“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can’t be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of “Indian Camp,”‘ I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It’s supposed to be ironic! Of course he’s going to die! In fact, maybe that’s why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante’s “mezzo del camin di nostra vita” and Yeats’s “widening gyre” and Larkin’s “long slide.” For though I’ve managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays (“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it’s a midlife crisis.
And the fact that I’m no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I’ve more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can’t take it with you, what’s the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader’s block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my “to-read” pile (life’s too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you’ll forgive me if I enthuse here at length.
First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness’s storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson’s stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever.
Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m obviously late arriving to the former; there’s not much I can say that you won’t have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee’s careful gift-horse inspection in Harper’s, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck’s finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck’s writing, like Robinson’s, seems built to endure.
On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita’s Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons.
This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about “reality hunger” and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard’s Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard’s own. And I’d be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they’ve appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves.
And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley’s voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. The “unexpected” coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I’d have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know.
Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan’s psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that.
It was a good year for journalism, too. I’m thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: “Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.”) And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself.
I’m also thinking of Pam Kelley’s Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon’s sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont “Money Rock” Belton, locked up behind the crack game.
This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston’s school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision.
In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a “classic.” Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester’s essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler’s writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I’d missed the best part. I love this novel’s passionate idiosyncrasies.
And finally…back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per…which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov…if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman’s Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination…well, maybe that’s been the point all along.
More from A Year in Reading 2018
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Stacy Horn defies death by ceaselessly writing books about it.
Although her first book, a memoir titled Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town, was about her creating the New York City-centered social network Echo (a network she still administers), nearly all of Stacy Horn’s subsequent nonfiction has centered on death in some way. In a second memoir, Waiting for My Cats to Die, she mused on both feline and human mortality, polled members of Echo about middle age and what they wanted to accomplish before they died, and joined a cemetery’s board of directors. A third book, The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, married true crime and journalistic writing: four unsolved cases provided the narrative, but detailed descriptions of the Cold Case Squad detectives and the NYPD’s history still rival anything found in David Simon’s similar classic Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets.
The Restless Sleep was the first book of Horn’s that I read, and it was part of a wave of nonfiction titles I devoured after an epic reading slump in my 20s that I now recognize was the result of reading a lot of modern fiction that I wasn’t enjoying. Books like Horn’s helped me realize that nonfiction, for better or worse, was going to be my reading home. She subsequently obliged my nonfiction habit by producing two more investigative works: Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, a history of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory and a pseudo-biography of its longtime director Dr. J.B. Rhine, and the other, a deep dive into the history and science of choral singing titled Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others.
Her new book is a history of New York City’s Blackwell Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1971), the site of several 19th-century institutions in which death was no stranger but rather a frequent visitor. In Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York, Horn resurrects the stories of many who have been forgotten, including the missionary who walked a route between all the island’s facilities (including the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, the Penitentiary, and several hospitals) and talked with their inmates daily; the “lunatic nun” who fought to get herself released from the asylum; and a young girl who received her first prison sentence at 15.
Recently I got to have what turned out to be a surprisingly cheerful email conversation with Horn about death, resurrection, community, and, oh yes, fact-checking.
The Millions: Stacy, I loved your new book. But it’s full of unhappy stories that mostly end unhappily. Can you tell me what drew you to Blackwell Island? What made you think, “I want to investigate this history of the ‘poor, sick, mad, and criminal’ and spend years writing about it”?
Stacy Horn: I desperately wanted to find happy endings. I’m always drawn to sad stories, but sad stories that are mostly forgotten precisely because I hope that by resurrecting these people and what happened, I will bring a sense of peace to their histories, and to the reader.
Blackwell’s Island drew me in because I already had a general sense of what had gone on there. I knew I would have thousands and thousands of opportunities to recover what was forgotten, and to use their stories to enlighten the present.
