why “they” were in the story, initially writing as if they were directly involved. Especially since they wrote that they’d left Franklin by the time this crime occurred. I was expecting a book only about the crime, not the authors’ personal connections to Franklin. Now I think they were simply explaining that they’re from the tiny community, and what life is like there.

As the book continued, it became more obviously about Mike Jervey, and it seemed to be mostly from his perspective. Mike Jervey’s perspective is valuable, of course, but it’s just one perspective. My friend assures me that Trent Whitley was no angel, but he certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered. Other than a somewhat sympathetic description of Whitley’s yearbook photo and graduation cap and gown, I didn’t get a sense that the sisters gave his perspective much thought. Trent Whitley was the victim, but the book really seemed to more about Mike Jervey. I didn’t understand why I, as a reader, should have sympathy for Mike, other than the fact that he lost his father at a young age.

Other issues…

Although the book credits Michelle Morrow as the editor of Click Click Click, I spotted a number of proofreading errors. Below is a screenshot of one that immediately comes to mind.

Do you see what I see? This bit was about an unrelated crime, as someone tried to steal the STEEL cash register in the authors’ father’s pharmacy. Not sure what it really had to do with Trent Whitley’s murder.

Later, they refer to the South as “the south”. The South is a specific region, making it a proper noun. Proper nouns are typically capitalized. But then they refer to a “Southern” county, capitalizing the adjective, when it should have been styled lower case. There are numerous little glitches like this, even though this book supposedly had an editor.

The authors also refer to Frederick West Greene as “Fred”, rather than “West”. I happen to know that “West” was the name he went by in school. I don’t know if there was a specific reason for using the different name, but based on the Amazon reviews, I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

But… I did learn some new things about this case…

First off, Trent Whitley was born June 19, 1972, which is the day before I was born. He was born in Franklin, which is a mere hour’s drive from my birthplace. Like me, he was a Gemini, a fact the sisters mention.

Secondly, I liked that the sisters wrote about the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, popularly known as The Body Farm, a term coined by crime fiction novelist, Patricia Cornwell. After Jervey confessed to the crime, he told investigators where to find Trent Whitley’s body. They weren’t able to find it based only on Jervey’s description. They contacted an expert at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, who told them to consult a botanist– a person who is an expert on plants. The investigators contacted a botany professor at the local community college, who spotted differences in the vegetation on Jervey’s family’s farm. With the professor’s help, investigators found Trent Whitley’s body, and his family was able to properly and respectfully lay him to rest. I wish the sisters had commented more about that process.

And finally, Discovery Plus contacted the sisters about presenting this case on television. They were excited about the prospect of going on TV, but the deal never came to fruition. After reading this oddly titled book, I think I can understand why the show never happened.

Again… maybe I should listen to their podcast. Their storytelling abilities might come across better in that medium than it does in this book.

Anyway…

Based on the number of people who continually hit my blog posts about this case, I have a feeling that Karen DeVanie and Anne Varner will sell a lot of books. Obviously, Trent Whitley’s murder is still interesting to many people. I probably would not have read this book if not for my old friend’s request for my opinions. However, I can see that people who are from Franklin, especially, want to know more about this trio of young men whose lives were tragically and irrevocably altered (or ended) by a violent, gruesome true crime.

I do think this book could be much better than it is. It really needs better editing. I also think the sisters should have collected many more facts about the case and presented more of them, rather than endless minutiae about life in Franklin. “Comedy podcasts” about murders, combined with baking sweets, seems like a bizarre concept that wouldn’t appeal to me. But… I also admit I haven’t listened to the podcast. I might change my mind if I ever did take the time to listen to it. It’s hard to imagine that I’d want to do that, though.

I’ve written about true crime cases myself. Some people related to victims have left me angry or distraught comments. None of my posts were “comedic” in nature. I wonder how a “comedy” podcast comes across to family members of murder victims. I guess people have conceived stranger podcast concepts than that. In any case, I don’t think I would recommend Click Click Click, except to those who want to read all there is available about Trent Whitley’s murder. But, at least it’s not a super expensive title on Kindle.

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book reviews, fashion

Reviewing The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, by Andre Leon Talley…

As I recently mentioned in my review of model Paulina Porizkova’s memoir, I don’t really follow fashion much. I decided to download the late Andre Leon Talley’s book, The Chiffon Trenches, because I like true stories. Talley published his book in May 2020, just a couple of months after the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. Amazon tells me I downloaded it in February 2021, probably after I read several sad articles about how Andre Leon Talley’s life was in a downward spiral as former friends were trying to evict him from his home in White Plains, New York. He had fallen on hard times after a long and storied career as a flamboyant fashion editor for Vogue, where for decades, he regularly rubbed elbows with famous friends like Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour, Yves St. Laurent, and Oscar de la Renta.

