Saturday, May 15, 2010

On True Crime

Would you convict a man who had a pet ant to life without parole?

That's a serious question. I'll say more about it at the end of this essay.

First, let me tell you a story a friend once told me about his trip to a porno shop. It's an uneventful tale. What struck me was an observation, which I think I can express in words close to an exact quotation: "As soon as I went in the store, I smelled that smell that porno shops always have, and I got that feeling you get when you're doing something taboo."

What interested me was that he felt sure he was breaking a taboo even though he was doing nothing illegal.

Many of our taboos have nothing to do with legality. Suppose I give a speech to a group you belong to. And suppose I begin by picking my nose, burping, putting one of my feet up on the podium, pulling up my trouser leg and calling the audience's attention to my bright white athletic socks. In this story, I break at least three taboos in a few seconds. But I do nothing illegal.

The taboo against going to porno shops is of greater interest than the trivial taboos in my speech story be cause pornography has an effect on American culture that's far-reaching, profound and — because porn is taboo — off-limits to analysis. Before the Internet and DVD came along and vastly extended the range of porn, the sale of XXX videos was a $20 billion-a-year business. One of every five videos sold was rated XXX.

Obviously, many millions of Americans were privately engaging in an activity that in public they would assert was taboo.  Such a phenomenon must indicate something significant about American culture. But outside of the Village Voice and a few academic journals on popular culture, the phenomenon receives no critique whatsoever for the simple and obvious reason that the subject is taboo in this country.

All of that is a belabored way of getting me to the point where I tell you that I frequently read true crime books even though I know it is taboo to do so. Just as it's easy to find evidence of significant consumption of porn, it's easy to demonstrate that many people engage in the legal taboo of reading true crime by noting the significant presence of true crime books in any bookstore.

The taboo nature of true crime is lampooned to splendid effect in a book that is itself taboo — American Psycho. I refer to the scenes in which the killer protagonist disgusts his dining companions with details about serial killers he's gleaned from his reading.

While the scenes are humorous, I think the author, Brett Easton Ellis, was playing around with the reality (as he was during most of the book). The truth is most Americans do know at least the basic facts about such notorious killers as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and most who did not know would want to. Furthermore, Gacy's true-life story was less outré than that of the fictional sensation Hannibal Lechter.

In the situation depicted in American Psycho, the group aware ness of taboo arises when a speaker relates the dirty details of dirty deeds says something like, "Boy, I really get into reading about people who do stuff life this." Not until that comment was made would folks raise their eyebrows.

As an independent thinker, I read what I like without any concerns about whether the material is taboo in this or that place. I admit that if I'm in a bookstore whose counterperson has a sophisticated look, I won't buy a true crime book. There's still certainly that much of the bourgeois in me.

My motivations for reading true crime have changed over time. My first true crime reading spree began in the mid-1980s when I realized I was interested in what I called "marginal culture" — the culture of those who indulge in unusual acts or thoughts. At the time, I thought the gap between the marginal and the typical was much larger than I presently think it is.

These days I read true crime because reading it is the least demanding thing I can do without doing nothing at all. That's the case because I don't own a television.

At this point, I might as well mention that doing nothing is taboo. I say that not just to make a banal comment on the insanely frantic pace at which we choose to live, but also to point out that if a person genuinely does nothing — or comes as close as people can to doing nothing — he'll fear he's suffering from mental illness. In the psychiatric trends that obtain at present, "doing nothing" is a symptom of severe depression, and hence taboo. All of this may inspire even the most jaded person to think, perhaps at an unconscious level, that he "should" do something.

I fear that at times, such thinking is my motivation for picking up a true crime book. Reading true crime is a minimal way of doing something. It's an act that requires next to no intellectual activity. Like fictional works that fall in the category of subgenre, true crime is formulaic in the extreme. The reader never needs to struggle to impose order on the text.

Of course, it's the failure to use the formula in a thoughtful way that makes most true crime books the dreck they are. People read true crime books for one of two reasons: either they want to learn the gruesome details of crimes or they want to learn about the freaky personalities and idiosyncrasies of over-the-top criminals. The successful true crime writer will keep the focus on these motifs and never stray from them.

