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Crime and Custody : IN A CHILD'S NAME; The Legacy of a Mother's Murder By Peter Maas (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 320 pp., illustrated)

November 11, 1990|Teresa Carpenter | Carpenter is a Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter for the Village Voice and author of "Missing Beauty" (W. W. Norton) .

For the last 20 years, Peter Maas has displayed a positive genius for spotting the sui generis. Who better than Joe Valachi to guide us through the previously uncharted terrain of organized crime? Or Frank Serpico to reveal the moral rot at the heart of the New York City Police? Or Marie Ragghianti, whose crusade against the state of Tennessee showed how a principled nobody can run tire tracks over an evil bureaucracy. Each time I pick up Maas, I feel that I have been given a backstage pass to an American Moment.

Of his latest book, "In a Child's Name: The Legacy of a Mother's Murder," I am not so sure.

"Legacy," as it unfolds beneath the pen of this indisputably gifted storyteller, chronicled the life and times of Dr. Kenneth Taylor, a New Jersey dentist whose villainies against women make Jeffrey McDonald look like Alan Alda.

The product of a rigidly regimented Midwestern home life, Taylor abandons his first wife, an Indiana farm girl, when she is nine months pregnant and marries a flight attendant, whom--for no apparent reason--he tries to smother with a sponge soaked in chloroform. That marriage also dissolves without the second Mrs. Taylor ever filing a formal complaint, leaving Dr. Taylor free to take a third wife--a sweet, plump dental hygienist named Teresa Benigno.

It is clear, from the moment the vows pass her lips, that Teresa Taylor is doomed. On the couple's honeymoon in a posh Acapulco resort, she is beaten so savagely that her father must fly to Mexico to bring her home. Although Teresa's family--the Benignos, a clan of Italian-Americans from Staten Island--is convinced that Taylor was the attacker, Teresa also refuses to press charges against her husband. Instead, she gives birth to a baby son, Philip, whom her husband apparently adores. Five months later, her body is found--lifeless, skull crushed--in a bird sanctuary. Kenneth Taylor is convicted of his wife's murder and sentenced to 30 years.

Had the Taylor case ended with the jury's verdict, it probably would have been lost to memory in the ceaseless roil of domestic blood-letting. But a fitful coda brought this story to national attention. His mother murdered and his father in prison, Baby Philip Taylor became the object of a custody battle between his mother's sister, Celeste, and his paternal grandparents, Zach and Jean Taylor. A New Jersey court decreed that Philip should live 10 months of the year with his relatives in the East and two months in the Midwest. While Celeste was appealing this decision, little Philip was taken out of New Jersey by the Taylors, who then adopted him under Indiana law. Wild with grief, the Benignos retained a feminist attorney to get the baby back.

In the spring of 1987, Maas heard of the Benignos' predicament, and infuriated by what he called "state-sanctioned kidnaping," wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine. Siding unabashedly with the Benignos, he charted the bizarre details of a custody arrangement that required Celeste not only to accept phone calls from her sister's killer but to take the baby to the prison once a month to visit his father. Maas' outrage over a system that seemed to favor a wife-killer was real and infectious. (He seems to credit his wife for raising his feminist awareness.) "Legacy of a Mother's Murder" was a remarkably potent piece of advocacy journalism, timed, by Maas' own admission, to affect the outcome of the crucial custody hearing.

There are times when a magazine article can say it all, and this, I suspect, is one. Maas acted upon an ill-advised impulse to expand it to book length, and the result is a tome of 300-plus pages that doesn't quite know what it wants to be.

Is it still, as the subtitle suggests, the "Legacy of a Mother's Murder"? If so, the point is lost by confining the questions raised by the Times piece to the last quarter of the book. The author incurred this liability by opting for a linear, true-crime-narrative style, which shifts the focus away from the social issues and onto the crime's bizarre particulars.

Don't get me wrong. As the genre goes, this is quality stuff. There is, for instance, plenty to interest students of abnormal psychology. Kenneth Taylor emerges as a man who, finding his mother "very judgmental," entered adult life hypersensitive about perceived slights to his manhood.

Evidence of coerced sex led investigators to believe that Teresa had rebuffed an amorous advance, triggering in her husband a psychosexual rage. (Taylor claimed that he walked in on his wife while she was sexually molesting the baby. He killed her, he said, to protect the child.)

As with other celebrated sociopaths, Taylor seems only to feel his own pain. Maas managed to obtain the defendant's own trial notes, which show him whining at the wounds inflicted by hostile witnesses. These comments emanate from a man who has either come to believe his own lies or is cynically constructing a record that he hopes will be found and vindicate him.

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