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.
Let me hasten again to say I am not smarter than stars. Stars know their business, too. They will not attach themselves to characters that audiences will hate forever. The people in my book — do you mind if I do not call them "characters?" — wound up coming across as persons you might easily detest until your dying day or theirs.
The star whom the development people always wanted to attach was Drew Barrymore, who was then about 20. One development person called me and told me she had just read "my" murder scene. "Drew would never do this," she said.
"The part?" I asked.
"No, the murder."
I wanted to say, "Oh, my Lord, no, I never meant to imply that Ms. Barrymore would do anything remotely like this." But I held my peace. I had already had this same conversation with three or four other development persons at other studios where the project had already failed. I knew what was coming next.
I was about to be told that I hadn't "developed the characters enough." I hadn't plumbed their depths to find "their true motivation." I didn't understand that people don't just do awful things like this "out of the blue."
I would be asked if I had ever looked closely at the parents. I would be told that they seemed to be these typical middle-class suburban doofuses who don't get anything about their own children. They're probably huge hypocrites. A lot of kids suffer real psychological damage — it's called congenital dissidence or something — because of the mixed signals they get from their stupid middle-class hypocrite shlub parents, and then they do wild stuff that they don't even really mean to do. What about that?
In other words, "Not Drew's fault really. Her mom and dad's fault. What she did was awful, but we'd still love to see her next movie."
And so, as I had killed all of the previous iterations of my movie, I also killed this one. I sent the studio a letter — by now almost a form letter — saying I had spent two years researching the parents and had found not one scintilla of even remotely plausible justification for putting the blame on them in any way. Should a movie be made with that plot line and should any sort of litigation ensue — these being, after all, not "characters" but real people with access to the courts — I would immediately offer my services to the plaintiffs as a witness. And bang! Once more the project was dead and my incredibly able agent, Janet Manus, sallied forth to sell it again.
Some of the reasons for displacing blame from "characters" in commercial media like true-crime books and movies are commercial. Straight-up blame — a thesis that is basically moral, in fact — is not commercial. The audience won't like it. Drew won't do it. No star will attach. Blah-blah-blah.
But what's going on in stories that are still straight news, that have not yet reached the sleazy commercial level of rendering? Why is it such an important impulse of the culture to search the parents of young killers for blame and then to gin up some ersatz psychiatric deus-ex-machina excuse for them?
I think I have to pause again — does this make it the third time? — to talk about how little I know. I do not know, obviously, what was or was not wrong inside the head of the killer in Newtown. He may turn out to have been taking orders directly from the man in the moon. We really do not know.
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But I'm not talking about his head. I'm talking about your head. My head. Our heads and our hearts. Why does there seem to be such a powerful cultural impetus to turn away from even considering the possibility of evil as an explanation, especially when killers are young?
Evil. It's big. It's a major industry. Evil people love their work. Human beings develop the capacity for evil at whatever age they develop the capacity to choose between right and wrong. If we believe in free will — and I do — then a logically necessary corollary is that people, including very young people, may choose to do evil in spite of having had the best parents and the best opportunities in the world.
Evil may be a bad plotline for true crime-books, novels and movies, because it doesn't have any moving parts. The scene is somebody staring at his knee in a parked car while he decides.
But this isn't fiction. This is life. We live in a moral universe. Why, then, are we so loath to comprehend it morally?