Funny that we call this era "the Progressive Era" of US history -- clearly that word means something very different these days.
This book has long dry spells where all manner of excess are just listed, I suppose to be impressive, but I found it incredibly boring to read list after list of party attendance and net worth of each man in every scene. In the first few chapters, we're bombarded with name after name and place after place, many of which are meaningless to the story. Partly I'm just not interested in sensational celebrity scandals, so I suppose I should have known better than to be excited about a true crime novel based on exactly that a hundred years ago.
I've just read an entire book ostensibly about "the girl on the velvet swing," yet I don't feel like I know Evelyn Nesbit well at all. I know her husband, Harry Thaw too well. I know some of the men in her life, especially Stanford White (the perpetrator cum victim) and I know a lot about the social circuit in the early 1900s, but I don't know the woman about whom I wanted to learn. The writing focused on a woman through the lens of all of the men surrounding her. She was a person with a life, and if you plaster her picture on the cover and title it as such, you build a certain expectation in my mind at least. I could write a report on the husband, his trials, his treatment in jail, mental health in the early twentieth century justice system, wealthy people and the things they owned during the 1910s, but not on the main character.
All of those things are important, and yet they were glossed over, so perhaps if I'd felt less like I was reading about just a celebrity scandal, if the issues of press freedom and all of those others were given more than a sentence here or there, I would have had more investment. It felt like there was so much information to get in, none of it got the emphasis it deserved. I would much rather have learned about something than read lists of net worth from the 1900s.
Most dismaying was the epilogue, with the author's (somewhat conflicting) view of "the truth." Here he denies her account of rape, though she had also done something akin to this in her own autobiography. But Simon Baatz wonders if the rape even happened, because ... wait for it... she continued to talk to the man -- who paid for her education and on whom her entire family was financially reliant. Well, gee. A family full of women in early 20th century New York City (expensive always) was financially dependent. Rape is a violent act known to cause severe shame for the victim, so victims often continue dependance and that requires a facade of friendliness or even love. Also, people are not without inner conflict. It's drummed home how naive and young she was, and this girl of sixteen didn't have the benefit of public awareness campaigns or self-help groups to lead her down the path of self-actualization after a rape. She hadn't told her mother, so how exactly would that have worked?
I'm not surprised that a woman who had the life she had in the era she lived it played down a long-ago rape that caused a murder which caused a scandal that led the rest of her life to fall apart in many ways. She had grandchildren and a son still alive. She had focused on that one event for years in public. Why would we think her shame had lessened after losing everything so many times over?
I'm glad to know some of the story. I'm not sure I know the truth, or that anyone ever will. But in future, as well as listing every wealthy socialite and their net worth, it might be worth it to interview just one rape counselor to get an understanding of the psychology at work in victim's behavior. Or hell, just read a book.