Nature or nurture, good or evil?

Gerry here. It’s been bothering me all week, so much so that I keep Googling this guy’s name, and watching as, like a slow-motion car wreck, the hits come up from all over the world.

He’s accused of multiple murders. He’s done some bad things in the past as well, creepy crimes committed when he was just a teenager, the kind of stuff that make you wonder how someone so young could be so bad.

If I included his name here, you’d say, Oh, my gosh. That guy? If I tagged this post with his name, the views would be off the chart. But I won’t. Not to protect him. Sadly, he’s made his jail-cell bed and may sleep in it for decades. No, I’m not worried about him. But I knew his father pretty well. And I don’t want to add to his pain.

I knew the father professionally. When I was a columnist he was one of my regular stops. He was in law enforcement and I’d drop by his office unannounced and he’d put aside what he was doing and offer a chair. I’d sit and we’d chat about bad guys we knew, the latest crimes. More interestingly, we’d talk about why people ended up in his custody and my column. What was it about human nature that made some people unable to obey the law?

This guy was very smart. He’d known hundreds of convicted felons, criminals of all shapes and sizes. He was interested in them as people, didn’t judge them out of hand. He tried to get them to straighten out — drug rehab, AA, tough love, whatever worked. And then his own son turned out to be difficult, then incorrigible, then seriously messed up.

By the time the son became notorious this guy and I had both moved on. He moved away; I Ieft newspapers. But I always remembered the talks we had and this week his son was in the news again, charged with a big-time crime. I read the story. I felt for his dad.

Which brings me to the point for this crimewriters post. We invent all sorts of bad guys and readers consider them. Some bad guys are bit players. Some have leading roles. But most of the time we, their creators, have to consider how and why bad guys get to be that way? At what point did they turn away from good and never look back? Crappy upbringing? Abused as kids. Neglected. Drug addiction? Hanging with the wrong crowd? Or just genetically pre-disposed to evil. Bad judgment. Violence.

The hero of my latest book, rookie cop Brandon Blake in PORT CITY BLACK AND WHITE, doesn’t worry about any of this. “I don’t care why they did it,” he says. “I just want to lock them up.”

Writers have to care, and while I don’t have any answers to these questions, I suspect it’s a combination of all of the above. But it’s something for all of us who write and read this genre, and trade in the currency of good and evil, to consider. Why do our villainous characters do what they do? And if you say it’s simply because they’re bad guys, you might want to think a little harder.




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3 Responses to Nature or nurture, good or evil?

  1. Barb Ross says:

    I went to see Ruth Rendell speak this week. She is one of my idols, and of course, in her stand-alone psychologically based books and the books she writes as Barbara Vine ( and I would say also in the Wexfords), she often, even usually, explores the why.

    Someone asked her if she does psychological research for her specific killers. She said no. Though she has read a great deal of psychology in the past, she said since no one actually knows what causes psychopathology, if she can put herself in the same shoes as these characters and understand their feelings, needs, and particularly anger, she has as much chance of getting it right as anyone.

    I’ve pondered nature and nurture as much as a parent of young adults as I have as a writer. We all know chaotic households and extremely tragic situations that produce amazing young adults, and also people we would say were strong and dedicated parents who end up dealing with a child who’s troubles seem far beyond anything we would have imagined. (But then of course, there’s the opposite, the kid we spot in the first grade and think, oh man, that’s going to be trouble, and then it is.)

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Gerry…it was wondering about this, about what shapes the bad guys and lets them deviate from the social compact we’ve all signed on to, that got me started in the first place. I was the “girl in the white hat” working in the AGs office, doing my dream job, being the lawyer for the people of Maine. I wasn’t even doing criminal law, but I just kept seeing people doing truly hateful things, and I kept wondering about it. Why employers treated their vulnerable employees so badly? Why the divorced dad couldn’t come up with enough support so his kids could eat but was driving around in a brand new truck. I carried that wondering along into planning and zoning, where absolutely EVERYBODY lies, whether they need to or not, and eventually that burst forth into mystery.

    I still think we need to understand the psychology of it. I vet my book ideas with psychiatrists or social workers. I read the paper and wonder. And when I write the books, I’m still wondering. Joe Burgess would have a lot of advice for Rookie Brandon. The challenge for our cops is how they retain their humanity. Which the good ones really do. I once asked a Portland cop–how do you stay decent, given what you see? How do you avoid getting dragged down to their level. He said, “I try to act from who I am, not from who they are.”

    Brilliant. Thanks for writing this.


    • Gerry says:

      Thanks for the comments, Barb and Kate. Fascinating discussion, I think. Barb, yes, we all know the kid in kindergarten who will somebody be in the crime news. I now send the occasional news item to my son, who is 21 and away in college. He is interested to know which of his classmates is in the arrest log. Some seem sadly inevitable.

      But so much is mysterious. As Kate says, as writers we’re still wondering.

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