Creating Monsters

on January 12, 2006

In The Kill, there’s a scene where Zack and Olivia are reviewing official records that relate to the villain. As they begin to understand the killer’s background, Zack says:

“I heard a phrase once, can’t remember where, that monsters are created. [He] is a product of his upbringing. Doesn’t make him any less guilty, but dammit, I hate that the cycle continues.”

Zack couldn’t remember where he heard the phrase because I couldn’t remember where I heard it. I thought I might have read it in a Thomas Harris book or in a Keith Ablow book, but after skimming my copies I couldn’t find the reference.

Keith Ablow is a forensic psychiatrist and I picked up his book Denial a couple years ago. Ablow is not for the faint of heart–his books are very real slices of tragic life, and while there is hope and compassion within the pages, there’s also death and destruction.

I couldn’t put the book down.

So I picked up his other books when they came out. Psychopath is particularly strong and compelling because I felt that while I despised and feared the villain on one level because he committed atrocious, evil crimes against innocent people; on another, I found that I understood him because he was a product of his upbringing. I could see how he developed into a monster.

Ablow is a practicing forensic psychiatrist and expert witness, just like the protagonist in his novels. Because of his background, he writes authentic and convincing books that are now on my auto-buy list.

So, when Ablow wrote a true crime novel titled Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, I had to read it.

Ablow has thoughtful insights into what goes into the making of people we call monsters. And he said something in the book that really, really resonated with me because I believe it, too.

People are born good, and then life circumstances conspire to destroy their inborn capacity for empathy–their humanity.

This got me thinking a lot more about my villain and what made him (or her) capable of evil acts. This is a topic I explore in my current trilogy because I do think there is a reason for everything.

Some people are grossly abused, physically and emotionally, as children and never turn into killers. They might commit other crimes, or be incapable of love, or be unsympathetic to the plight of others–or they may grow into loving, caring people in spite of their upbringing.

What makes men like Scott Peterson different?

Ablow argues that three generations of death and abandonment created a man who has no empathy for human beings, no humanity in his soul. Ablow’s gift is to clearly demonstrate his case, to show why Scott Peterson killed. And I think I now understand.

It doesn’t make Peterson’s crime any less horrific. It doesn’t make him any less guilty. But it does answer the question that plagues all of us, to one degree or another: what makes someone kill. How are monsters created. Why?

Ablow has far more compassion for Peterson than I do, but now I understand why Peterson grew into a man capable of killing without remorse or emotion.

Ablow argues that Scott Peterson is already dead.

Scott Peterson had already been spiritually dead a very long time. He had walked among us as an emotional vampire feasting day-to-day on the life force of others, particularly women.

Neither handcuffs nor chains can restrain a man whose soul has no core, no center. His thoughts and feelings can travel anywhere, carried on the black wings of his imagination.

Such a man will not be frightened by the specter of lethal injection. For he has already left us.

You cannot kill a man who is already dead.

Ablow goes on to use several other “death” metaphors to illustrate his point. In the end, though, his conclusion is that Scott Peterson is incapable of feeling empathy or emotions that connect us to each other. He asserts that when Scott Peterson killed his wife, Laci, he felt almost nothing.

He didn’t kill in rage, in anger, in jealousy, in lust, in hate . . . he killed for convenience. Having a wife and child was inconvenient for him and the life he had created for himself. He killed because he had no emotional attachment to Laci or their son.

It’s more complex that my one paragraph summary, and the book is definitely worth reading. I’ll admit I initially read the book in order to understand a killer so my writing would be more vivid and real. But I finished the book with a deeper understanding of human nature, of humanity and empathy and emotions, that will make my life, and my relationships, healthier.

While I’m not a psychiatrist, I find myself driven by the same questions Dr. Ablow is. In the first chapter, he explains why he does what he does:

Without exception, my task has been to find the story that explains not what happened to victims but why it happened–why some people destroy others. In order to do so, I have had to journey deep into the psyches of men and women without empathy, capable of brutal acts. And I have become a relentless burrower for the truth about such people. My mind does not rest until I find it. Because once I do, I have my reward: I realize again that nothing and no one is beyond human understanding–not even those we call monsters.