An item about Talley’s book and the legal dispute regarding his eviction from his home.

But, again, I don’t follow fashion much. I only knew about Andre Leon Talley from watching America’s Next Top Model, a reality TV show by supermodel Tyra Banks. I watched ANTM, not because I care about fashion, but because I enjoyed the ridiculous antics of young women stuck in a house together. Andre Leon Talley had temporarily brought some “legitimacy” to ANTM, when he served as a judge in cycles 14 through 17. He charmed me with his warmth and intelligence, although I had no idea that the man was considered a huge fashion icon. Sadly, by the time he died on January 18, 2022, he literally was huge, as he had battled an eating disorder for years. On January 18, 2022, Mr. Talley was a victim of a heart attack and COVID-19, which took his life at age 73.

He was much beloved by his fashion friends, in spite of his comments to the contrary.

Though it took me almost two years to get around to reading The Chiffon Trenches, I’m glad I finally did it. Having read his book, I understand why Talley was such a highly regarded editor for Vogue. I only knew him from television, which was not where he was in his element. As a judge on a show with Tyra Banks, it’s not like he would have had a chance to share much. Tyra Banks is not one for sharing the limelight. I suspect he took the job with ANTM because he badly needed the money. And yet, he still managed to handle the job with grace.

So who was Andre Leon Talley?

Andre Leon Talley was born October 16, 1948 in Washington, DC to his parents, Alma Ruth Davis and William C. Talley. His maternal grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, raised him in racially segregated Durham, North Carolina. She worked at Duke University as a cleaning lady, and raised Andre with good, southern food and lots of church. Talley rarely saw his parents; they would divorce when he was eleven years old. France and the French language, fascinated Andre Leon Talley. He went to North Carolina Central University and majored in French literature, graduating in 1970. Because he excelled in his undergraduate studies, Talley won a scholarship to Brown University. There he earned a Master of Arts in French literature in 1972. Talley initially had plans to earn a doctoral degree and teach French for a living.

While he was at Brown, Talley befriended some students from nearby Rhode Island School of Design. Eventually, through his friends from that school, Talley met and impressed French-American fashion columnist Diana Vreeland. By 1974, he had abandoned his plans for a doctorate and was apprenticing for her, unpaid, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eventually, through Vreeland, Talley worked for famed American artist Andy Warhol. Working for Warhol led to stints at Women’s Wear Daily and W magazines, where he met and wrote about fashion designers and models. He further sharpened his skills at Ebony and The New York Times. Finally, he reached the pinnacle of his career when he worked for Vogue. He made history in 1988, when he became the first black male creative director for Vogue.

Andre Leon Talley co-authored the book, MegaStar, with Richard Bernstein in 1984. In 2003, he penned his first autobiography, A.L.T.: A Memoir. In 2005, he published ALT 365+, an artistic photographic look at 365 days of Talley’s life. Out magazine ranked Talley 45th in its 2007 list of the “50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America”. However, in 2018, when asked about his sexual orientation on The Wendy Williams Show, Talley claimed to be “gender fluid”. According to The Chiffon Trenches, Talley was never one for having a lot of sex or using drugs, anyway. Talley was very devoted to his work, which he claimed “saved his life”. He watched many of his more promiscuous friends and former colleagues die of AIDS in the 1980s and 90s.

In later years, he did extensive work with Savannah College of Art and Design. There is even an annual award named after him at the school. My nephew is currently a student there.

My thoughts on The Chiffon Trenches

After reading Jamie Lynn Spears’ book, Things I Should Have Said, Andre Leon Talley’s book is like a cool drink. He really was an excellent writer– witty, engaging, and intelligent, and sometimes very funny. I was fascinated by the foreign world Talley wrote of, involving creative, eccentric, and fabulously wealthy and stylish people. There were people Talley wrote of I didn’t know; his descriptions of them were so interesting that I took the time to research them on Google. He also wrote about people everybody knows, like Elton John, Princess Diana, and Mariah Carey. Talley enjoyed a long friendship with the late Lee Bouvier Radziwell, to whom he dedicated his book.

NBC’s tribute to Talley.

One person I never saw mentioned even once is Tyra Banks, nor does he mention ANTM. However, Talley does write some lovely comments about Naomi Campbell, who is famously regarded as one of Tyra’s nemeses. I noticed that Tyra Banks posted a tribute to Talley after his death last year. I don’t know why he didn’t comment about Banks, but it probably had to do with legal considerations. Paulina Porizkova didn’t mention her in her book, either.

