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Are all writers killers at heart?

"April is the cruellest month," T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, and the third week of April is going to be a rough one for the American psyche for a long time to come. People struggle to make sense of tragedy, and in the pursuit of understanding, the ever-vigilant media stands ready to trot out whatever scapegoat can be roped by some talking head in a hundred-twenty seconds or less. What video games were to Columbine, writing is to VT. The proof in the poisonous pudding. Before the coroner caught a coffee break, the VT killer became the most famous writer in America, his English assignments more widely read than Moby Dick.

I guess I'm a horrible person, but the first thought that struck me after reading a couple of pages: "This dude was an English major?" I did better than that when I was in eighth grade. Particularly in this extremely creative little story I wrote about a tragically put upon adolescent girl who kills herself, then leaps up out of her coffin at her own funeral and graphically slays the assembled mourners with--I don't know--some sort of ghostly death ray or some damn thing. When I came across that wide-ruled opus in later years, I didn't remember writing it, and of course, I was appalled. Good God, I thought, these are the scribblings of a seriously disturbed child.

Then I remembered that this was the year I read Stephen King's Carrie, which launched my horror/ghost story phase which included everything from Wuthering Heights to H.P. Lovecraft . The details of Carrie stayed with me over the years, but the only Lovecraft story I remember involved some guy dismembering his wife and hanging the bloody chunks on a Christmas tree. (At the end, Lovecraft felt the need to bludgeon readers with the final line, "She was decorating the Christmas tree!")

What Lovecraft's friends and neighbors thought of him, I cannot imagine. Probably something along the lines of, "He was a loner. Kept to himself. But we knew there was something not quite right about him."

My neighbors could say the same of me. Most writers' neighbors are probably left scratching their heads. I defy you to show me three books on the NYT bestseller list in which someone is not murdered. In fact, Jodi Picoult's current bestseller, Nineteen Minutes, involves a school shooting. Since when did the imaginary killing of an imaginary character equate to the actual intent or capacity to kill a real person?

Intention is a crucial component in any work of art. Does a writer seek to reveal something about herself or something about the human condition? I catch a lot of flack for the sex in my books (not to mention the email it generates from prison inmates) even though I say till I'm blue in the face that those passages reveal nothing about myself to the reader. My intention is to reveal something about the reader to her/himself, and I would go so far as to assert that a person's reaction to a work of art is as revelatory as the work, if not more so.

Clearly, the writings of the disturbed young man at VT don't qualify as art. They are masturbatory and reveal more than his lack of skill or talent, but judging a person by the actions of a murderous character--or any ghost that momentarily haunts any writer's brain--strikes me as both ignorant and dangerous and does nothing more than offer a palatable distraction from the authentically disturbing social issues that give rise to human tragedy.

Then again, maybe my ire at the media this week is my own way of escaping the scope of tragedy upon tragedy. As the mom of two college dorm dwellers, I gotta tell you, I cried. I threw up. A host of horrors lurk just below the surface when your children are that age, and I momentarily lost my daily struggle to keep those zombies in their cave. While Nancy Grace and Bill O'Reily blather on, presuming to imagine the agony of a mother who receives her kid home from school in a bag, I can't bear to think about it. Haven't had the fortitude to look at CNN since Wednesday.

I was comforted by something I read last night in the Publisher's Blog at Unbridled Books, the first truly reasoned response I've seen to...oh, the whole damn thing.
as the swallow

There is little that should be said today in this circumscribed forum. But I have been thinking this: T. S. Eliot’s line about April is only a depressive’s assertion about baseless hope and the melding of desire with sad memory. It is nothing more than that. It is not a metaphysical observation.

I know which ogre’s birthday comes at the end of this string of days. And I realize that the co-incidence of Oklahoma City, Waco, and Ruby Ridge is not arbitrary. But sequentially adding in these other, campused, horrors, Columbine and Virginia one might begin to wonder what it is in this single week that now invites cruelty, what now so regularly breaks our hearts.

We could use a chosen day at the end of April in which we might take back the spring of blossoming and desire and baseless hope from the rope of people who bring us grief upon grief.

Fred Ramey
posted 04/17/07


Thanks for this thoughtful post. Tragedy on a grand scale leaves people desperately searching for the tell-tale tea leaves, the warning that was ignored. One of the stages of grief is anger, and so many want to blame someone -- school authorities, English profs, and those judicial and mental health providers who didn't stop this from happening.

But it's useless and damaging to try to explain the unexplainable. We clearly can't go rounding up every bullied kid who might grow resentful, anyone with a taste for video-game or movie or novel-gore, or anyone who sets a violent story to paper. (Just realized that at various times of myself, I've qualified as all of the above. Gee, maybe I'm a ticking time bomb and don't know it.)

