Shamans Unaware

"The serial killer has become an American Original, a romantic icon, like the cowboy." - Joel Achenbach

Why does our culture romanticize the outlaw image? Increasingly driven by the weight of numbers, we are forced to give up our sense of control over our lives. Authoritarian repression combined with manifest corruption in high places is demoralizing. One way to seize back that sensation of personal power is to defy authority, to go out of bounds, to transgress.

The dizziness of deviance, the sensuality of sin is intoxicating in a double sense... first insofar as it gives you a euphoric, manic sensation, a rush... and secondly, in the sense that toxic thoughts affect your mind much as toxic substances affect your body.

Back when the first few cases of serial murder were beginning to surface, the symbolic "fuck-you" of the Elvis pelvis gave most wannabe free-spirits enough of a buzz to get them through the night. But succeeding waves of disaffected youth have pushed the envelope of rebellion further and further, until in their quest for the edge that really cuts, they arrive at the ultimate American iconoclast, the modern serial killer who personifies Carl Panzram's grim motto, "Rob 'em all, rape 'em all, and kill 'em all!"

The serial killer has become an icon because he has maxed out, gone over the top. We all imagine outrageous acts, but few actually do them. We are fascinated by those who have ventured further into the forbidden zone than our timid souls dare.

But the mystique of lawlessness is scarcely new. Isn't the modern serial killer cast in the same role as dark folk heroes like Wyatt Earp and Jesse James? Or Robin Hood, or Lancelot? What about King David? Killed his own top military chief because he lusted for his wife Bathsheba, and went on to make mass slaughter his claim to fame. And the legendary Viking chieftain Eric the Red wasn't called Red for his hair color.

Untrammeled spirits with fearsome names like Dionysus, Kali, and Shango once roamed the earth with fierce bloody ardor, inspiring much the same quasi-erotic, trembling fascination as Ted Bundy and the Night Stalker. You could almost say that if serial killers didn't exist, we would be sure to invent them.

Along the edge of this multi-celled creature that comprises our human existence reside our most sensitive cells. These are the highly-reactive sensors of our collective nervous system -- the flaky ones, the shaky ones, psychics and artists, writers and musicians, geniuses and the certified insane. All shamans unaware. Their function is to monitor the edge and report what's beyond it, so that those who live in bubbles don't have to take those risks. "There be monsters!" they scream, rolling their eyes, and that's all we need to know.

The romanticization of the high-profile criminal is a function of the aesthetic of ugliness. There's an social and spiritual auto-immune reaction going on throughout the world right now, with a lot of ugliness around the edge. Most of our artistic voices are spewing forth a limitless barrage of anger, fear, disgust and outrage at what they see coming as the fabric of our existence shreds in this apocalyptic age: "I've seen the future, and it is murder."

This is not to suggest that the murderer is an artist, but the violent criminal has a message for us the same as the artist does. In their own grim pre-conscious way, these sensitive souls are expressing a reaction to the same deep seismic temblors.

But how to read these cryptic messages inscribed in blood? The killer may see no cosmic significance to his acts. He may believe he is merely acting out his own personal agenda. But the very fact that these dramas exist makes it our business to interpret them. We turn our eyes away from the monstrous bloody truths scrawled on our floor. But they don't go away. In the darkness of our will to ignorance, they gain more power.

Outrageous crimes evoke our most primal fears of mortal vulnerability, and at the same time, unleash own darkest secret passions. Our revulsion is so mixed with fascination that even if we cover our eyes, we are compelled to keep watching through the cracks.

Our brain houses a magic theater where little holographic models enact what we perceive as reality. Once we comprehend what a killer is, we bring him to life within our own mind. Thanks to media dedicated to conveying the vivid imagery we demand to our enthralled minds, we all have at least one little phantasmagorical Manson dancing around in a dark corner, casting his helter-skelter spells.

If the Manson in our mind somehow loosens the bonds of fantasy, breaks out of the Theater of the Mind, and springs full-fledged to life in the Theater of the Real... somebody's bound to get hurt.

