Serial Killers: Joyce Carol Oates’ Arnold Friend & the Sugar Conspiracy

This post originally appeared in September 2016.

Doing some background research for a workshop I was teaching on Joyce Carol Oates’s short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I browsed a digital copy of the March 4, 1966 issue of Life Magazine. I was looking up an article, “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” by Don Moser about serial killer, Charles Schmid.  Oates’s fictional story about Connie, a pretty teenager who is pursued by misfit Arnold Friend, was, in part based by the Schmid case and possibly on his murder of 15-yr-old Alleen Rowe whom he killed just to know what killing felt like.


As I scrolled through the chilling article, I learned how 23-year-old Schmid, who fancied himself an Elvis Presley lookalike, pursed his lips like his idol, wore pancake makeup and liked to paint a mole on his cheek with a grease pencil. Since he was short, he sported oversize boots that he stuffed with flattened cans and newspapers–homemade elevator footwear. He preferred blonde teenagers and got girls to dye their hair for him. He would cruise Speedway in Tucson at night on the make in his gold convertible. The article stated that apparently some of his teenage friends knew about a first murder but kept quiet. Life printed pictures of his victims, the oldest of whom was 17, a photo of him with the black mole, a photo of his awful boots. Then there was a paragraph about how he tortured a cat, early evidence that he was psychopath.


And then there was a break in the digitized copy of the article.




While I waited for page 80C to upload–my internet connection wasn’t working very well–I pulled out my copy of “Where Are You Going, Where Are You From.” Many of the details in Moser’s article found their way into Oates’s short story.  I found where Arnold Friend wobbled in his boots—that appear to be stuffed with something—before he makes Connie get in his car, a gold one, like Schmid’s. Arnold abducts Connie with an accomplice, something that Schmid also did when abducting Alleen.

Arnold says: “‘This is how it is, honey: you come out and we’ll drive away, have us a nice ride. But if you don’t come out we’re gonna wait till your people come home and then they’re all going to get it.'”  I imagined his voice a sinister purr in Connie’s ear.

Oates does a great job of turning Friend into a sick slimeball. I felt the fictional Connie’s terror and thought about that of poor Alleen. As I shivered, I glanced away from my book back at the computer screen. Page 80 had uploaded. Instead of the rest of the “Pied Piper” article about Schmid though, a ludicrous 1966 advertisement exhorting people to eat sugar was on the screen.


Sugar, the ad claimed, helps diets work because it’s all energy.

I imagined Arnold Friend whispering the words:
“At only 18 calories a teaspoon (compared to 0 for artificial sweeteners), it’s the only food that satisfies hunger cravings almost instantaneously and with no side effects.”

Such claims were made by none other than the redoubtable Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. “There is no clear justification for the use of artificial sweeteners by the general public as a weight-reducing procedure,” they said. (Check out the small box on the bottom right.) A spate of recent articles in the New York Times and the Guardian show how, in the 1960s, the Sugar Lobby corrupted the Scientists to say sugar was good and the public followed along. 

“What are you going to do?” Connie asks through the screen door before she steps out to do Arnold’s bidding and go off with him.

“‘Just two things, or maybe three,’ Arnold Friend said. ‘But I promise […] you’ll like me the way you get to like people you’re close to. You will….'”

Like Connie, we did what we were told, too. We drank soft drinks and ate candy and even spoonfuls of sugar because it was good for us. It gave us energy. It gave us vitality. Then our teeth fell out. We got fat. We got diabetes and heart disease. We got to like sugar too. We got close to it and it’s doing us in.


The ad appears in the following archived version of Life magazine on p. 80:

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