(Before I dive in — all vax shot side effects seem to have passed! I feel like myself again.)
Forever ago, I worked nights as a video transcriber for Inside Edition. This was back when the show was first on the air, when David Frost was the front man and Bill O’Reilly was an anchor (did they call them anchors?). It was my second year living in the City. I shared an apartment with my sister and spent my days working as a word processor (is that even a job anymore?). My sister worked at Barnard College, maybe in Student Services or something like that. Whatever her job, it gave her access to the jobs that were posted for the Barnard girls, and in at least two instances, I applied for and got those jobs. The Inside Edition gig was the first of them. (Should I feel guilty about “taking” a job from an undergrad at Barnard? I don’t. My sister and I had next to no money. We needed every penny we could earn. And, too, both jobs were awful. I think I actually did the Barnard girls a favor by sparing them.)
All of the other video transcribers were guys. We worked in tiny rooms, just enough space for a TV, VCR and a typewriter (yes). It was a miserable job for which I didn’t receive an hourly wage but was paid by the number of tapes I could get through. And I’d leave the Upper East Side studio around midnight and have to make my way to Washington Heights. Because I was a woman, and the only woman on the transcription team, my supervisor gave me permission to add an extra video to my tally each night to cover the cost of a cab home. But since I had that job during the time my sister and I referred to ourselves as “The Poverty Twins,” I absolutely added the extra tape to my tally … and absolutely kept taking the bus uptown after work. Sometimes the trip was unnerving — the long wait for the bus transfer at a super-isolated stop on Riverside Drive — but groceries and rent seemed more vital, I guess.
Most of the interviews I transcribed were painfully stupid — the police chief who was angry because the teenager at his local sandwich shop had put too much salt on his roast beef in what was surely an act of anti-police violence.
Then one night I got a bin of tapes, and it was an interview with Diane Downs. I transcribed for hours. Hours alone in that tiny room just listening to this disturbed and disturbing woman. And I’m thinking about this now because — for reasons only the algorithms know — FB put a link to the Inside Edition episode in my newsfeed this morning. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about Diane Downs. I think about her far more often than I’d like. Because of Farrah Fawcett’s excellent portrayal in the TV movie, Small Sacrifices — the “Hungry Like a Wolf” courtroom scene in particular — and because that always reminds me of transcribing the interview.
My instructions for transcribing videos were to write down everything that was said, with timestamps, and to include camera movements (close-ups, wide shots, etc.), and flag any interesting responses or facial expressions or bombshell moments that the reporter might particularly want to take a look at to consider including in the final piece.
Clicking through the FB link this morning was the first time I ever saw the piece as it ran on Inside Edition. They should have included more of Downs.
Transcribing the interview that night, watching Diane Downs, was both fascinating and terrifying. I’m being silly with the title of this post (and now have that song as an earworm), but Downs was absolutely a psychopath. I watched her and had no doubt she was capable of anything, no doubt that she was guilty. At one point, she tried seducing the reporter. I mean, “seducing” isn’t quite the right word. Not exactly. But definitely trying to win him, to get him to be interested in her and to like her — so that he’d believe her, I imagine. And her actions with him seemed automatic, as if she didn’t plan it or have to think about it. That kind of seduction was her go-to way of dealing with men. And when it became clear that she wasn’t going to win him to her side, she changed. Nothing dramatic. It was like the really good eye acting some people can do (Gary Oldman comes first to mind). They don’t move a muscle, but something in their eyes shifts and everything is suddenly different. I could watch the moment when she stopped seeing him as useful, when she stopped caring that he existed. He must have seen it and I’d guess that it felt a little unnerving. I don’t ever want to have someone look at me like that.
She scared the crap out of me.
She scared me because she was scary but also because she was so … anybody. She was such a regular person, someone I could imagine knowing, being in class with, working with. And something about the ordinariness of her masking the absolute horror of her upended me, blew my sense of equilibrium. The idea that anyone could be so regular and be a ruthless killer isn’t new, of course. Perfectly normal-seeming people do all kinds of vile and violent things. But something about Diane Downs was different for me. What I saw when I watched her interview tapes settled in me and freaked me out. I left my dark little cubby, dropped off my videos, transcriptions, and tally sheet, left the nearly-empty studio and headed up to 79th Street for the crosstown bus. Every person I saw on the street made me nervous. I could feel fear rise in my throat. I got to 79th Street … and hailed a cab.
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