Book: The Diary of a Rapist
Author: Evan S. Connell
Type of Book: Fiction, depictions of madness
Why I Consider this Book Odd: Initially, the title made me suspect, but it was born out as I read this book, a graphic depiction into the the mind of a man who presumably rapes a woman yet still sees himself as potentially courting her. Also, A.M. Homes gives the introduction and while she is not full-bore odd, per se, she hovers in the fringes of odd so her presence in this book was the final seal on the odd deal.
Availability: Reissued by New York Review Books, you can get a copy here:
Comments: My god, I am a sucker for depictions of madness, and Earl Summerfield runs the gamut of many ways human madness can express itself. This is not the tale of someone descending into madness. It is the tale of a full-bore madman from the very beginning.
I generally do not read reviews of books before I review them myself but I read some other opinions out there before I began this review. There are some for whom Earl Summerfield is the precursor to the modern Everyman, a person made mad by the world around him. For me this did not ring true. Earl was not made mad. He is mad. He is mad because he is a misogynistic paranoid with violent tendencies. This conclusion did not make this book any the less a compelling read. Connell could not have done a better job painting a picture of a repellent, insane human being.
Written in 1966, this book is a diary that begins on January 1. In his diary, Earl recounts his tug of war in the world. His love and hatred for his wife, who is older than him and able to get along in the world much better than he. His love and hatred for himself. His love and hatred for the world. Among his often bizarre recounts of his life, his utter misogyny and pedophilic tendencies begin to reveal themselves. He swings between moods of narcissistic euphoria and complete self-loathing. He one day respects his co-workers and the next despises them and feels a sense of paranoia behind all their activities.
Occasionally, he has cause to feel a sense of grinding down, like then his supervisor at work chides him to scurry to his desk faster because the head honcho wants to see an increase in productivity. His is a job in which he fears even doodling because his supervisors pace behind him as he fills out unemployment claims for men he despises. His job is repetitive and he has two passive-aggressive supervisors who pounce on his every mistake, yet so hungry is Earl for any sort of recognition in his monotonous work world, he takes information that he makes few mistakes and has been late the least as a sign that he is in line for a grand promotion. But his workplace cannot be blamed for his insanity. His work-world is Kafka-esque but the boredom and minor humiliations he experiences are not enough to turn a man into a pedophile, a rapist and a wife-hating narcissist. This is why I disagree with those who think the intensity of the modern world made Earl mad. No one who was not insane to begin with ends up like Earl because of a job. Earl is a lunatic because Earl is Earl, not because his workplace is devoid of soul.
Earl is, however, a very accurate depiction of mental illness that becomes violent. He avidly reads and records terrible crimes in his diary and clips news articles for a scrapbook, at times writing words of outrage at how terrible the world is, and other times sympathizing with those who commit crimes to a degree that makes the reader wonder how involved Earl might have been in some of the crimes he reads about.
Earl writes in his diary every single day until Christmas, except for July 4, the day when he presumably rapes a beauty queen outside of her church. Earl does not record the details of his crime as he does the details of the other crimes in the Bay Area of California, but later, as he becomes more and more unraveled, he reveals in small amounts what he did.
Just as with his wife, a woman whom he both loves and hate – mostly hates – Earl loves and mostly hates the beauty queen he raped. After the rape, he still stalks and calls her. Initially he does it to taunt her, to make her feel fear, but later he does it because in his twisted mind, he wants a relationship with the woman, believing that if only he could meet her again, perhaps she would love him. The book is cagy about whether or not Earl really raped the beauty queen, as he is the King of Unreliable Narrators. No one has any idea if anything he wrote happened. But the way Earl leads up to the crime, it is reminiscent of a non-violent Night Stalker, as he begins by creeping through people’s homes at night as they sleep, a way to use up nervous energy and to feel alive. He also sexually torments some girls his wife tutors to the point that she makes him leave the home when they come over in order to prevent him from looking up their skirts or trying to watch them in the bathroom. I am unsure how much was known in 1966 about the escalation of crime, beginning small, testing the waters, but either way, Connell gets the criminal progression right. But Earl is so demented, there are those who wonder if he really did rape the beauty queen, if he didn’t just make it all up. Count me in the number who think he did it.
Earl is one of the most interesting, deranged, sickening, fascinating characters I have read in a while. I powered through the book so fast, devouring his sickness, that I had to go back and reread large chunks of it. In a second reading, the elements of his grandiosity, the depth of thought he invested in musings that were both superficial and at times utterly random, hit me in a way they did not the first time around.
Initially, Earl seems very impotent. He has grotesque imaginings that one cannot see him acting out because he seems so… bitchy and small. But as the book goes on, one begins to wonder how impotent he may really be. For instance, when his wife orders him out of the apartment for leering at the two girls, he takes a walk and this was his reaction:
Went out and walked around the block several times, caught a Geary bus & calmly cut a hole in the seat–only satisfaction I got all day. Would like to slice up two schoolgirl bellies. Remind me of fresh green melons. If they think they can make fun of me they’ll regret it.
The reader may still think of Earl as an even more unhinged Walter Mitty, imagining himself in roles he will never fulfill, but Connell neatly forecasts what will happen. The destruction of a bus seat in place of stabbing a girl. The paranoia that people are laughing at him. We may think Earl is a powerless pervert, but he isn’t.
His greedy absorption of the crime around him just fuels his sickness. From his February 15 entry:
News report tonight says some divorcee in San Rafael woke up early this morning and saw a man standing beside her bed with a stocking mask over his face. According to the newscaster she got away. I doubt it. Have a feeling she was tied up with a sheet–almost as though I dreamed it. Trussed like a dainty white animal, tied into a sack so tight she could only move her toes, the Parts hanging out of the mouth–those hairy purple lips. Packed stiff like a sausage. Probably gagged & blindfolded so she looked like a mummy and couldn’t struggle.
