Waco Untold

Four quickie Branch Davidian books reveal that the full story has yet to come out.

Although it has been only a year since the standoff between the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and Branch Davidians cultists began outside of Waco, four “instant” books on the tragic affair have been on the shelves for months. This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, because the story of David Koresh and his followers is so tawdry and irresistible, but it is hard to believe that after the extensive coverage—51 days of CNN, plus network news, afternoon chat shows, and even a movie of the week—these writers could have anything new to say. And, in fact, they mostly don’t. The books went to press practically before the ashes had cooled at Mount Carmel, and the goal was to be first—to slap the story together and get it out before we had all moved on to some new disaster. But they are not entirely worthless. Readers can glean details here and there about the cult and Koresh that further our understanding in a small way, at least, of life on Ranch Apocalypse.

Massacre at Waco Texas (St. Martin’s Press, $4.99) feels the most like a bunch of newspaper articles clipped together. The author, Clifford Linedecker, lives in Lantana, Florida (headquarters of the National Enquirer ), and is the author of several quick nonfiction paperbacks, including Killer Kids and the Man Who Killed the Boys . Without any obvious reason to be writing about cults or the ATF or Texas (a Michael Jackson book would seem more his speed), Linedecker seems barely able to sustain his own interest in the topic. So he quickly dispenses with the story and then fills the rest of the 254-page book with broader subjects: the history of Waco, Seventh Day Adventism, and the Branch Davidians; Al Capone and his battles with the law; Jim Jones and Guyana; and serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. While this book is destined to be forgotten, it does have the distinction of being the first published, just 42 days after the standoff ended.

See No Evil (Summit Group, $11.95) was written by Tim Madigan, a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Mad Man in Waco ( WRS Publishing $12.95) was written by Brad Bailey, a Dallas-based freelance writer, and Bob Darden, the Waco-based gospel music editor of Billboard. In other words, both books were written by Texans and published by Texas publishers. What makes these books interesting, to some degree, is that rather than depend on newspaper accounts for research, these writers went to Waco and started knocking on doors. They talked to local musicians who used to jam at the compound and listen to David Koresh ramble about the Seven Seals and heavy metal music. They talked to old schoolmates of Koresh and to a few of his distant relatives. Sometimes this approach offers some small good detail about cult life, such as that Koresh had posters of rocker Ted Nugent hanging in the compound. But most of the time these “eyewitnesses” really don’t know much more than anyone else. “His mom and dad were good to him,” offered a cousin of Koresh in See No Evil. “I love the guy, kinda, I guess.” Madigan’s book reads well, unlike Mad Man in Waco, which suffers under the weight of the author’s aspirations to literary greatness. Determined to be funny, smart and evocative, Bailey and Darden often end up just being inscrutable, as in their description of the “Satellite City” of reporters and producers surrounding the compound: “You can’t see it, but this is a river of money, pouring skyward, and the nighttime scene is perhaps the quintessential snapshot of the late twentieth century and the current reality; these high-tech vehicles, surrounded by modernity and cynics, winking upward at eyes miles in the sky… .” Not to seem cynical, God forbid, but the quintessential what?

The fourth book, Inside the Cult (Signet, $4.99), by Marc Breault and Martin King, is the only one that wasn’t written by professional journalists, and it’s the best of the four. Breault was one of Koresh’s most effective recruiters and probably his best friend until Koresh announced that all Davidian marriages were annulled and all Davidian women were married only to him. Breault fled to Australia, where he and his wife tried desperately to stop Koresh and rescue their friends who were still inside the compound. He tells of quixotic, always-changing dietary rules—oranges, for example, could be eaten with grapes but not with raisins—strict exercise, and hours of incomprehensible Bible study with Koresh. Beatings and statutory rape were the norm, Breault says, and he worked for years trying to interest authorities in the abuses going on at the compound. It’s unfortunate that the publishers rushed this book out, because with more time and attention, Breault’s insider’s story could have been one of the lasting accounts of what life was like at Mount Carmel. More than any other book, Inside the Cult treats the siege and the ensuing fire with sorrow and empathy. Breault, after all, lost most of his best friends there.

Unsatisfying though these titles may be, the publishers all report that they are selling at a far better rate than most quickie books. Even a year later, after the bodies have been identified and the survivors are acclimating to life without their leader (some of them on trial in San Antonio), the world still has questions about what went wrong in Waco. Maybe someday we’ll get a book that can tell us.

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