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Sleeping Grouchy

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Okay, before I start this, you have to understand something.  It’s nearly nine o’clock in the morning–in fact, when I look at the computer clock, it’s 8:59–and I just got up.

I never get up this late unless I’ve been out very late the night before.  That’s unusual, but it didn’t happen this time.  I just slept, nonstop, for whatever reason my body felt like doing it this morning. 

And I find this very disorienting.  Never mind the fact that I’m going to start on the caffeine in a couple of minutes, which means that I haven’t had any yet.

At any rate, I was going to start in today on one of those things that just sort of catches my attention–things I write about because I don’t know about them rather than things I write about because I do.

You’re not supposed to do that, but I know from experience that at least under some circumstances it works quite well.   Maybe I should think of it as my own private Socratic method.  Socrates believed that we could “bring out” what we knew but didn’t know–which was pretty much everything–if we only subjected ourselves to the right kind of questioning.

Of course, Socrates also seemed to believe that we are born with all the knowledge in the world and then forget it at birth, so there’s that.  It’s the kind of thing I usually have no patience for.

Anyway, what was on my mind to write about today was people who have either been convicted of famous crimes, or been tried for them and not convicted, who are now living among us like ordinary citizens.

I put that badly. 

I mean that there are people–think, for instance, of Mary Bell, or Carol Ann Fugate–who have, pretty certainly, done the crimes they were charged with, but who for some reason did not spend the rest of their lives in jail.  Some of them were acquitted.  Some of them went to jail for a time and were released.

Eventually, they became free people again, and they lived ordinary lives in ordinary places. 

Except, of course, that there is a sense in which they can never live ordinary lives in ordinary places.  There is always the chance that someone, somewhere, will find out who they are.

Mary Bell was married and the mother of children when the British press discovered where she lived and the assumed name she lived under–and proceeded to camp out on her doorstep for days. 

It must have been–as one of the writers I read on the subject said–an interesting mother-daughter talk that followed that one.

It seems to me, however, that outside of the most obvious and stupid of murders–the guy who gets drunk and bashes in the head of his girlfriend’s baby because it’s crying too much; the idiot who shoots up everybody in the convenience store because he doesn’t want to leave witnesses–there is a lot about any murder that can and will never be known except to the persons who were there.

And that means to the victim (or victims) and the perpetrators.

In some murders, what can be known is only known by the perpetrators, because the victims never see it coming.

I am, I realize, sort of blithering around with this. 

When I was younger, there was a play that was later made into a movie with Hayley Mills called The Chalk Garden.  In it, a mysterious woman is hired to be the governness to an out of control idiot of a girl, and it is later discovered that this governness is a notorious murderess, convicted in her teens of killing (I think) her stepsister, and now, having served her time, out and in the world again.

We don’t get much from the governness’s point of view in this thing, and we get virtually nothing at all about the crime.  The impression is left that there was some doubt, at the time, if the woman was really guilty.  Or at least guilty in a way that would make her criminally liable.

If I had written it, I would, of course, have concentrated much more on that.  But it is one of those things that I’m not sure I could write credibly from the inside of the character’s head. 

I do know what it feels like to be the only person to know the truth about some incident that everybody else in interested in–well, at least a small subset of everything else, like a family.

I am not sure if that experience would be similar to the ones I’m talking about.

What went on in Lizzie Borden’s head, all those years after the trial, when she was acquitted but virtually shunned by the entire population of the town she’d grown up in?

If she could have changed her name and moved away to live in anonymity–what would that have been like?  Would she always have worried about being discovered?  What would it have been like if she had been discovered.

We’ve got lots of reports about Lizzie before and after the murders, and lots of speculation about whether she killed them or not–but nobody knows what went on in that house but Lizzie, and that’s especially the case if she did kill them.

Maybe I’m just being idiotic here, and there is nothing much to know.  Maybe these people are just psychopaths, a group I find singularly boring.

But it does seem to me that it’s an interesting circumstance.  And in some cases, there are enough questions about the crime itself that I wish I could get into people’s heads and have them explain it to me.

But I really am blithering this morning, and maybe I should have waited for the caffeine.

I’m going to go do that, and listen to Bach.

And I’ve got a copy of the Sam Harris book on morality, courtesy of Marguerite, for which I thank her.

Maybe I’ll have something to report in the next day or two.

Written by janeh

October 24th, 2010 at 9:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Sleeping Grouchy'

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  1. Note that Lizzie could have changed her name and left town, but didn’t. (I thought the case relatively solid, by the way–though I’m not sure you can rule out the serving girl being in on it.) Still some questions in the Constance Kent case, too, if I’m current.

    It’s the long-term fugitives which intrigue me: a Bader-Mainhof member in East Germany, and a Weather Undergrounder in Wisconsin, if I remember correctly. Both women. Both married with fairly small children when their pasts caught up with them. What does the husband do? What does he tell the children, and are his obligations different if his wife concealed something like this before the marriage than they would be if the wife did it afterward?

    The released convict seems to have a choice. If you keep your name and make no secret of your past, you’ll have a very hard time establishing yourself immediately after release, but subsequently there is, effectively, not much story. Change your name and conceal your past, and you may get all that publicity five or ten years down the road–with accumulated interest. A century ago, I think the better play may have been changing the name. Today, I’d bet on full and early disclosure. The chances of staying hidden indefintely are poorer, and there’s always another hot story coming down the road.

    There’s a good side to “fifteen minutes of fame,” which is that it IS only 15 minutes.


    24 Oct 10 at 1:55 pm

  2. Norah Lofts wrote a fictionalized version of what I later realized was the Constance Kent case in which Constance was actually rather fond of her step-brother who was accidentally smothered by their father when he interrupted the father having sex with the nursery maid.

    I think one of the women convicted in a famous UK case died many years later, poverty-stricken, in an isolated cottage somewhere in the NE US, surrounded by cats. That doesn’t seem such an unlikely end for a lot of people, actually.

    I think mostly they seem to try to fade into obscurity, generally under their own names. Karla Homolka served a lot of time, and lived, after her release, in Quebec, where she didn’t have nearly the amount of notoriety as she did in English Canada. That’s another way of avoiding some public notice.

    I sometimes think that such horrific events probably fade away in even the culprit’s memory, until it hardly seems real to them any more. Look at List – who murdered his entire family, moved across the country, and started another one – apparently without worrying much about the first family! And some serial killers claim to be uncertain about exactly who they killed or where they left the bodies.

    Our latest serial sex killer has apparently apologized to the families of his victims, but whether he actually feels it or is going through the motions, who knows? Anyway, I doubt he’ll ever be in the position of trying to start a new life on the outside.


    24 Oct 10 at 4:01 pm

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