We’re baaaaack. We had a pretty easy flight from Copenhagen this morning, and now we’re unpacked and doing laundry. Bill has just come home from a run to the commissary for some fresh food, and in a little while, he’ll go pick up Noyzi. Meanwhile, I have a shit ton of travel blogging to do. Not that many people read my travel blogs, but I do like to write them so I can preserve our adventures.
Before I get started with writing the tale of our epic Nordic trip, I would like to review a book I just finished reading a day or so ago. I don’t know how interesting my review of Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest: A Serial Killer in Communist Romania will be to most of my regular readers. Nevertheless, I do like to review any book I read. Sometimes people’s interests surprise me.
So, how did I come to read a book about a serial killer in communist Romania? I read it because one of the authors is Stejarel Olaru, who is also a co-author of another book I recently read and reviewed titled Nadia Comaneci ad the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape. I find communist Romania’s history fascinating, plus I enjoy following women’s gymnastics. While I don’t remember thinking Stejarel Olaru’s co-authored book about Nadia Comaneci was that amazing, I was intrigued enough by it to read another book Olaru had a hand in writing. The other author of Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest: A Serial Killer in Communist Romania is Mike Phillips, while Ramona Mitrica served as the editor. I suspect I also decided to download and read about Rimaru, because the Kindle version of this book is really inexpensive. At this writing, it’s priced at less than $4, and can be read for free by those who have Kindle Unlimited. A paperback version will run about $23.
The grisly story of Ion Rimaru… Romanian rapist and murderer.
It seems like every society has its share of deviants within it. Communist era Romania was no different, even in Ceausescu’s era, with its police force and Securitate. Ion Rimaru was something of a loser. He was studying veterinary medicine in Bucharest, living in a dormitory, and, from the time of his adolescence, suffering from an insatiable appetite for sexual intercourse. Rimaru was a terrible student, and barely showed up for his classes. He had to repeat both his second and third years of veterinary school. He wasn’t well liked or regarded, and a lot of people thought of him as a loser. And yet, the people who looked down on Rimaru for being so mediocre didn’t know that he was the Butcher or the Vampire of Bucharest.
From May 1970 until May 1971, Rimaru stalked and sexually assaulted 23 women. Although his prime motivation seemed to be sexual gratification, Rimaru murdered several of his victims and attempted to murder six more. His assaults often involved blunt force trauma to the head. In four cases, he engaged in bestiality, sadism, and torture. In a few other cases, he committed theft. All the while, he was living right under the noses of the people of Bucharest, continuing his reign of terror for a year before he was finally apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Authorities made over 2500 arrests and asked over 8000 people for their identification before they finally got the right man.
Stefjarel Olaru and Mike Phillips have pieced together Ion Rimaru’s story, using actual witness and victim statements. Some of the stories are pretty horrifying, as there seemed to be no limit to the depths of Rimaru’s depravity and insatiable appetite for victims. Sometimes, he had sex with women who were willing, but when they said no to him, he usually responded by just hitting them in their heads with a heavy pipe and taking what he wanted. Then, he’d usually leave them for dead, sometimes helping himself to their money or valuables. Rimaru gave his mother a pair of earrings he stole from one victim.
Romania, like most other civilized nations of the world, has done away with capital punishment. But, back in the early 70s, some criminals were sentenced to death. In Rimaru’s case, the day he paid the ultimate price for his crimes was October 23, 1971. He had just turned 25 years old less than two weeks prior to meeting the firing squad. Rimaru was a coward when he was told he was going to be executed. He begged to live, tried to throw his father under the bus, and on the day the sentence was carried out, he dodged and moved around, making it harder for the marksmen to shoot him. They ended up shooting him in the backside, which still did the trick.
I appreciated the details Phillips and Olaru gave about how Romania used to do capital punishments. Before Rimaru’s date with the firing squad, it was customary for condemned inmates to be put barefoot in a chilly, windowless, black room, where there was cold water on the floor. The inmates typically would get so hopeless and depressed in that room that they actually looked forward to being executed and resigned themselves to their fates. Rimaru was spared the black room.
