Bad to the Bone

Don't look to poor parenting or psychiatry to understand killers like Newtown's.

An odd sense of kinship came to me recently when I read an essay by New York writer Andrew Solomon about his new book Far From the Tree, in which he examines and gives voice to Tom and Sue Klebold, parents of Dylan Klebold, who with his friend Eric Harris killed 11 students and one teacher before killing themselves on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Solomon and I have trod similar paths.

In the essay published online by The Daily Beast, Solomon talks about his initial expectation — his quest, in fact — when he talked the Klebolds into sitting down for long interviews:

"I set out to interview Tom and Sue Klebold with the expectation that meeting them would help to illuminate their son's actions," Solomon writes. "The better I came to know the Klebolds, the more deeply mystified I became. Sue Klebold's kindness (before Dylan's death, she worked with people with disabilities) would be the answered prayer of many a neglected or abused child, and Tom's bullish enthusiasm would lift anyone's tired spirits.

"Among the many families I've met in writing this book, the Klebolds are among those I would be most game to join."

Over a period of three years in the mid 1990s, I worked on a true-crime book, published by Harper-Collins in 1997 as Bully, about a group of blue-collar to middle-class suburban kids in Broward County, Florida, who savagely murdered a young man with knives and baseball bats. The bully of the title was the murder victim. The path I think I share with Solomon comes from working on that book and then collaborating on several failed attempts by major film studios to turn it into a movie.

All of this was already on my mind before reading the essay on The Daily Beast, because of Newtown. Before that it was in my head because of Aurora. Every iteration tolls the same gloomy bell deep in my heart.

Bobby Kent was killed on July 15, 1993, in a semi-reclaimed swamp west of Hollywood, Florida, 17 miles north of Miami. Some of the seven murderers barely knew him. One was his best friend. They knocked his head in with a bat, slit his throat, spilled his bowels and then dumped him into the Everglades still barely alive hoping he would be devoured by alligators. Instead he was nibbled by crabs.

Like Solomon, I set out on my reporting with what I now realize was a completely unexamined assumption on my part. I took it on faith that children are products of their parents. Therefore, the logic runs, the actions of children can be explained by the quality of parents they had.

I did not hear Solomon saying this additional thing in his essay, so I assume he's smarter than I am: I also carried with me another completely unquestioned belief that whatever could not be explained by parenting could be assigned to some sort of diagnosis. You know, psychiatry. Freud. Psych 101 and whatever novels and movies had provided me with the rest of my psychiatric sophistication. It's a simple enough algorithm: Parents plus shrinks equals behavior.

In my case there were other incentives for blaming the parents that Solomon would not have encountered. True crime, no matter what anybody tells you about Truman Capote, is an inherently sleazy genre. Editors keep sharp eyes on the target demographics for book sales. This one was aimed at young adult readers. I found there was great enthusiasm for a thesis that would assign blame to someone other than the young adult people who had committed this crime.

An editor said to me, "They can't just be evil! They're young!"

I scoured the parents for blame. I actually put a couple of years into it. Had they been blameworthy in any plausible detail or interpretation, I might have blamed the hell out of them. But as a group they were not involved in any way nor did they contribute to this awful crime. They just didn't.

A few of them were bad parents. Some of them were terrific parents. Most were somewhere in the middle, struggling against tough odds to do the best they could. In other words, they were parents — the same old anxious, tired, uncertain shmoos going for a batting average that I see in the mirror every time I examine myself as a parent.

They were exactly the same kind of parents I had known to produce children who became top med students, art teachers and truck drivers over the years. And drug addicts. And criminals.

When my venture went to Hollywood, I began dealing with what are mysteriously called "development people." The pressure to absolve the killers of blame grew much stronger. And before I start sounding like I think I'm smarter than development people, let me hasten to say I'm not, certainly not about the movie business.

They know their own deal. Their deal works like this. There is no deal, there is no movie, there is nothing but blah-blah-blah until there is money. There is no money until a star is "attached." I don't know what that means. But when a star is attached, investors will give money, and then the deal is real.

