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.
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.