The Burn Farm

September 27, 2013 - The Burn Farm (Michael Benson). Pedophiles and rabbits. These two words figure prominently in this true story of Sheila LaBarre, a woman currently serving life in prison for murdering, dismembering and burning the bodies of two lovers in New Hampshire. LaBarre pleaded guilty to the murders. In 2008, she went on trial as her defense lawyers tried to prove she was insane. After sitting through more than a month of testimony, a jury disagreed.

On the face of it, this should be a great story to tell. At the center is LaBarre, a woman whose behavior over the years had led many people in the community where she lived to fear her. The local police tended to explain it away as "Sheila being Sheila." Her two known victims, Michael Deloge and Kenneth Countie, were not made of very strong stuff and proved no match for LaBarre's twisted mental and physical domination which included getting the men to admit to sex acts with their mothers.

In my opinion, however, author Michael Benson does not tell this story very well. It's difficult to get a sense of who the people are, why they are the way they are, and what actually happened. Individual backgrounds are glossed over. The vast majority of the 372 pages are filled with transcripts of police interviews and court testimony from the two years encompassing the time from when LaBarre met Kenneth Countie to when a jury found her sane.

The problem with this method of storytelling is that most of the words come from LaBarre herself. She's being interviewed by police, she's being interviewed by psychiatrists, she's heard on tape recordings she made with Countie, witnesses recount conversations they had with her, letters she wrote to police and others are read into evidence. Maybe all these words made sense in LaBarre's head, but a narrative that depends on what amounts to the deranged ramblings of a serial killer doesn't make much sense to anyone else.

I think this book fails on several levels. As mentioned before, it fails to create any sympathy for the victims or their families because we never really get a sense of who these people are or what it was about them that made them so vulnerable. The book fails to shed more than a tiny sliver of light on what happened to make LaBarre into the person she became. For example, there are claims she was sexually abused as a child, though the abuse, in my opinion, is not proven. It does, however, seem like her father was a bastard. And, the book fails to provide any coherent sense of what happened inside the house. The evidence shows blood all over the place, but exactly how it got there is not clear. It's difficult to picture a house of horrors without the horrifying details.

After reading this book over the course of almost two months, it's clear that bad things happened. It's clear that LaBarre has some severe psychological problems. It's clear that it's a good thing she's locked up. What's not clear is exactly what happened or why I should care.