32. A Murder Over a Girl

“Have you tried not to think about this at all until today?”

A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, Ken Corbett

I bought this book on a whim - because, as an afficianado of non-fiction about crime, I saw the title on the shelf and thought it was interesting, and the blurb on the back even more so. I am so glad I did, and am surprised I’d not heard of the book in the general press (which isn’t to say that it wasn’t in the press, just that it some how missed me).  I highly, highly recommend it - it’s not perfect, but it’s the sort of book we should read as we try to understand the issues of gender and race and class that are so important in our culture, and most of all, how toxic masculinity can be.  And, in case you think that description makes the book sound dreadful, it is also a fascinating tale and a compelling read.

In February 2008, during first period English class at a junior high in Oxnard, California, a white heterosexual boy named Brandon shot and killed a black boy named Larry, who had recently (like in the past 9 days) began to identify as Leticia.  The prosecution (rightly in this reader’s opinion) called it a hate crime.  The defense argued manslaughter - claiming that Larry was sexually harassing Brandon and that thus, Brandon’s actions were somehow less than murder.  Again, this really happened, this a non-fiction story. A fifteen year old shot another because he was made uncomfortable by the boy’s sexuality.   Ken Corbett, a psychologist in New York, read press coverage of the murder, and because his work is about masculnity and boys, decided to come to California and cover the trial.  In doing so he has uncovered a truly tragic tale, about how one boy’s fear of the other was basically accepted by his culture (and SPOILER by the jury, which ended up hung).  The story is maddening, and compelling, and I really, truly think it should be widely read.  People should be thinking about these issues, and this book examines the case from all aspects.  I particularly appreciated that, while so many true crime books lose sight of the victim, Corbett keeps Larry and Leticia central to the story, and who Larry was (and could have been) is vital to the book. 

A few quotes to give you the flavor:

pg. 152 (paperback)

“Still, the story that made Brandon out to be a normal boy was told.  Reiterated by teachers, townsfolk, correction officers, and the laughing tenor of the courtroom.  Boys, it was said, are bullies.  They fight.  They use guns.  They are cruel and intimidate others.  They have limited empathy and cannot tell you what is on their minds, because they don’t know to begin with.  They defy commonly held ethics; they violate the basic rights of others.  If they were adults, we would call them antisocial; we would call them criminal.”

pg. 175 (quoting the only gay teacher at the school)

“The teachers at E.O. Green were veteran, older, white, Christian.  Larry made them uncomfortable.  And I had to tell them that Larry’s expression, just like anyone’s was his right, his civil right, and he deserved to be protected just like anyone else.”

Do try to read it - it’s an important book, I think.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017