Since its September release, Paul’s Case, the latest offering from Little Italy resident Lynn Crosbie, has stirred up a controversy to rival the very trial it depicts.
The fictitious work about the lives of convicted murderer and rapist Paul Bernardo and his wife-accomplice, Karla Homolka, has riled more than a few readers, and riled them in an unusual way. Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno has threatened to assault Crosbie; CFRB blowhard Michael Coren has suggested that the book not only be banned, but that Crosbie join Bernardo in prison; Toronto Sun columnist Christie Blatchford has threatened to sue Crosbie’s publisher, Insomniac, for defamation of character; and letters of displeasure have circulated in numerous publications, voicing an outrage that the book was even published.
Luckily, Crosbie takes the criticism with a grain of salt. “I really believe—and I think she should of me—that she is entitled to her opinion,” Crosbie explains when asked about the DiManno column. “Her opinion is, unfortunately, very ill informed. There is an oblique suggestion that my work originates in an envy of the prose of either Karla Homolka or Christie Blatchford. And that’s probably the meanest thing anyone could ever say to anyone: to be jealous of Christie Blatchford’s prose style.”
While this type of controversy may be something new to Crosbie, notoriety is not. As the author of three volumes of poetry (Miss Pamela’s Mercy, VillianElle, and Pearl) and editor of a collection of women’s erotic writing (The Girl Wants To), Crosbie was proclaimed the worst poet in Canada by one Montreal critic, and caused a few raised eyebrows when she posed for some “erotic” photographs for This magazine.
But with Paul’s Case, Crosbie was well aware of how serious a topic she was dealing with. Some who are critical of the book have felt the work mocks the tragedy that occurred at the hands of Bernardo and Homolka, or that Crosbie is perhaps defending those actions. Instead, Crosbie says she feels she is exploring all aspects of the case, part of which means putting forth a variety of perspectives. As the author points out, there really is no genuine truth that came out of the Bernardo trial.
At the same time, the public outcry, based on common misconceptions about fact and fiction—or, in this case, about fact (newspaper coverage, true crime books) v. fiction (Paul’s Case)—is fascinating. These misconceptions all lead to one big question: is there a “truth” anywhere in this trial?
Crosbie is quick to answer this question: “There is no genuine recording of fact. The version from Paul Bernardo will differ substantively than the version Karla Homolka has offered to us. So who is the truth teller? There is no one. Which led me to fiction. The only compelling truth claims could be offered by the girls who are dead, and they can’t offer them.”
Since the Bernardo trial, there have been three true crime books published detailing the case: Nick Pron’s Lethal Marriage, Scott Burnside and Alan Cairns’s Deadly Innocence, and Stephen Williams’s Invisible Darkness, all of which do no more than restate the details of the couple’s crimes together, reading very much like works of fiction. Their sources are often questionable, if not non-existent. These true crime books graphically depict the murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristin French, and do so in such a descriptive way that one would assume the authors have viewed the infamous videotapes, although they apparently did not. Crosbie points out that if the true crime writers are embellishing in their books simply to fill in the blanks, then they too are fictionalizing their accounts. In this case, it seems unfair that Crosbie should bear the brunt of the criticism for her work.
“If someone had lobbied all along to get rid of all of these books and then levelled a critique at me, I could take that better,” she says. “I would challenge anyone to sit through a reading of the Nick Pron book and sit through a reading of mine and actually say what sickened them more. If they chose to respect the ‘truth’ as they see it, I know I have to accept that. But I also have to challenge that, because I am sick to death of their truths about this case, and I want to challenge it, and I want to oppose it, and I want to create different areas of discourse.
Paul’s Case is indeed a difficult book. It is difficult because of the subject matter. It is difficult because of the creative spins Crosbie puts on the entire “case,” ranging from the assassination of Homolka to the rape of Bernardo. It is also difficult because of the structure of the book, the complex literary allusions, and the fluctuating style and perspective.
Crosbie categorizes this style as “criti-fiction,” or “critical fiction.” Paul’s Case began as part of a book of essays. However, the more she worked on the essay, and the more she considered the case, the more Crosbie eventually came to realize she needed something broader to accommodate the criticisms she had.
Paul’s Case is certainly nothing if not critical—critical of pretty much everything generated from the case, if even in an ephemeral way. In many ways, Crosbie is making her case against the accepted “truths” of the trial. Paul’s Case takes a run at Homolka’s manslaughter plea and her behavior on the stand, Bernardo’s legal council, the virtual invisibility of the Scarborough Rapist case, and the media representation of the crimes.
