Thursday, April 01, 2004

"Are YOU a serial killer??"

I had a restful spring break, during which I delighted in the company of my children.  The hardest thing about my visits is the driving there and back (by car, about 14 hours if I drive straight through).  For once, my stay there coincided with some school activities that I could be part of: my younger daughter and the rest of her class had memorized little poems about an animal they had selected (she had chosen a crocodile) and then, at an evening recital, each group of kids who had selected a given poem dressed up at that animal and recited their poem.  Two days later, all the kids in her grade, accompanied by their parents, went on an all-day field trip to a large zoo in a nearby city; I got to go with her.  She had been to this zoo 2 years ago, but she didn't seem to remember having been there before.  No matter--in fact, in retrospect it could be that the trip went so well precisely because all seemed new to her.  The 8-week grading period for the girls' school also ended that week, and my older daughter was announced in an assembly, along with other kids, as being an all-A student AND, according to her teacher, the best writer in her class.Not quite "cute-kid" stories, but I had promised from the outset of this blog not to talk much about them.  But suffice it to say that nothing happened last week to make me anything else than very proud that I am their father.
And then I return to Wichita and I learn that a serial killer who had been active here from the mid-70s to the mid-80s had, last week, sent a letter that, despite the absence of text, signaled to this place that he had "returned."  Or had never left and wanted to let us know that.  No matter: some extreme unpleasantness from the past has exhumed itself and forced itself back into this town's collective awareness. Some links follow here, in case you're interested. This second link gives extensive background to this guy's activities from the mid-70s; what's especially unnerving about his resurfacing as he has, as you'll read in the first link, is that he has sent images that in their very muteness declare, more powerfully than writing ever could, that he's responsible for a murder that had not previously been attributed to him.
On the one hand, in my composition classes such an event as his reemergence is fresh meat for class discussions about critical thinking, the separation of fact from speculation . . . indeed, the teaching of the basic but crucial principle that facts, in and of themselves, have no meaning (recall Hamlet: "Nothing is good or bad/But thinking makes it so.").  And let me tell you that this news has fairly emasculated some of my coworkers' critical thinking faculties.  It's that last observation that leads me to my "on the other hand": why it is that serial killers fascinate us even as they chill us to the bone.  The same reason, incidentally: we just don't get this kind of murder.I'm under no delusions here, by the way, as to how original this thinking is, even though it's only now come to me why we're so naturally drawn to such stuff.  The crime buff or criminologist or psychologist reading this will likely roll his/her eyes at this entry's cliche-ridden (or at least very familiar) "analysis."  But.  To ME, my awareness of this line of thought is new.  So, it's not overly familiar and thus not cliche. (The immediate above, by the way, is a nod to Fearful Syzygy's recent entry about cliche--look for the link to his blog in my Friends list in my profile.[note: Newcomers will find that here])We understand the motives for the vast majority of murders, no matter whether we personally would or could ever do such a thing.  Love, requited or no.  Passion/anger.  Desire for someone else's money or possessions.  Because we so clearly and easily can locate the cause(s) of most murders and we innately understand that the vast majority of murders occur between people who know each other, even as we register their horribleness we instinctively know we are safe.  We don't have to think about them anymore.  One of the primary functions of narrative is to make sense of experience, and the motives of most murders are narratives that usually write themselves, they are so familiar--like our morning/afternoon commute.  But who knows what motivates the serial killer?  Because we don't, we immediately engage in speculation, and the lack of motive, even as we're fed elaborate detail about MOs, the selected contents of letters and FBI profiles, renders unfamiliar those usual well-travelled roads.  Narrative fails to make us feel as though we can order this experience and thus feel safe.  Jack the Ripper still haunts, a century after the fact, not simply because of the gruesome nature of his crimes but because (Patricia Cornwall notwithstanding), we don't know his motives and can't confirm his identity.  So now, I see things like this: Whether coincidence or not, it's a fact that all of BTK's victims have the number 3 somewhere in their street addresses.  So, those of my friends and colleagues that happen to have that to be true about themselves worry more--they can't otherwise exclude themselves from this man's list of possible targets.  It's irrational, those of us without 3's say, and they would agree, but because this narrative lacks motives and facts, that one fact assumes a larger importance--as with Henry James's famous description of a symbol, it throws a shadow curiouser than itself.  They forget that BTK would be at least in his 50s by now and thus way past the age of the typical serial killer; they forget that his most recent correspondence consisted solely of pictures--no text (so we're told by the police) that would indicate even why he sent them, much less an intent to kill again.  They cling to speculation in hopes that it will make them feel safer; it ends up frightening them even more.  The comfort machine that is narrative fails them. Hmm--the "typical serial killer."  A profile of a serial killer is a kind of stand-in narrative shaped by a combination of the facts of a particular case and what has been generally true of serial killers in the past.  But they too fail.  The DC-area police were initially looking for an individual white man, not two black men: they were working from a profile built on, among other things, the fact that such killers are overwhelmingly white and male and alone.I don't have any conclusions here; I'm merely describing a dynamic that is and will always be true.  I derive an odd sort of comfort, though, from recognizing that narrative fails, that, to borrow Mr. Compson's words from Absalom, Absalom!, it just doesn't explain.  Knowing that makes me more alert to new fact and how it might (re)shape speculation, and more ready to accept the failure of profiles and eyewitness accounts if those failures should come.
For Friday: back on track with a discussion of some music.

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