Review

Internal Combustion: The Story of a Marriage and a Murder in the Motor City

by Joyce Maynard



We seem to be a culture obsessed with violence, trauma and family
turmoil: we love to hear about the tragedies that befall others and
the media appears more than happy to fuel this interest. It is rare
to find a story about a dysfunctional family that ends in tragedy
that is told in a balanced way. And this is sometimes the case with
true crime authors as well; they fall into the trap of
sensationalizing the stories they present. INTERNAL COMBUSTION, the
latest work by Joyce Maynard --- perhaps best known for TO DIE FOR,
a fictionalized version of the Pamela Smart story --- could be an
exception. She attempts to be non-biased in her telling, but only
arguably so because even she admits she was not entirely
successful.

Maynard, like many others, was riveted when she saw television
coverage of the trial of Nancy Seaman, accused of killing her
husband of 32 years. It was hard to imagine the tiny fourth grade
teacher committing such a brutal act on the father of her two sons.
Seaman claimed self-defense and that she had been a battered woman
throughout the marriage. Intrigued, Maynard flew to Detroit to see
the end of the trial. But once there, Maynard started to lose the
sympathy for Seaman that brought her to Michigan in the first
place. Instead, Maynard came to believe that she was witnessing the
results of one woman's psychological pathology, not the
self-defense that Seaman claimed.

There is no doubt that the Seaman marriage was turbulent, quite
troubled even. But as presented by Maynard, the verbal abuse and
perhaps some physical abuse went both ways between Nancy and Bob
Seaman. The real tragedy, as INTERNAL COMBUSTION points out, is
that the two Seaman sons, Greg and Jeff, end up taking different
sides and lose their relationship with each other as well as their
father to the murder and their mother to prison. Those who knew the
Seaman family were divided as well; some strongly supported Nancy
to the very end, claiming she was a victim of decades of abuse,
while others believed her to be a brutal killer and Bob to be her
victim.

What is fascinating about Maynard's book is not just the story of
the Seaman family, although that is truly compelling; it is
Maynard's method in telling it. She is frank about her feelings
toward the family and others, and she lets readers in on how she
reached the conclusions she did. She didn't simply follow the trial
but also interviewed and spent time with family members, friends,
police, lawyers, reporters and experts in order to understand
Seaman's motivation for killing her husband and how a marriage
could go so horribly wrong. There were several key people who
refused to speak with Maynard, namely Nancy Seaman and her son
Greg. While the story is not really complete without their input,
the absence of their voices adds tension to the drama.

But therein lies some of what readers may find problematic with the
book. Besides the fact that Nancy and Greg Seaman, people whom
Maynard is ultimately judging (or maybe asking readers to judge),
do not get to tell their story, Maynard also didn't witness most of
the trial herself and instead relies on transcripts and the
accounts of others. Yet the book centers on the evidence presented
in the trial. Maynard also admits many personal things about her
own marriage and relationships with her children, which drew her to
the case to begin with. So, like Capote, whom she credits as an
inspiration, she begins to stray over the line between reporting
and becoming personally involved or emotionally invested in her
story. This may not turn off readers, but it does challenge the
limitations and boundaries of traditional true crime writing.

Overall, despite some flaws, INTERNAL COMBUSTION is an engrossing
tale of a troubled marriage, a dysfunctional family and a horrible
act of violence. It is thoroughly readable and just scary enough
for a good winter's fireside read.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011

Internal Combustion: The Story of a Marriage and a Murder in the Motor City
by Joyce Maynard

  • Publication Date: September 22, 2006
  • Genres: Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey-Bass
  • ISBN-10: 0787982261
  • ISBN-13: 9780787982263