My heart goes out to all of those affected by this senseless murder. And I'm absolutely appalled by those members of the media who splashed the killer's sick, delusional photos and video across our TV screens. Very stupid decision on the parts of NBC, ABC, and others who followed. Makes me furious.
TJ Bennett said…
I hate to admit to being uninformed and ignorant, but a few years ago, I unplugged myself from the mass media. Just couldn't do it anymore. Stopped the newspapers, turned off the TV, only listen to the news on the radio between songs. Whenever something important happens, someone tells me, and so I turn on the radio or go on the internet and check it out at my own pace. Awful, huh? But I have found that I am not as paranoid, not as fearful, and I have a whole lot more time to write and parent my kids.

I'm probably not as smart, or as informed a voter, or as active a participant in the human community as those who are plugged in, but I also don't feel like I have to drink the chic wine I don't like, carry the $500 purse I can't afford, and drive the spanking new Hummer2 all the neighbors can't pay for. And so I didn't find myself watching the killer's videos with sick fascination that I couldn't control. I never saw them. Didn't read his writings, either, nor will I. I'm an English prof in my other life, and that's scary enough as it is.

When I heard this disturbed young man was an English major, my heart sank. I felt culpable, too. Why, I don't know, but perhaps I thought that anyone who could read the great literary works of humanity should have learned a thing or two about life. I have heard that he may have been autistic, which might explain his inability to relate socially to others, the wall of isolation that surrounded him over which others couldn't climb, the inexplicable violent explosion of emotion from one so unfeeling throughout life.

I don't know. I just know I hurt. I'm a mother, too. I can't imagine the breaking hearts of the ones who lost their children--or of the parents of the one who killed them.

I just don't understand. Probably never will.
Jen said…
I've avoided a lot of the news reports and such, not because I don't care, but I've seen the report, and don't need it repeated over and over. I haven't even read his writings, other than following the link you gave (I love :) ) and scanned the first four pages or so. It's written as a screenplay.

His actions of stalking ex-girlfriends and such suggests violence much more to me than a person's writings. I read and have written horror (and plan to do so again), and have many friends who write, film and read horror, and I don't see this group committing crimes and violence any more than any other group. I've met wonderful people at horror conventions (as well as sci-fi cons).

The same is true of the mentally ill. It really ticks me off that there are people who judge the mentally ill according to the actions of a few mentally ill people. Most mentally ill people are not about to "crack," become violent and dangerous or hurt people. Most who do pose a danger of any kind, are more of a danger to themselves than anyone else. And, aren't we supposed to be innocent until proven guilty (by our actions), until we've actually committed a crime? Why is it, everyone's for that, except when it comes to the mentally ill, when it becomes ok to put someone away based on the opinion that they may be a danger? Thought crimes are accepted in this case.

Sorry, bit of a rant there.
Jen said…
I see tj bennett posted at about the same time as I did, and I have a comment for her:

I always advocate being informed and educated, but a lot of the bitterness I feel in life is due to things I've learned. Personal experience certainly colors a lot of that, but there are things I've read about that may not affect me, or affect everyone or a specific group I belong to, often things we can't do anything about, or easily do anything about. Things like rape around the world (especially the epidemic of rape in South Africa), men's attitudes, women's attitudes, racism, hatred, violence, prejudice, sexism, our "culture of entertainment," materialism, etc.

I'm not anti-materialism, entertainment or whatever; I just wish we cared more about the important things. I love to shop, and I care more about getting some expensive things than I should, yet not nearly to the extent so many seem to. It really bothers me when young girls think they have bad parents when their parents won't buy them designer clothes or accessories. I remember John Stossel asking a girl why she had to have an expensive purse, when a cheaper purse will hold her items just as well. She said, "It's just better," but when he asked in what way, she couldn't explain. Maybe a $500 purse lasts longer and is made better--I don't know; I've never owned a purse worth more than $25, and I don't think I've owned one worth even more than $15--but you could buy a lot of cheaper purses for that amount of money, and you might have to replace them more often, but it seems, even replacing them, you're saving a lot of money over the long time. And women who can afford $500+ purses, I bet, usually replace them much sooner, anyway, or buy several expensive ones.

Sorry, I'm going off my topic. I just want to say, that while being informed has helped me in a lot of ways, even so, you can't be informed about everything that you "should" be (you "should" know basic repairs to save money, know what's going on so they don't rip you off, know other things so people don't rip you off or trick you, have cameras everywhere so your nanny doesn't abuse your kid/maid doesn't steal from you/whatever [and have time to watch said videos], know local news, know national news, know international and world news, know everything from head-to-toe about your health, diet and whatnot, etc. I'm not saying all of these things aren't good to know about (your health probably being most important), but there's way too much to know about, and too easy access to information (but no, I don't want the Internet to go away, LOL!). It's overwhelming.

The world scares me, especially with those who want to kill us or dominate us. The crime that's all over the US is scary, too. All this information, though, can lead to depression and negativity--and it has.

Again, I'm not saying having information isn't helpful--I know how to protect myself in a lot of situations, for instance--but there's bad that comes with the good.

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