But of course, we wouldn't want that to happen. Our audience never wants to actually get hurt; they just want to watch... while someone else gets hurt.

This, then, is what comes out only after the giddy Murder for Fun crowd has left the theater and the house lights are dimmed. We are going directly into that doomed domain where all the fallen angels chant their haunted songs.

"It is lurid and melodramatic, but it is true."
~ D.H. Lawrence

Knockin’ on Joe

People are talking about…
Knockin’ on Joe: Voices from Death Row
An Anthology by Sondra London

Knockin’ on Joe is destined to become a classic. Get it.

Headpress • London, England

Have you ever been so inspired and enthralled by a book that you breathlessly turn each page, don't want it to finish, and can't find fault when it does? Knockin’ on Joe is such a book... a ball-breaking gut-wrenchingly honest depiction of the day-to-day workings of the prison system. A system where beatings, humiliation, fear and death are the norm, and rehabilitation is a discarded concept from a bygone era. This is SCARED STRAIGHT in print. Potential lawbreakers reading these painfully honest confessions will choose to walk the straight and narrow... my brief descriptions won't even begin to evoke the sheer magnitude of this book in terms of its contribution to the history of crime literature... It's a testimony to an editor who is dedicated, a publisher with insight, and writers who have battled great adversity and lived to tell their tales.

Fatal Visions • Australia

If the grim phenomenon of serial murder fascinates you, you should keep your eyes peeled for Sondra London's moving yet disturbing Knockin’ on Joe. It includes stories, artwork, diaries and other material by and about some of the inhabitants of Death Row - many plainly guilty, others obviously innocent.

I defy anyone to keep their temper while scanning the story of Joe O'Dell, proved blameless by a DNA test he had to raise funds for himself, yet he is still in jail due to a small error on his appeal form! Ditto Mark DeFriest, incarcerated for four years for entering a workshop (with his own keys) because he didn't have the permission of the owner (his dad - who was dead at the time!) Repeated attempts to escape have seen him serving two life terms and an additional 45 years in a special secure Death Row cell - and he never even killed anyone!

Not all of the subjects of the book are deserving of our sympathy and I defy even those of you with the strongest of constitutions to read some of the nastier segments of this book without wanting to take another look at your breakfast.

Knockin’ on Joe is a challenging read which delves deeper into the heart of modern darkness than most 'true crime' books dare. Ms. London's work has already got her into trouble with the authorities in the USA and one wonders what might happen if this falls into the hands of our rent-a-quote MPs.

Oliver Haddo, Penthouse • London, England

Sondra London's Knockin’ on Joe is a unique and priceless collection... Count this as a 'must' read for true-crime aficionados, criminologists, forensic psychologists, and students of the bizarre. Long overdue and well worth waiting for, London's anthology fills a critical gap in the literature of homicidal pathology.

Michael Newton, Hunting Humans

Knockin’ on Joe is an awesomely grim compendium of writing from men living in the shadow of the electric chair, mostly in Florida's Starke prison, men like Henry Lee Lucas' partner Ottis Toole, or the alleged Gainesville coed killer, Danny Rolling. Most disturbing are the stories written by sex killer G.J. Schaefer - sicker and scarier than any novelist could devise. The kicker is that the book's editor used to go out with Schaefer (and is now engaged to Danny Rolling).

Arena • London, England

I want you to meet a woman that I think is strange and fascinating. Her name is Sondra London. Now, Sondra is a free-lance writer whose new book, Knockin’ on Joe, Voices from Death Row, includes the writings of Danny Rolling. Sondra, however - and this is why I think that she is strange and fascinating - did more than just meet the confessed serial killer... what is most unusual about Sondra is that she has just become engaged to this mass murderer.

Geraldo Rivera • Broadcast 3/30/93

Knockin’ on Joe is an absolute MUST... totally compelling... a milestone... a brilliant book... fascinating and terrifying... I couldn't put it down until I'd read it all.