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21 comments
JustSaying
JustSaying

I can't speak on the book, but holy hell "Bully" was a shite movie. It felt like a group of untalented actors came over and murdered 2 hours of my life. I don't blame their parents, though.

babadetiba
babadetiba

Good article.

People tend to credit bad acts to "society" (whatever that is) and good acts to the person. This is especially the case with younger children, and with an extreme act such as murder. I think it was Thomas Sasz who wrote about this. 

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

I expected to find this excellent column over on Unfair Park, where a lot of noise is usually made about Jim's alleged libtardness. Jim is not liberal in any conventional sense. Jim is a moralist and these days that marks him as even more a contrarian than most of us ever suspected.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

Jim, glad someone giving this book ink.  A great piece of work.  Quite the project.  I was very surprised/scared/etc to find a childhood friend in it recounting his brother's battle.  Made it a bit more visceral.  I remember the brother, we all thought he was different, but chalked it up to the usual individuality plus a red one...  A rude awakening to earn that he had trouble later in life.

mcdallas
mcdallas

Curious to know about the religious backgrounds of these families and teens.  Any commonalities there?  

kduble
kduble

Under the "Well, duh," category, I'd hasten to add that there is an issue even beyond whether these young men are evil or not. The parents chose to have high-powered weapons and unstable young men sharing the same household. Even if the parenting is perfect and these young guys are evil, it still comes down to access to weapons.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@mcdallas 

Catholic, Protestant, None, some of the kids raised in church and church youth group, lots of soccer, ballet lessons, etc.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@TheCredibleHulk Hulk,

Hardly.  Hannah Arendt's famous phrase evokes that state of society in which evil, reinforced by political and cultural habits, is accepted as the norm, the everyday. It prevails. The Connecticut school shootings, the Aurora theater massacre, the Florida beatings are horrific because they are not the norm or the everyday or the banal. But they ARE evil.   

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

@kduble Did you even read the article?  "Well duh" - The case that Jim wrote in Bully did not involve guns but did involve a mixture of teenagers of both genders.  Second, the parents of the Columbine punks did not provide the guns.  From my understanding the homes of the Columbine killers were gun free.  So you prove Jim's point about the desire to blame everything but the moral choice made by the evil doers.

mcdallas
mcdallas

@JimSX @mcdallas Wow.  Very interesting.  I was hoping (although not expecting) the answer to be different.

Thanks.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@bmarvel @TheCredibleHulk 

In my opinion, this incident and the school shootings are miles apart. I'll agree that "banality of evil" doesn't help us to explain the latter, at all.  In the incident Jim profiles here, there are several kids that appear to be driven to this murder by a common cause: retribution. In the school shootings, Columbine notwithstanding, it has generally been a single disturbed individual that perpetrates these sort of incidents.


The kids that Shutze describes here represent society in a microcosm. It apparently wasn't too difficult for them to become aggrieved to such an extent by this "bully" that they formed a distinct class, and acted in such a manner to bring about the demise of their tormentor. Now, either the harassment that "bully" brought down on these kids was so intolerable that it sparked this violent response that ended in the death of the "bully", or the class of victims normalized the idea among themselves that "bully" needed to be dealt with harshly - think "Lord of the Flies". I think that falls neatly into the "Banality of evil" paradigm.


Jim's point here and the larger point in general, I think, is that these particular kids don't represent some distinct class of folks that come from a separate segment of society. These are your friends and neighbors, living the very same sorts of banal lives that most of us do, that produce kids that sometimes go off the rails.     

cheeseburger
cheeseburger

@mcdallas @cheeseburger @JimSX That it makes a damn bit of difference how their parents raised them.  The central point of this article.


Your turn.



TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@bmarvel @TheCredibleHulk 

Are you of the opinion that once a certain phrase is applied to a certain situation is verboten from describing another situation? Is "banality of evil" somehow trademarked for the holocaust? That's rather elitist of you, bmarvel.

