The title Long Dark Road works on so many levels, it almost feels like a cliché. Seven years ago this month, three white men in East Texas chained James Byrd Jr., a black man, to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. The case, of course, fascinated the media. But the scars it left on those involved are probably still more like wounds, and, for those of us who grew up in the Texas Piney Woods, it was shameful--unspeakable cruelty committed in our own back yard.
In his 2004 book about the murder, Ricardo C. Ainslie takes us down the long, dark Huff Creek Road in Jasper, filling us in on the gory details and events of the June night when a town no one had ever heard of suddenly began to top the headlines. The author also studies convicted killer Bill King, who sits on death row for his role in the crime. Ainslie, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, travels the dark roads of King's life, too, analyzing his childhood, his family and the transformation he made while serving time in the Texas prison system for earlier crimes. The author tries to find the man behind the monster, the flesh beneath the skin covered in racist tattoos. What we get is a profile of a mind that remains a mystery. Can you ever really find the "why?" for something that can't possibly have a reason?
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Ainslie delves into the case anyway, and seems haunted by what he finds. "Disturbing as it is," he writes, "Bill King is all too human, a man driven by human needs and human anxieties." It is disquieting to get a glimpse of the "normal" aspects of King's psyche and the promise he showed early in life. We've all wandered some long, dark roads at times, but we don't always end up at the same place.