For years I have been unsuccessfully recommending true crime books to friends. The second you tell someone you’ve just read a mind-blowing book about Jeffrey Dahmer that they simply must read, they start to back away from you. The first rule of reading true crime, evidently, is that you don’t talk about reading true crime.
And yet I’m clearly not the only one reading (or watching) it. Books by Ann Rule and Harold Schechter are perennial bestsellers; the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer have led to a resurgence in true crime popularity, with more people reading it than ever before.
The question is, why?
Does true crime permit people to “ventilate their sadistic impulses…in a socially acceptable way”? Or does it serve as a “kind of guidebook for women, offering useful tips for staying safe”? Or do these stories prompt us to “take a long, hard look at the contexts in which such atrocities arise” and “how we as a society deal with them”?
None of those reasons resonate with me, although that last one comes closer than many. So why do I read (and in some cases, re-read) these narratives that describe such horrifying things, things that scare me and break my heart? Why can’t I look away?
Some of the first true crime books I read were the ones everyone reads: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the narrative of the 1959 murders of a Kansas farm family, is respectable enough to be on many high school reading lists. Likewise, Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, about the murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and several others, perpetrated by Charles Manson and members of his “family,” has sold many millions of copies. More recent classics like David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, also don’t require digging to find. Simon’s journalistic account of a Baltimore homicide department and the cases they worked became the basis for the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street (and arguably paved the way for The Wire); Kolker’s investigation into the lives of the women killed by the (as yet uncaught) Long Island Serial Killer was named on many “best of” book lists of 2013.
But I have also read a lot of true crime that doesn’t make the bestseller lists. There was Stacy Horn’s surprisingly gentle The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, about murder cases solved (or not) years after they were given up as unsolvable. Although largely a police procedural, Horn’s book is also notable for the details given about the victims: teen Christine Diefenbach was on her way to buy milk and a magazine; drug dealers Linda Leon and Esteban Martinez were killed while their three young children listened in the next room. There was also Jeanine Cummins’s A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, an excruciating blend of family memoir and crime. When Cummins’s two cousins and her brother went to see an abandoned area bridge that doubled as a teen hangout spot, they were assaulted by a group of men who raped the women and finished by pushing all three of their victims into the Mississippi River to drown. Surviving and crawling to safety, Tom Cummins then underwent a second ordeal when the local police targeted him as the killer of his cousins. Although I don’t really read true crime to learn how to protect myself, I did take away at least one lesson from that book: Lawyer up.
A Rip in Heaven was the first true crime book that I tried to recommend to friends. I’m sure no one took me up on it, and I can’t blame them; re-reading the book now, my stomach is in knots for the victims because I know what’s coming. But I didn’t learn my lesson: when I read John Backderf’s graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer, about his high school acquaintanceship with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, I wanted everyone to read it. In that book I learned that Jeffrey Dahmer, on a high school field trip to Washington D.C., got himself and a couple of friends invited into vice-president Walter Mondale’s office. All of a sudden it was clearer how Dahmer, in subsequent years, proved to be adept at talking himself out of sticky situations with police officers. How do you not recommend the book from which you learn that? Overall Backderf painted a picture of such a struggling and disturbed young man that, in his preface, he had to tell his readers to “pity him [Dahmer], but don’t empathize with him.”
Empathizing with anyone in true crime narratives is tricky business. Of course you empathize with the victims, although you hope you are never among their ranks. What is even more horrifying is when you recognize something in the experiences of the killers. It has been years since I read Jean Hatzfeld’s oral history of the Rwandan genocide, Machete Season, in which he interviewed Hutus who had been charged with multiple murders of their Tutsi neighbors, and yet I will never forget the chill I got when I read this line: “Killing was less wearisome than farming.” I grew up on a farm, where we worked all the time, and then bad weather would come along and ruin all your work anyway. God help me…just a little bit…I got what the murderer was saying.
This autumn, for the first time, I read Dave Cullen’s multiple-award-winning narrative Columbine, about the 1999 school shootings in Littleton, Colo.. At the time I hadn’t paid much attention to the shootings—you live in a culture that loves guns, you’re going to have school shootings, I figured—but it gives me pause now to read about the events and the psyches of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters, and to read about how involved both their sets of parents were in their lives. I say “involved,” although it is impossible to know, really, how close either boy was to his parents. If you read enough true crime you start to question even basic vocabulary. What does it mean to be involved? Or close? Or a psychopath?