The Chiffon Trenches is an easy and entertaining read. I got the sense that I’d probably enjoy Talley’s company. We could bond over our mutual love of southern food. He genuinely seemed like a kind, warm, decent person, shaped by his formative years in the South. Andre Leon Talley grew up during the Jim Crow era, but he literally towered over his humble beginnings and became “somebody”. Even a non fashion follower, as I am, has heard his name. That’s really something special.

However, although I enjoyed Talley’s book, I noticed that he was pretty bitter about some things. Talley repeatedly writes about his long friendships with Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour, and how they both cruelly “cast him out”. If I were to go only on his stories, I might be left with the idea that everyone in the fashion world is racist, superficial, and unkind. And yet, even as he complains about being ditched by his friends, he writes about how Anna Wintour staged an intervention for him and got Vogue to pay for his weight loss treatment three times!

Talley writes that his problems with binge eating intensified after his beloved grandmother died. He overate to drown the sorrows of bereavement, as well as to dull the pain of abuses he suffered as a child. Talley went from being tall and rail thin to a mountain of a man, forced to wear bespoke caftans. He could no longer dress like a fashion icon. Anna Wintour legitimately tried to help him. That sounds like something a good friend does. But she must have also realized that Talley was an addict, and the best way to help an addict is not to enable the damaging behaviors. I’m sure it was very painful for Wintour to separate herself from Talley’s drama. It would have been one thing if Anna Wintour had dumped him when he first gained weight, but she didn’t do that.

Talley might have more of a case against Karl Lagerfeld, whom he describes as extremely generous, yet very eccentric. When Talley met Lagerfeld in the 70s, the fashion icon gifted him with silk tunics. Talley said that if you were in Lagerfeld’s life, he dressed you. And he writes of how his old friend would routinely fly his friends in private jets to his sumptuous homes. He’d give them rare and expensive antiques, only to ask for them back again. Still, as strange as that behavior sounds to me, I couldn’t help but wonder what Lagerfeld would say about Talley.

I also noticed that Talley complained a lot about racism, but he was in an industry that embraces people who are different. Andre Leon Talley worked in a creative field populated by eccentric people, many of whom are not heterosexual. He worked with women of all shades and orientations. Yes, racism is a huge issue, and of course it needs to be addressed, but Talley worked in a career where being Black was no doubt less of a problem for him. He had an enviable life that most people can only fantasize about, regardless of their race or gender. His complaints about the lack of diversity in the fashion world are probably more on point. He does make some damning comments about Wintour not pushing diversity as much as she could have.

Although I can understand why Talley mentions racism, I wouldn’t say that he was a person who suffered extensively from it in his career. From what I can tell, he was highly revered and respected. In fact, I’ll bet in the fashion world, he was mistreated more for being a very fat man. But even his weight was accommodated by his friends. He writes about his fashion designer friends designing caftans for him. Naomi Campbell even managed to get him to Nigeria, where he helped promote Black fashion designers. Talley hadn’t wanted to go at first, due to his physical condition and enormous size. Naomi made it happen, and he was able to visit Africa, something he claims that even Black person wishes to do. Personally, I wouldn’t assume that every Black person wants to go to Africa, but Talley would certainly know about that more than I would. Below is what he wrote:

It is the wish and desire of every black human being to see Africa at some point before they die. But at seventy, highly overweight, and in poor health, it seemed a tall order for me. If only one person on God’s green earth could pull it off, it would be Naomi Campbell. I said yes and she said she would be in touch soon to sort out the details.

Talley, André Leon. The Chiffon Trenches (p. 239). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It was obvious to me that Talley was not expecting to die so soon after publishing his book. Throughout the manuscript, he writes about the funerals of friends. Sometimes he was surprised to be invited to the more exclusive memorial services. More than once, he writes about how he envisioned his own death. But it’s clear that he thought he would live beyond 73 years of age. Frankly, given how obese he was, I’m surprised he lived that long.

Overall

I heartily recommend The Chiffon Trenches to anyone interested in reading about fashion, or just those who enjoy books about real people. Andre Leon Talley lived through the “golden age” of fashion. He refers to himself and some of his former colleagues as “dinosaurs”. But they worked in fashion in a bygone era. Talley seems sad about how the glory days of fashion are seemingly gone. People no longer have huge expense accounts and stay at The Ritz. The whole medium as changed, as fewer people buy print magazines. It’s all online now, and a famous YouTuber might be doing what skilled writers and editors like Talley used to do.