Some people who read this book found it very engrossing and hard to put down. I struggled to finish it. Rimaru’s case is very interesting and the authors put together a coherent story about what happened. However, they often use very dull statements from witnesses and victims that can be tough going to get through. Their writing style is very matter-of-fact and kind of dry, almost academic. I did notice that the authors usually styled names like they were styled in the communist era, with the last name first. That sort of lent an air of authenticity.
I do think Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest is well worth reading if you are interested in Romanian true crime or communism. The authors have explained how things were done in the communist era, when the secret police were still terrorizing Romanians. They were so feared, and yet it took them so long to figure out who was raping and killing women in Bucharest for an entire year. It must have been terrifying for women living there at that time. I lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia when the Beltway Snipers were on the loose in 2002 or so. That was scary enough. I’m sure it was much worse in 70s era Romania.
Anyway… I don’t usually support the death penalty, but I don’t think I can muster up much sympathy for Ion Rimaru. He was probably one of those folks who just needs killing, for the safety and wellbeing of everyone else. I think I’d give this book 3.5 stars out of 5, and my recommendation.
Now, I think I’ll start gathering my thoughts on cheerier matters, as I prepare to write about our great big trip up north. Ciao!
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The women’s gymnastics competition is over at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the first time in many years, the last name “Karolyi” was not part of the Olympic action. Although I have never been the slightest bit gymnastically inclined myself, I’ve watched the sport since the late 1980s. In those days, Bela and Marta Karolyi were super hot gymnastics coaches who were known for guiding athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to global stardom. By 1991, the Karolyis had added the teenaged phenom, Kim Zmeskal, to their stable of amazing gymnasts. At the time, it truly seemed the Karolyis could do no wrong, even if behind closed doors, things were not as they seemed.
I just finished reading the book Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. This book, published May 31, 1994, was probably mostly written by ghost author Nancy Ann Richardson, but it’s Bela Karolyi’s life story, such as it was at that time. In the 90s, most of us either didn’t know or turned a blind eye to the abuses suffered by women gymnasts, particularly at the elite level. The Karolyis, while controversial, were also very charismatic people. It made sense that Bela would share his story with the masses. As it’s written in this book, the whitewashed version of Bela Karolyi’s tale is the stuff of which American dreams are made. It would take many years before more of the truth about the Karolyis started to leak out, and their motives and methods were questioned.
I picked up a used copy of this book a few months ago. At the time, I also purchased Kerri Strug’s book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. Both Bela’s and Kerri’s books are out of print, so I had to wait for physical copies of them to reach me. Kerri Strug was one of Bela’s gymnasts, and she’s best known for sticking her second vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was badly hurt. In the wake of Simone Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in Tokyo, there’s been a renewed interest in Kerri’s famous Olympic story. Consequently, I’ve noticed a lot of people hitting my review of Kerri Strug’s book, which I wrote in April of this year.
Kerri’s book got to me much faster than Bela’s did, and as I recall, I managed to read it within a day or so. It was an overwhelmingly positive book, even the parts about disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar, who was there to help Kerri after Bela carried her off the floor following her historic vault. I think I actually meant to read Bela’s book first, and threw Kerri’s into my Amazon cart as an afterthought, not realizing that Kerri Strug would be remembered at this year’s Olympic Games. But as it turned out, Bela’s book would prove to be less interesting and relevant than Kerri’s book is, especially in 2021. Kerri Strug is now relevant, while Bela Karolyi no longer is.
Feel No Fear begins with a story about the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, which were held in Forth Worth, Texas. At the time, Bela Karolyi, and his wife, Marta, were the women’s gymnastics coaches in Romania. They had brought a young team of gymnasts with them to Texas, along with Nadia Comaneci, who had recently gotten back into shape after having been “kidnapped” from Karolyi’s tutelage and “trained” by less oppressive coaches in Bucharest.