Because I have little boys, the subjects of boys and depression and anger are now all subjects that are on my radar. As such, I followed up Columbine with Sue Klebold’s (mother of Dylan) memoir A Mother’s Reckoning. The day I picked it up from the library I had both my boys with me, and we headed back to the kids’ nonfiction section so they could browse, and I could stand nearby looking over books for myself. As I paged through the Klebold memoir, my concentration was interrupted by half-shouts from the kids’ computer area: “Shoot them!! Come on, kill ‘em kill ‘em kill ‘em, God, you’re a terrible shot, move over and let me do it.” About four tweeny little boys were playing what must have been some multi-player shoot-‘em-up game. What were the odds, I wondered, that I would be listening to these nice little suburban boys chant variations of the words “shoot” and “kill,” while I paged through a book written by the heartbroken mother of a murderer?
It struck me that day that there is no use pretending that violence is something that only happens to the Other, perpetrated by the Other. We are surrounded by it on all sides, even when we try to construct our safe enclaves. Violence is a great exploiter. All it requires is bad luck, a foolish miscalculation, human weakness, or some combination of those factors to make its presence felt. Although monstrous deeds are front and center in these true crime narratives, they are not really about monsters. These are stories about humans: we are messy, we are imperfect; sometimes it is easy to succumb to anger and hatred; sometimes we are the victims, at other times, the perpetrators.
But if there is no use hiding from violence, equally there is no denying the presence of its flip side: compassion. And there is also compassion in true crime narratives: in the doggedness of the cops and investigators who are employed by society to try and solve cases; in the dedication of the legal system workers who prepare for trials for weeks, months, years; not least in the fortitude of authors who research and write these stories to bring them out into the open. All of those people work to restore dignity to those whose dignity, along with their safety or their mental equilibrium or their lives, was taken away from them.
True crime is not easy to read. It is even harder to talk about, and it’s almost impossible to recommend to other readers (without sounding a bit like a prurient psychopath yourself). But if 2017 taught us only one thing, I would hope it is that before you can start to try and solve problems, you have to admit problems exist. We have to tell the stories, and we also have to listen.
That is why I read true crime.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ash Photoholic.
“I ran into a girl…She said I was a strange person and she told me why. She said, ‘You were born in a certain area where the ground is metallic.’” – Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades Revisited
Bob Dylan was born in Duluth but spent his formative years in Hibbing, a small, isolated northern Minnesota town whose claim to fame (according to the billboard that greets you as you come into town) is that it’s home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. It’s also my hometown, in an area so remote from Minneapolis that a friend from the city had never heard of it.
There are a number of towns in Minnesota’s Iron Range, which covers the upper fork of the state, but Hibbing is a particularly weird place given an accident of history; its inadvertent placement atop one of the richest veins of iron ore meant the mining company had to grant the townspeople major concessions to persuade them to move its location. Thus Hibbing is the only town with a high school listed in the National Register of Historic Places: the building cost four-million dollars (in 1923!), complete with marble floors in the bathrooms, a 1800-seat auditorium patterned after the Capitol Theatre in New York City, and a Broadway-level green room. Because Hibbing, which is near Canada, wasn’t the most hospitable place to live (in his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan described the winters as so cold and unending as to be hallucinogenic), the mining company also invested in education: the superintendent of the school system supposedly received the highest salary of any school district in the state, and K-12 instructors were paid unusually high salaries for the area. The Hibbing public schools were thus funded more like lavish private schools, so you end up with people like English teacher B.J. Rolfzen, who is often credited by Bob Dylan for instilling in him a love of language.
To give you an idea, this is where we had our pep rallies for homecoming, our auditorium. You can imagine yourself laughing a young Bob Dylan (then, Robert Zimmerman) off the stage at the talent show (yes, this happened).
But whether it was the richly funded schools or the iron ore in the water or some other strange vortex (Hibbing is also, weirdly, at the epicenter of climate change), the town boasts an unusual number of writers, some of them culture-changers like Dylan. (And this is not to mention that Greyhound Bus Lines, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, and Gus Hall — all Hibbing originals.)