In spite of his occasional bitterness, Andre Leon Talley was a true giant in the fashion world. He was larger than life on many levels. Writing and editing were truly Talley’s vocations. It’s sad to me that his life ended with so much controversy and rancor among his friends. He deserved better. At least Anna Wintour went to his funeral.

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book reviews, mental health, psychology

A review of Matthew Perry’s Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing: A Memoir…

Merry Christmas Eve, y’all. I know it may seem strange to be writing about addiction when I could be writing about the holidays, but I’ve just finished reading Matthew Perry’s book, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing: A Memoir, and I want to express my opinions about it before I forget the details. Perry, who is probably most famous for playing Chandler Bing on the 90s era sitcom, Friends, has led quite an astonishing life in his 53 years. Although I don’t remember watching many things with Perry as an actor, let alone “the star”, I was intrigued by all the hullabaloo about his life story, which was released on November 1, 2022. So I downloaded it five days after its release date, although I didn’t get around to reading it until this month. Overall, I thought it was a pretty interesting story. I can see why there was a lot of “buzz” (see what I did there) about it.

I really should have known more about Matthew Perry than I did before I read his book. Wikipedia tells me that I did once see Perry act, back in the day. He had a guest role on the show, Growing Pains, which was one of shows I watched regularly when I was a teenager. He played Carol Seaver’s (Tracey Gold) boyfriend, Sandy, who died in a car accident after driving drunk. I remember thinking he was way too cute for Carol, but in weird way, life imitated art for Matthew Perry. Drugs and alcohol have almost killed him on multiple occasions. He’s made many millions of dollars, and he’s pissed away millions on drugs, booze, and rehab, as well as bad business decisions and bad movies, caused by his addictions.

Matthew Perry on Growing Pains. I guess he didn’t learn anything from this very special episode…

Growing Pains was just the beginning for Matthew Perry, both in terms of his acting career, and the subject matter of that particular episode. I was never a Friends fan, although I loved watching ER, which came on after Friends. Perry is probably most famous for playing Chandler on Friends, but he reveals in his book that he almost didn’t get the part, because he was committed to another, rather bizarre sounding show, that thankfully never took off.

Originally, the part of Chandler Bing had been offered to actor, Craig Bierko, who was one of Perry’s best friends. But Bierko passed on the part, opting for another show that also didn’t take off. Fate intervened, and Perry was soon making $1 million an episode, along with fellow friends: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, and Lisa Kudrow. During this heady time, Perry also had a lot of girlfriends, including Julia Roberts, who was a huge movie star at the time, and was even once a guest star on Friends. You’d think he’d be on top of the world, and in many ways, he really was. But he’s also addicted to drugs— especially opiates— and alcohol.

Matthew Perry explains that he was born on August 19, 1969 in Williamstown, Massachusetts. His Canadian mother, journalist Suzanne Marie Morrison (nee Langford), had married Perry’s father, American actor, folk singer, and former model, John Bennett Perry. Perry calls his parents the “best looking” people in the world, but that wasn’t enough to save their marriage, which ended before Perry’s first birthday. In his book, Perry writes about driving to the U.S. border with his parents and his father leaving, never to return to the home. When he was a very young child, his mother would repeatedly send him, alone, from their home in Ottawa to Los Angeles for visitations with his father. This experience apparently really traumatized the young Perry, who writes that he was terrified of being alone on the plane. He mentions the incident repeatedly in his story. As he got older, he had great fears of being abandoned, which led to many breakups. As he got more attached to women, and they got to know him more, he would fear that they were going to dump him. So he’d dump them first… then plunge back into his drug and alcohol addiction.

Matthew Perry’s dad starred in this classic commercial for Old Spice.

Perry was a good athlete and, as a boy, was heavily involved in tennis. He also went to school with Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, whose father, Pierre, hired Perry’s mother as his press secretary. But he really loved acting, and at age 15, he left his mother, her second husband, and his half siblings to move to Los Angeles, where he embarked on a career in show business. Yes, he was successful, but he also had a multitude of personal problems, to include a terrible fear of intimacy and bent toward toward narcissism.

Although he made many friends and had some incredible girlfriends, none of them managed to stay in his life for the long haul. As soon as they would get close to him, he would panic, and that inevitably meant using drugs and alcohol to the point of almost killing himself. I’m not kidding. At the beginning of his compelling memoir, he writes about how his colon exploded, forcing him to use a colostomy bag for nine months, due to his abuse of opioids and its tendency to cause severe constipation. And he also had a very severe bout with pancreatitis, which is often caused by excessive alcohol consumption, that landed him in a hospital for a month while his pancreas “rested”. He couldn’t eat or drink anything for that entire month; all nutrients and fluids were delivered intravenously.

