Unsolving JonBenét’s Murder-Absent Narrative, Chaos Rules

JonBenét Ramsey. (Wikipedia)
JonBenét Ramsey. (Wikipedia)

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenét and the City of Boulder, by Lawrence Schiller. Harper Collins, 615 pages, $26.

There is something about the killing of a pretty little rich girl that disorganizes everybody. In the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, first it was the Ramsey family, clumsily staging the ransom note and 911 call. Then it was the Boulder, Colo., police, failing to secure the crime scene. Then there was the Boulder County District Attorney’s office, inexplicably dithering and stalled. And now look: Here comes the journalist Lawrence Schiller and his dizzyingly unnecessary Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. Typos, repetitions, contradictions, no intellectual gloss, no philosophical moment, no index, no pictures. What the heck kind of book is this?

Essentially, it is a hastily assembled scrapbook of textual material that millions of amateur JonBenét sleuths have already read in the tabloids (and discussed on the Internet). It is a review session and souvenir for forensic trivia buffs. In putting together 600 pages of largely undigested material, Mr. Schiller has, in his own words, attempted to “create the most accurate record available for others.” But all this serves as a reminder of what we have come to admire in other writing on various high-profile crimes: intelligent storytelling. Postmodern fiction aside, an exhaustive pasting-together of notes, clippings and recorded statements does not a narrative make, and it is only in narrative (with its elements of setting, theme, point of view, character; all the authorial work of stance and selection) that we feel close to the importance and truth of something. A complete and accurate record can obscure a subject’s essence: A narrative, on the other hand, reveals, supports and contains it. The rush to judgment that Mr. Schiller is so critical of in others (90 percent of the American public is familiar with the case) is simply a rush to narrative–narrative that the Ramseys, the prosecutors and now Mr. Schiller himself have failed publicly or effectively to provide (though the Ramseys, it should be said, did try).

In Mrs. Harris: the Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, Diana Trilling was able to see a story worthy of the Great American Novel, a story as rich as The Great Gatsby in passion and social implication. And she did not jealously guard her opinions; she criticized even the cruel amount of grapefruit in the Doctor’s famous diet. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm made of the Jeffrey MacDonald case a brilliant and culturally provocative discussion of trust and deception. Even Jonathan Harr—whose raw materials were corporate crime and tedious legal maneuvers—created in A Civil Action a gripping human drama—something he would never have accomplished if he had set about merely to amass an accurate and nonjudgmental (read “indiscriminate”) record.

But perhaps the Ramsey case is a particularly unworkable vortex. It is replete with the ingredients of a grotesque joke or a gothic mystery. (The former Little Miss Christmas was found, Dec. 26, 1996, bludgeoned and garroted in the “grotto” of her own house, a red heart painted on her hand.) But though a joke and a mystery are both composed of incongruities, a joke’s incongruities quickly release you; a mystery’s do not. A mystery, unsolved, may not release you at all but pull you forever and maniacally into the black hole of its contradictions. This would explain the astonishing number of JonBenét Web sites and chat rooms, the amount of general conjecture. One falls into the grip of it.

Since Mr. Schiller refuses to participate in the barest hypothesizing, it is left to us—average readers, gentle citizens—to step into the breach. What can be said with some certainty is that at the mystery’s heart is Patsy Ramsey, naïve, ambitious and theatrically ungifted. When Meryl Streep says, “A dingo took my baby” (a dingo?), we believe her. But there is little that Patsy Ramsey has uttered or declaimed that convinces anyone of anything. Even at the beauty pageants in which she placed JonBenét, her faulty esthetic judgment was remarked. She “overdid it,” noted an observer, once sexily dressing her daughter completely in feathers, causing even that audience to gasp in disapproval. Patsy’s is a story of disoriented, miscalculating vanity. Her compulsion to display led not only to giant parties with Christmas trees in every room, the bedroom closets open for perusal, but to the cosmetic alteration and exhibition of her little girl before a surely unsafe pageant world. A beauty queen herself and journalism major, Patsy Ramsey stoked her interest in media and show business, even when mourning her child. With the help of a press representative, and an unwitting congregation, she choreographed an on-camera family departure from her own church. She phoned Larry King on the air. In response to the death of the People’s Princess, Diana, she feverishly declared her own daughter America’s People’s Princess.

