By Joe Sharkey
Susan Smith, 28 years old when she was killed in 1989, was a coal-miner’s daughter from one of the most desperately poor places in America, the rolling, environmentally ravaged mountains of eastern Kentucky, and specifically the narrow Tug Valley, along which the Tug Fork river runs and forms a border with West Virginia.
In 1992, when I was researching my book “Above Suspicion,” which was set in this area, I had the good fortune — not by any means a given in reporting a true-crime non-fiction narrative story — of cooperation among almost all of the principal characters in this profoundly sad story. The major exception, obviously, was the dead girl, Susan Smith, who had been strangled and left in a mountain ravine in 1989 by a young, handsome FBI agent for whom she had been working closely as a criminal informant, and with whom she had become sexually involved.
As an experienced journalist, I was able to report out most of the human landmarks in Susan’s life — her history, her character and behavior, her family and social milieu, and even many of her secrets. But to this day, it has troubled me that “Above Suspicion,” a book that I think pushed beyond the boundaries of the honest, accurate, workmanlike true-crime genre and made its way at least to an outpost in the realm of literary journalism, did not adequately convey the vitality that Susan Smith, as screwed up and invincibly feckless as she was, brought to her twenty-eight years on Earth.
To evoke the sentiment of a traditional ballad that was later popularized as an Irish lament: Susie, I hardly knew ye.
Earlier this year, when I learned that “Above Suspicion” was being adapted as a motion picture and was about to go into production (as it did, in late May), I fretted about the way Susan might be depicted. It was so easy to misunderstand her, as had been the case even with many who actually knew her. Was she merely (and please excuse the term) hillbilly white trash, a drug-dealing, drug-using, sexy, no-account hustler who was always looking for trouble — and eventually found more than she bargained for? Was the movie Susan merely going to be depicted merely as a screen on which the stunning dramatic tragedy of Mark Putnam would be projected?
So when I learned that a young British actress named Emilia Clarke had been signed to play the part of Susan in the movie, I was very curious. Ms. Clarke was — and is — best known as the fantasyland queen, the Mother of Dragons, with the confounding name of Daenerys Targaryen, in “Game of Thrones,” a wildly popular television series that I had, of course, heard of, but had never seen.
I looked Clarke up, and my interest was pleasantly piqued. Here, it seemed, was a young actress with a fabulous television-drama career and a wildly adoring fan base who, clearly, had arrived at a point as she approached the age of 30 where she felt a need to evolve creatively as a serious movie actress, rather than a famous television-series star. As a result, earlier this year Clarke starred in what I can only define as a “weepie” movie, “Me Before You,” about a young woman who falls in love with a dying quadriplegic. However, that movie received mainly unenthusiastic reviews (it “sits at the point where tedium, ridiculousness and heartfelt sentiment converge,” according to at New York Times critic), and did only moderately well at the box office thanks, no doubt, to Clarke’s considerable drawing power.
Then, even as she embarked on an exhaustive national and international publicity tour for “Me Before You,” Clarke went for the role of Susan Smith after brashly introducing herself to the “Above Suspicion,” director Phillip Noyce, in full character as a sassy, flashy coal-miner’s daughter, complete with a southern Appalachian “hillbilly” accent that, I was told by someone who was astounded at her deftness, “she absolutely nailed.”
Well hang on here, I thought. This woman could have a pick of parts in a Hollywood that’s panting for the next hot young actress, and she chose the Susan Smith I wrote about in “Above Suspicion”? It was a choice that took brains to see, and guts to attempt. Obviously, Clarke saw the Susan whom I had at least drawn the emotional outlines of in the book, and decided she could make the role her own. And as the movie has progressed on location in Kentucky, where it is expected to wrap in July, it became clear, to me at least, that Emilia Clarke, who seems to be in just about every scene they are shooting, is going to bring life back to Susan Smith, a poor country girl with notions.
O.K, so I’m optimistic about this movie. I will keep you posted here.
In the meantime, as I work on a new edition of the book (which has been out of print for years), here are some of my personal notes on the real-life Susan Smith and the place where she lived and died, Freeburn and Pikeville, deep within the rugged hills of eastern Kentucky.
People in those parts gossip and, to an unusual extent that even today gives us a usable explanation for why the fabled Hatfield-McCoy feud lasted for forty years, they traffic in hearsay. Growing up and living in precisely the place where that acrimonious, complex and bloody feud played out over decades, Susan Smith was both a literal descendant (her mother’s family was McCoys; her father’s family came from the Hatfields) and a metaphorical one.
One of my challenges in researching the “Susan” in “Above Suspicion” during my lengthy stays in the Pikeville area in 1992 was the difficulty of sifting rumor and gossip from fact about a character in the book who was dead.
Susan’s sister, Shelby, who became the family spokeswoman of sorts after her sister’s body was found (the father being incapacitated in the final stage of the coal-miner’s blight, black-lung disease), was constantly perplexed by her vexing, wildly impulsive sister, with whom she had an uneasy and sometimes estranged relationship. Shelby never met Mark Putnam, though she did have her misgivings and, later, her dark suspicions about the FBI agent whom Susan had become so infatuated with.