This entry comes about four months before the assault on the beauty queen but it makes one wonder how much Earl dreamed. Perhaps he was the man in the stocking mask, but perhaps he dreamed what happened to the beauty queen. The fact is, his mental illness is so clearly demonstrated that it seems likely that he did engage in sexual violence and wallowing in crime reports just allowed him to mentally prepare for his own crime.
Given his behavior around his wife’s pupils, unable to control his peeping even when his wife is in the room, his obsession with the abduction of a 14-year-old girl called Loretta Lengfeldt seems creepy as hell. His speculation about what happened to her is disturbing in the extreme, from his entry on March 13:
Lying on her side with hands tied behind her and naked as a nymph strangled with her own brassiere–that would be my guess. Probably tied up like a piece of pork. Got what she deserved for nibbling on a chocolate doughnut and showing her fat little buttocks to everybody on the street. Probably when they find her body they’ll see teethmarks on those tender boobies, maybe a nipple missing or an earlobe chewed. She’d taste like an apple… Don’t tell me they don’t deserve to be butchered.
But the whole book, while detailing Earl’s sense of humiliation at work, his hate for his wife, revolves around his hatred and love for the beauty queen Mara St. Johns. He first sees her on February 22 in a Washington’s Birthday celebration, wearing a bathing suit:
She looked like one of those professional sluts from Hollywood. If she isn’t the symbol of American rottenness, what is? Program said she was active in the Presbyterian church! There’s hypocrisy for you Earl, but some day the wheel is going to come full circle for her too – for her and all the others like her. For the dirty things they do.
He follows news about Mara St. Johns in the paper, tracking down her schedule until he presumably rapes her outside her church on July 4.
On July 14 he says:
How very different I feel tonight. Remembering for instance how quick and powerful I felt as soon as I touched her… (s)he wanted me to talk. Say something! Say something! On her knees and in the corner trying to see my face & begging me to talk. I don’t know, think I did say something. Annoyed when she asked whether I believed in God.
Earl eventually begins to covet his victim, seeing himself as a potential suitor, jealous of a man he sees as competition for her attentions. On August 27 he catches a glimpse of a woman who looks like Mara St. James and he convinces himself it was her, talking to her fiance:
Well, I’ve tried to hide my feeling, keep it out of sight, but I may as well admit the fact – I’m jealous. I’d kill him if I could… I sit here hating him, so sick & weak with jealousy I can’t even clench my fist… If only I knew how she felt about me! Well, I know where she lives. I could go there. I could see her again. Tell her I’m coming?
Earl continues in this manner, beginning to see his rape as the first step in wooing the beauty queen, and in a sense, one can almost understand it. She is the only person who has ever seen him for who he is. Not even his wife, who loathes him for sexually harassing her students, knows the real Earl like Mara does. He convinces himself she has affection for him. On August 29:
Why did she catch my wrist when I got ready to leave?–and she did, yes, I didn’t make that up. She wanted me to stay. Or was it some instinct saying she didn’t want to be alone. I need to know….
He becomes romantic about her. From August 31:
I’ll send her a gift. What is appropriate? Jewels are cold, with undertones of death. I could send her a pebble washed by the ocean. Or the wing of a white seagull.
He begins to stalk her anew, going to the church again, waiting for her. He admits he thought of her as “Mara Summerfield,” that he imagined domestic bliss and marriage with the woman he raped. He calls her on September 29:
Thought she might not recognize me with a handkerchief near my lips but she began to cry and threaten me. Then suddenly she stopped, that was what made me suspicious. And with good reason. Someone else was there because I heard her whispering. Put me in an ugly temper so I said things I never meant to say. Sorry for what I said. I wanted us to have a nice conversation…
And it continues, his delusion and obsession with violence, peppered with the insults he believes he suffers in the world and the meanderings of his mind. No one knows what happens to old Earl in the end but I want to believe he put himself out of his misery. His entry from October 31 leads one to believe he just might (“This day wondering if I shall join the early Saints.”). He probably doesn’t, though. A bastard as miserable as Earl clings to his misery like pearls. He is a masochist as well as a sadist.
And even if Earl did not rape Mara St. Johns, if all of this is just the rambling of a disturbed mind, what a disturbed mind it is. Connell’s ability to convey the disorganized thoughts of a madman is amazing. Take this gem from July 12, where it seems Earl is justifying the rape:
The Devil is supposed to have a forked penis so he can commit sodomy and fornication simultaneously, yet we build gods in the image of ourselves because it’s implausible to do otherwise, consequently there’s no reason for me to feel upset. How can one already worn out by this corrupt world understand Incorruption? Let the human race lament and let animals rejoice, etc. Yes, that’s how it us, for the world has lost its youth and the times are beginning to grow old.
Another gem, from November 1:
Ideally, I think, life out to be severe & chaste. Have I myself attempted to live that way? I believe so. Example to be followed, discipline beyond the reach of most. Yes. Yes. Austerity and temperance. Integrity. Counter the evil tendencies of Man, just as sailors counter currents driving them toward the Reef, thus the expression of attitudes impossible to those of a lower sensibility. Object to object. Tincture of earthworm, poultice of adder’s flesh.
It may seem like it would grow tiresome, reading the intense accounts of a man who is so unpleasant, so distinctly unhinged, writing in everloving detail of his every demented thought, but it doesn’t. Even if you do not love accounts of madness as I do, this book will absorb you, unsettle you, make you feel as if you possibly know no one, especially that quiet guy at work who sometimes looks at you funny. Earl is sort of an Everyman, but not as a prediction of what was to come in the modern USA, but as a symbol of what some men have been, are, and always will be.