Sudden Fury
A True Story of Adoption and Murder
by Leslie Walker
St. Martin’s Press, 1989

Reviewed by Barbara Free, M.A.

     Published in 1989, this book tells the true story of a young boy who killed his adoptive parents in 1984, when he was 17 years old. The book is the story of this young man’s life, his family’s life, and all the circumstances that finally led to the murder. This is not an enjoyable book by any means, but it is more important, and still more relevant than one might think at first. Although it is not new, it merits another reading, as the current news continues to report killings of parents (adoptive, foster, and birth) by offspring and abuse or killings of children by parents. These are not subjects we like to read about, but perhaps should be more informed about.
     The subject of the book, Larry Swartz, was born in 1966, a month prematurely, to a somewhat flaky mother and her abusive boyfriend. She did try to raise him, but had too few emotional, social, and financial resources to do so. By the time he was a toddler, he was neglected, and then in foster care due to being left alone while she worked. His mother tried, half-heartedly it would seem, to get him back from foster care, but could not seem to comply with the requirements, and finally signed relinquishment papers because she was hoping her new boyfriend would marry her, which he did not. From then on, he was in a succession of foster homes, in which he was abused. Some of these homes were supposed to become adoptive homes, but in each case, the foster parents did not really accept him and finally became abusive. By this time, he was frequently withdrawn and did not seem to be attached to anyone, perhaps because no one was attached to him. The abuse, although acknowledged to some degree, was not addressed by the foster system. He was finally adopted by a very conservative, very religious Roman Catholic couple when he was six years old.
     At first, this seemed like the ideal situation, with what appeared to be very loving, and to outside observers, almost indulgent parents. They subsequently adopted another boy, just six months older than Larry, and then a little girl from Korea. The father, in particular, began to become even more religious and became extremely involved in Right to Life, picketing Planned Parenthood every week, urging young women to carry their pregnancies to term and relinquish them for adoption. He became so obsessed that even his colleagues began to think he was going overboard. They had no idea what was going on in his home, because they did not invite people over much.
     Meanwhile, he and his wife had become verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive, particularly toward the older son, Michael. Yet all looked wonderful to anyone who didn’t know the family extremely well. The rest of the story I shall not reveal here, as the book gradually unfolds the whole complicated story and the eventual outcome. Readers will see numerous facets of everyone in the book and can draw their own conclusions, or at least consider all the circumstances.
     As stated earlier, this is not an enjoyable story, but it is an important one. One wishes it were a novel, but it is not. It ought to be required reading for anyone considering adopting children who have trauma in their backgrounds, which is any child not adopted at birth in an open adoption. Children in foster care have had some kind of trauma or they wouldn’t be there. Professionals in the foster and adoption systems need to read it, too, to help them understand the children they serve, but also to understand the critical importance of really investigating prospective foster or adoptive parents, and the need to continue to monitor them and the children to prevent or intervene upon abuse. This is not meant to scare people from adopting, but if this book does discourage some people, it might prevent a tragedy for people who do not have the capacity or training to help traumatized children, or who believe that just because they are well-meaning they will have a wonderful adoption experience.
     Had this story happened now, the children would all have been diagnosed as having “Reactive Attachment Disorder,” if they had been in any kind of therapy, which they were not. That is not to say that all adoptees are disturbed, nor that all disturbed children are adopted or foster children, but there is obviously some overlap, and when compounded by continued abuse, there is a much greater chance of something really awful happening, as we see in the news, locally and nationally, with increasing frequency.
     In 1993, the story was made into a television movie, A Family Torn Apart, starring Neill Patrick Harris and Johnny Galecki, which was later released on DVD in 2006. One can also google “Larry Swartz,” which this writer did, and, after sorting through the people who obviously are not the person in this book, find a fair amount of follow-up information about him, some of which was positive, and some tragic, but which helped tell me “the rest of the story.”
     This book is currently out of print, but a copy is available to borrow from O.I.’s lending library. Those who want to purchase a used copy are advised to visit the various Internet sites that aggregate the catalogues of many used book dealers (see, e.g., “Where to look for an out-of-print book” on the Readers’ Guide to Adoption-Related Literature website).

Excerpted from the April 2013 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2013 Operation Identity