silhouette of a girl standing in the middle of a suburban street in the 1960s with people walking away from her

What drives a person to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty? How can a community turn a blind eye to the suffering of an innocent child?

Ryan Green’s book Torture Mom recounts the horrific events that unfolded in Indianapolis during the summer of 1965. He describes what happened to Sylvia Likens, a young girl who endured unimaginable abuse at the hands of her caregiver.

Read on for a chilling tale that will challenge your faith in humanity and remind you of the importance of speaking up against injustice.

What Happened to Sylvia Likens

Green details what happened to Sylvia Likens, a young girl who, along with her sister Jenny, was placed in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski during the summer of 1965. What should have been a safe environment quickly devolved into a nightmare of unimaginable cruelty and torture, particularly for Sylvia.

From the start, Sylvia faced severe emotional and psychological abuse. Gertrude publicly humiliated her, accusing her of gluttony and greed. This verbal abuse occurred in front of other children, causing Sylvia significant psychological distress. The abuse soon escalated to physical violence, with Gertrude accusing Sylvia of theft and promiscuity. Sylvia endured brutal attacks, including kicks to her genital area, and was often forced to remain naked in degrading situations.

The physical abuse extended beyond Gertrude, with neighborhood teenagers participating in the torture. They burned Sylvia with lit cigarettes and forcibly marked her abdomen with degrading words. As the abuse continued, Sylvia’s physical and emotional state deteriorated rapidly. She became emaciated and showed clear signs of prolonged abuse.

Shockingly, Gertrude encouraged local youngsters to participate in Sylvia’s torment. Children could pay to see Sylvia naked and join in her abuse. Both Gertrude’s own children and neighborhood kids took cruel pleasure in forcing Sylvia to tumble down the stairs violently.

Sylvia’s Death

As Gertrude’s mental state deteriorated, she resorted to increasingly cruel methods. She forced Sylvia to write a letter falsely portraying herself as a prostitute who had been fatally injured. Gertrude planned to abandon Sylvia at a dump to die from exposure and mislead the police about her disappearance.

In a heart-wrenching turn of events, Sylvia discovered Gertrude’s plan and attempted to escape. However, she was violently seized, dragged back, and subjected to more brutal attacks. This marks Sylvia’s tragically unsuccessful attempt to survive the unimaginable cruelty she endured.

Jenny’s Advocacy for Sylvia

Sylvia’s case is described as the most heinous crime ever committed against an individual in Indiana’s history. The community’s inaction is highlighted as particularly disturbing, with neighbors hearing unsettling sounds but failing to intervene.

But someone was committed to keeping Sylvia’s memory alive, ensuring that the suffering Sylvia endured is never forgotten. With the help of prosecutor Leroy New, who became her mentor, Sylvia’s sister Jenny took her cause to the public. She appeared on television and worked alongside victims’ rights advocates to passionately oppose Gertrude’s parole after her incarceration for her crimes. Jenny’s determination to keep Gertrude behind bars was unwavering; she was resolved to maintain the infamous association with Gertrude’s name, ensuring that the tragedy is not forgotten or minimized over time.

What Happened to Sylvia Likens? How Everyone Failed Her

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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