Getting Inside Their Heads

James Hayman:  As crime writers we commit murder all the time. Sometimes we do it in almost unimaginably brutal ways. For example, in my first book, The Cutting, I killed three of my victims by having their beating hearts cut from their living bodies to provide organs for illegal transplant operations. One was a sixteen year old female student at Portland High School who was the star of the women’s soccer team. The second was a media saleswoman and snowboarder who was abducted from a bar near the Sunday River Ski Resort in Bethel. The third was a gay male graduate of Bowdoin College who was headed to Tufts Medical School. A fourth, a woman who worked in a Portland ad agency, narrowly escaped a similar attempt on her life.

In the same book I also killed off a uniformed cop who had his throat cut in the line of duty.  Another victim was an eighteen-year-old boy who was casually shot in the head and killed by a bad guy who needed a ride and killed the kid to steal his truck. The good guys got some of their own back when this particular bad guy was in turn shot in the head and killed by one of my heroes, Detective Maggie Savage. I also killed off a couple of false suspects who were getting in the ultimate villain’s way. Finally, toward the end of the book, I had my hero dispatch this ultimate bad guy by shooting him three or four times and then,l since he wasn’t yet dead, finishing the job by vaulting him over a railing to fall three stories to his death.  I think the final body count in The Cutting was nine.  In my second book, The Chill of Night, I killed five. And in my third, Darkness First, ten people lose their lives. Three by drowning. Two by stabbing. Four by shooting. And one by unknown means.

My point in toting all this up is that at least some of us crime writers spend a good deal of time inside the heads of killers. When you write in a character’s voice, from that character’s point of view, you, for a time, become that character. You see through their eyes. You think what they think and feel what they feel.  In the process of writing these tales, I got to know some pretty creepy people.  It can be a scary experience. Especially while I was in the head of the bad guy who killed the kid for his truck and cut the throat of the cop, I really felt I was thinking his thoughts and feeling his emotions.  And the guy was a total psychopath. He killed without conscience and with little motive other than profit or convenience  and never thought twice about it. While he was killing the kid with the truck he was thinking not about the victim or about the act of murder he was committing but rather about what movie he was going to watch that night.

Which brings me to Adam Lanza.

Since the mass killing of twenty first-grade students and six teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, I’ve been wondering what getting inside Adam Lanza’s head would be like. Could I imagine what he was thinking when he decided to go to that school?  Could I sense what was going through his mind as he pulled the trigger time after time and then reloaded the weapon? Could I know how he reacted to the sight of the bullet-riddled bodies of the children? How would he have described them? Was it exciting?  Was it sexual? Was he getting off on the violence? Or was he in the midst of an hallucination? Or of uncontrollable anger? Perhaps his feelings were the same as when he sat and blew away cartoon characters in a violent video game? Or what he might have felt watching the violence in a Quentin Tarantino movie? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions and maybe I can never know. But, as a writer, I’m thinking about trying to force myself into his mind to find out if I can credibly write the story of something like the Sandy Hook massacre in something like Lanza’s voice, from something like Lanza’s point of view.

My thoughts about doing this stem from more than just morbid curiosity or any desire to capitalize on the crime in Connecticut. I want to understand what makes someone like Lanza tick. Or not tick. At least not very well. I want to understand and I want other people to understand what the mind of someone like Lanza is like.  I want to believably communicate all this at least partly because I want the people who are against assault weapon bans and against background checks for gun sales and who insist the right to bear arms trumps a child’s right to live, I want them to understand what it’s like to be Adam Lanza and I want them to agree that society must do what it can do keep such weapons of  mass destruction out of the hands of people like Lanza.

If I do write the story of Sandy Hook it won’t be reportage.  It will be fiction. I’ll be making up the character of the shooter. I’ll make up the location.  I’ll make up the details of the killings. I’ll probably  build in a plot that goes beyond the event at Newtown.  But I’ll also try to be as honest as I can in understanding and communicating what is for most of us utterly incomprehensible. Why people like Lanza do what they do. And why we as a society have to do what we can to stop as many of them as we can before someone tries to do again. Which someday someone surely will.


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4 Responses to Getting Inside Their Heads

  1. Liz Mugavero says:

    James, kudos – that will be an incredibly difficult thing to do. Since the murders, I’ve had the beginnings of a story in my head as well, but one from the point of view of either two students who witnessed a mass shooting of their classmates, or siblings of a murdered student. I think any point of view, even loosely based on this event, will be incredibly emotional.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Thank you Liz. I think it will be incredibly difficult but I think I will try. if it works you may get to read it. If not, well then not.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    I think we all want to know what went on in Adam Lanza’s head and in the dynamic of his family. That’s why even articles that hint at what the police have found or interviews with his father and brother are so well read. I’m as fascinated by what was going on in his mother’s head as in his. It seems like she was a desperate woman, but also deep in denial, insistent on believing what was wrong with him was benign.

    In a class I once wrote a story, a sketch really, about the Virginia Tech shootings. When it was my turn to read, I broke down. And that story was told from the point of view of a mother whose child had survived. So someone needs to write about Adam Lanza, but I don’t think it will be me.

  3. Jim, I read in one article shortly after the Connecticut shootings of all those children that Adam was mad at his mother because (he thought or he knew) she was getting ready to have him committed to an institution somewhere. That’s all I can remember of that article but that stayed in my head, probably because it sounds so reasonable, not his final acts of violence, but that he would shoot his mother dead. He had to be really mad at her or afraid she really was going to have him put away, since he shot her four times. That in itself is proof of horrific anger on his part. Then, and this is just my meandering here, he probably just completely went over the edge and shot everybody he could find to shoot. But maybe not, because then again, he was rational enough to kill himself, so he could have methodically planned the whole scenario and then acted on it. The mother is the whole key, in my mind. She could not have been a stable, rational human being to have known he was so sick and yet leave guns and ammunition where he could get to them. So you’re going to have to investigate her too, to do this book right.

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