Unfettered by Conscience

For someone who writes murder mysteries, I don’t really understand evil. Ironically, I get murder. Given sufficient motivation – power, love, money, rage – I can build a story around why someone goes to the extreme step of killing another human being. I certainly am not saying it’s right; but I can follow the rationale, even if it’s wrong – and I confess I can even imagine circumstances when it might even seem right (not legal, but justifiable).

But what overwhelms me, what leaves me at a complete loss, is unadulterated evil, the kind that enjoys torture and suffering, the complete disregard for human life, the sense of entitlement to the thrill of murder.

What prompted me to wander down this ugly path was the essay in O Magazine last week by Susan Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine teenage killers. She too is at a loss for how her son became someone she literally did not know. She insists she had no idea that he was suicidal or that he was plotting with Eric Harris to commit such an atrocity. According to the FBI, only the teens’ ineptness at explosives stopped the tragedy from exceeding the death toll of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Dylan Klebold boasted that the carnage would be “the most deaths in U.S. history.”

Ms. Klebold’s essay led me to an article in Slate, published back in 2004. The author, Dave Cullen, interviewed mental health experts who served on the FBI special task force on the incident, and their conclusion was that Klebold and Harris were two radically different individuals. Klebold was “hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people.” The difference is critical. They theorize that Klebold was a troubled kid who, had he not hooked up with Harris, would, at some point, probably have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help, and might have led a normal life. Perhaps that gives his mother some comfort, although it doesn’t help the families who lost their loved ones. Was it all a cruel twist of fate that these two teens met and created such havoc, whereas individually they couldn’t have pulled it off?

But it was Harris who was the scarier of the two adolescents. The experts agree he was a psychopath. “Harris was irretrievable. He was a brilliant killer without a conscience, searching for the most diabolical scheme imaginative.” Psychopaths, as defined by Dr. Robert Hare in his book, Without Conscience, “are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised.”

For me, writing is fun, creative, and even when creating murder and mayhem, taps into a happy zone, because in the world I create, the good guys always win. It’s why I couldn’t have written The Silence of the Lambs, or any other book where the motivation is beyond ken, and the only mystery is whether the detective/cop can stop the killer before he strikes again. I don’t want to get that close to pure evil to write about it.

Evelyn David

Murder Takes the Cake by Evelyn David
Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David

5 replies
  1. Vicky Polito
    Vicky Polito says:

    I'll have to check out that essay.

    On a slightly related and a little lighter note: I always remember seeing John Waters interviewed when he was doing a show called "Until Death" (I think that was the title.) The premise was that it looked at cases of homicide where a spouse was murdered and that most of the time, the jury wouldn't give out more than a 20-life sentence. No death penalty, no life with no chance of parole, etc. The idea was that almost everyone on a jury could relate.

    To paraphrase Chris Rock: they might not think you should have killed your beloved, but they UNDERSTAND . . .

  2. Dea, Kia, Jake
    Dea, Kia, Jake says:

    I'm with you: I can't write evil (and I can't write sex, but that's a completely different animal). I read the essay in Oprah and still felt like there were many unanswered questions about this boy and why he did what he did. Maybe that's because functioning, rational people will never understand and never have their questions answered when it comes to something like this. MB

  3. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    I always close the bedroom door, however, I have written about pure evil several times–once in my book Wishing Makes It so, about a really bad little girl.


  4. Misa
    Misa says:

    I agree with you. I don't like horror movies or books, thrillers, or anything that rings too close to the dark side of humanity. For me, mysteries are escapist and still have that satisfying happily ever after element to them which is what I want.

  5. Dave Cullen
    Dave Cullen says:

    Thanks, Evelyn.

    That essay served as a starting point for my work on the killers in the book I finally published this spring, COLUMBINE. (Actually, Twelve/Hachette published it.)

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