The uncle of one of the kids I sat next to in Earth Sciences in junior high was Vincent Bugliosi, the Charlie Manson case prosecutor and the author of the best-seller about the case, Helter Skelter. Bethany McLean has the distinction of being the person who broke the Enron scandal; she wrote about first in Fortune magazine, and then in the best-selling Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which was made into a movie of the same name. Rick Novak, M.D., is the author of a medical thriller set in Hibbing that references the newest Nobel Laureate: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Frank Riley, author of various science fiction novels, won a Hugo Award for They’d Rather Be Right, which he co-wrote with Mark Clifton — apparently this was only the second time the Hugo was awarded to a novel.
Who will come out of Hibbing next?
There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal. I wish, too, that it weren’t so obvious that the cult that Cline’s narrator, Evie Boyd, joins in the novel is based on the Manson Family, whose senseless 1969 rampage at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. Finally, I wish Cline hadn’t chosen to tell the story in the retrospective first person, both because the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the framing story kills any lingering doubt over what’s going to happen, but also because Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person.
Cline is a gifted stylist, and her subject is a sensational one, which is no doubt why her editors saw in The Girls the potential for a breakout literary thriller like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But I fear New York publishing has jumped the gun here. The weight of expectation that comes with the headline-grabbing book advance combined with Cline’s inexperience as novelist cancels out the many flashes of fine writing in The Girls, leaving the reader wishing this talented young writer had been allowed to develop slowly, under the radar, instead of being showered with cash and pre-publicity before her craft had caught up to her prodigious gifts.
Those gifts are on display in the novel’s perfectly realized opening scene when Evie first sees the female acolytes of the Charlie Manson stand-in, here called Russell Hadrick, in the summer of 1969. The scene unfolds like the opening shot of a 1970s art-house thriller, all saturated color and sinuous slow-motion, as Evie watches the scruffy, long-haired girls saunter through a suburban picnic, seeming to “glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”
Evie, a lonely 14-year-old whose parents are divorcing, is mesmerized by the girls’ mix of grunginess and hauteur, noticing how “a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.
The sun spiked through the trees like always — the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets — but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.
The novel begins to sag soon after this bravura start, though it takes a while to figure that out because Cline writes so well even when there isn’t much going on. Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments, but she has a natural’s eye for the telling detail, the single image that makes a character indelible: a girl with a “face as blank as a spoon,” a smarmy young drug runner whose “upper-class upbringing kicked in like a first language.” A few pages later, Cline nails the look of the late-1960s Haight-Ashbury in one pitch-perfect sentence: “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too — you could be some moon creature, chiffon over lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.”
But whatever they may say in MFA programs these days, a novel is more than the sum of its sentences. For much of the first 100 pages, before Evie gets caught up in Russell’s cult, The Girls is a glacially slow tale of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Here and there the social and political freakiness of the Vietnam-era 1960s penetrates Evie’s cocoon-like suburban existence, but for far too long the book reads like a well-written but underplotted Judy Blume novel.
One plods through this familiar territory waiting for the shock of Evie’s immersion into the cult, only to find oneself once again dropped into a world that all too neatly matches one’s expectations. Cline has combined a few of the real-life characters for narrative simplicity, and moved the group’s base of operations from a ranch north of Los Angeles to a ranch north of San Francisco, but in every other way she has simply inserted the fictional Evie as a minor player in the true-crime story of the Manson Family.
Here we have Russell/Charlie, a scuzzy Flower Power Wizard of Oz in buckskins and bare feet yammering on about free love and emancipation from straight-world hangups while dreaming of being a rock star. Here we have an actual rock star, Mitch Lewis, based on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who befriended Manson and introduced him to music producers that Manson thought would make him a star. And most important of all, we have the teenage girls who idolize Russell/Charlie, sleep with him, cook and clean up after him — and ultimately kill for him.
Cline is very good on the heady concoction of big-sister admiration and suppressed sexual longing that draws Evie to one of these girls, Suzanne Parker. If she had distilled the relationship between these two — one a lost, love-hungry suburban teen, the other a knowing, manipulative would-be murderer — into a taut short story, or else deviated from the Manson Family script to carry Evie and Suzanne’s relationship to its logical conclusion, perhaps Cline could have added some fresh perspective on one of the most exhaustively documented crimes in American history. As it is, by hewing to the history of the Manson murders, and tossing in Evie as an innocent bystander, Cline manages only a pallid fictional retelling of a famous story that readers can get in more vivid form in Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson or prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 true-crime classic Helter Skelter.