Still, though she was frequently quoted in the press as a source after Mark Putnam confessed in 1990 to killing Susan a year before, the only time Shelby ever even laid eyes on Mark was at the court proceeding when he made his confession and was sentenced to 16 years in prison and became the first FBI agent ever convicted of homicide.
Shelby was always difficult for me to assess. After Susan’s body was found, Shelby had what she told me was an exclusive arrangement with a local writer with no real journalism experience for a quickie paperback book (“The FBI Killer”), and a related, largely fictionalized made-for-TV movie based on a sketchy narrative bolstered with occasional reference to news accounts that conveyed only the basics of the events surrounding the complex and emotionally tangled case. It was a largely ignored, dreadful movie, even by the standards at the time of made-for-TV movie fare.
To me, incicidentally, an indication of Shelby’s tenuous engagement with Susan in life was that, in death, Shelby could produce only a single photograph of Susan — an unflattering portrait of her that appeared in media accounts following Mark’s confession.
Likewise, Susan’s off-again on-again, drug-dealing ex-husband Kenneth had been able to dig up only a grainy photograph of her, though he did helpfully rummage through a box looking for a better one when I stopped by his rusted old trailer near Freeburn to talk to him one afternoon in 1992. Outside the trailer, as the affable Kenneth and I spoke, the couple’s young son Brady skidded up on bicycles with some scruffy friends, one of whom regarded me suspiciously and asked young Brady: “Is that the man killed your mama?”
Actually, the best appreciation and fullest accounts of Susan Smith that I was able to find came from the man who did kill her, Mark Putnam, and from the woman who had warmly befriended her in life, and was Susan’s fiercest advocate in death, Kathy Putnam, Mark’s wife.
Some of the other contours of Susan’s life were filled in for me by people who knew her as a child and as a woman, including the librarian at the nearest town library, a few miles from Freeburn in Phelps. Mable Dotson remembered Susan as a curious, rebellious but unfailingly polite and amiable girl, a seventh-grade dropout whose entire life trajectory was spent hurtling down the wrong track. “But that girl, she read,” she told me. “Especially after what we now know was her time working for the FBI, she would come in and ask what books she should be reading, you know, to stay current. I found that amazing.”
Susan’s reputation was not good in Freeburn. Some unflattering tales I was frequently told about her were undeniably true: She was wild and unreliable; she sold drugs; she lied almost pathologically; she desperately craved attention and affirmation; she bragged about things small and large; she “went with men.” She “had a mouth on her.”
But better aspects of her personality also emerged thorough my reporting. In her finer moments (and she had many of them), she was cordial and hospitable. She tried to be a good mother to her two young children, even though she had absolutely no role models in her life, or in her extended social network, to teach her how that might be accomplished. Taking off from her home base in the Tug Valley area of Freeburn and just across the river in Vulcan, West Virginia — even for extended periods with Kenneth on various drug-business (or drug fueled) capers — was not entirely out of the ordinary for her. Nor did it necessarily constitute evidence, at least from the perspective of her social environment, that she was a grossly neglectful mother, given the child-minding assistance in an impoverished society that was readily available through her more firmly anchored sister Shelby, or through a local network of friends and relatives. Heck, there was always somebody to watch the kids.
Also, Susan managed to maintain a stable household in the Tug Valley, near where she grew up in a mountain hollow that one acquaintance called “Lonesome Holler.” It was a home, as disordered and chaotic as it might have been, with comings and goings by disreputable acquaintances and inveterate couch-surfers, including a hapless but determined bank robber named Carl “Cat Eyes” Lockhart. Such was not then (and is not now) an unusual way of life in an impoverished place where people drift through day and night seeking company, diversion, amusement, shelter, some laughs, a few beers, some weed, a couple of pills, a caper, a quick tumble when the opportunity arose.
The Susan I was able to piece together after her death was a deeply troubled young woman who nevertheless functioned, and sometimes with alacrity, such as when she was working criminal cases as an informant for Mark. Yes, Susan sometimes dealt drugs and certainly she used cocaine and marijuana when it was available. But I could find no evidence that she was drug-addled. Methamphetamine abuse, whose physical ravages become apparent in a person over a fairly short period of time, does not seem to have been her style, as it was with so many people in her milieu. For example, when her scant remains were found in a mountain ravine a year after she was killed, the forensic examiners did not have much to report beyond this:
She had good teeth.
Susan insisted on being noticed, even demanded it. In the gossip-driven environment of the Tug Valley, she was known as a flirt, a “cock tease,” a flake. But to the extent I could discover after her death, Susan was also faithful, in her fashion, to any man she was with, no matter how awful that man might be. She was kind. If you were her friend, you liked her a lot, even if you knew not to trust her.
As to the personal relationship with Mark, there was dispute – always based on hearsay — about how and when she and the dashing young FBI agent became sexually involved during her several years of working as his valuable (and well-paid) informant starting in 1987. Much of that was driven by uninformed speculation that sprang from on Susan’s own, probably exaggerated, tales about her exciting relationship with Mark, who was perhaps the handsomest man in the area, a solid guy with manners and with a status job who was — and this is key to understanding to her obsession with him — the only man in her life who ever treated her with respect.