Nadia had injured her wrist, and Bela had dressed the minor wound the night before, but a Romanian official– Bela’s nemesis– had spirited Nadia away to a local hospital. There, doctors had supposedly done a surgical procedure on the injury, numbing and heavily bandaging it, and effectively rendering Nadia useless to the team. Bela was, of course, livid, but at the time, he was subject to the whims of government flunkies who did the bidding of Romania’s dictatorial president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Fort Worth story isn’t resolved until later in the book; it serves as a hook to get people invested in Bela’s story.
After setting up the scene, Karolyi’s life story starts at the beginning. Bela Karolyi was born September 13, 1942, in what was then Kolozsvár, Hungary, but is now Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He was the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife, and younger brother to his older sister. Karolyi mentions that his paternal grandfather was a very gregarious Hungarian man who liked parties and pretty women. His grandmother was a very stern German woman. Karolyi, who thinks he’s a bit like his grandfather, explains that his grandparents split up, and he was denied much of a relationship with his grandfather. Bela laments that he never really got to know the man, especially since his father was more like his strict and apparently humorless and demanding German grandmother.
Bela Karolyi’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer. But Bela was more interested in sports. Bela’s interest in sports and lack of affinity for the sciences caused friction in his home. When Bela decided to study physical education instead of science, his father threw him out of the family home. Bela Karolyi had to live by his muscles and wits to get through university. He pursued sports with a passion– hammer throwing, handball, track, and boxing, specifically. He had to take a gymnastics class as part of his studies and apparently hated it, at first. But then he met Marta Erőss, who was also an ethnic Hungarian. Marta had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married in 1963.
The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia…
Karolyi explains that he found the Romanian regime oppressive. He was constantly at odds with government officials, who wouldn’t let him run his program without interference. In 1981, having been forced to lead a team of Romanian gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, on a U.S. tour, Bela and Marta Karolyi, along with the team’s choreographer, Geza Poszar, decided to defect. They lost their minders in the busy streets of New York City. At the time, the Karolyis didn’t speak English, and they only had one of Marta’s aunts to help them assimilate. Their young daughter, Andrea, was still in Romania, and they weren’t sure if they’d ever be able to get her out of there. They had no home and no money. Still, through apparent grit and determination, the Karolyis were able to claw their way into the U.S. gymnastics scene, and they went on to create a “powerhouse” of women gymnasts.
Karolyi writes a bit about some of his more famous American clients, to include Dianne Durham, one of the first Black elite gymnasts. Durham recently died, and her first name is repeatedly misspelled “Diane” in the book. He includes comments about Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, and her mother, Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn, and Kim Zmeskal. I found this part of the book interesting, although I also thought some of his more candid comments, particularly the negative ones, were kind of telling. I remember reading an unofficial manuscript Chelle Stack’s mother wrote about working with Bela. It seems there wasn’t much love lost there.
Throughout the book, Bela Karolyi comes off as passionate, dedicated, and even kind. He includes several well known stories about how he achieved the American Dream. Some of the stories are kind of funny, like, for instance, his tale about how, when he was learning English, he thought the term “son of a bitch” was a compliment. Karolyi is supposedly an animal lover who loves dogs, and thought it was a good thing to be called a “child of a dog”. He writes that he’d actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but lacked the political and social contacts in Romania to achieve that dream. Physical education was actually Karolyi’s second choice of a career.
This generous, humorous, and gregarious side of Karolyi’s was also the public persona most people saw, especially when he was on television. However, in the wake of the gymnastics scandal of a few years ago, we found out that this was mostly a facade. Gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have spoken out about Karolyi’s methods, which were said to be abusive and even sadistic. In fact, just this year, there was a book published in Romania called Nadia and the Securitate, which includes information about Bela and Marta Karolyi. It was written by Romanian historian, Stefjarel Olaru, and based on interviews with Romanian gymnasts and records kept by the Securitate (Romania’s secret police during Ceausescu’s reign). The gymnasts reported that the Karolyis beat and starved them, and in fact, Comaneci supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach when she was fifteen years old. She reportedly was happy to be hospitalized for two days, because it meant she didn’t have to go to the gym.