What I didn’t get was happy endings. Instead, I’m now a passionate advocate for criminal justice and mental health care and welfare reform.
TM: In the book, you follow several personal stories, including those of the Reverend French, who was a missionary to Blackwell Island, and multiple inmates and staff members of the various institutions there. How did you find those stories, and how did you decide on the people whose stories you told in detail?
SH: It’s a good thing that research, and the chase, is my favorite part of writing because this book was my biggest challenge to date. Not surprisingly, most of the records for each of the institutions on Blackwell’s Island (the Lunatic Asylum, the prisons, the Almshouse, etc.) were not saved.
I was able to tell the stories I did through a combination of luck and perseverance. For example, at the New York Historical Society, I came across a letter from a young woman imprisoned in Sing Sing to a society lady who had visited her once. Something about that letter drew me to the inmate, Adelaide Irving, who I ended up featuring in the Penitentiary section of my book. But there were no official Penitentiary records of Adelaide because none were saved. I had to kind of reverse-engineer her story from a number of other sources, and here I was lucky that any existed at all.
Sister Mary, the “lunatic nun” who was committed to the asylum, was an even bigger challenge because there are still fewer extant records for the asylum. Here again I lucked out because I happened to find an archivist nun in Canada who was willing to help me, and the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception turned out to be better record keepers than the city of New York.
Reverend French wrote annual reports, thank God, and a wonderful Workhouse warden wrote an autobiography, as did a survivor of the attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum during the draft riots in 1863.
All these little miracles helped me to recreate what life was like on Blackwell’s Island during the 19th century.
Oh, and remembering researching Adelaide Irving just reminded me of a very proud find I made. After being told that there were no prison records for the Penitentiary at all anywhere, from every librarian, archivist, and corrections history expert I consulted, I found the records for 1883 to 1908 on, of all places, Ancestry.com.
I was searching on a generic Irish name, because most of the inmates were Irish, and a number of Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary inmates popped up. I’m sure I screamed. The actual records are at the State Library in Albany, where I’d already looked, but they were indexed in such a way that no one knew they were there. I went back and let everyone who’d told me that they didn’t exist know, but they weren’t as excited as me. No one screamed. Come on! Nineteenth-century prison records, people!!
TM: I am blown away by the scope and sources of this book. How long did it take to research it? Was there a point when you knew had to stop researching, and start writing?
SH: I never stop researching. When I start writing that only leads to more research. Even when a book is finished and published, I will still keep looking into whatever subject I’ve written about. I still research cold cases and unsolved murders after writing about the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad, and I keep up with parapsychological research after writing about the former Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University.
I never let go. I must have attachment issues. But I started researching Blackwell’s towards the end of 2014. I started writing in probably around the summer of 2015, and I was still working on it this year, right up until the moment my editor insisted I “step away from the computer, Stacy.”
TM: I want to talk about how that theme of never letting go appears in your other work, and talk about your other books, but I also want to ask about something as workaday as fact-checking. I know you are very dedicated to doing that for all of your nonfiction. Do you literally go through your manuscripts line for line and make sure everything has a source, a citation? How long must that have taken for this one?
SH: With every book I get better and better at fact-checking. I’ve learned over time that yes, you really do have to check almost every line. It’s insane how, no matter how careful you are, mistakes creep in.
It also takes such a ridiculously long time that knowing how much work I have ahead of me I’m always a little nauseous before I begin. I may even cry a little. It’s hard. It’s daunting.
But then, once I start, it almost becomes a different sort of treasure hunt. Every mistake I find and correct is like a victory against some possible person in the future pouncing on me and calling my work sloppy.
I’d like to add one thing I do that might help other people writing nonfiction. Maybe everyone already does this and I’m the last to figure this out, but I keep a separate timeline for every section in my book. In it I list every fact and where I got it. I started doing this when I wrote the cold case book because I was writing about so many different cases, with so many different “characters,” detectives and other law enforcement personnel, and the cases I picked spanned a half century of time. So I had a hard time keeping track of what happened when, who did what, who said what, etc. These timelines helped me later when I had to go back and fact-check, but it wasn’t the reason I started doing them.
