Stephen Singular has built a career on writing books that straddle the line between potboiling thriller and, erm, investigative journalism. There’s usually a dash of superficial social analysis, but mostly Singular writes books that are meant to be read fast, then forgotten. Airplane books. You won’t return to his latest work, A Death In Wichita: Abortion Doctor George Tiller and the New American Civil War, recently issued in paperback, any faster than you’ll return to the tattered and tawdry titles you’re about to shuttle off to the thrift shop or the secondhand seller down the street. But you’ll read it––most of it, anyway––cover to cover.
Singular’s previous books include volumes on the Jon Benet Ramsey case, Mark Fuhrman, domestic terrorism and hate crimes, BTK, David Geffen, Joe Lieberman, and Michael Ovitz. A few of those characters appear in this latest volume––BTK at least seems a natural fit since he was from Wichita, Kansas, the place where the book’s main subject was murdered. (The book was originally titled, and appeared in hardcover as The Wichita Divide, and my copy carries the same name on the title page, although not on the cover.)
Singular’s not above mentioning the Jon Benet Ramsey case, the murder of talk radio host Alan Berg––the subject of another Singular book––as well as domestic terrorism, hate speech, and media manipulation. But there’s also an appearance or three by the author himself, his father, his wife. While that’s not inherently wrong it is inherently grating. Singular tries to tie all these disparate people––a cast large enough for a Jacobean tragedy––and places––we hop locations as we might in the course of tautly plotted espionage novel––together under an umbrella in which we are asked to consider a few points.
First, that abortion is a wildly divisive issue in American life––capable of pitting brother against brother, party member against party member, congregation member against congregation member; second, that talk radio with its Michael Savages and Rush Limbaughs, and Fox News with its Bill O’ Reilly, are capable of disseminating messages that drive deeper the wedges that already exist between some Americans; third, that Scott Roeder, the man who murdered Tiller, was likely spurred on by the ideologues who prey upon minds such as his––minds of men and women looking to belong to something/anything in a world that has done little other than baffle and betray them. It’s as if Singular is arguing that the Ann Coulters and O’Reillys are bullying the Roeders of the world, pushing these vulnerable people to act out the rage that these talking heads cannot possibly carry out themselves.
A dangerous––and alarming––possibility.
Whether true or untrue, Singular’s book is not the book to tackle all of those questions––mostly because it’s busy enough trying to cover them all that it ultimately covers none in any satisfactory manner. O’Reilly’s chants of “Tiller the baby killer”, which Singular cites over and over again, make the talk show host sound like your halfwit uncle who repeats the same dirty joke every 75 minutes at family gatherings––it gets a response at the time but later you can only reflect on how truly pathetic it is. Certainly in intelligent discourse second grade rhymes can’t be taken seriously––and yet, according to Singular, they all too often are. But that alone didn’t spur Roeder or others into action and making the claim that talk show hosts are responsible for such actions brings us to the edge of slippery slope––or slippery slop, if you prefer––in which everything from comic books to heavy metal lyrics to horoscopes become the scapegoats for aberrant behavior.
Then there’s this business of Singular’s hyperbole about a new Civil War. There are those who––wrongly, inappropriately––refer to the ongoing legal status of abortion as a new Holocaust, a term that has spurred great debate even in the sphere of those who study the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews during World War II as the term translates as “burnt offering”. The Civil War analogy seems as wrongheaded and as dangerous as those who parade behind the Holocaust idea as well. Abortion is a powerful and important issue, but it has not pitted the citizens of the United States against each other the ways that a widening economic gap, a divide in education and access to basic resources have. It’s a factor in marked differences but not the factor.
Moreover, to dress the abortion conflict up in terms of Nazi Germany or Civil War America does a disservice to the unique nature of the issue and the time in which it thrives and divides.
Singular has a number of chances to discuss the truly unique nature of Kansas and its politics in depth, but instead we are subjected to the lurid details of an affair between former Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison and staff member Linda Carter. (Yes, her real name.) Instead of asking great questions of the reader or making firm assertions, we read dialogue from Roeder’s arrest that anyone who’s seen more than a half hour of police procedural television dramas could have scripted for themselves. The seemingly endless pages of Tiller eulogies don’t propel the narrative in any meaningful manner.
We certainly gain some empathy for Roeder’s family, but Tiller’s is not really afforded the same treatment. In fact, toward the end of the book––as it winds down to its last hundred pages, say––you begin to feel as though the author is trying more to fill the space than to develop his argument. George Tiller becomes a name, a cause, a headline; Scott Roeder becomes a criminal who doesn’t know when to shut up and who feels as though he’s done society a great service.
Not all’s lost––Singular is deft in his handling of Tiller’s personal character: a man who was absolutely dedicated to his family, his profession, and his staff, who was unwavering in his beliefs. The author also manages to accurately describe the anti-abortion protests that took place during the Summer of Mercy in Wichita, when pro-life forces descended upon the city in 1991. Moreover, his ability to pace the story is uncanny but is perhaps one of the things that is also the book’s undoing––it’d be wrong to suggest that Singular doesn’t recognize the gravity of the subject, but his furious pacing and tendency to describe people as “feisty” and to dwell too long on unnecessary details means that it’s harder to see this as little more than a work of popular, sensationalist reporting.
It’s unfortunate that a delicate––and important––story such as this one is given the smash-and-grab treatment. Surely someone else will come along to handle the matter more delicately and with a finer understanding of the intricacies involved, someone who is not given to the hyperbole that paints every conflict in such a way that there are only heroes and villains.