In episode seven of HBO's True Detective, Rust asks Marty why he stopped being a cop. It's 2012 in the show's world, and both men are years out of law enforcement; Rust is a long-haired boozer, Marty a bald and pot-bellied P.I. (A spoiler follows.)
"Why'd you quit, Marty?" Rust says. "What's the real reason? What happened?"
Considering what we know at this point in the show—all the horrors Marty and Rust have seen—I leaned in for the answer, figuring it would be exceptionally gruesome. Show writer Nic Pizzolatto did not disappoint.
"Well, I saw something," Marty says. "Baby. Tweaker tried to dry the kid in a microwave. Saw that, what he'd done, thought, 'never again'."
Pizzolatto isn't the first script writer to deploy that particular image. The seminal cop movie Heat, which came out in 1995, features a similar anecdote. Al Pacino's Lt. Vincent Hanna and wife Justine (played by Diane Venora) are discussing the collapse of their marriage. Justine says it's because Hanna doesn't "share" himself. Hanna's response: "Oh, I see, what I should do is, er, come home and say 'Hi honey! Guess what? I walked into this house today, where this junkie asshole just fried his baby in a microwave, because it was crying too loud.'" The line doesn't hang in the air quite the way it does when Harrelson delivers it, mostly because Pacino is so damn jaunty throughout most of Heat.
So where did Heat come up with the idea? Some sleuthing gives us a couple of different possible answers. All of them will likely upset people who are especially sensitive to descriptions of violence against children. Continue at your own risk.
The earliest reference we were able to find about a baby being cooked alive in the United States dates back to 1971, according to The Straight Dope's Cecil; but it didn't involve a home microwave, which had only been available to consumers for a few years at that point. Instead, it was strictly the stuff of urban legend, and involved a hippie baby-sitter who gets baked, and then bakes the kid:
What happens usually is that a couple hires a hippie baby-sitter who proceeds to get stoned on acid, marijuana, or sometimes even scotch. Later in the evening the mother calls up to see how things are going, and the baby-sitter says everything's fine, she just stuffed the turkey and put it in the oven. The mother hangs up, then suddenly thinks, "What turkey?" (The mothers in these stories are always incredibly stupid.) Both parents rush home and find the kid's been cooked, while the baby-sitter watches with a spaced-out smile. (In some versions the baby-sitter has set the table with crystal and candles and says, "Look, I fixed a special dinner for you.") Older versions of this story, in which the kid is entrusted to someone who cooks it but without the microwave-and-LSD trappings, have been noted in South American and African folklore.
The first reported case of an American baby being burned by an actual microwave dates to October 1982, when a one-month old girl was admitted to a hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with burns on her left hand, right foot, and abdomen. Police were initially unable to determine how the child was injured; her mother claimed she set her daughter on an ironing board next to a microwave oven, and then left the room to get a bottle. When she returned, the child was injured.
According to a report from the UPI, a detective with the Michigan State Police got a warrant to confiscate the ironing board, the iron, and the microwave, and had all three items tested by the FDA. The same detective also reportedly contacted the National Child Abuse Center and the "National Disease Center" looking for records of microwave burns. He came up empty-handed.
Investigators never figured out what happened to the little girl, who underwent amputations on her hand and foot, as well as serious excisions of her abdominal muscles and skin. Unable to say how the baby had been burned, prosecutors charged the girl's mother with child negligence. She pleaded no contest in 1984. After a brief stint in foster care, the girl was returned to her parents.
For the next 11 years, there are no reports of babies in microwaves. Then, in June of 1995, a 22-year-old man from Saginaw (Michigan, again!) is charged with child abuse for putting his 22-month-old daughter in a microwave, "for discipline." The girl suffered bruises, but no burns, leading police to believe the microwave was never turned on. She's placed in the care of her grandmother.
And that's it in child-microwave news prior to the release of Heat in 1995.
While it's possible the movie drew its inspiration from three murders in the 1980s, when mentally ill parents in New York, Maine, and Tennessee burned their children to death in ovens, not one of the parents in any of the above incidents—oven or microwave—was reported to have committed their crimes under the influence of drugs.
That all changed in 1999, when 20-year-old Elizabeth Renee Otte was arrested and charged with killing her month-old son in a microwave. Otte, a Virginia woman who suffered from severe epilepsy, claimed to not remember placing her baby in the microwave, turning it on, and going to bed. She was convicted in 2000 of involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced to 10 years in prison (with five suspended) and 20 years probation. Much of her trial revolved around determining whether it was even possible for someone who had just suffered a seizure to be the right amount of disoriented to stuff an infant into a microwave and turn it on. Otte's case ended up being pretty convincing. Since Otte, three other people—two women and a man—have been charged with either injuring or killing their children in microwaves.
In 2007, Joshua Royce Mauldin was arrested, charged, and convicted for putting his two-month-old daughter in a microwave in a hotel in Galveston, Texas. The little girl survived. Mauldin, who had just moved his family from Arkansas on God's instructions that he become a pastor in Texas, had stopped taking his schizophrenia medication. In 2008, China Arnold was convicted of killing her child with a microwave, allegedly because she did not want her boyfriend to know the baby wasn't his. And in 2012, a Sacramento woman was charged with murdering her six-week-old in a microwave oven. Like Otte, Ka Yang defended herself by saying she suffers from epilepsy and often doesn't recall what she does immediately after having a seizure.
In 2014, Nic Pizzolatto has a meth user kill a baby in a microwave on True Detective.
To say Pizzolatto ripped the scene straight from the headlines would be only half true. Nearly all of the aforementioned stories involve mentally ill people or people with disabilities, not drug users; and two of the three children who were killed in the 1980s, as well as Mauldin's daughter, were part of "exorcisms." Pizzolatto can be forgiven: There are more than enough religious villains on True Detective, and besides, the idea of a meth user who can't tell the difference between a microwave and a towel is the kind of subtly incoherent distraction that makes the show so much fun to watch, if less fun to reflect on.
Top image: A 1967 advertisement for the Amana Radarange, the first widely used countertop microwave.