Murder and Compassion. Am I rising above, or failing the victims?

I will probably be disgusted with myself for this post longer than you can hate me for typing it, for thinking it, for sharing it. But these murders so close to where we grew up have left us all sick, or confused, or angry, or hateful, vengeful, feeling everything and nothing, and knotted at each new emotion. But writing through it is how I cope. Sharing my writing is how I connect. I can’t be any other way, if I am to stay true to myself.

I’ve been told my sense of compassion is twisted. I understand why some of my friends feel that way. I don’t know if I completely understand it myself. I feel deeply for victims, as I think everyone does. The “problem” is that I usually feel deeply for the perpetrators as well. I can’t make it go away. Sometimes I just keep it to myself or pretend I don’t feel that way, because it’s usually on the fringes of public opinion, and more importantly, on the outs with the consensus of my friends.

I’ve been told I have no spine. To be a person of conscience, I should choose one side or another. But outside of a very close circle of loved ones (and even there I’ve never been tested in a capital way) I’m not good at seeing “sides,” only individuals.

This makes caring about people easy. But it gives me one of my biggest flaws—I also feel bad for people who create some of the most vile acts imaginable.

What the hell is wrong with me? I try to understand it. Especially because I am certain, to my core, that if someone killed my husband (Hell, if someone killed my dog in that way) I would immediately react in kind. There would be no trial, no chance for the justice system. I know my own reactiveness, my own fierce protectiveness of my loved ones. I would slit his throat before he ever made it to arraignment.

But here I am, reading about the cruel, vicious murder of two little girls and I find myself wondering, imagining the kind of pain the murderer must have been in to be able to commit the acts. How can I give a damn about that kind of person?

Over the weekend, a murder was committed by a former schoolmate. He slit his wife’s throat. He shot the beloved pets of his little girls. But before these, he took a hunting knife and took his two beautiful, helpless daughters, and cut out their throats.

I think about my nephew who goes to the same school as the girls, who is about the same age as the oldest. How does he understand something like this happening to a schoolmate? How does his mother explain something like that?

And I think that if something so heinous happened to him, that killer wouldn’t make it very far before I would react with equal violence, my blood boiling, never allowing that murderer see the inside of a courtroom.

So, why do I feel sadness for everyone, including the murderer? How? How can my mind, my heart, allow any compassion for someone who killed his babies in such a vicious way?

I remember the boy whose picture they are showing on the news. I still see his boyish face in these pictures of a grown man, a murderer. I have not seen him in probably twenty-five years. I never knew him as an adult, and the memories I have are of an awkward, strange boy who was sometimes picked on because he was so weird, because he flaunted his strangeness, because, well, kids are picked on. We all were, and we learned how to cope, or how to become stronger from it.

Didn’t we?

The boy was always nice to me, and I remember feeling bad for him, because I knew what it was like to always feel unusual or made fun of.

But being picked on, even bullied, does not mean that two decades later, you have an excuse to commit the unthinkable.

Knowing this boy is not what makes me have these feelings of compassion, although I think it makes me analyze it more, think about it more. It’s not as simple as remembering the boy, or having a memory of a time in which I felt bullied or persecuted. I think it’s something deeper. I think I’m backwards in the way I think about capital crimes and criminals. I see them in shades of pain—both the victim’s pain and the perpetrator’s pain.

I might have already lost a few friends over this blog. I don’t blame them, but I hope people who really do know me will read it through to the end to understand where I’m going. Every time I see something on the news about a man or a woman who has killed his or her family, I’m struck by the horror, by the sadness, especially over the children, then I’m struck by sadness for the murderer.

This is the thing I have hated about myself—feeling loss and pity for the monster who could be so cruel. My awful imagination, my mind that betrays logic, betrays the black and white side-taking I should be doing if I had any sense, that imagination gets the better of me. I think about the person who could do such things.

I imagine him first as a child and put him in the worst home imaginable, maybe with a father exactly like himself. Then I imagine him in school, where children mercilessly tease him and reject him. Yesterday on Facebook I saw a comment about this murder that said “we called him Guido. Definition: a sad, pathetic excuse for a male. Don’t know who started the nickname, but it certainly seems to fit now. He was able to butcher his babies, wife, and shoot their pets, but couldn’t do the decent thing & kill himself. Makes me sick.”