Younger readers, for whom the turbulent ’60s are as distant and exotic as World War II is to a Gen Xer like me, may not be as put off by the second-hand quality of the historical material in The Girls. But even readers who know nothing about the Manson murders and the period that gave rise to them may wonder whether Evie’s decisions make emotional sense. Why would this bright, ordinary kid run off to a commune where the girls scavenge trash out of dumpsters and where on her first night she’s forced to give a blow job to the filthy little twerp who runs the place?
This, of course, is one of the enduring mysteries of the real Manson story. Many of Manson’s followers were ordinary suburban kids, and one, Leslie Van Houten, who was recently cleared for parole after 47 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was famously a homecoming queen. But beneath this veneer of ordinariness, according to Guinn’s Manson, Van Houten was, like most of Manson’s followers, caught up in the madness of the ’60s, dropping acid in high school and running away at age 17 to the Haight.
This ultimately is what is most glaringly absent from The Girls, the deep gash in the societal fabric that swallowed up a generation of troubled kids. In 1969, America was losing a bloody war in Vietnam. The inner cities were exploding. Drugs and sex were everywhere. College kids were going underground to declare war on the United States, and high school kids were burning their draft cards and heading to San Francisco. In that atmosphere, which is curiously missing from Cline’s much-hyped debut, Manson’s apocalyptic ravings about a coming race war that would cleanse the planet of everyone but his followers could sound almost mainstream.
It’s been a number of years since my last installment of “Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?” — and the reason is simple: I’d come to feel that a reassuring majority of picture books were not, in fact, leading our youth to ruin. I was finally able to sit in my cozy parlor, mug of chamomile in hand, and allow myself to relax. Perhaps my success in exposing the most egregious examples of malevolent kiddie-lit — Blueberries for Sal, Caps for Sale, Curious George Flies a Kite — had led me to believe that my duty had been fulfilled. Perhaps I simply became complacent. Whatever the reason, I’ve recently discovered — with an audible gasp — that the polluted river of wicked picture books has been flowing as strongly as ever. A new crop of titles has until now escaped my benevolent, if Sauron-like gaze — and in so doing, have tainted our tots with narratives of untold madness and perfidy. Here are four of the very worst offenders:
The Day the Crayons Quit
This grim tale of workplace discontent is put into motion when a boy named Duncan finds that his crayons have collectively “quit” — each of them, from red to blue to orange, outlining his grievance via outrageously self-pitying letter. Beige doesn’t like to draw wheat, Black feels misused, Gray is exhausted, and on and on. While the question of how Duncan’s crayons gained such frightful sentience must be addressed, the most salient matter is this: Have these crayons seen the condition of today’s economy? Had they deigned to pay heed to the steady erosion of secure, well-paying jobs, they might not have so blithely run from their carton. The Day the Crayons Quit teaches children that it’s not only wise, but noble, to walk off the job on a whim — because you don’t like being used to draw whales or seas or fire trucks. This book will no doubt produce a generation of adults who, decades hence, will up and quit because they don’t like the coffee in the breakroom or the pens in the supply closet — and wind up penniless, without prospects, swilling rotgut hooch in a trash-strewn gutter. And all the while moaning, of course, about the unfairness of it all.
I Want My Hat Back
Imagine, for a moment, that you had an item of clothing that was dear to you. For some, it might be a blouse gifted by a doting grandparent. For others, it might be a brother’s hand-me-down parka. For still others, it may be a hat — say, an oddly featureless, triangular red cap. Now imagine that this hat was stolen from you. Certainly, the loss of a beloved item of clothing would be disappointing; saddening, even. But in a rational world, you move on. You remember the hat fondly, get soft around the eyes whenever it comes to mind. What you do not do is seek out and murder the thief in a fit of dead-eyed, Bronsonesque revenge. Or eat the body afterwards, to hide the evidence. Yet that is exactly the scenario laid out in I Want My Hat Back, in which a sociopathic bear kills and feasts upon the rabbit who has stolen his precious hat. Is this a vision of the world we want to pass along to our children? If your son’s Thomas train is pilfered by a neighbor, should his response be worthy of latter-day Liam Neeson? If your daughter’s Sofia doll is suddenly snatched away, should she respond with cannibalism? Sadly, the answer given by the grisly I Want My Hat Back is a resounding, blood-spattered “yes.”
I Will Surprise My Friend!