I remember in March 1990, an issue of Life Magazine came out. Nadia was on the cover, as she had recently defected from Romania, just weeks before the Ceausescu regime fell. I recall reading that article in the library at Longwood College (now university), shocked by the negative way Nadia was portrayed. She reportedly had bulimia and was “narcissistic”, although it later came out that the much older man who had helped her escape Romania was actually holding her captive. Nadia revamped her image and is now married to fellow Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Bart Conner. But I clearly remember that in the early 90s, Nadia was depicted as some kind of “euro trash”, while her former coach was supposedly the greatest gymnastics coach ever. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read.
I think Feel No Fear is basically well-written. The ghostwriter did a good job making the story sound like it came directly from Bela Karolyi. There are two photo sections, which include old photos of Karolyi and his family. Those photos might have even been worth the price of the book. However, I think this book is largely whitewashed PR, which depicts Karolyi in an undeserved flattering light. I notice that Karolyi is quick to take credit for successes and just as quick to deflect blame when things go wrong. There’s no question in my mind that many of Bela’s methods were extremely abusive, even if the Karolyis did produce some champions. I wonder if the fleeting fame of a gold medal is worth a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma. I suppose I’d have to ask Karolyi’s former gymnasts about that. Karolyi himself is reportedly now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
I did find Feel No Fear to be intriguing reading, although perhaps not in the way Karolyi had intended it to be. It’s especially interesting to read about Karolyi’s methods in the wake of Simone Biles’ decision to look after her own mental health and well-being, over taking one for the team. Biles was one of Larry Nassar’s many victims, and she has suffered incredible stress. Not only was she under tremendous pressure to perform perfectly at the Olympics this year, but she’s also had to contend with her brother’s serious legal issues, which only now seem to be rectifying.
I think if Bela or Marta Karolyi had been coaching this year’s gymnastics team, Biles would have been under intense pressure to perform, even if it meant seriously injuring or killing herself. As the world witnessed back in 1996, Bela Karolyi had no problem spurring his gymnasts on to fame, even when they were seriously hurt, as Kerri Strug was. Yes, Kerri stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t permanently injure or kill herself on live TV?
I don’t think Feel No Fear is widely available anymore. I do think it’s worth reading, if only for historical purposes, and if only to demonstrate how much bullshit the U.S. gymnastics machine has been peddling for so many years. Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, is the first one I remember reading that shined a light on just how abusive the sports of women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating can be. It’s taken over 25 years for people to realize how right Joan Ryan was, especially in light of Larry Nassar’s abuses. Remember, Nassar was regarded as a “nice guy”. Gymnasts trusted him because he was “kind” and gave them food and comfort, while coaches like the Karolyis (and others) would scream, throw things, starve them, and even beat them to get results. That trust set them up for even more egregious abuse.
I, for one, am glad to see this sport evolving, and people like Simone Biles, who is unquestionably extremely athletically gifted, showing everyone that there’s more to life than winning… and more to gymnastics than competing at all costs. I hope she’s able to continue to usher an end to the abusive era in which Bela and Marta Karolyi encouraged and participated. I admire the Karolyis for their ability to get out of Romania and succeed in the United States, but I do not appreciate the unethical manner in which they achieved those dreams– by abusing impressionable and ambitious young women (and their parents) who simply wanted to win at all costs.
As for Feel No Fear, I think it’s a well-polished and whitewashed version of the Karolyi legend. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if you don’t know anything about gymnastics or the truth regarding the Karolyis. But I think anyone who knows anything about elite gymnastics during the Karolyi era is going to see this story for what it really is… well-formed and highly polished bullshit.
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