book reviews, true crime

Repost: A review of My Daughter Susan Smith by Linda H. Russell and Shirley Stephens

Since the latest race riots have been erupting, I’ve repeatedly thought about Susan Smith, the woman who drowned her sons in John D. Long lake in South Carolina back in 1994. I remember how she had initially said a “black man” had taken her car with her sons in it. When it turned out that she had been the one to kill her boys, people of color were understandably outraged. I don’t have much on my mind to write about right now, but a couple of years ago, I did read the book Susan Smith’s mother wrote. I reviewed it for my original blog back in May 2018. I am reposting it as is, because I think it’s timely.

On October 25, 1994, a distraught young mother named Susan Smith from Union, South Carolina deliberately sent her 1990 Mazda Protege into John D. Long Lake.  Strapped into the backseat of the car were her two young sons, three year old Michael and 14 month old Alex.  As the car rolled down a boat ramp and into the murky depths of the lake, Susan banged on a stranger’s door and begged for help.  She told everyone that a black man had stolen her car with her sons in it.  For days, she tried to maintain the story that she’d been carjacked and her sons might still be alive.  It was a total lie.

Susan Smith lies on camera about her sons.

In 1994, I was 22 years old and freshly graduated from college.  Susan Smith, who was 23 when she killed her sons, is less than a year older than I am.  I didn’t follow her story when it was happening because, at the time, I had three part time jobs.  I do remember working in a menswear store where we listened to the radio all day, 106.9, The Fox (awesome classic rock station).  One day in early November, there was a news report about Susan Smith.  My co-workers asked me what I thought about it.  I hadn’t heard of the case because I hadn’t had time to watch the news.  I missed all of her emotional appeals on television, her ex husband David at her side. 

In the summer of 1995, I was in the Republic of Armenia, having just started Peace Corps training.  One of the perks we got as Volunteers was a subscription to the international version of Newsweek.  My mom also used to send me People magazine and the U.S. version of Newsweek.  I read about Susan Smith.  She was on trial when I was in Armenia.  Her story both fascinated and horrified me.  I remembered how she went from being youthful and attractive, to bloated, pasty and depressed looking.  In a matter of months, she transformed into a woman who appeared to be much older than her years.  I also remember her obvious relief when she was spared the death penalty.

In 1999, I moved to South Carolina to go to graduate school at the University of South Carolina.  The following year, Susan’s mother, Linda H. Russell, and a ghostwriter named Shirley Stephens, published the book My Daughter Susan Smith.  I remember the book was criticized.  A lot of people seemed to feel that Linda’s book was in poor taste. 

I was studying social work and public health at USC.  Sometimes Susan’s name would come up in my classes.  I remember one time, a man who worked in the local prisons came to the abnormal psychology class I was taking.  He knew Susan Smith, and had awful things to say about her.  She was also in the news back then, because she’d had sex with a couple of prison guards and had to be moved from a prison in Columbia to a facility in Greenwood, South Carolina.  I was even a finalist for a scholarship that was being given in Michael and Alexander Smith’s honor. 

I’ve been waiting 18 years to read this book.  I remember when it first came on the market, seeing it at the local Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks outlets.  I was tempted to make a purchase of the hard copy version back then, but had limited funds. I also didn’t feel right about buying it.  Last week, I finally decided I wanted to read what Linda Russell had to say about her daughter. 

I didn’t expect it to be a good book, and it isn’t.  In fact, I don’t think Shirley Stephens is much of a ghostwriter.  This book reads as if Linda Russell wrote it, complete with awkward sentence constructions and a pervasive tone that blames everyone but Susan Smith for what happened to her sons.  However, as off putting as the book is, I also think it’s kind of weirdly fascinating.  It’s like a study in abnormal psychology in and of itself.  Linda Russell is the queen of victim blaming.

