Sylvia Likens. 1949-1965
Most people don’t know that the movie and book, The Girl Next Door, and the film, An American Crime are based on a true story. While An American Crime sticks to the facts of the case, Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a fictionalized version of the true story. The story is that of Sylvia Likens who, in 1965, was brutally tortured, mutilated, and humiliated for months at the hands of her caregiver in Indianapolis, Indiana. What happened to her was nothing short of a travesty, an atrocity, a true crime against humanity. The human mind can be so depraved, devious, and sadistic, it is no wonder Jack Ketchum used the real-life backdrop of a white picket fence, small-town American street in his novel to drive his point. The reason is that no one wants to know about it, see it, hear about it, as it is too disturbing. There is an issue of apathy in this country that has existed for far too long, the dark underbelly of America needs to be revealed if anything is ever to be changed.
Back then, it was okay to hit your children. Still is, in some places, but only under the term punishment, or discipline. It’s one thing to smack your kid on the butt for trying to run out in the middle of traffic. Obviously, you don’t want them to do it again. That’s not what we’re talking about here. This wasn’t even her child. We’re talking about people who are so mentally disturbed and evil that they take out all the bad things in their life on others, normally children, and in this case, Sylvia Likens. Not to mention, she got her other children and their neighborhood friends to join in the fun. Sylvia was burned with cigarettes, pushed down the stairs, blasted with hoses, belts, and fists, had objects inserted into her body, deprived of food, deprived of bathroom facilities, and had the words, “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” and the number 3 burned into her stomach. She eventually died of shock, malnutrition, and brain hemorrhaging. Her caretaker, Gertrude Baniszewski, was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence, but she was released after 20 years. Her daughter was convicted of second-degree murder, and three neighborhood boys received a sentence of 18 months. Eighteen months? This is one of the most hideous, disgusting cases in history, and her killer received 20 years and the other perpetrators got a year and half in a juvenile detention facility.
The Girl Next Door featured the girl’s torture and suffering prominently, but there is at least one difference. In real life, there was no David, no young boy who took pity on her and eventually stood up for her and felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. I know he was likely placed into the fictionalized story to make for at least a modicum of a happy ending, that there was someone who cared. But for poor Sylvia, no such person existed. However, this movie is shot beautifully, and absolutely breaks your heart. Another difference is that the woman, Ruth, was her aunt. The real Sylvia was not under the care of a relative.
The amazing Blythe Auffarth as Meg Loughlin in The Girl Next Door.
An American Crime also portrays the Likens story, but in a more crime-drama way, as it focuses more on the case and the real facts. This is probably my favorite role of Ellen Page, because she took it so seriously and did the story justice. It is absolutely respectful of the real life events, and pulls no punches. These films may be hard to watch, but I feel it is important to witness the brutality that human beings can inflict upon one another, and learn from it.
The remarkable Ellen Page as Sylvia Likens in An American Crime.
Both of these films rank high on my list of favorites. All the actors involved are truly spectacular, and they both get the story and point across in different ways. As beautifully shot, powerful, and thought-provoking as these films are, it is important to remember that this happened to a real girl, Sylvia Likens.