File under mysteries of the soul: that the suicide of the widow is somehow heavier to bear than the savage random murder of her husband. And then again, that’s nonsense.
Who are we, strangers, to assign weight or relative value to the death of Patti Stevens, who committed carbon monoxide suicide in her garage last Sunday, October 25, or to the death of her husband, Dave Stevens, hacked to death while jogging near White Rock Lake by a machete-wielding, vision-seeing, voice-hearing stranger on October 12?
Death is death. Is there anything more to say?
I should know better than to put my hand up, but I think the answer may be yes. There is a little more to say. Not a lot. But something. I have some odd experience in this area, having written more newspaper stories and books about murder than I ever really wanted to.
But, no, I don’t know anything about the inner nature of murder itself, if it has an inner nature. No more than you do, no more than any of us. What I think I know a little about is the effect murder has on other people, on survivors, the loved ones of the victims, the loved ones of the murderers, for that matter, on those of us who are total strangers reading about it or seeing it in the news.
Let me start with book editors. They tend not to be journalists. They’re more like movie producers. Their job is to spot projects that will sell. The ones I did books for came from backgrounds on a spectrum from two weeks out of Vassar to involved up until recently in Off Broadway dance. What they knew about crime they knew from fiction, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The story they wanted was the story of the killer, because they believed in a fiction — that murderers are more complicated and therefore more interesting than boring old honest people. It’s not true.
The first really complete assessment I ever heard of the minds of murderers came from a slouched old Detroit homicide cop who was watching me, a 20-something then, trying not to lose my lunch after viewing an especially hideous crime scene. I said: “Why would one human being do that to another human being?”
What seemed like an awfully cheap explanation at the time grew slowly more wise as my own experience lengthened. We really don’t know why killers kill, but I think I know that there is always less to say about them, not more, than there is to say about the ripple effect their murders have on all of the struggling, basically decent people tied to the event.
We have no idea what was going on in the very private lives of Patti and Dave Stevens. We are all hidden from each other at a certain level by the shelter of privacy. But we can also make some pretty good general assumptions about life itself.
Leading an honest, decent life is often really challenging and almost always complicated. To paying the rent or making car payments we can add mending fences within family, cheering on a loved one who needs it, confronting another one who needs it. Honest life is what’s hard. Honest life is what’s demanding. Honest life is what calls on us to be alert and inventive.
I have written a lot about crooks, talked to lots of crooks, talked about crooks with lots of lawyers and family members. I’m not speaking here of crazy people, exactly. Crazy people can be another kettle of fish, sort of. But most killers are straight-up crooked, bad people who have worked their way up the ladder of evil to the ultimate evil act, the taking of human life.
Crooks have less going on upstairs, not more, than honest people. Crooks are basically smash-and-grabbers. See what they want, grab it. Money, sex, power, vengeance. Not into long-range planning. They divorce themselves from empathy. They have less, not more, to think about.
The effect their crimes have on survivors, on the other hand, is immensely complex and almost infinitely profound. As regular, decent people battle their way through the challenges of a normal life, their ability to deal with catastrophe, after all, is not infinite.
Terrible medical news about yourself. Terrible news about someone else. Awful sadness in the life of someone about whom you care deeply. Unexpected economic disaster. Sudden shame and embarrassment. The list goes on, eh? But the list of what you can take still occurs within a certain range of magnitude.
Your spouse, whom you last saw full of health and good cheer, is hacked apart by a madman? Listen. There are things people can’t handle.
Once speaking with a lady who had devoted her life to the homeless, I asked why guys who used to be bankers and school teachers become homeless stumblebums. She said some of it is simple addiction. But she said some of them are people to whom something happened that was so terrible — loss of a child, loss of a fortune, something — that they fell down morally and just couldn’t ever get back up.
In wondering about Patti Stevens’ suicide, some people have said things to me like, “You always hope you’d be able to bear up, no matter how terrible it is.”
Yup. That’s what we always hope. But then we need think a little about the sheer horror of what happened to her husband. And then maybe we need to think again.
When I was doing true crime books, the big thing the editors were looking for was “novelistic.” They wanted the interiors of the stories, some fascinating inner web they imagined was waiting to be discovered deep in the mind of the killer. I usually stopped listening after “deep in the mind.”
I tried a couple times to sell them on the stories of the survivors, the concentric rings of collateral victims whose lives had been savaged and deformed by the crime. Now, there, I tried to say, is where you’ll find complexity and depth — the saga of honest, decent people trying to put together honest, decent lives for themselves and others. And then this awful mayhem intervenes.
One editor asked me if I was an evangelical. I said no. In my head I said to myself, “Nope, just an ink-stained wretch trying to get paid a good advance who should shut up and give this lady exactly what she wants.”
But it’s fiction. Killers are not fascinating. Honest, decent people are fascinating. They’re the story.
I know there’s a lot of backstory about the killer in this case. The coverage so far suggests a long descent into something that sounds a lot like schizophrenia. His family and his loved ones are victims, too, wounded and battered by what he did, by what became of him. Far be it from me to suggest that their story is any less compelling or important than anybody else’s.
The death of Dave Stevens is so horrible that it’s a far reach for us. We have trouble linking our own lives and beings to what happened to him. But the death of Patti Stevens, which feels closer, is even more terrible and terribly sad because we can imagine ourselves in her position. We all have a certain shared interest in decent life, after all. Decent life is hard enough when we all live by the law. Together the deaths of the Stevenses remind us what murder really is — a savage gash hacked across all our hearts.