Crazy Dread

by Border Heeler

Last week I read about the new movie, Crazy Love, and was immediately filled with dread. It is a documentary about married 32-year-old male lawyer Burton Pugach who, beginning in the late 1950’s, woos a younger woman, Linda Riss. Upon finding out he is married with a daughter, Linda leaves him and becomes engaged to “nice guy” Larry. Pugach, filled with jealous rage, stalks Linda and then hires a man to throw lye in her face, disfiguring and blinding her. Pugach goes to jail for this, but remains obsessed with her. Upon his release, and after much harassment, he publicly asks her to marry him. (This all has, by this point, become a tabloid obsession as well.) She accepts. They marry and are married to this day.

The reason for the movie? To explore Pugach’s “obsession” and Riss’ capitulations.

I have dreaded the reviews perhaps as much as the movie. Thus, I have worried, will begin one enormous Blame the Victim extravaganza. How much, I worry, will the reviewer focus on, reinforce most readers’ obsessive focus on: why did she stay with him?

Abused women, in this culture, are aliens or bugs to be examined from every angle. Why does she stay? Why didn’t she fight back? Why did she go back to him? Just what does make her tick?

When obviously the real questions should be: what makes a man feel entitled to abuse? What supports the abuse institutionally? What allows him to tick?

(See Feminist Philosophers for a bit more on this.)

Turns out I am not alone in dreading this film and the discussion of it, including dread from a perspective I hadn’t thought of, but should have. An interesting short commentary comes from a blind male blogger, Professor Stephen Kuusisto, who is anguished about the fact that Linda Riss considered herself “damaged goods” after Burton Pugach throws lye in her face and blinds her. So “damaged” by being blinded that she goes back to him.

Indeed. Instead of wondering “why she stayed with him,” why are most people not wondering why her “good guy” fiancé, Larry, did NOT stay with her? Why is she so alone after such an attack? What is the meaning of damaged goods here and why is she discardable?

Certainly, the “damaged goods” thing, for a woman, is as much about “ruined” appearance as well as about being blinded. Apparently, Linda talks a lot in the film about how beautiful her eyes were before the attack. It is an unforgivable sin for a woman to be ugly. Period.

So, I have read reviews online and, yes, pretty much all of them ask the question about “why she stayed with him” and fewer ask why he (Burton) did what he did. This latter is the real question and yet is less often pursued, as male violence is just seen as a fact of nature. Still, some reviews are more nuanced and sympathetic than others on the “why did she” question and focus more on Burton as evil – an evil individual, though, not a manifestation of an evil patriarchal regime, a very distancing maneuver. “He is not like me.”

And then came along the only review I had yet read that is written by a woman, Christy Lemire. I read it last night in my local paper, but it is a national (Associated Press) review.

And it is … horrific. (Mr. Kuusisto is also sickened by it.) An excerpt:

“Crazy Love” is a documentary about a man who was so obsessively possessive of his ex-girlfriend that he lied to her about divorcing his wife, paid guys to beat her up so she’d feel frightened enough to run back to him, and, most shockingly of all, hired a thug to throw lye in her face, leaving her blind and disfigured at 22.

And it’s funny!

That’s one of the most astounding elements of “Crazy Love” — the way in which director Dan Klores takes a horrific tale, which provided juicy fodder for the New York tabloids nearly 50 years ago, and consistently finds its innate humor.

It helps a great deal that Burton Pugach and Linda Riss, now 80 and 70 years old respectively, are a longtime husband and wife who revel in the attention their unbelievable relationship has drawn. Yes, they got married after everything that transpired between them. That’s only part of the exquisite weirdness.

These two are great storytellers with a great story to tell — he with his goatee and gut, she with her frosted gold wig that matches her lipstick that matches her fingernails, an ultra-slim cigarette perpetually protruding between them. Linda also wears a pair of oversized, butterfly-shaped shades to hide her eyes, but her eyebrows jump behind them as she recounts the extraordinary events that have occurred over the past half century. She’s as enthralled in her soap opera of a life as we are. ….

Woo-hoo, what a laugh riot!

So why, I ask myself, is the only review I read by a woman beyond-the-pale bad? It is, interestingly, also the least emotional review I have read. There is no anguish, no search for meaning, none of the disgust or horror that the other reviewers conveyed. Lemire talks about the “humor” but shows us none of it. It is an extremely distant commentary. I believe that this can only be the expression of a huge sense of denial: that as a woman, Lemire needs to treat this incident as freakish and remote, not as merely a slightly exaggerated example of what women face all the time. The absolute need for emotional distance is the only way I can make sense of “funny” in this context.

“Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Well, no, actually: right now, right here.

And I am worrying, in looking at this, that I am being guilty of the same thing I initially dreaded: asking, “Why is Christy Lemire being so forgiving, laughing this off? Why is this woman not verbally fighting the problematic aspects of this movie?”

Well, because she, like all of us women, is damaged and in need of feeling safe, whether a direct victim or not. Should she be taken to task for a revolting, ultimately antifeminist review? Yes. Is she comprehensible in her detachment? Yes to that, too.

And the film itself: if not made from an explicitly feminist perspective, how can it be anything other than a pornographic or freak-show-esque gawking at a woman’s disabling abuse? There is no reason to suppose, from what I have read, that this filmmaker takes a feminist approach. So, still I dread the film.

And so, I will ask the right question: what allows and supports this film that this man made? Perhaps it will turn out to be better than the reviews indicate. But with this belittling title, I rather dread it won’t. Oh, those crazy mixed up kids! Huh?

Interestingly, though many reviewers have asked the inevitable “why did Linda go back to him?” questions, most were rather sympathetic about it. The seeming extremeness of her situation moves then to sympathy: “Well, she was blinded and ugly, really what else could she do?” My only hope, here, is that most people will take a little bit of this, though patronizing, and do the opposite of what Christy Lemire has done: look at Linda and Burton and recognize the everydayness of women being brutalized like this by men, but extend their sympathy for Linda to all the victims they now blame.


One Response to “Crazy Dread”

  1. Connie Says:


    I discovered your post and thought I’d say hello. I couldn’t agree with you more regarding your views expressed.

    I did want to let you know though that it was I (Connie) who wrote the post and not my husband Steve. I wrote it after catching an interview with the couple on the Today Show in which Linda called herself “damaged goods”. I just couldn’t believe my ears! I was appalled that a victim of such a horrible crime would refer to herself in that way.

    I still haven’t seen the film. The thought that old Burt there might somehow have profited from the “sale” of this story just makes me ill.

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