By Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
This past week, socked under by a killer virus that would not abate, I sought refuge in reading true crime in front of the fire. I do not read just any true crime book that hits the racks, mind you, and you should not either. A large percentage of them consist of breathless prose highlighting the more lurid aspects of a crime, much like the detective magazines of (not-so-) old. But I do read good true crime because of the amazing psychological insights into human behavior that thoughtful reporting on a case can provide. This means I primarily read (or re-read) Ann Rule, who, until her death last year, stood head and shoulders above all other true crime writers. I know of no one else who has even come close to Rule’s ability to illuminate the cause and effects of aberrant behavior, in part because times have changed. The need to rush a manuscript to market—and be the first to offer a book on a major crime already well-publicized by other media outlets—means that few publishers are willing to wait until the case has wound its way through the courts. Tracking a non-fiction story over years is also exhausting and life-consuming, which may have been why Rule switched to short-form crime reporting toward the end of her life. But at her best, Ann Rule had an amazing capacity to let the psychological themes of a case emerge as she examined a real life tragedy, traced its inception by backtracking to motive, then detailed what happened during the trial. She always made sure to report what happened to the victim’s families, gave investigators and prosecutors their due, and followed up in the years after the verdict to see whether the punishment imposed had changed the perpetrator (answer: rarely, if ever). Each of her in-depth books on a case represented a microcosm of human behavior, invariably showcasing the best and the worst in people.
This past week, I was rereading Everything She Ever Wanted, one of Rule’s best. This is a true story of a narcissist whose firm belief that she was the only one in the world that mattered ended up shattering the lives of those unfortunate enough to have been a part of hers. Whether it was her own child, her sibling, a spouse, or an in-law – no one’s needs mattered but her own and, for fifty years, she stopped at nothing to get exactly what she wanted. It’s the kind of story that would not be believed if put into a fiction book, the tale of a would-be Southern Belle unstoppable in her desires and adept at manipulating others to do her dirty work for her. But the amazing thing to me was that this woman almost always overreached and got caught—yet somehow managed to evade punishment and continue her path of destruction. By the time she was sent to prison and had essentially aged out of trading on looks and sexual promises, she had managed to orchestrate the deaths of her in-laws (by their own son), attempted to poison her grand in-laws, had robbed a series of old people blind while acting as their caretaker, and had poisoned both her daughter and, nearly certainly, even more elderly people put in her care. All this while blatantly piling lie on top of lie to all who encountered her each and every day of her life.
How is it possible that a woman could get away with such behavior for 50 years? Surely her family would have noticed and acknowledged her antisocial behavior at some point and taken steps to stop her? Yet they did not. Nor did the hundreds of other people who ran into her during the course of her life, many of whom suffered from her actions firsthand.
How is it possible to fail to see a person for who they are—evil and destructive—when they have left a swath of victims behind them everywhere they go? The answer is willful blindness. And it’s a powerful force in human behavior. Recent studies show that 86% of people admit they are guilty of willful blindness, which is the ability to ignore that which we do not want to see or hear. Whether it’s a company poisoning its customers, a relative abusing younger family members, or a friend who regularly lies and manipulates others – it appears that human beings are wired to resist acknowledging predatory behavior. It’s as if we do not want to admit that someone so very like us might be capable of actions so unlike us. This kind of denial could well end up being our downfall. Consider a world in which people embrace a political candidate because they like one thing he says, and ignore all the other appalling positions he takes. Then know that such a world is here. In a consumeristic, media-saturated society, the line between the have’s and the have-not’s is pushed into our faces every day, enflaming the self-entitled avarice of narcissists who care about two things only: receiving attention and getting what they want. Expect narcissistic behavior to disrupt your life, if it hasn’t already. And fight the urge for willful blindness.
But what I worry about the most is that the world seems reluctant to even examine our capacity for willful blindness, much less admit that we must fight it. I see this in the difference between true crime and mystery fiction. Almost every true crime book you read features a perpetrator who gets away with evil deeds only because those surrounding him or her refuse to acknowledge that their friend or family member is capable of such behavior. Yet it is rare for a crime fiction book to depict characters in such a way. Mystery books tend to have good characters, bad characters, and a few who fall in between to serve as red herrings. In our willingness to obey the beloved conventions of mysteries, what our genre has failed to do is to examine whether our fictional characters really reflect those in real life as we now know it.
Should we not pass judgment on those who have tolerated destructive behavior, or willingly failed to see it, every bit as much as we pass judgment on the villain? Should we not acknowledge that it is all too true that, for evil to triumph, all that is required is for good people to do nothing?
At the moment, I can think of only one book that examines this issue. It is a remarkable novel called Defending Jacob by William Landay. It is haunting in its depiction of how painful it can be to let go of denial. Of course, there are more mysteries that take this issue on: if you know of any novels that deal with the inability of people to acknowledge evil, thus allowing it to continue, please share it in the comments section below. But we need even more mysteries examining this phenomenon of human behavior. If the mystery genre exists to help our species examine good versus evil, we need more books that address willful blindness. Because evil does not always come in the form of a man posed beneath a neon yellow headline, knife held high in hand. Evil often looks exactly like you and me.