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Home » Culture and Criticism

Small Sacrifices: Inappropriation

Submitted by on December 26, 2012 – 1:00 PM5 Comments


The crime

Diane Downs, a postal worker, claimed a burly stranger had carjacked her and her three children, shooting one fatally and leaving the other two permanently impaired. At least she didn't blame an African-American male…but of course it's actually Downs who tried to kill her kids. Forensic evidence alone likely would have sealed her fate, but other factors made her conviction inevitable: the superficial wounds Downs gave herself; witness accounts of her trip to the emergency room, apparently conducted at a leisurely 5-10 mph; letters and journals indicating that her married lover didn't want children; and an emotional affect so consistently inappropriate that it's almost funny, in that "she shot her own three-year-old, so it's either laugh, or barf myself inside out" way.

The filicides stay with us. You could probably name three, besides Downs, off the top of your head; the idea that a mother, the first touchstone of protection and comfort for most of us, could turn on and end her babies is horrifying and disorienting on a primal level. But Downs is especially indelible, in no small part because that's what she wanted all along: The Diane Downs Show, starring herself, with everyone else just playing their parts and not real to her. And she did what she had to to keep the ratings up, including seducing a man on her postal route and getting pregnant, the better to appear sympathetically fecund at sentencing (Downs, who claimed she could get pregnant easily, at one time wanted to open a surrogacy center; the business plan thereof consisted entirely of her…getting pregnant easily and cashing large checks). She also broke out of prison in 1987, remaining at large for ten days.

Downs's applications for parole have been denied to date. She is not eligible again until 2020.

The story

Adapted for TV from Ann Rule's book of the same title, Small Sacrifices changes a bunch of the names, but is otherwise a straightforward and very watchable overview of the case. I don't recall if Rule also did this in the text, but for the first hour or so, the film does allow to a degree for the idea that a carjacking could have gone down the way Downs claimed — more to let Downs hang herself with the audience than anything else, and in that it's successful.

So is Farrah Fawcett as Downs. Fawcett in general is limited, and it's unclear what she's trying to do with that gargling-with-the-city-of-Chattanooga accent (an Arizona native, Downs committed the crimes in Oregon), but "not very good" is actually spot-on for the role. Tossing her hair a lot, reading her lines with cue-card flatness — it's perfect for Downs's discomfiting responses. John Dean as prosecutor Frank Joziak does yeoman's work with literally dozens of "behold my misty-eyed concern for young Karen as she uses crayons to express her sociopathic-mom trauma" reaction shots. He is also required to snarl at NYPD Blue's Gordon Clapp, "I do not know, Frank, what happened to the damn kitten!" Not only does he not break character and start giggling; it's actually a pretty good line.

The Karen subplot is a minor pacing problem. "Karen" is actually Christie, the surviving Downs daughter who had to testify against her mother, despite suffering a stroke thanks to the shooting that left her unable to speak — and trauma thanks to the shooting by her mother that required months of lead-up therapy and desensitization to ready her for court. Small Sacrifices treats the issue respectfully, but that process is almost another movie. (Emily Perkins as Karen is called on to do a lot of bulge-eyed fear staring, and she's a champ, especially when she's glaring dully at her mother.) The editing also falters during Downs's monologues; the point is to emphasize her unearned self-pity and tendency to incriminate herself with contradictory details, but Joziak would not stand in a public park listening to her litany of kook for ten straight minutes.

But SS more than makes up for the occasional lull. Unintentional awesomeness includes the classic '80s-crime-miniseries wih ih ih ih ih ih ih synthesizer, and the fake version of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf" the production had to make do with (probably to afford Ryan O'Neal as the married boyfriend; possibly because Simon Le Bon et al. helled to the no any association with the case). Detective Frank refers to Downs at one point as "a fugitive from a puzzle factory," a perfect mouthful that I'd never heard before, and that's even better coming from a character who went to search for the gun in the middle of the night…and fell asleep in the underbrush. The plaster model of the car/murder scene in the courtroom is neat…until the shot cuts to a wide-angle of the dummy inside that looks like an oversized, passed-out-drunk Cabbage Patch doll. And the roller-boogie gold spandex Fawcett has on when Downs is taken into custody for the last time is probably intended as a character beat, now that I think about it, but it is awesome, in the "inspiring awe" sense. I mean, forget "camel toe" — she's got the entire camel down there, and it's running a thriving OB/GYN practice.

Small Sacrifices holds up today because of the deliberate wow moments, though. Downs rocking out to Duran Duran while handcuffed in the courtroom is still creepy, as is her clueless complaining to the press about the scars she's going to have on her arm. And the morning-after brunch with her postal-route seductee is agonizing. She's so needy and squirm-inducing, and Matt's slow transition from "this situation is awkward" to "this person is scary" is really well done by Garwin Sanford.

If you'd like to (re)read the book but you don't have time, throw Small Sacrifices on your YouTube playlist and listen to it while you wrap presents. It's a solid rundown of the case, equal parts genuinely gripping and funny in a dated way.

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  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Awk! I remember her escape! I was in Salem, Oregon at performing arts camp and the other drama kids and I got ourselves in a fine tizzy over her being out there, stalking in the underbrush, hunting for tender child flesh (we clearly knew nothing about the actual case.) It was the closest I've ever come to starring in a real life Scary Story to Tell in the Dark.

  • Nina A says:

    The book does indeed do the opening with the carjacking the same way. It's the only Ann Rule book I've ever reread. Also, E! made a special awhile back about the kids of serial killers, and they have an interview with the woman who was the baby DD gave birth to in jail.

  • Izzy says:

    The case itself was before my time, but I now suspect it inspired Caleb Carr's Angel of Darkness , what with the intense-therapy-for-surviving-child-eyewitness thing and all.

  • Izzy says:

    Also, holy shit, looking up "Angel of Darkness" on Wiki…er…does not take you to the novel. Nope.

  • Gemma says:

    "That woman doesn't love…she DEVOURS." Dun dun DUN.

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