Samhain • London, England

CrimeBeat introduced you to two unusual figures in the world of crime: Convicted rapist and murderer Joseph O'Dell, who, playing jailhouse lawyer, is fighting for the right to impregnate his girlfriend with frozen sperm before the State of Virginia delivers him to the hot seat; and mail-order publisher Sondra London, who sells booklets featuring the reminiscences, stories and drawings of serial murderers such as Ottis Toole and Gerard Schaefer, the latter of whom was once her high-school sweetheart.

Now Ms. London has added Joseph O'Dell to her 1992 authors list, with two slim collections of his poetry and an exculpatory essay, "I Was Wrongly Convicted of Murder."

"I have lived a wild life," he boasted to the Washington Post. "When I hear the song 'Born to be Wild'... I think about me. My whole life has been one skirmish with the law."

CrimeBeat • NYC 5/92

STATE EXAMINES BOOK CONTAINING ROLLING'S WORK. The State of Florida wants to send Danny Rolling to the electric chair - and doesn't want him to write about it. Too late. Rolling's artwork and writings - and that of several other men in prison - have been published in a book edited by the student-murders suspect's fiancée.

While the book contains writings from others - including several other Florida State Prison inmates - it is London's writings about Rolling and his two brief essays that State Attorney Rod Smith and Attorney General Bob Butterworth are looking at... to see how the state's so-called Son of Sam law applies. "It's unclear if Florida's law would cover this kind of publication," Smith said.

"You see, they don't want her to write stories about Rolling, and they want to use the statute to keep her from writing it," Vipperman said.

When asked for his criticism of Knockin’ on Joe, Smith said he found it to be "personally offensive." Most of the writings by London, he said, he had already seen in the tabloid articles she had written in recent months. "I frankly thought the inmates wrote better than she did," he said.

Gainesville Sun 8/22/93

Joseph O'Dell is a convicted killer on Death Row in Virginia who, like many inmates, writes poetry - mostly tributes to various guys he knew who have died in the Chair. It's sort of a Spoon River Anthology of the condemned, and it's the latest project of Sondra London, the Atlanta small-press publisher best known for representing G J. Schaefer, the "Sex Beast" convicted serial killer... Another of her "killer" projects is a movie: she's written a screenplay called Redbone, the true story of Bobby Lewis, who escaped from Florida's Death Row in 1978... As if this weren't enough, Sondra also recently wrapped up the rights to the life story of the Gainesville Slayer, and plans to release a music video based on one of his songs.

Joe Bob Briggs, We Are the Weird 2/8/93

Now let me introduce a lady who has been on my show before many years ago, a fascinating lady, she is a journalist. She is one of the most, remember that feature they used to do in the Reader's Digest, one of the most unforgettable people I have ever met. Sondra London is an expert in serial killers, and she has gotten closer to the topic than many people.

Steve Kane • WFTL Talk Broadcast 7/19/93

Sondra London has created a genre with Knockin’ on Joe; the gem being the prison letters and diary of Joe O'Dell, who is quite obviously innocent. For once the content of a book lives up to its powerful cover - providing a damning indictment of a crumbling American society; its legal, judicial and prison system. Page after page, the killers reveal the true nature of the beast within their dysfunctional minds in a litany of fact, fiction and fantasy.

Despite the horror and filth contained in this most disturbing of books, Sondra London has bravely allowed this human scum a freedom of expression never published before. Yet, she coherently balances the text by allowing a little of her own emotions to show through, giving Joe O'Dell the opportunity to summarize - which he does with compassion and more than a modicum of common sense - with a skill any psychotherapist would be proud of.

This book therefore makes an important contribution, a brutal statement about serial murders, and, as it promises in its promotional literature, it is a glimpse into a living hell, suitable for adult readers only. But to accept it as just that would do the author, Sondra London, and her publisher a great injustice, for this is raw and unique material - as such it should stand as probably one of the most important crime books of this decade and possibly the next.

One can only add: be prepared for the most disturbing literary experience of your life.

Christopher Berry-Dee, A Question of Evidence • London, England


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