Book review: Masquerade, by Lowell Cauffiel
Masquerade is one of those cliched un-put-downable books, pretty perfect if you want somewhat trashy-themed but still literary nonfiction. It’s the detailed account of Dr. Alan Canty, a respected psychologist from Grosse Pointe, an affluent and exclusive Detroit suburb, and his involvement in a seedier side of life via a bizarre obsessive relationship with a heroin-addicted sex worker, Dawn, and her pimp/boyfriend. He picks her up on his 50th birthday in the Cass Corridor section of Detroit. Canty becomes a sugar daddy-type figure to her, and she and her useless boyfriend exploit his weird fascination with Dawn to leech everything they can out of him. It amounts to many thousands of dollars’ worth of cars, clothes, and cash.
This was apparently a huge, media-frenzied case back when it happened in 1985, especially considering the involvement of a fancy Grosse Pointe resident. Before I started reading, I saw a review that cautioned not to read the prologue or Google the case beforehand, because the book is so compelling and suspenseful that it seems best to go in blind. So I listened, hard as that was, and it was absolutely worth it. Since it made for an exciting read that way, I won’t go into much detail here, in case you also prefer your guilty pleasure or beach reading in the form of riveting true crime accounts (it’s not just me, right?)
The story is one of those that’s written with so much detail you wonder how the author managed to get access to it all. It’s impressive, an excellent feat of narrative nonfiction, never mind only of true crime. That novelistic detail, smoothly woven into the story, is what makes this such compelling reading. Cauffiel provides glimpses into lives and lifestyles, on both ends of the spectrum, that we wouldn’t be privy to without this kind of revealing reportage. I think pointing out that the writing is quite good and it’s a well-structured, researched story is important because the case itself is pretty tawdry (and any edition of the book cover doesn’t help there.)
Cauffiel fleshes out the story of the crime’s events and their lead-up with explanations of the opposing economies and cultures of Grosse Pointe versus the Cass Corridor, particularly in the early 1980s when this took place, which was really interesting. As were the eerily revealing chapter openers of psychological studies and finds from both Dr. Canty and his father, who was also a renowned psychologist. There were so many “physician, heal thyself” moments throughout this story, it beggared belief.
A bit odd is that the young sex worker, Dawn Spens, seems like a complete drip. Her personality, as it’s depicted, at least, has all the enticement of lukewarm tap water. It’s hard to see what Canty saw in her, although of course there’s a lot of psychological background to all this, told in part through those aforementioned quotes from Canty and his father. Every quote hearkens to the diametrically opposed lives this man was leading and the complicated relationship he had with his parents, indicating maybe that’s why all this even happened. It definitely couldn’t have had anything to do with Dawn’s electrifying and beguiling personality, that’s for sure, and sex seemed oddly secondary for this kind of relationship.
But I feel it’s worth mentioning, being why I knocked points off when giving this a final rating – this book just made me sad. Like, really sad. Maybe I was in a vulnerable-to-sadness mood when I read it, I don’t know. But I felt so bummed out about everything when I finished it. People are gross and do such gross, unnecessary, stupid things. I know that’s judgmental, but it’s all I could think about when this was wrapping up. For why does any of this even have to happen? It’s depressing all around.
Interestingly, and maybe a bit more on the positive side, Jan Canty, Alan’s wife, has recently written a memoir after years of silence spent rebuilding her own life. As sad as this whole story made me, I’m still fascinated by a psychologist’s ability to separate and compartmentalize his different worlds. I hope her book makes it to publication, as I’m sure her take on events and how they affected her for decades to come would provide a much-needed balance here.
Grippingly written narrative nonfiction – easy to see why it was a big bestseller upon its release in 1988 – about a sensationalistic murder case with portraits of a lot of sad, sordid lives along the way. Compulsively readable but a downer by the time you’re finished. 3.5/5