"Facing the Wind" by Julie Salamon

The author of "The Devil's Candy" tells the true story of the ideal family man who suddenly plunged into homicidal madness.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published April 4, 2001 2:27AM (EDT)

As Julie Salamon writes, the case of Bob Rowe "could keep a theological task force in business for years." The facts, although chilling, are simply told: On February 22, 1978, Rowe, then an unemployed lawyer struggling with depression, took a baseball bat and crushed the skulls of his wife and three children (one of whom was severely disabled) in their house in Mill Basin, a tidy, middle-class neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Psychiatrists universally deemed him to have suffered a psychotic breakdown at the time of the killings, and even the district attorney made no serious attempt to convict him of murder. After two and a half years in psychiatric hospitals, Rowe was released, went to graduate school, dated two women seriously and married one, fathered a baby girl and spent years trying and failing to gain readmittance to the bar before dying of cancer, at home, in 1997.

Salamon had begun researching "Facing the Wind" before Rowe's death, but by her own account she procrastinated in her attempts to interview him until it was too late. In a sense this is perfectly appropriate, since despite Salamon's subtitle (which bears the mark of the marketing division, if you ask me) this is not a tale of redemption but an enigmatic tragedy, fundamentally unknown and unknowable. In the end, Salamon is just as baffled by Rowe as everybody else, himself perhaps most of all. With a lawyer's propensity for detail, he compulsively annotated the books he read, even the Bible. Next to the words of Job after God has permitted Satan to destroy his flocks and kill his family -- "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away" -- Rowe had written, "By what rationale?"

A journalist who now covers television for the New York Times, and whose previous books include "The Devil's Candy," a bestselling account of the making of Brian De Palma's film version of "Bonfire of the Vanities," Salamon wisely keeps her philosophizing about the Rowe case to a minimum. Still, she makes it clear that she simultaneously believes that Rowe suffered greatly for what he did and that he spent the rest of his life trying to deny responsibility for it. By all accounts he was a devoted family man both before and after he killed his entire family, and this horrible dissonance seems to provide some kind of key to his personality.

Most accused criminals acquitted under an insanity defense spend at least as long in mental institutions as they would have in prison, but Rowe became a model patient and essentially forced the state to let him go. Yet it never seems clear, in Salamon's thorough and cautious account, whether Rowe achieved genuine understanding or remorse regarding his actions or was simply intelligent and resourceful enough to outwit the mental-health bureaucracy. At least one psychiatrist found him an especially troubling patient, writing that "there is something strangely hollow about him, something which defies diagnostic terminology."

Whether readers are likely to view Rowe as Job or as O.J. Simpson is not, however, the point of "Facing the Wind." Much of Salamon's book in fact concerns him only tangentially, as his actions affect a diverse group of New York women bound together initially through their disabled children and later by the death of one of their number, Rowe's wife Mary. Among the mothers gathered around social worker Edith Patt and the Industrial Home for the Blind (IHB) in Brooklyn (where their children attended school), Salamon finds the real Jobs of her story, ordinary women touched by fate in inexplicable ways, whose courage and faith are tested daily.

For the mothers' group, Bob and Mary Rowe had been a success story. They had worked hard to raise their son Christopher, born nearly blind, nearly deaf and with severe mental disability, in as normal a context as possible. Bob was one of the few fathers who ever attended the support group meetings, where he was well liked; he and Mary were understood to be such a textbook couple they were invited to speak before classes for special-education teachers. The IHB women's unanticipated relationships with their disabled children, Salamon writes, "had undermined all their assumptions about the direction their lives would take ... They had aided one another in altering their expectations and desires, and Bob and Mary had become their partners."

Raising a child who requires constant attention is a grueling task, and several of the IHB mothers had faced money problems, crumbling marriages or bouts of mental illness. In private, Salamon explains, they might confess to each other their moments of homicidal fantasy, when they imagined freeing themselves from their responsibilities. So they understood the darkness into which Bob Rowe had descended all too well, and they couldn't forgive him for going there.

It would be unfair to spoil the dramatic climax of "Facing the Wind" -- in which Salamon flouts journalistic convention by orchestrating a meeting between the IHB women and Rowe's adoring second wife, a devout young Catholic named Colleen -- by trying to dissect it. But for all the intense emotion of the scene, it neither solves nor resolves anything. Not Salamon, Colleen, the mothers' group nor anyone else can say how much Christopher's disabilities fueled his father's psychosis, or whether Bob Rowe, the hollow man who defied diagnosis, was simply a human time bomb programmed for one violent explosion.

Despite Salamon's marvelously dogged reporting and her exhaustive research into Catholicism, the insanity defense, Brooklyn geography and the nature of blindness, there's a flavor of frustration and incompleteness about "Facing the Wind." That isn't her fault, I think; it's the incompleteness of human life and its struggle toward ambiguous ends, to use the phrase of novelist Wallace Stegner. Late in Rowe's life, in an uncharacteristic moment of introspection, he wrote in his journal that he wanted to "cut out to Hawaii," his father's ancestral homeland, "to find out who I am and why 2-22-78 happened." But when he took the trip, it wasn't a soul-searching getaway. He brought his young wife and infant daughter along, a family man to the end.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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