Did she kill her daughter in some petty rage? Did she kill her by accident? Did she catch her husband molesting the girl? Or—most spookily—as a religious offering she felt was required of her, a bound sacrifice to God (pursuant to Psalm 118, to which the Ramsey Bible was perpetually opened), because she had been miraculously cured of stage four ovarian cancer? It all seems doubtful. She had never been someone given to parental anger or violence. Her grief, if not her words, seems authentic. Whatever her mistakes, her reckless endangerment of her own children, they are a far cry from murder.

Mr. Schiller points out (or, rather, repeats) that no one theory—intruder, father, mother, brother—accounts for all the evidence. But if one combines the theories, as in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, where all the suspects are finally guilty, one can work out a fairly satisfying hypothesis. That is, a known intruder, working in friendly conjunction with the brother, killed the girl in some sort of sadistic fun, and the parents—fresh from Ron Howard’s Ransom and remembering the play their neighbor had written in which a little girl was found murdered in her basement—were left to cover up. This explains the stun gun, the sexual staging, the parental alliance, the odd affect of the boy (with whom the little girl often slept) and other evidence, including the boy’s red pocket knife, fingerprints, pineapple, duct tape and an enhanced 911 call. It also explains the counterfeit ransom note, which is the centerpiece of the case against the Ramseys. The note is mystifyingly fake, with its diction and point of view problem (“we are a group of individuals that represent a small foreign faction”), its Ramsey family pride (“We respect your bussiness [sic] but not the country that it serves”), and its screenwriter’s poetry (“if we catch you talking to a stray dog she dies”). The note rambles and searches for the kidnapping mot juste (there is a cross-out and a false start) and with its length and inconsistent spellings is such a compositional fraud and tactical blunder that it caused some detectives to believe it was the work of a professional trying to look like an amateur.

Sadly, it is more likely, more simply, the work of an amateur trying to look like a professional (the work of someone who would give her daughter her husband’s name with a phony accent aigu ). Rather tellingly, only the Ramseys seemed unalert to the note’s goofiness. Patsy “overdid it” again. And yet, in this hypothesis, she emerges criminally heroic, if fantastically overconfident. She leads the nation on a two-year “low-speed White Bronco chase,” in the words of Denver talk-show host Peter Boyles. She had— according to an acquaintance—no “sense of proportion.” But she had phenomenal energy, arrogance and nerve when it came to hanging on to her family.

This is a case rich with the story of catastrophic vanity. It is about trying to be fabulous, Miss West Virginia style. It is about being community outsiders (if in our mobile society one can still speak of such a thing, but the Ramsey case does speak of it). It is about marital suffering and the narcissistic cathecting of one’s children. It is the story of that club-footed masquerade that is the Happy Housewife—a masquerade enacted, sometimes, to the point of madness. It is also the story of carnivorous media coverage and the mutual manipulation of law enforcement, reporters and suspects. It is a story, too, about the professional pride and frustrations of the Boulder police (who cannot afford to live in affluent Boulder), frustrations that were inflamed and complicated by the Ramsey case, culminating in the angry resignation of two police detectives. Finally, it is—quite possibly—the story of the sinister fantasy lives of alienated rich boys with golf clubs and computers.

We get almost none of these stories in this book, though probably it is too soon for such storytelling. (If one learns anything new from Perfect Murder, Perfect Town it is how few people have alibis on Christmas night, but how useful A.T.M. machines are for this purpose.) Still, one wishes that Mr. Schiller’s book weren’t so exasperatingly like the Ramsey ransom note itself: brazenly put forward, chaotically improvised and ventriloquized to an eerie kind of voicelessness—as if it were written by no one at all.

Unsolving JonBenét’s Murder-Absent Narrative, Chaos Rules