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Book Review : An Odyssey Through a Killer's Life

February 09, 1988|ELAINE KENDALL

The Piano Teacher: The True Story of a Psychotic Killer by Robert K. Tanenbaum & Peter S. Greenberg (New American Library: $17.50; 336 pages)

A story just like this one is bound to turn up on the late news one day this week or next. You'll see the seedy apartment house, watch the stretcher shoved into the police van, and hear the neighbors repeat the familiar litany--they can't believe it because the killer seemed such a mild, quiet guy.

Charles Yukl committed the first of these hideous murders in New York in 1966; the second eight years later, but the elapsed time only means the rest of the country has had a chance to catch up. By now, the revolving door of the criminal justice system has become a broken centrifuge, no longer capable of separating the reformed embezzler from the vicious murderer. Welcome to the 1980s, where armed response signs bloom among the daffodils, attack dogs leap against the electric gates at the sound of a tricycle, and a virgin is someone who hasn't been burglarized yet.

System Gone Awry

Tanenbaum, an assistant New York County district attorney at the time of the Yukl trial and later a consultant on the Hillside Strangler case, has collaborated with Greenberg, a journalist and television producer, to dramatize the evils of a humane ideal gone awry. Diligent and well-intentioned, necessarily sensational, "The Piano Teacher" shows how misuse of the insanity defense and perfunctory application of the parole rules combine with stupidity and carelessness to let the Yukls of the world lose upon society.

The authors interviewed 80 people who had known Yukl in school, the Navy, and in his various short-term occupations; talked to the psychiatrists, detectives and lawyers involved in his hearings, and obtained tapes of Yukl's own testimony. They've perused thousands of pages of court transcripts, parole reports and psychiatric evaluations, fleshing out their story with letters and essays written by the garrulous murderer himself.

While many of their interviewees were forthcoming and cooperative, the most crucial witnesses, Yukl's parents and the lawyer who defended him, refused to comment on the case. The result is a curiously uneven book, weighted with tangential facts but often undersupplied with essential information. Yukl's disjointed and redundant maunderings, taped as he tries to prove his own insanity, fail to fill the disconcerting gaps left by the omissions.

The point is made in the first few questions and answers. "How are you feeling?" "Very depressed . . . Um, you know, I feel very, very depressed, very, very, very, very, yes suicidal. I'm st. . ., you know, I'm st. . ., you know, I'm still hearing voices, up at Riker's Island saying how I'm no, you know, saying I'm no good. . . ."

A paragraph of this is sufficient. Eight more pages exhausts the patience of even the most concerned reader. Careless oversights in the connective material, like referring to the 15 miles from Trenton, N.J., to New Hope, Pa., as a "five-hour bus ride" draw our attention to the disparity between actual and reconstructed events, always a problem in works purporting to be factual.

A Grisly Portrait

Despite these flaws, "The Piano Teacher" presents a grisly portrait of a psychotic murderer able to masquerade as a meek music coach, clever enough to gull naive young women into visiting his apartment for cheap voice lessons, sufficiently "normal" to maintain a 14-year marriage and to enlist his wife's help in evading adequate punishment. Evidence that the marriage was a mockery and the wife's alibi preposterous emphasize the shortcomings of the judicial procedure.

The authors' attempt to explain Yukl's aberrations by re-creating his unhappy childhood confirms the fact that the distance between a murderer's background and everyone else's is amazingly slight.

Both gifted and reasonably successful musicians, Yukl's perfectionist, demanding parents seem only marginally different from the parents of well-adjusted achievers. Since the senior Yukls refused to talk to the authors, we have only the murderer's word for the beatings and random cruelties he attributes to them. The horror here is that we're no closer to identifying potential killers by the end of this book than we were at the beginning.

In between, we've had a nightmare voyage through two of the most gruesome murders imaginable, the second entirely attributable to the killer's premature release from prison. In Yukl's case as in thousands of others, the antiquated machinery of the law was completely overwhelmed by the job it was devised to perform.

If "The Piano Teacher" merely reminds the public that the system is no longer equal to the demands placed upon it, Tanenbaum and Greenberg will have succeeded in their aims. Read as a cautionary tale, the book's shortcomings become its strengths; the sheer ordinariness of the story intensifying the magnitude of the issue, the horrific details compelling our jaded attention.

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