Most true crime books fall apart the moment the investigation of the crimes begins. In any major case, the sequence of events from the start of the investigation to the announcement of the verdict will involve dozens of individuals at various levels of the criminal justice system. Even a brilliant writer cannot develop so many characters. Yet most true crime writers try to do just that. The reader is inundated with banal detail about a multitude of players. Detective So and So, the reader is told, was tenacious, put in 14-hour-days, gobbled down Cheerios for breakfast at 5 am and paused once in a while for a Dunhill. Clotted with such tedious and pointless details, the book becomes a bore and is tossed in the trash.

I recently read the aptly titled book Rough Trade by talented true crime writer Steve Jackson. I kept noticing that Jackson rarely used even a sentence to describe one of the many individuals in the criminal justice cast. Often his only description was a short parenthetical phrase ("Police Sgt. Bill Smith, an old-school street cop, arrived ...").

Writers such as Jackson, or the more talented Jack Olsen, Ann Rule and Aphrodite Jones, keep their works engrossing by focusing squarely on the criminal at all times.

But why would one want to read such works, even when they're skillfully crafted? If one wants to
learn about freaky people in a fast, easy manner, or if one simply wants to make time pass, reading true crime is a viable activity. For those with no such desires, there's no reason to read it.

To say that true crime is taboo, has a limited audience and is usually poorly written is not to say it's worthless. Most true crime books provide a good view of the human condition, provided one is willing to read between the lines, and work backwards from the adult's expression of violence — the key subject matter — to the influence of the childhood role models for whom the criminal learned violence was an acceptable form of behavior.

Without exception, children who eventually grow up to be the subjects of true crime books are victims of repeated severe psychological, sexual and violent abuse by at least one caregiver, and usually by more than one. People who think criminals commit crimes because they read a particular book are people who haven't read true crime books.

The abusers who transform a child into a violent criminal are usually, though not always, relatives of the child. And it is inaccurate to assume the abusive caregivers are always adults. In the most dysfunctional families, children may be abused by caregivers who are 12 or 14 years old and have long since learned methods of abuse from adult role models.

But what does this have to do with the human condition? Aren't such extreme cases aberrations? They are. But the aberrations are skewed reactions to experiences that are universal. Early on, babies fear abandonment when they can tell a parent is leaving a room or house. And all children, when they are very young, fear they will be abandoned or rejected when they sense parents are displeased with their behavior. Parents with certain dispositions express disapproval of children's behavior by withdrawing affection from the child or becoming resentful or angry. Most parents, of course, will not do these things to the point of being abusive.

Children's fears of abandonment or rejection will be more or less pronounced depending on the parents' gifts at parenting. But even relatively minor childhood fears don't magically disappear when the child reaches the legal age of adulthood. Societies could not exist if people did not to some degree fear rejection or abandonment. Most adults deal with these fears by just coping with them in a catch as catch can manner or by channeling the fear into manageable neurotic symptoms.

The adult who's the subject of a true crime book learned from damaged caregivers that violence was an acceptable way of dealing with fear. At first, such adults don't seem to have much in common with us. But their behavior, extreme as it is, is a response to fundamental insecurities all people have: insecurities the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described with the term "lack." Throughout their lives, said Lacan, people lack a sense of completeness; of being fully understood and accepted by another.

In the rare moments when the brutal criminal sneaks through the filter of violence and expresses the feelings that motivate the violence, what he expresses is the same sense of lack, of incompleteness, of ultimate alienation, we all carry deep inside. This explains why a talented writer who carefully interviews and quotes a vio lent criminal can create passages that move a reader to intense empathy — empathy, not sympathy — with the criminal.

This brings us to the case of Riggans, the man whose brutal crimes Steve Jackson wrote about. When Riggans was interviewed in the Colorado State Penitentiary, he didn't cry about the wives who'd divorced him or the women he'd killed or abused. But he cried profusely when asked about a pet dog he'd had as a child. In a home where the people dispensed no affection, Riggans found it in a pet. That led a prosecutor to wonder whether Riggans had a pet in his jail cell. He did. A pet ant.

The three judges who determined Riggans' fate felt it was painful to pass judgment on a man so severely alienated he sought affection from an ant. But they also understood that if Riggans were released, he would certainly murder again. Their solution: life in jail without possibility of parole.

The book is taboo; the story is worth telling.

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