Monday, August 11, 2014

"Go Down Together" by Jeff Guinn: A Review

On one visit, Nell had a question for her brother Clyde. How did it feel, she asked, to know that he'd killed someone? According to Fugitives (written by journalist Jan I. Fortune with the help of Nell Barrow and Emma Parker), Clyde gave a rambling, philosophic answer, with Hamlet-like digressions about why "God should bother with the whole mess." Almost every word of it seems phony. Clyde was never given to orations. In common with much of the other dialogue in Fugitives, it sounds like something Fortune conjured up. But Clyde's actual response may be buried in the verbiage: "It gets mixed up." In less than a year since being paroled from prison, he'd killed three men - Eugene Moore, Doyle Johnson, and Malcolm Davis - and been blamed for murdering two more. For all the excuses he offered his family - about not wanting to stop at the Stringtown dance in the first place, or wildly shooting his gun in the dark during the West Dallas ambush only because others were shooting at him first - the deaths had to hang heavy on the conscience of a twenty-two-year-old who was still devout enough to say his nightly prayers. Driving around the Ozarks, hundreds of miles from the scenes of his fatal crimes, Clyde might have been able to put the murders out of his mind for a while. But they were ultimately inescapable. Things were badly mixed up for Clyde Barrow, and not even God could make it all go away. (160)

I have said before that historic non-fiction, when told well, is better than fiction. Recently this principle was reaffirmed after reading Jeff Guinn's fascinating book Go Down Together: The true, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. I picked up the book after finally watching the History Channel's recent miniseries on Bonnie and Clyde. As I did with their series on the Hatfield and McCoy's, I wanted to read a biography to get a fuller, more accurate understanding without the Hollywood spin.

The biography Guinn writes is straightforward. The author tells the story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker from their upbringings to their deaths and legacies. And it is a fascinating story. The Guinn avoids both psychologizing the criminal couple (there is no discussion of Bonnie and the Hybristophilia phenomena still common today) and sympathizing them. To the watching world, many sympathized with the criminal duo because of their story in poverty and "oppression" from the law. Instead, the author tells the story giving the reader real insight into what actually happened along with insights into who Clyde and Bonnie really were. 

One striking thing to me, especially as a Christian pastor, regards the faith of Clyde and Bonnie. The author writes:
Even more important to Cumie than her children's ongoing education was the state of their faith. Jesus constantly watched and judged all; life on earth was an eyeblink off eternity, and Cumie wanted her offspring weighing that into every decision they made. The Jesus worshipped by Cumie Barrow and her fellow backcountry fundamentalists saved through fear rather than forgiveness. You did what the Bible said because Jesus would send your soul straight to hell if you didn't. At home, the Barrow children were reminded of this daily. It would have also been pointed out to them in church as well as by their mother that, in fact, their poverty was a plus in their relationship with Christ. The Bible was replete with reminders that Jesus loved poor people a lot more than he did rich ones. Wearing patched clothes and sometimes not having enough to eat were in effect, evidence of personal godliness. The implication was obvious, if not declared outright: poor people were good, rich people were bad. (14)
Certainly, from my perspective and understanding of the Christian gospel, this is not what the Bible teaches. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that this faith instilled in both Clyde and Bonnie never left them. Later in the book, in the middle of their crime spree, the author summarizes their routine in motor courts where they often stayed which included praying frequently. Guinn then notes, The religious faith ingrained in them by their mothers hadn't been entirely abandoned (157).

Secondly, the reason and motivation behind their crime spree interests me. After a few stints in jail, Clyde Barrow sought to abandon crime but was forced to jump from job to job, during the depression no less, due to harassment from the police. Eventually, Clyde abandoned his law-abiding life and went on a multi-year crime-spree that eventually led to his and Bonnie's death. He thought he could be free from the laws by running from them. Bonnie, on the other hand, loved Clyde and was smitten with him. She wanted to be famous. She wanted to be a celebrity.

Both, in a sense, got want they wanted, at least for a little while, but it required a lot of sacrifice. The couple visited their families, in whom they were very close too, sporadically. As they became more famous, their visits became more difficult. Bonnie loved access to money and shopping and thus the cars they traveled in, always stolen, were full of luggage for Bonnie and guns for Clyde.

And they were (in)famous. The author notes:
Bonnie Parker had always wanted to be in the movies, and suddenly she was. Unlike her lifelong fantasy, however, she didn't appear onscreen as the star of a drama or musical. Instead, Bonnie and Clyde were featured in newsreels, short presentations about real individual and current events that played in theaters prior to feature films. Camera crews went to Joplin and recorded footage of the apartment and interviews with neighbors and police. In the months ahead, there would be newsreel coverage in the wake of almost every shooting or holdup involving the Barrow Gang. Bonnie and Clyde were always the focus. Other members of the gang were considered inconsequential. Audiences settling in to watch Cagney or Robinson pretend to be villains in their latest feature films were treated beforehand to glimpses of what actual outlaws supposedly looked and acted like. The newsreels helped sell tickets and popcorn, and in the minds of many Americans they elevated Clyde and Bonnie into celebrities on a par with the most popular movie stars.

With their celebrity came controversy. The combined newspaper, crime magazine, and newsreel coverage of Clyde and Bonnie managed to simultaneously demonize and deify them. Some perceived the couple as despicable hoodlums with no respect for human life and property. But to many others, they were heroes. True, they robbed banks and shot it out with lawmen, killing some in the process. But in 1933 bankers and law enforcement officials, widely perceived to have no sympathy for decent people impoverished through no fault of their own, were considered the enemy by many Americans. For them, Clyde and Bonnie's criminal acts offered a vicarious sense of revenge. Somebody was sticking it to the rich and powerful. (175)
This was fascinating to me. With this celebrity status granted to them in the midst of a depressed economy along with a sensational media trying to sell papers in the same economy, came a picture of Bonnie and Clyde that remains with us today that was simply inaccurate. Clyde was a terrible thief and robber. He was careless and frequently put his life and the life of others at risk. His brother was killed and Bonnie was seriously hurt and could not hardly walk for the rest of her life. Likewise, Clyde was a small-time crook. Certainly he had the occasional successful bank robbery, but he and his gang were no John Dilliger's.

Nor did the Barrow gang live the high life. Later gang members left Clyde and Bonnie because they had bought the press only to realize they were forced to spend their nights camping or sleeping in their car secluded and on the run.

Finally, the author raises the debate over how the "laws" were to bring this crime spree to an end. Should they let the couple surrender (if they were willing) or should they simply "take them out." In the end, they opted for the latter, but the lead investigator sought, in theory, the former. The legend of Bonnie and Clyde was probably sealed the day the police riddled their car and bodies with endless bullets. Their deaths, "going down together" as the title of the book puts it, made infamous criminals into legendary figures still popular today.

Overall, this is a great read especially for anyone that loves true crime stories. Though I was misled in assuming their crime spree was more glamorous, the author nonetheless sifts through all of the myths and gives the "true, untold story of Bonnie and Clyde." And that story is better than anything depression-era media or modern-day Hollywood can write.

For more:
"The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys" by Dean King: A Review
"Skyjack" by Geoffrey Gray: A Review
"Manhunt" by Peter Bergen: A Review
"Seal Target Geronimo" by Chuck Pfarrer: A Review
"Bonhoeffer" by Eric Metaxas: A Review
"Ike: An American Hero" by Michael Korda: A Review
"Gerald R. Ford" by Douglas Brinkley: A Review
"Killing Kennedy" by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard: A Review
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