Marrying the Hangman (1992) Politics are inevitable, even in death. So it's not surprising that a writer would come along to put a feminist spin on the true-crime genre.… Nonfiction True Crime Random House
Book Review

Marrying the Hangman (1992)

EW's GRADE
B

Details Writer: Sheila Weller; Genres: Nonfiction, True Crime; Publisher: Random House

Politics are inevitable, even in death. So it's not surprising that a writer would come along to put a feminist spin on the true-crime genre. By documenting the 1987 murder of a Manhattan woman at the hands of her stock analyst husband, Sheila Weller hopes to validate what she calls the ''deeply unsettling hunch'' that Diane Pikul's death represented one of a number of ''spontaneous male paybacks for feminist advances during the last twenty years.''

Many readers are likely to doubt whether Marrying the Hangman demonstrates any such thing. Sharing a close friend with the victim — a woman who is also a character in the book — the author adopts a highly subjective tone throughout. The victim, moreover, makes an unlikely feminist heroine. A native of South Bend, Ind., who became assistant to the publisher of Harper's, Pikul was, in Weller's view, part of ''a swing generation of adventurous women, presumably the first to be allowed to indefinitely postpone 'safe' traditional life in order to live out their fantasies — but still unprepared to protect themselves from the dangers that hid in those freedoms.''

Alas, most of the fantasies and freedoms Weller speaks of involved heavy drug and alcohol abuse and a penchant for sleeping with, and provoking, dangerous men. ''Of a drug dealer she took as a lover in New York in her early twenties,'' Weller says, ''Diane wrote a year before her death: 'His was the first of a series of guns I woke up to find on my dresser in the morning, a symbol of hope I would never have to go back to Indiana.''' By the time she married the grotesque specimen eventually convicted of murdering her, she had evidently indulged herself with scores of such ''un-All-American lovers.''

Pretty, glib, charming, and apparently a writer of some promise, Diane Pikul seemed well adapted to her '80s incarnation as successful Manhattan stockbroker's wife. But just beneath its glossy surface her marriage to Joseph Pikul belonged to the realm of abnormal psychology. Bad news for Ann Landers: Here's one cross-dresser who videotaped himself in women's underwear masturbating to ''Here Comes the Bride'' and who not only beat and strangled his wife but may also have given her AIDS.

But Joe was also making a million bucks a year, and despite her friends' urging, Diane couldn't bring herself to leave him. Fear of poverty aside, the custody battle over their two children promised to be harrowing. Even after he was indicted, Joe was able to win temporary custody — an outrage Weller considers more deserving of detailed attention than the murder trial itself. Unfortunately, her insistence on dragging quasipolitical issues into a criminal courtroom succeeds mainly in diminishing the persuasiveness of her account. Even so, Weller has written a compellingly narrated account that can't help but arouse strong feelings of pity and anger. B

Originally posted Jun 12, 1992 Published in issue #122 Jun 12, 1992 Order article reprints