What also made me sick was the comment. How strange is that? The comment wasn’t made by one of my friends, but by someone posting on the wall of a friend of mine. It’s hard for me to read spitting hatred, lingering bullying, even if they are aimed at someone deplorable. It’s those comments that make me wonder about the boy and his life, wonder how many times a dog can be kicked before he bites.

But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? A human isn’t a dog. We don’t act and react like an animal, do we? We think, and that’s what separates our actions from any other species. Isn’t it?

I go back to my imaginary world, where I see the boy finally escaping school and finding that one person who doesn’t seem to mind his strangeness, doesn’t know about how uncool or unwanted he was among his peers. I imagine him, excited but afraid of the happiness that follows, afraid of the self that he hates, afraid she will realize he’s not as lovable as she let herself believe.

Then, I imagine a trigger. Maybe they live a little too close to where he grew up. She starts to listen to old peers who tell her tales of his weirdness, who remind her he isn’t worthy. Or maybe nobody tells her anything, and she simply begins to realize he’s not healthy, not stable. However it happens, she begins to pull away. Everything he hated about himself is confirmed. He shuts down. He allows himself to become the monster he was always afraid lurked inside him.

Bullshit. Go ahead. Call it. By allowing any excuses for the boy I imagine, I have failed those children and those pets and that wife. Do you see why? The victims, the VICTIMS are his children, those pets, his wife.

I sometimes wonder if it’s a misguided, too-broad sense of guilt that makes me think about the pain of people who commit such awful acts. I’m quick to take personal responsibility for anything that goes wrong in my own life, and I wonder if maybe I extend that to society as a whole when I read of these atrocities. I wonder what our culture did, what our schools did, his parents did, his “friends”, her “friends”, what anyone did to contribute to the culmination of this one-time-child, now monster.

Each time this happens, I work myself through the logic, and come to the conclusion that a person is responsible for himself, no matter what hardship falls onto him. Isn’t he? This is why we also hear stories of people who have overcome incredible torture, abuse and a lifetime of pain, only to give back in positive, healthy, even nurturing ways. In other words, there is no excuse. There is no person or people to blame. If there were, then blame goes back to the beginning of man, because everything is a reaction to something before it, or so the saying goes.

Sometimes I wonder if I really have deep compassion, or if I am just stuck with the projections of an overactive imagination trained to create backstory, motive—good for writing, terrible for the “real” world.

But regardless of compassion, regardless of whether or not I see all murderers as mentally unstable (because I can’t imagine a murderer as anything but mentally ill), regardless of whatever compassion, there must be justice for the other victims—the family and friends of those children, that wife.

Whether or not I see the interior of each individual as gray, I do see action and consequence as black and white.

I know that those who really know me will forgive me my overactive imagination and my hyper-empathy, even if they don’t agree. They know my heart and my mind as I work through my own reactions. Those who don’t know me, or can’t accept my failings, will fall away.

I guess in digging into those shades of gray I arrive at something black and white after all. The side I’m on is compassion, even if it’s more awful, more difficult and more painful to feel than hatred.

6 Comments on “Murder and Compassion. Am I rising above, or failing the victims?

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  3. I absolutely understand this, Marla. I think it’s just human nature to feel compassion, or at least to try to see the good in people. It is for me, anyway.
    I don’t know the rundown of exactly what happened in this situation, and clearly, this former classmate of yours seems troubled. I can see, however, in the midst of a heated argument, with anger surging, a gun could go off if nearby. How would one cover that up?
    One of my favorite ever songs is called “Cooling,” and the one lyric is “this ocean is wrapped around that pineapple tree.” This line tears my heart out every time I hear it. To break it down, I interpret this: the narrator (she) is acknowledging the complexity of the other person (him/he) by comparing him to a pineapple tree… pineapples take like two years to root, just to then be at the point at which they produce fruit, which then takes another few years. By comparing herself to an ocean, she is saying that her water would kill the pineapple tree once they merge, due to its salt content. So, though it seems that she is providing this other person with everything he needs to survive, she’s not compatible for a life with this man. Have you ever loved somebody so much that you can’t breathe, and you know that you’re absolutely wrong for one another? That you’re actually draining each other slowly of life?
    I’m not defending this man; I don’t know him. I think that the only people who actually know what go on in any given relationship are those two people, and outsiders are just that… outsiders. I understand empathy. I understand love. I understand wrath.