There have been suggestions by other critics that Crosbie’s book somehow details Bernardo’s case against Homolka, a suggestion she denies. In fact, Crosbie says the book was set up with the assumption that the narrator was speaking to a silent Bernardo, a Bernardo who could be verbally tortured by the narrator, and perhaps driven mad by the process.
Crosbie (who attended Bernardo’s trial and read the true crime books, along with the magazine and newspaper articles) spent the year it took to write the book with a picture of Bernardo hanging over her desk, the thought of which is more than a little haunting. Crosbie says she felt she owed it to herself, and the people involved in the case, to be able to confront Bernardo, and remind herself of the seriousness of the issues she was tackling.
“I felt that if I lacked the strength to go and behold them, and behold this spectacle that the trial had become, that I had no credibility,” she says. “It’s this idea that if I’m going to confront this, I’m going to do this all the way. So I am going to look at Bernardo and I’m going to look at his cruel, twisted face, and I am going to be reminded every day of who he is so that there is no possibility that I can be glib about this, that I can’t forget who I am dealing with or what I am doing.”
One of the most disturbing passages in Crosbie’s book is “The Avenger,” in which the character of Emma Peel from the nineteen-sixties British TV series The Avengers, is sent on assignment to kill the about-to-be-paroled Homolka. The scene begins whimsically enough by contrasting the haute couture style of Peel (she assaults people using Donna Karan hose) with Homolka’s middle-class notion of fashion (Beaver Canoe sweats, Revlon makeup). But what begins with a snicker ends in a sneer, as Peel ruthlessly assassinates Homolka.
Crosbie points out that the reference to Peel is more than just camp slight of hand. The avenger is a pivotal role in the seventeenth-century Senecan revenge tragedies upon which much of Paul’s Case is based. At the same time, the manner in which Peel kills Homolka is derived from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, a book that was found on Homolka’s nightstand.
“One of the things I am trying to do in this book is to take the Bernardos’ language and take their tropes, take their desires, and turn them against them. So if American Psycho is a book that Homolka enjoys, then apply it to her in this particular instance. There is a host of literary critical elements to the most disgusting passage to that chapter. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very hard to read, it was very hard to write,” Crosbie willingly admits. “There are chapters in my own book that I find very difficult to read, but certainly less difficult than reading the reality of what these people have done. I could be a thousand times more grotesque and not even approach what they were capable of.”
Crosbie does, in fact, take a very hard line on Homolka and on the issue of her involvement with the crimes. A big part of what bothered her about Homolka’s “battered wife” defence was that she saw Homolka as taking a feminist defence and monopolizing it for her own benefit.
In addition to the prose sections, Crosbie has peppered Paul’s Case with found images that reflect harsh criticism against Homolka, ranging from an image of a beauty queen wearing a sash reading “KINGSTON’S KARLY CURLS” to the bizarrely witty cartoon montage “How to Be a Successful Witness.”
“She will be free, and I can’t live with that,” says Crosbie. “That is the rage that I can’t contain. I think her morality is just not there; that her intelligence, unfortunately is. This is a woman I saw defending herself in a court of law and she was smarter than the lawyer, and [John] Rosen is no penny-ante lawyer. That scared the shit out of me, because I am frightened by intelligence, especially by people who are potentially psychopaths. She is brilliant and that makes her even more a figure of fear in my mind.”
Part of what led Crosbie to write Paul’s Case stemmed from her criticism of the media coverage. In some instances, the actions of Leslie Mahaffy and her mother were harshly criticized. There were suggestions that Mahaffy shouldn’t have been out drinking that night, and that her mother shouldn’t have locked her out of the house. These suggestions miss the fact that Bernardo shouldn’t have been out raping young girls.
“That Leslie was a little bit stupid to talk to Bernardo, or that Debbie, her mother, is in any way culpable for her daughter’s death—these are obscene suggestions,” Crosbie emphasizes. “So when I’m accused of being a cruelty mongered, I’ll accept that. And I’ll accept that because I know that any mention of these girls will hurt their parents and that is unavoidable. That is something I will live with and I live with that with sadness. But I felt that at the very least I was writing against things that were critical of the conduct of Leslie and her parents.”