Now I am pretty meticulous about these timelines. I can’t depend on them, the timelines are as vulnerable to error as anything else, but I at least know where to go back and check.
TM: Your first two books, Cyberville and Waiting for My Cats to Die, were definitely memoir. You followed those with The Restless Sleep, which is considered true crime, and your later books (Unbelievable, Imperfect Harmony, Damnation Island) seem to be more investigative and historical in nature.
Can you talk about the arc of your nonfiction writing career, what made you turn from memoir to these other subjects? How is the writing process different for you in these very disparate nonfiction genres?
SH: With the exception of Cyberville, all my books are different versions of the same quest or interests, but a quick back story. I decided at nine years old that I wanted to be a writer, and originally I wanted to write novels. Fast forward to the 1990s, when I started Echo, one of the early social networks, although we didn’t call them that at the time. The New York Times did a brief profile of me, where I mentioned I wanted to be a writer and had an unpublished novel in my drawer.
The next day I got a call from Warner Books who said they’d publish my novel! Turns out, they didn’t think it was publishable, but they liked my writing and they asked me if I wanted to write about the Internet. My agent said do it. Once you have one book published it’s easier to get another, and then you can try again to write a novel. That led to my first book, Cyberville, and the discovery that by writing nonfiction I could follow my interests and obsessions more directly than with fiction, and with much more satisfying results. And my biggest interests have to do with death and impermanence, and how many stories are forgotten. Every book circles back to this, at least to some extent, even if I begin by thinking they won’t.
Like my book about the history and joys of singing. Who knew that would be about death as well?
I pitched Waiting for My Cats to Die as a memoir, but it was always going to be about my first serious research into death and the fact that we and everyone and everything we love must die. The Restless Sleep was about people who not only had to die, they had their brief time on Earth criminally cut short, and no one was answering for that. My book about the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University [Unbelievable] was supposed to be a fun break from death, but it turns out the lab was established in order to see if they could find evidence for life after death. My book about singing was also supposed to be a break, but our mortality is one of the driving inspirations for composers, musicians, and our audiences. We sing to deal with loss and to reaffirm life. Requiems are among the most moving and profound things I sing.
My books are my attempt to defy death and the fact that most of us will eventually be forgotten, and tragically quickly. It’s a mission that will ultimately fail, but it’s like singing requiems while I still can.
TM: I know this about your books, and about you, that often the theme (seems to be, anyway) is death. I’d like to draw your attention to some of your own quotes. From Cyberville: “As cyberspace grows, it will only become more and more like the rest of the world. Not an even bigger global village, but a bigger collection of villages.” From The Restless Sleep: “I want to resurrect the city’s forgotten dead.” From Imperfect Harmony: “the magic current of potential that comes to life whenever people are drawn together by the astonishing and irresistible power of a song.”
Can I put it to you that your themes are actually community and resurrection and so much joy in life that even the hunt for its existence after it is gone is worthwhile?
SH: Yes. Definitely. Community and resurrection. I’m not religious, so there is no hereafter for me (as far as I know). I think people who are religious think that makes life pointless and empty, and without the promise of heaven or the threat of hell there is no reason to be a good and decent person. But for me, the opposite is true. It makes life the only point, and therefore it’s much more important to use it well, and to be as good a person as you can and not add misery and pain to anyone else’s life. It’s the only one they get.
Spending my time resurrecting forgotten lives, acknowledging past wrongs, feels meaningful to me. It does give me joy, and purpose to the now, and I hope it does the same for my readers. Knowing we’re going to die, how do we want to live? What do we want to leave behind for the people who will replace us to use? What do we want to tell them? I want to tell them: “There was once this girl named Adelaide Irving. She was a lot like you.”
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.