On its surface, the Piggie and Elephant series seems fairly benign: a bespectacled elephant named Gerald and a flighty pig named (appropriately enough) Piggie banter about through a string of mild capers: hiding from one another, playing in the rain, becoming annoyed when birds nest upon their heads. Standard kid stuff, really. But lurking beneath this silliness is a simmering sexual tension that cannot be ignored. Gerald is male; Piggie is female. At best, their 22-book-long platonic friendship gives children a grievously false view of such relationships. Because eventually, Gerald, stumbling home from the bar, will pour out his heart to Piggie in a desperate, rambling slur — only to be crushed beyond all recognition when she winces and shakes her head. Or worse: Piggie will flutter her lashes, clasp her hooves, and say that she, too, harbors such feelings. Now, you may think I’m overanalyzing the whole Elephant-and-Piggie affair, that I’m being hysterical. But have you ever seen an elephant trying to mate with a pig? Because I have, and it’s not something that one can soon forget. Oh, no. The image tends to stencil itself upon the soul. So, Mo Willems, I beg you: if you must continue to produce these books, please keep Elephant and Piggie far, far apart from one another. For the good of the children, naturally.
In this hallucinatory nightmare, a grotesque blue “monster” descends from “Planet Tickle” to spread his interstellar message of laughter, giggles, and wild-eyed lunacy. The reader is encouraged to tickle his or her child as the story goes along; for verisimilitude, a pair of hairy, likely highly-flammable monster gloves are packaged with the volume. This, friends, is akin to wearing a Charles Manson mask while reading Helter Skelter aloud. Because what the Tickle Monster seems unaware of — possibly because he’s spent the last few years tickling innocent life-forms from Egypt to Alpha Centauri — is that tickling is now widely considered a form of assault. Far from being whimsical fun, tickling has rightly come to be seen as harassment, a provocation, an invasion of armpit sanctity. Of course you, as a conscientious parent, know this already. But if you ever find yourself tempted to sit down with this pastel-hued chronicle of terror, bear in mind: allow yourself to be seduced by the Tickle Monster’s “charms,” and the real monster will be you.
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.”
What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution.
Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.”
Put your idleness, if you’re fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings:
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875)
What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else’s industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Among the threads in Ford’s intricately woven “saddest story” is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it’s the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide.
Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.”
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.”
Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967)
One of literature’s most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka’s August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite — or because of — what he describes as her “bony, empty face,” he reported he was “completely under the influence of the girl.”
The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974)
The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson’s hands, and one by Manson’s prosecutor that’s part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood.
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981)
Bradley’s nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting — self-inflicted, the legends say — of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter
Carter’s fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995)
A book — call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel — grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived — I’d enjoyed.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays famously opens with the question, “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”
I’m one of the people who asks. Samuel Coleridge might have called the search for Iago “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity,” but I lack the capacity to accept that certain truths are just inscrutable. I reason that because fictional characters are born in the mind of the author, their actions must necessarily stem from something resembling Kantian categorical imperatives. Within the confines of their own logic, their actions make perfect sense. There is internal consistency and cause and effect. The system is governed by rules; the game is to discern exactly what those rules are.
It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you.
1. As An Aside
Having searched for Iago predominantly throughout other works of fiction, I think it is worth pointing out that I’m aware of the tenuous merit of this project. It’s considered fairly dubious practice to explain the motivations of real people via fictional characters. But what about explaining the motivations of fictional characters via other fictional characters? Let alone fictional characters created long after the fictional characters in question? Won’t that turn into something of an analytical Ponzi scheme?
It may also be worth noting that real world psychology, if not always an exact science, is farther along than any such fictional goose chase. Iago might simply be found in the entry under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV for demonstrating “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Real world sociopaths have been described in detail in nonfiction, from Charles Manson in Helter Skelter to Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood. Dick Hickock has “one of those smiles that really work,” an IQ of 130 and the sort of toughness that “existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand.” Dick even looks exactly how Iago should look: “his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful …”
But I’m not interested in diagnosing Iago, per se. I’m not trying to discern what he looks like, or what his childhood practices might have been. I am searching for the emotional truth of his nature, which (as Tim O’Brien famously opined) may be better found in another fictional story than in facts.
2. Excerpts From A Guide To Literary Sociopaths
The sort of villains in popular fiction that enjoy the same level of celebrity as Iago include the likes of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The common thread through many a literary sociopath is, as you may have noticed, that they have extremely evil-sounding names. Sociopaths in fiction are often intended to either appeal to readers’ fantasies that good and bad could be so easy to identify in real life, or are so absurdly riddled with diabolical clichés that they are parodies of themselves (like the pantheon of villains in Pynchon’s and Heller’s comic masterpieces, or Jasper Fforde’s Acheron Hades, who explains in his memoir, “Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit,” that the “best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts – and let’s face it, I am considered something of an expert in the field – is purely for their own sake.”)