Look, I know you think that you are "schooling" me on Arendt's intent, here. And, although I haven't read the book, (it's on my list, among many, many others) I'm quite familiar with the concept as it is presented, there. Furthermore, I've had the unique opportunity to discuss the idea that Arendt proposes therein with an acquaintance that actually spent her pre-teens and early adolescence in Nazi Germany as a German citizen,  even indoctrinated into the "Hitler Youth" program. They played along with everyone else right up until the time her parents were able to get her and the rest of their family on a boat the hell away from there. She is of the opinion that Arendt is full of shit. She thinks that most people that signed on to the madness knew full-well what they were doing when the shit hit the fan in 1930's Germany. Not that that has anything to do with this particular conversation. 


Like I said, you may disagree with the parallels that I have drawn, and that is fine. But don't be obtuse and deliberately misread what I have said.


Do you really see no differentiation between the school shootings and the Bully incident? Both are forms of evil, but they are not sprung from the same well.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@TheCredibleHulk @bmarvel Every crime, every act of violence, every evil seems normal, reasonable, even desirable, to the perps. It does not sink to the level of the banal until that view is shared by society at large. Seven teens bent on revenge don't constitute a society. Nor, it goes without saying, does a lone shooter in a school classroom. You have misunderstood and therefore misused Hannah Arendt's phrase.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@bmarvel @TheCredibleHulk 

Apparently, you don't comprehend your reading very well, or you just don't care to do so. You restate the very argument that I made in your first paragraph, which is exactly what Jim said in his piece. There is no correlation between the very normal lives these kids lived and their horrific actions. I'm not at all saying that the crimes themselves here are "banal". If that's what you got out of my response, then I'll try to elaborate for you.


I'm saying that in that particular group of kids, that "class", whether it was planned or spur of the moment action, these kids were driven to that extreme because nobody around them at the time was able to look rationally at this course of action and say, "No, this is a morally wrong and egregious overreaction to whatever provocation by bully."  Much as the events leading up to and surrounding the holocaust were seen as normal to the folks that populated that particular society at the time, the rest of the world was horrified by these collective actions.


So, my point was, that to society at large, these incidents are horrific., but to the populace of Nazi Germany at the time, it seemed rational, and, to the perpetrators of the "bully" scenario, this was seen as reasonable among themselves, at least for the moment that they were enacting this murder.


I'll admit that it isn't a perfect parallel with Arendt's thesis, but I think the concept "banality of evil" here applies.


So feel free to disagree, but please don't try to redefine what I have written to justify your response.


bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@TheCredibleHulk "Jim's point here and the larger point in general, I think, is that these particular kids don't represent some distinct class of folks that come from a separate segment of society."

It isn't a matter of what "class" or"segment" they belong to. It's a matter of what they did. Jim made the same assumptions starting out that we all make: There must be some explanation for what these kids did, their parents, their poverty, their...whatever. But there wasn't. Seemingly, they were just kids, the kind you might find in any shopping center on a Saturday, the kind who might live next door, There was, in the end, no way to explain why they did what they did.

That doesn't make what they did "banal," within the meaning of Hannah Arendt's phrase. Have you read her book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem"? She means by the phrase that evil had become the norm in Nazi Germany, the expected. Thus nobody blinked an eye when Jews were carted off for forced labor and death.

On the contrary, the Florida beatings, like the shootings in Aurora, in Connecticut -- like all such crimes-- astonished and horrified everyone. How can something that provokes widespread public horror and condemnation be "banal?"

The deeper problem here -- and this is at the center of Jim's excellent column -- is our persistent efforts to explain evil,to figure out its cause as though it were some kind of traffic accident.  The theater and school shooters were mentally disturbed. Okay, so are uncounted others who have not expressed that disturbance on shooting sprees.

Evil is perhaps the deepest of all human mysteries. We persist in assigning causes. That's a big part of the "liberal" agenda: If we just create the perfect society, evil will go away. No, it won't. Evil is like a living thing, It reproduces and spreads, popping up sometimes in places where it's least expected. Anyone can be a carrier, anyone can be a victim. But whatever it is, it is not banal.

 
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