Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Folks Next-Door: You Can't Make This Stuff Up

All of us like to think that we are good judges of character. Especially writers, because we think we observe people more closely so we can write about them. We like to think that we would see something that was not quite right and keep our guard up. I've been thinking about that because within the last month two horrific crimes have been in the news and in both cases the suspects lived among people who thought they were nice, normal people.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the Tsarnaev brothers who are the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent shoot-outs. As more comes to light about them, especially the younger brother Dzhokar, people keep saying what a nice kid he was, how normal, how much fun to be with. One of the most chilling aspects of the story is that after the bombing, when dozens of people were in hospitals, their bodies blown apart, Dzhokar went back to his normal life. He went to classes, worked out at the gym, and when one of his friends commented on the bombing, he said that he had heard about it and how terrible it sounded.

Yesterday we got news from Cleveland, Ohio about three brothers, the Castro brothers, who are the suspects in a horrible kidnapping crime.[Correction: Police now say that only one of the brothers, Arial, was involved. The other two knew nothing about it.] They held at least three young women captive, using them as sexual slaves, fathering children with them, keeping them chained in the upstairs rooms of their house. All of this in a neighborhood in which they were well known and liked. The man who rescued the girls, Charles Ramsey (and what a character he is!) reported that he had barbecued with them, listened to salsa music and discussed women. The very day that the kidnapped girls were discovered he had taken mail to one of the brothers, mail that was delivered to his house by mistake. These are frightening thoughts.

I keep thinking about this. I like to think that I'm a good judge of character but I know there have been times in my life when I have over-looked somethig that I found odd in an individual only to regret it later. As a writer I've always enjoyed setting up “impossible” situations—circumstances in which a person has to confront their own values and instincts. This is especially interesting when readers respond with disbelief and incredulity. I have had more than a few emails from readers who simply cannot believe that a husband would forgive his wife for getting pregnant by another man when he could not impregnate her, or that a woman would not tell her lover about her pregnancy so that he would not give up an opportunity he had longed for. In one of my stories a woman encounters a man she had loved briefly but who abandoned her many years earlier. She realizes how fortunate she was not to have given up everything for him. Yet there have been readers who have said they thought she should go back to him and see if they could reclaim what they once had.

Let me tell you, if I had made up characters like the Tsarnaev brothers or the Castro brothers, readers would think I was nuts. They would never believe that no one suspected they were up to something terrible—and yet they didn't.

I don't know what the answers are but I do know I've spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about it. People are mysterious and, hard as it may be to believe, we often don't see what is right in front of us. The good thing is that, for us writers, there will always be new material.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Well said... As a teacher, I'm trying to train myself to find the troubled souls and get to them before something terrible happens. But it doesn't work that way, it's so unpredictable, the ones you might think are crazy aren't, the ones you think are nice and normal aren't, the best I can do is love them all and hope that it might make some kind of difference.


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