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Through the Glass-faced Bookshelf
by Peter Collins

In a corner of the office of the Sexual Assault Squad of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Service sits a glass-faced bookshelf containing about 250 paperbacks with titles like Evil Angels, Careless Whispers, Until the Twelfth of Never, The Torso Murders, and What Lisa Knew. They are "true crime" books. An employee from the Centre of Forensic Sciences used to collect them. When she retired, she gave them to the squad. There they sit. Although catalogued, they are not often touched.
I don't read many true crime books. Reading some of them has left me wondering if they were really about the same cases I had been involved with. In the August 19th, 1996 New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote about the whole genre. In posing the questions of how true true crime is, and how and why a particular crime is chosen for a book, Ross said that "facts, somehow, do not always suffice," and that "these books freely re-create scenes witnessed only by the dead and the mad. They touch the border where fantasy turns to fact."
Invisible Darkness resides on that borderline between fact and fantasy. In many ways, it is a structure of fantasy erected on a foundation of fact. This structure is lopsided, and seems to have been hastily built, though the book came out nearly a year after Bernardo was found guilty of unspeakable crimes.
What are the facts? Paul Bernardo was the Scarborough rapist, and later he abducted, raped, tortured, and killed two schoolgirls. He was married to Karla Homolka, whose sister he murdered. Of course many other facts were revealed in the trial of Bernardo during the summer of 1995. There were also a large number of errors during the investigation, which were examined by Mr. Justice Archie Campbell and discussed in his report, the Bernardo Investigation Review, released in June 1996. Stephen Williams has taken some of the facts, distorted others, and recreated the rest. If he had handled the events well, perhaps his poetic licence could be excused.
On July 30th, 1994, Williams wrote to me asking for my co-operation. His intent, he informed me, was to take Mailer's The Executioner's Song and Capote's In Cold Blood as his models. "A serious book about difficult crimes," he said, "takes an inordinate amount of research and insight." The final product does not live up to Williams's aspirations. The research is spotty, and there is little insight.
During his trial, Bernardo's only defence was to say that although he was an abductor and rapist he was not a murderer. He maintained it was Karla who killed the two girls. This was the only card he could play. Nobody believed him. Or so it seemed then. Amazingly, Williams believes Bernardo, and his book's main purpose appears to be the demonization of Homolka. This is spelled out in Kirk Makin's introduction. The book is more about Homolka, since Bernardo "belongs to a well-known breed of giggling, garden-variety psychos who are destined to spin out of control and reveal themselves." Williams believes that the investigators, doctors, and Crown attorneys were fooled by the evil Karla and by the explanations for her behaviour.
Williams presents a theory that Bernardo was merely a nuisance offender until he came under his wife's influence. We are told that he only "approached and fondled" women in May and July 1987: "He had not actually raped any of them, just grabbed them, and touched them against their will." Nothing could be further from the truth. The women were beaten, raped, and in one case subjected to anal intercourse. These facts are part of the public record. The brutal sexual assault of May 4, 1987 was described in the preferred indictment entered on November 3, 1995 and acknowledged by Bernardo to be true.
Homolka is, to be sure, something of an anomaly, but Williams ignores the fact that she was a rather vacuous seventeen-year-old when she met Bernardo. He immediately discounts the concept of the compliant victim of the sexual sadist, calling it "esoteric". He refers only briefly to the study that is most helpful in understanding Homolka, which was published in 1993.
In this study, the Federal Bureau of Investigation examined seven women who were spouses or significant others of sexual sadists. Three of the women were married to sexual sadists and their marriages ranged in length from two to thirteen years. They all came from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds. They were all psychologically, physically, and sexually abused by their sadistic partners. A transformation takes place. Such men have a knack for selecting vulnerable women. All the subjects reported that during the initial courtship, their partners were charming, considerate, daring, and attentive. Over time each woman's sexual behaviour was shaped by her sadistic partner, who persuaded her to engage in sexual activities outside her previous repertoire. Once she had participated in such acts, the sadist would socially isolate her. These men were possessive and extremely jealous. Finally, they started to physically and psychologically punish their partners.
According to the study's primary author, Supervisory Special Agent Roy Hazelwood, "Having met, seduced, and transformed a `nice' woman into a sexually compliant and totally dependent individual, the sadist has validated his theory of women. The woman is now a subservient, inferior being who has `allowed' herself to be re-created sexually and has participated in sexual acts that no `decent' woman would engage in, thereby confirming that she is a `bitch' and deserving of punishment."
Seven is a small sample size. But since the paper's publication, Hazelwood, recently retired from the FBI, has interviewed seventeen such women. Five of them were accessories to murder. Four of these five actually helped their husbands kill.
Hazelwood didn't testify at Bernardo's trial. If testimony had been provided about the concept of the compliant victim of a sexual sadist, it would have labelled the accused as a sexual sadist. At the trial this was considered to be prejudicial. The "compliant victim" phenomenon is an extension of the "battered woman syndrome". Expert testimony about this syndrome was given at Bernardo's trial, but unfortunately it did not have the impact we would have expected the "compliant victim" concept to make. Williams says nothing of all this.
A major source for Williams was a police officer who was removed from the case after Bernardo's arrest. This officer is highly praised in Invisible Darkness, but according to the Campbell Report he had his "own agenda" and created "a prescription for disaster".
Other sources that Williams names are well-known in the policing community for having had negative opinions of the lead investigator, Inspector Vince Bevan, even before he was assigned to this case. They had an axe to grind. Consequently, Williams's objectivity is questionable.
This book has many typos. Names are misspelled and police ranks confused. Police divisions are wrongly identified and some specialty units that are mentioned were never involved with the case. Though he interviewed two of the psychiatrists who examined Homolka, Williams is mistaken about what medications are indicated for what conditions. Am I being petty? I don't think so. A book's reliability on detail determines its credibility. If an author can't get the little facts right, how trustworthy is his book as a whole?
Perhaps the most intriguing parts of the book are about Williams's conversations with a former stripper, who is now a psychic, and his encounter with a pawnshop owner who showed him a skull. The decorated skull was for Masonic ceremonies a century ago. The meeting takes place in a bar (of course); Ed Wood Meets The X-Files would be quite similar.
Alex Ross, in the New Yorker, is right when he says of the books published after In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song: "The docudrama style, impressive in the hands of its originators, has had a dubious fallout in contemporary crime literature and tabloid television, where it often smacks of either poverty of invention or disrespect for the dead."
Invisible Darkness has a good-looking cover and some never-before published photographs (including one of the Masonic skull). The book will sit with the rest of the true crime collection in that corner of the Sexual Assault Squad.
I never did meet with Stephen Williams. 

Peter Collins is a staff psychiatrist with the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a forensic psychiatrist for the Metropolitan Toronto Police, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


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