Crosbie is also critical of the amnesia that developed in relation to the Scarborough Rapist case; the brutal sexual assaults on nineteen women became a non-issue during the trial. Bernardo made a deal on those pleas and the trauma of the Scarborough rape case was swept completely under the carpet. In reality, the attacks became an addendum to the murder trial. As Crosbie points out, had Bernardo not been convicted of these sex slayings, the Scarborough Rapist trial would have been one of the most major trials in Toronto history. And her critique of the handling of the Scarborough case comes in the form of a found image—rows and rows of anonymous Barbie dolls.
“I had found the picture of the Barbies with the tags around their necks a long time ago and I knew it would be useful at some point,” she explains. “The women who were raped were reduced to these nineteen Jane Does. So this image of these very faceless women with tags around their necks was very powerful to me. I don’t think that to Bernardo these women were anything more than ciphers. That’s why it’s called ‘Bernardo Remembers the Scarborough Rapes.’ I’m sure that’s how he remembers them.”
Crosbie is also critical of the way in which any exploration of female sexuality was eradicated from the trial. Bernardo and his sexual proclivities were a huge issue of the trial, and he was discounted as a pervert. Karla Homolka’s sexuality was never called into question, something that bothers Crosbie immensely. She is also weary of designating the murder victims to the realm of sainthood and, in doing so, defends Nick Pron’s book, which was chastised because he made the speculation that in all likelihood one of the victims experienced pleasure during oral sex.
“Would it make these girls bad girls if they experienced pleasure sexually from forced friction? ” Crosbie asks. “In the desperate desire to make martyrs of these girls—and they are—we don’t have to completely eradicate their being to do so. I’m not interested in girls or women who are nothing but spectres of holiness. That’s not what these girls were. They were complex, intelligent, brave, interesting young women; they were not saints.”
It seems to be this complex approach to writing that is getting Crosbie into so much trouble. In a rambling Star column, Rosie DiManno proclaimed, “[I]f this is current feminism, give me a dead white guy anytime.” Ironically, Crosbie’s other new book, Click, was released shortly after Paul’s Case. Click deals specifically with feminist issues and is a collection of essays by women recounting their journeys to feminism. It is a book that Crosbie worked on for three years, and one that she remains passionate about.
“I thought Click could be potentially tedious to work on because when you talk to anyone about when they became a feminist, they inevitability invoke reading something like The Female Eunuch, as I would,” she laughs. “I thought, what if we could dig a little bit deeper and what if by virtue of approaching a really diverse group of women we’re demanding different responses to this question. I was astonished all the time by the bravery of these women, because these are women I knew casually who were telling me things they would probably never tell me as a friend.”
Click contains essays written by the likes of writer Trish Thomas, cartoonist Roberta Gregory, and performer Sook-Yin Lee. What is amazing about their essays is how personal, yet infinitely political, they are. At a time when proclaiming yourself not to be a feminist is far more trendy than being one, these essays are remarkably brave in their openness.
If Click turns out to be the bookend to Paul’s Case, it is pure coincidence, although Crosbie would be the first to point out that both books, although a contrast to one another, represent who she is and her beliefs.
“It just turned out to be a bizarre coincidence that these books are out at the same time,” she notes. “If I had to contrast Click with Paul’s Case, it would be labour of love and labour of hate. That’s the only way I could perfectly contrast the two. One is a way of exhausting my hate and outrage and another is a way of cleaving to what I passionately need to believe in—that there is goodness, solidarity and redemption.”
But whether Crosbie likes it or not, much of the focus is now on Paul’s Case, and that means she has to steel herself to attacks like the ones coming from the Rosie DiMannos and the Michael Corens of the world.
“Why is this book so offensive? ” she asks. “I think it is because it goes into the realm of the fictional and because what purports to be fact is always protected. I think people genuinely believe that fact is something like a tree, it just grows in the woods; it’s real and unquestioned and fiction is the deformed tree that you ruin the environment with.”
But Crosbie maintains a strong belief in her exploration of the Homolka-Bernardo case, and she sees her work as being very different from the true crime books that are often nothing more than obscene retellings of an obscenity.
“When you proceed from this trial and keep restating what has happened to those girls, then you are always under Bernardo and Homolka’s direction,” she explains. “What I tried to do was to take it out of their hands. I wanted to move things aside and create a different space and a different way of thinking about their victims—as people for once, not as the sex slaves of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. I certainly think the lives they led, short as they were, merit a lot better than that.”