Susan Smith’s hard beginnings…

Susan Vaughan was born on September 26, 1971, the daughter of Linda and Harry Vaughan.  Susan has two much older brothers, Michael (who goes by Moe) and Scotty.  Linda Russell explains that she and Harry Vaughan got married when she was very young.  She had gotten pregnant as a teenager.  Their marriage was not happy.  They separated when Susan was three years old, and eventually divorced in 1977.  Susan was six years old.  One month after the divorce, Harry Vaughan committed suicide.  Although Susan never knew her father very well, she was very traumatized by his death.  She repeatedly blamed her mother for Harry Vaughan’s suicide.  She even chose her wedding day because it was her late father’s birthday.

About a year and a half after her parents’ divorce, Susan’s mother, Linda, married Bev Russell.  Russell was a local businessman, nephew of a prominent South Carolina judge, and local Republican politician.  He was a member of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition who sang in his church’s choir.  Linda Russell’s marriage to Russell meant a significant upgrade in lifestyle.  Unfortunately, as Susan matured into a young woman, Bev Russell molested her.  When Susan told her mother about Bev Russell’s sexual abuse, Linda blamed her teenaged daughter for enticing him.

Teachers at Susan’s school were aware of Susan’s obsession with suicide.  She was very depressed and anxious.  Susan told her eighth grade physical education teacher that she wanted to kill herself.  The P.E. teacher, who had gone to high school with Susan’s brother, Scotty, gave him a letter Susan had written about her desire to die.  Scotty showed Linda the letter Susan wrote, but Linda did little to address the problem.  When Susan was in high school and continued to have suicidal thoughts, other teachers and school counselors warned Linda that Susan needed help.  They recommended that Linda get her daughter to a therapist.  At least one psychiatrist recommended that Susan be hospitalized.  Another wanted to enroll Susan in an experimental treatment program, which Linda would not approve. 

Linda initially balked at the idea of Susan receiving therapy.  She didn’t see Susan as needing counseling.  She finally relented when the local Department of Social Services got involved, having learned that Bev Russell had been molesting Susan.  DSS informed Linda that Susan and Bev could no longer live under the same roof while Susan was a minor.  Linda also insisted on being allowed to call the therapist after each session.  She bitterly laments that the therapist would not violate Susan’s confidentiality and that what was said during her sessions was considered none of Linda’s business.

Linda Russell repeatedly writes that she no longer loved Bev Russell.  However, despite the fact that Bev did molest her teenaged daughter, Linda Russell seemed more concerned about appearances to the community and her own comfort than keeping her daughter safe from a predator.  Linda was still married to her husband when Susan killed her sons, although she claims that she had been planning to file for divorce the month before the murders happened.  She does reveal that she finally divorced him in 1998… about ten years later than she probably should have.

Susan’s marriage to a “jerk”, and his “homewrecker” girlfriend…

Susan Smith met David Smith when they both worked at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store.  Although David had a girlfriend named Christy, he also dated Susan.  When David got Susan pregnant, David and Susan decided to get married.  Susan and David had a church wedding when she was about two months along with Michael.  From the beginning their marriage was extremely rocky.  According to Linda Russell, David continued to see other women.  She claims that his inattentiveness to Susan was one of the main reasons Susan committed filicide.

Throughout the book, Linda Russell claims that David is the main reason why Susan now sits in a prison cell.  He had an affair with a woman named Tiffany Moss, who also gets a lot of blame for the boys’ deaths.  Russell goes as far as to claim that David and Tiffany helped put Michael and Alex in their graves.  It’s very clear that Linda Russell never liked David or his family.  She claims that they pandered to the press and made their situation much worse. 

I don’t detect much empathy from Linda toward David Smith or his family. Linda Russell frequently refers to David Smith’s book, Beyond All Reason: My Life With Susan Smith. I do remember reading David’s book years ago. Linda makes it sound like David Smith blames Susan for everything. Although I can’t remember everything in Smith’s book, I do remember that his take on the story seemed compassionate to me, while Russell’s version practically seethes with rage.

