Tuesday, January 17, 2012
The Girl with the Crooked Nose: A Tale of Murder, Obsession, and Forensic Artistry by Ted Botha, just released in trade paperback by Penguin, chronicles the work of Frank Bender, one of the world's most successful forensic artists.
Frank Bender's work goes well beyond that of a typical police sketch artist. Bender creates full, three-dimensional sculptures of his subjects, forming heads with faces in clay and plaster from forensic evidence. Most often he works with the skulls of victims to create a likeness for identification purposes. Sometimes he creates a bust of the living from scratch, based on pictures to show how a missing subject would have aged and changed over time. His work has led to countless identifications and the capture of nine fugitives.
The book bounces between two timelines, one showing Bender's development as a forensic artist and the other following him on his most difficult and dangerous case: a string of hundreds of murders of young women near Juarez, Mexico. Bender discovered forensics while working as an artist, attempting to learn sculpture and seeking free anatomy lessons from a friend who worked at the Philadelphia medical examiner's office. Bender volunteered to try to reconstruct a victim's face. After that, he was hooked. Over time he abandoned his successful photography business to study and practice forensic artistry.
Although Bender extensively studied the work of forensic artists who had proceeded him, Botha characterizes his approach as almost naïve, showing Bender working as much from gut and instinct as from an understanding of science and anatomy. What is most revealing in Botha's account is the detailed descriptions of Bender's processes, from identifying the specific tissue thicknesses on a typical skull to the details and facial expressions which make each subject a unique and recognizable individual. Botha describes Bender sometimes being influenced by the images of subjects that come to him in dreams. The details and techniques are as fascinating as Bender's results which through some combination of science, instinct and sheer luck, more often than not hit the mark exactly. An insert of photographs of many of Bender's busts shows a similarity to the ID'd subject that is jaw-dropping. Bender's talent, like that of many of the forensic specialists featured in the book, is more about understanding human character, what makes a particular person hopeful or sad or peppy or downtrodden, than understanding skeletal or muscular structures. His deep intuition is revealed in his work.
Bender's work on the Mexican murder victims forms the other half of the book. It's a story of police corruption and the tale fascinating, frightening and frustrating. And while the story itself ultimately doesn't lend itself to a fictional-style suspense story, Botha does his best to milk it for narrative tension.
Next to the work of Frank Bender himself, Botha's account reveals forensic police work to be a much more haphazard practice than what CSI would have us believe. For instance, when the investigators his a dead end, they often secretly visit psychics in hopes of gaining new insight. Their handling of physical evidence is hardly antiseptic. Bender is almost casually given skulls, skeletons and even bodies to work with, carrying them home in boxes or coolers strapped to his motorcycle or, on one occasion, in a bag carried aboard a bus. With labs overwhelmed, the artist is often tasked with removing the deteriorated--and smelly--flesh from the skulls. He does this by boiling the skulls in chemicals in his basement. On more than one occasion, the police simply forget that they've left human remains in Bender's possession, so he holds onto them for months or years.
Bender, fortunately for him if not for those around him, has a great sense of humor about the "heads" he works on and is not above playing practical jokes on his family, friends and visitors to his house. Nonetheless, Botha describes him as a consummate and hyper-dedicated professional and his obsession with solving crimes with art is nothing short of laudable.