Till he killed her, that is.
There is no doubt that Susan regarded Mark as the knight in shining armor who would rescue her from her miserable life on his white charger.
Much of what was said about Susan and Mark’s relationship after he confessed and her remains were found came from “hillbilly hearsay,” which is usually as dramatic as it is unreliable. It was well known that Susan was telling tales back in Freeburn of her sexual relationship with Mark, which she implied had been longstanding. When I interviewed him in prison in 1992, Mark insisted to me, however, that his intimate relationship with Susan was brief and began only in December 1988 — though he conceded a very close “informant” relationship with her for for more than a year before that he increasingly had become uneasy and uncomfortable with, especially given Susan’s clearly expressed sexual intentions. Those he said he simply shrugged off, till he did not.
Most definitely, Susan had unrealistic expectations. She clearly loved him. And he felt genuine affection and empathy toward her. To him, she was useful in his career ambitions, specifically in his labors in the two-man Pikeville FBI office as a genuinely good cop in a very tough place that got tougher, in time, than anyone could have imagined. He wanted her to find a better life. He just did not realize the extent to which she believed that life would be with him.
Mark’s wife Kathy – abjectly lonely in Pikeville, a place where outsiders are regarded suspiciously — also felt genuine affection for Susan. As Susan’s work with Mark progressed, the two unhappy women became friends and talked frequently, mostly in lengthy nighttime phone calls. Kathy, remembering her own rebellious and sometimes rocky youthful years before she met Mark, tried to show Susan that her life could improve if she set goals. In turn and in her own clumsy way, Susan began modeling herself after Kathy, in dress, in bearing, and even in speech.
Kathy was confident in her marriage, even though it had entered rough waters during their final year in Pikeville, when Mark was overworked and Kathy was miserable, frightened of sneering local criminals who loomed a bit too close, desperate to get out and see Mark reassigned to a better FBI office far from those hills. Kathy remained confident in her marriage till the final reckoning, the night when her husband finally confessed to her that he in fact had had a sexual relationship with Susan, and followed that by confessing that he’d killed her too.
Kathy is being played in the movie by Sophie Lowe, a British-born Australian actress with a promising movie
background (“Beautiful Kate”), and good notices in television. I don’t know much about Lowe, but I do know the role of Kathy will be crucial in a character-driven movie in which two appealing and headstrong young women, wife and mistress, orbit tragically around a man who is about to bring worlds crashing down.
Let me share here some of what Kathy told me about her feelings for Susan, as I was researching “Above Suspicion” in 1992, when Mark was already serving a sixteen-year prison sentence. (Mark served ten years and was released in 2000).
Kathy’s said, “As hard as this whole thing is, I still feel for Susan — even more so now than I did before. She was headed down the wrong path anyway, and something was eventually going to happen to her, but this … [She began crying].
“She and I developed a close relationship as soon as she began working with Mark and sharing her troubles with me. She came to me in the way she did, I think, because I could talk to her on her level. I understood what her feelings where, her hopelessness, not being able to get out of that. I’d been there before I met Mark. I was in a position where I could say to her, ‘But look at me, Susan. Yes, I have all of these things that you want. But you can do it too, if you set goals.’
“Mark had talked to her about getting away from abuse, getting out of Freeburn. He told her, ‘Take the money the FBI’s giving you. Get a job, establish yourself with your kids, find a new place.’ But she always wanted the easy way out. It was like banging your head against the wall, trying to get through to her that she could set goals and find a good life. It also was so hard for me because I understood everything that she was saying. I understood her mindset. I knew how she was thinking but I couldn’t break through and make sense to her….”
She told me she knew Susan had become obsessed with Mark, but that she trusted him to maintain professional boundaries with a needy, manipulative but very useful informant.
“It never occurred to me that Susan and Mark were having an affair. In fact, I was convinced to the contrary. It was out of the realm of possibility,” she told me, adding that when she had asked him about rumors of a relationship between the FBI man and his informant it in Pikeville, he had scoffed at the idea.
“There was no way my mind that this had happened. I thought, I was too close to Susan. She would have told me! It’s the one thing that to this day I cannot understand. I don’t understand. There’s two ways to look at this, but the one thing I would have expected of her to do was to tell me. …”
I spoke with Kathy at length over many months as I was researching the book, and many more after “Above Suspicion” was published in 1993 and generated strong media attention. Kathy was always forthcoming and honest, even when being so made her pain worse. She never ducked a question or shaded the truth. She was a remarkable woman, and I liked her enormously.
Kathy Putnam, who steadfastly stood by Mark in prison, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1998.
She was 38 years old. She and Mark had two children, both now adults.
[A new edition of “Above Suspicion” by Joe Sharkey, with an updated epilogue, was published in 2017. The movie, which stars Emilia Clark, Jack Huston, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe and Johnny Knoxville, and is directed by Phillip Noyce, will be released in 2018.]