  4. Thank you for writing this, Marla. I’ve been wrestling with a similar story. Earlier this year, I read about a boy I knew from grade school who had recently murdered a man, cut the body into pieces, and hid it in the woods. I hadn’t spoken to the boy in years, but I had seen him occasionally since he lived close to my family home. In the first grade we played at recess, just spinning a jump rope in circles for no reason. Then I stopped, for what I can only remember was some fear that because no one else played with him, and that no one would ever like me – you know, plain cowardice. I just walked away from him on the playground.

    When we got older he was probably better liked than me, but I switched schools and never apologized. It was only by looking up his case that I saw what a strange sad life he’d led. He had two boys he’d loved from an ex-girlfriend that he’d separated from. When she abused them, his boys were taken away. The news dug up a short criminal records on him, simple assault, dismissed charges, and history relating to his ex. They also showed the website where he pleaded for help to be reunited with his kids. I cannot figure out how the boy on the playground turned into the murderer. Somewhere in the middle he lost everything.

    I don’t think that you’re over-imagining anything. I don’t think there’s some line between writers and normal people when it comes to empathy. Your empathy for all involved makes sense and you shouldn’t feel guilty for not senselessly hating. If anyone knew what it was that led the man to do this, if his story was understood by someone else, then maybe he would not have done this.

    Your compassion is the human thing. You recognize that it’s in you, that you can imagine what you’d do if someone hurt a person you loved. I imagine I’d do the same thing for my nephews, niece, and my family. That scary ability is in everyone. Understanding that keeps us human, keeps us from doing those awful things. This man will be judged, but people are too emotionally involved. The law is impartial.

    Like you say, it’s the middle gray area, where some people will feel sad for everyone and someone will feel sorry only for the victims. The guilt of a lonely marriage could possibly fall on both partners. The guilt for murdering his family only falls on this man.

    I’m sorry for writing such a long response. You really say it a lot better than me, but I wanted to let you know you’re not the only one who wonders about this.

  5. I totally get this, Marla! Two things come to mind for me as I read this. First, when I was marrying my high school sweetheart, my dad made us both read a book called “The Road Less Traveled” by M. Scott Peck. Honestly, I didn’t understand then why he made me us read it as it related to getting married (but maybe I would now that I divorced that person I married at such a young age!) but there was one thought in the book that stuck with me. That thought was, the author’s point that we spend so much time studying what makes people go insane and what makes people mentally unhealthy. He said that with all the pain that the human endures through their lives, we should spend more time studying why some people do not go insane.

    And, from one of my favorite people in the entire world, Mr. Fred Rogers, “You can love anyone if you know their story.” How wonderful that you and Mr. Rogers share this wonderful philosophy.

    That being said, I also totally acknowledge that if this happened to me or my loved ones, it would be a miracle to be able to maintain that philosophy. That’s why we don’t sit on the jury when we’re involved in the crime.

  6. For what it’s worth, I don’t think your sense of compassion is all that twisted. Yes, I understand that this man committed an unspeakable act of violence toward the very people in his life who he should have been loving, nurturing, and protecting. But the fact of the matter is that he’s a human. As you said, not a dog. Also, not a monster. Because of our complex minds and value systems and emotions, it’s easier to recognize that human impulses and actions exist in a grey area rather than a moral code that is only black and white.

    Personally, I don’t think you should feel wrong or heartless for having compassion toward this man. It’s not as though you don’t also have compassion towards the victims of this senseless act. A number of moral figures throughout history have said that, in order to have compassion for anyone, we must have compassion for all of our fellow human beings. You’re doing just that. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong or evil for doing so. They happen to think differently, and that’s okay. But, as far as I’m concerned, the way you feel is perfectly acceptable.

    Maybe you are shading it with backstory. Maybe it leaves you open to being hurt by “bad” people toward whom you feel compassion. But that shouldn’t keep you from being true to the way you think and feel.

    People can call me idealistic. I already know I am.

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