Likewise, Linda makes it very clear that she thinks Tiffany Moss is trash.  She writes of confronting her at Winn-Dixie after finding a note left by Tiffany at the boys’ graves.  It seems lost on Linda Russell that Susan Smith wasn’t exactly innocent when it came to “homewrecking”.  She, too, had affairs with married men.

Susan’s “Dear Jane” letter from Tom Findlay…

Ten days before Susan killed her sons, she went to a hot tub party.  At the party was Tom Findlay, an older guy who had gone to Auburn University and was the son of Susan’s boss.  Susan had a sexual relationship with Tom’s father, Cary Findlay.  She also dated Tom.  At the party, Tom flirted with another woman.  Susan retaliated by flirting with another man.  Tom sent her a letter that, in my opinion, was basically kind, if not a bit smarmy.  He was honest as he explained that he didn’t want children and, although he liked Susan, was not interested in a relationship with her.  The note apparently was very devastating to Susan and was a key piece of evidence in her trial.

Susan’s discussions with the police and interference from the press…

Linda Russell goes into some detail about Susan Smith’s discussions with the authorities.  This part of the book was better than the other parts.  It’s clear that she knew the local police who were involved.  It sounds like Linda even thinks they were somewhat good to Susan, although she does curiously fault the mental healthcare providers for prescribing psychiatric medications for Susan and the prison officials for seeing that she took the drugs.  Linda Russell claims that the drugs covered up how sick Susan Smith was.  While I can see where she’s coming from, in that jurors might not see how ill Susan was, I also think it’s kind of sick for Linda Russell to want her daughter to forego medications that alleviate depression simply so others can see Susan’s sickness.  Mental illness is painful.  In my view, withholding psychiatric medications is not unlike withholding painkillers after a bad injury.  If the medications make Susan feel better, she should have them for that reason alone.  Anything less is inhumane.

Linda Russell is less forgiving toward the press.  She has a lot to say about Mark Klaas, whose daughter Polly was abducted from her bedroom and murdered.  Klaas has made a career for himself in the aftermath of his daughter’s kidnapping and murder.  Apparently, he tried to insert himself in the Smith case purely to further his own career, according to Russell.

My thoughts…

What really strikes me about Linda Russell’s book is that it seems aimed at convincing readers that Susan Smith is nothing but a victim.  I will agree that Susan Smith was repeatedly victimized, especially when she was growing up.  Linda Russell played no small part of her daughter’s victimization.  Moreover, plenty of people grow up being victimized and don’t kill their children.  I have no doubt at all that Smith was mentally ill when she committed murder.  She’s probably still mentally ill today.  Her story is tragic.  However, even people who are mentally ill must be held accountable for their actions.  Linda Russell clearly doesn’t want to hold Susan Smith or herself accountable for what happened to Michael and Alex Smith.

Another thing that struck me about My Daughter Susan Smith is that the story is very sordid.  It really illustrates the levels of toxicity that can lurk, even in small, friendly southern towns like Union, South Carolina.  Linda and Bev Russell appeared to be a very solid couple.  Bev Russell made a good living, went to church, prayed a lot, and was involved in local politics.  His wife appeared to be very respectable.  But lurking beneath the surface of Christian piety and Republican family values was a great deal of dirty laundry.  This story is a good reminder to keep in mind that things are not always as they seem.  Churchgoing people who pray a lot can still be guilty of horrific crimes.

I do think it’s tragic that Susan Smith is probably going to spend the rest of her life in prison.  I hate to think of anyone being warehoused in a prison.  However, I also think she’s where she belongs.  As for Linda Russell, I do hope that in the 18 years since she published this book, she’s developed more perspective and empathy toward the other people whose lives were affected by Susan’s crimes.

As for whether or not My Daughter Susan Smith is worth reading, I’ll simply say that it might be worthwhile if you want Linda Russell’s perspective or want to see how Susan Smith could have turned out how she did. However, in terms of it being a “good” book, I must be honest and state that I don’t think it is.

Anyway… here’s a link for those who are interested.

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