But there is something far more understated, and sinister, about Iago as a villain. Like Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal, Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers, or perhaps even Brontë’s Heathcliff, the real evil that Iago inflicts is upon the people to whom he is closest. He is the godfather of villains who rot from the inside out.
Destroying those to whom one is closest reeks of a certain sort of motivelessness. Kevin Frazier, in his excellent essay on A.C. Bradley here at The Millions, points to the following discussion of Iago from Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog … So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
What strikes me most about this passage is that the examples chosen for being akin to Iago’s cruelty suggest that Iagoesque cruelty is almost commonplace. Horrifying though it is, there is nothing particularly rare or exotic about a man bullying a wife or child, or about thwarted superiority craving satisfaction. The implication is that it might not be such a mystery why Iago’s victims line up so willingly to be abused. Likewise, there might be nothing so superhuman about Iago’s power to abuse them. From Katherine Dunn’s sublime novel Geek Love, the following description of Arturo Binewski, the book’s megalomaniacal villain, struck me as pure, undifferentiated Iago: “He seems to have no sympathy for anyone, but total empathy.”
Empathy is a curious source of power. Relatively speaking, it is unglamorous in the extreme – it is of the sort best suited to Dostoevsky’s contention in Crime and Punishment that “Power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up.” Far more than any sheer irresistibility, the ingratiating, servile role Iago must steadfastly play for both Desdemona and Othello is the key to his seductiveness. Othello the Venetian general might be a natural leader, but Iago cannot be puppet master without being puppet himself. He succeeds as long as he does solely because the near-sightedness of his victims prevent them from asking – not “why would he lie?” but – “why doesn’t he have any life of his own?”
3. How I Picture Iago When He Is Off-Stage
In Geek Love, while attempting to gain total control over his family, Arturo Binewski starts bugging the room of his sisters Iphy and Elly. Reports his documentarian Norval:
I find this depressing. The idea of Arty sitting and listening to hour after hour of footsteps, pages turning, toilet flushing, comb running through hair. Elly’s conversation has been reduced to the syllable mmmmmm and Iphy is not in the mood for song. Her piano is covered with dust … and Arty is listening to her file her nails.
4. A Comic Detour
That villainy can be pathetic is a well-explored contradiction in fiction. Brett Easton Ellis’ oddly beloved misanthrope and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his ilk suffer from the incurable disadvantage of being impossible to take seriously. Their particular breed of literary sociopath consists, perhaps naturally, of comic characters, because there is something so pathetic about hating absolutely everyone. Grandiose ambitions aside, these characters are as paralyzed by issues as Phillip Roth’s Portnoy, and just about as menacing. In Sartre’s darkly funny “Erostratus,” the narrator sends out over a hundred letters announcing the following:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and killing half a dozen of them; perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver only has six cartridges. A monstrosity, isn’t it? And moreover, an act strictly impolitic?
Now, there is a relationship between the extent to which someone declares themselves to be a particular thing, and the extent to which he or she actually is that thing – and that relationship is plainly inverse. The comic sociopaths are so desperate to be taken seriously that they can never be taken seriously, and so fumbling and impotent in their attempts that you know they will only get themselves into trouble.
Returning now to Othello and the genre of tragedy, if you subtract the comedic element from being pathetic, who are you left with?
5. The Regular Joe
I suppose I always knew I’d arrive here at the end.
Dunn gets here first, of course. In one of Geek Love’s final notes on Arturo, his documentarian writes:
General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions in this spectrum at one time or another … however, I come to see him as just a regular Joe – jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge.
What Dunn so evocatively indicates is that the trick to the complexity of characters such as Arturo is that there is no complexity. The documentarian’s final notes on him ring of disgust upon making this discovery – self-disgust, and perhaps even a little disgust for his subject.
Likewise, we build a labyrinth of motive and mythology around Iago because for all of his manipulation and the epic destruction it causes, we believe – or hope – he must be a monster. We are wont to compare him to the vilest of both real world and fictional sociopaths. We resist stripping away at him, knowing we will be sorely disappointed by what we find underneath.