Tuesday, February 27, 2007

God and murders and things

I think that part of the reason I've never read In Cold Blood is that I don't really like reading about murder, really. Capote's masteful writing makes me want to keep reading this book, but it's so disturbing, on so many levels, what atrocities people are capable of. And I'm not even very far into it; they've just found the bodies and are in day two of the townspeople's reflections.

When we were young -- too young, some would say, for it to be healthy -- my sister and I developed what might be called a small obsession with the Manson murders. We pored over our mother's copy of the book Helter Skelter, although I definitely skipped most of the actual reading apart from the descriptions of the killings, and I just kept going back to the section in the middle of the fat paperback which had the crime scene photographs. Then there was the TV movie. It really is quite good, as TV movies go, and who could not love the Vincent Bugliosi character after the way he puts "Charlie" in his place? My sis and I could proudly recite the details of those August 1969 nights, including the victims' names, the places in the house where each body was found, how Linda Kasabian got immunity, who shaved and carved what into their heads...

Yeah, I know. Creepy. I was, like, ten. I also was, bizarrely, allowed to watch pretty much any horror movie I wanted. (But The Last Temptation of Christ and Fatal Attraction were out of the question.) I saw, admittedly at home under Mom's supervision, Nightmare on Elm Street...The Shining...The Exorcist...and boy, were some of my friends jealous. I think I have friends whose mothers STILL don't want them to watch The Exorcist. I grew up with that movie. I even remember the first few times; my sister (two and a half years older than me) was pretty into it but all I wanted was to watch the intense scenes with the priest and the head-spinning and, yes, the projectile vomiting, but my mom would be like, "Come on, get in here and pay attention to the movie" as I wandered about to, oh, I don't know -- maybe play with something more appropriate for a NINE-year-old?

The consequence of all this? I think there are two. One, I was pretty much constantly terrified at night during my pre-teen years. I was forever checking behind the shower curtain as I got ready for bed (Psycho, one of my mom's all-time favorites). During the light of day it was all well and good for my sister and me to imitate the twin girls in The Shining -- we'd stand at one end of our hallway and call to our mother to watch us do "Come and play with us, Danny! Forever. And ever. And ever." -- but at night I would lie in bed petrified, heart racing. If I wasn't healthy and in good shape from gymnastics, swimming, softball and the like, I might have catapulted myself right into heart failure. As an adolescent, desperate for independence, I had decidedly mixed feelings about staying home alone. None of this affected me during the day, but at night? I was a goner.

So that's the first consequence. The second is that I think I got them out of my system. Both the horror movies, and the murder fascination in particular. I can't remember the last time I went to a scary movie or even a creepy one in the theater. It must have been The Sixth Sense, or 8mm, I think. I liked the former, but the latter just disgusted me. And when I do watch them, which is rare, I don't get scared. I am 100% blase. I see now that you work yourself up into that anxiety; it's a conscious choice. I have no concept whatsoever of how adults can be scared by movies. It so seems part of childhood to me. I have no interest.

So here I am reading In Cold Blood and thinking -- wow. The writing is great, and I'm glad I've finally got around to reading it, but why didn't I read it when I was an adolescent? I remember my mother reading it. Maybe I got burned out after The Shining. I'd been watching that movie for years and when I was twelve I decided I was going to finally read the book, for my book report. We were all in the junior high library selecting books and I informed my teacher that nothing appealed to me and I was going to read a book I already had at home. When I told him which one, he insisted I get a note of permission from my mother. Which she happily provided. But of course I was up until forever late the night before the report was due, so not close to being finished. That was a long book! My pals selecting young adult fare like Cages of Glass, Flowers of Time may have been on to something!

So now I read and I just shudder. Creepy creepy creepy. Murder is creepy. The fact that the True Crime section exists is kind of weird. However, as I said, Capote is remarkable. And the book is not even that creepy yet. There's been hardly any description of anything disturbing at all. And that's what's almost more creepy of course, because you know these people were murdered, and you know vaguely how, and you're just floating along reading about this until-now-idyllic town in western Kansas, and you really get the sense of how it is for the townspeople, that this event is just so misplaced, so shocking, so wrong.

Quoting people's responses, a lot of the Holcomb and Garden City folk express their dismay and horror and shock that it was the Clutter family of all people. One schoolteacher says,

"But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them--well, it's like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless. I don't think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed." -- p. 88

Now, of course, in my youthful, blood-and-gore watching, fearmongering, terrified, ghost story and Ouija board-loving, convinced-something-was-coming-to-get-me-in-the-night state, I happened to believe deeply that there was in fact a god, a God the Heavenly Father to be precise, and I also was pretty well convinced that his son Jesus was murdered and bled and died for us all. Is it a coincidence that both of those worldviews have disappeared from my life? Who's to say?

But I do think it's interesting that when I read that line, I knew exactly what that woman meant. Even if "no God" doesn't resonate with me as some sort of ultimate betrayal by the universe.

Also, I must say that I rather enjoy the postmistress Mrs. Myrtle Clare. She's all tough and sassy and weathered and thinks everyone is just working themselves into a needless frenzy.

But I wouldn't have related to Myrtle when I was ten.

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