Matthew Perry talks about his book.

In spite of his medical and psychological traumas, a lot of people would think that Matthew Perry is a very blessed man. He has good looks, charisma, athleticism, talent, and money. And yet, Perry writes that he’s often felt suicidal, and would trade everything for the chance to feel normal and at peace. Being sober, he writes, makes him feel close to God and peaceful. But even that isn’t enough to stop him from using drugs or drinking. In fact, I’m not even sure if this book is a declaration of his sobriety, as he’s relapsed many times after going to all manner of rehabs– expensive, exclusive ones in Utah, Malibu, and Switzerland, and “prison” like ones in New York and Philadelphia, usually flying to them on private jets.

I was heartened to read that Perry saw his behavior as narcissistic and self-centered. That tells me that he actually isn’t a narcissist. He is an addict, which causes people to behave like narcissists– (see my recent post about my father). But when he’s not loaded, he has the insight to see that he does frequently act like an asshole, and the world doesn’t revolve around him. That’s to his credit. His writing is very charming, and he seems like he would be a lot of fun to know, when his colon isn’t exploding. I can see why so many people like(d) him. I can also see why he’s made a lot of enemies.

And yes, Perry is in Alcoholics Anonymous, and has tried to “work the steps”. But even after long periods of sobriety, he always seems to relapse. I wouldn’t assume, after reading this book, that Perry has finally gotten “clean”, once and for all. It’s kind of poignant, in some ways, to think of this man in such a predicament. In other ways, it’s kind of infuriating, because there are many people who have nowhere near the blessings that Perry has had, and no means to get clean. He’s no better than they are; he’s just been a lot luckier in terms of his earning power. I also get the sense that Perry might think he’s more famous than he really is. As I mentioned up post, I never watched Friends, nor have I seen any of the movies Perry has been in. I read his book because of the press it generated. I can’t be the only one.

Perry writes about how his drug addiction started, back in 1997, when he was in a jet ski accident while working on a movie. He was in extreme pain, so a doctor gave him some Vicodin. The drug made his insides feel like “warm honey”, and he had to have more. Soon, he developed a habit of taking 55 pills a day, just so he could feel “okay”. He’d already had an introduction to alcohol, back when he was growing up in Canada. The booze made him feel “okay”, as he laid out in his backyard, pondering life. I’ve often heard that if someone has a very significant reaction at their introduction to alcohol, that’s not a good sign.

Addicts can be very endearing, and a lot of them, deep down, are basically decent people who are just very sick. I got that sense with Perry, too. As an actor, he knows how to behave in ways that seem genuine. It’s important to note that acting, by definition, isn’t genuine or authentic behavior. Actors make their money by convincingly playing roles. So, I couldn’t help but notice the usual veneer of bullshit in his writings, even though I admire him for being very candid, especially about the more humiliating and painful aspects of his story. I’m afraid that he’s always going to be an addict, though, and most addicts always have a layer of bullshit about them, even when they’ve been sober for many years. In this book, you can read about one former sponsor of Matthew Perry’s who said he hadn’t had a drink since 1980. That guy had seemed absolutely amazing… but their once “best friend” relationship has ended, and not on a good note. That time, the bad ending wasn’t because of Perry’s shenanigans, but those of his long sober friend’s.

In spite of what might sound like critical remarks about Perry’s character, I did enjoy reading Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing. I think it’s well-written and very candid. Many readers will find it very engaging; it’s often even a funny book. Perry does use a lot of frank language, including a lot of profanity. I don’t care about excessive profanity myself, but I mention it because some readers might not like the cursing. He includes some photos, especially of him as a youngster, most of which are in color. He sure was cute; I think we had the same bowl cut hairstyle, which was all the rage in those days.

I’m glad that Perry knows he has a problem and is working on fixing it. I’m even happier to know that he realizes what excessive drug and alcohol use has cost him, on so many levels– from girlfriends (or potential wives, which he’s said he’s always wanted), to the chance to have children, to millions of dollars of his money, to his health. I understand that he has an illness, and that being an addict doesn’t inherently make him a bad person, even if it can cause him to act in ways that are disappointing, dangerous, or deranged. I feel empathy for him… but I think I feel even more for those who love him. And I wouldn’t call this book a triumph, either, because he hasn’t been sober for very long, at this writing. So we’ll see what happens. I do wish him the best, and I hope this time, sobriety works for him. Otherwise, he could be among the celebrity deaths we’ll read about in 2023 or 2024…

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