It’s been over two and a half years since my husband’s cousin murdered his mother, then killed himself, at which point we figured out he had probably also pushed his father off a cliff in Mt. Rainier 18 months earlier. (Let’s just air our ALL the dirty laundry at once, shall we?)
By geographic karma, we were the ones to clean out John’s apartment, and sort through all his worldly possessions. We brought home many nice suits designed for slim men 6’4″, and donated them to our son’s basketball team and coaches, without telling them the back story. We gave a lot to Goodwill. Then one day, I realized my husband was wearing a nice plain black t-shirt from Banana Republic, where he’s never stepped foot. I didn’t have to ask; I knew, especially when I took a look through his drawers.
You can check out my best guess for how John’s cottage cheese ended up in our fridge, but this was different. My husband was wearing the clothes of a killer. It sort of “creeped me out,” to use my 7 year old niece Ruthie’s expression. And I thought about it for awhile. How could he do this? Not “HOW in the world could he do this,” but, “What exactly was going on in his brain that wasn’t happening in mine, or vice versa?”
My husband had drawn a distinction between the “evil” or “bad” part of this cousin – he called that part “Conrad,” John’s middle name; and the part of John he had watched grow up – There’s about 14 or 15 years between them, and they went on all sorts of family vacations throughout John’s childhood and Paul’s adolescence. In my husband’s mind, he wasn’t wearing a killer’s shirt, he was wearing the shirt of the sweet toddler who had woken him from a nap by sitting on his head in his soggy diaper.
My kids and I don’t have those memories; we don’t really know that young John; we have less cognitive dissonance than my husband. In other words, even though it’s really hard to accept this person was part of your family, it was easier for us to wrap our minds around what John had done, and that he was the sort of person who did such things. For my husband? His brain had to find a way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory truths: Sweet Baby John and grown up Killer John. And he does it by “dividing and compartmentalizing.”
But no worries: Our brains do this all the time. We believe two contradictory truths all the time; we just don’t usually let ourselves be aware of it. It’s not that my husband denies John’s guilt. He just has older memories which he separates from newer truths, all the while holding both, and deciding not to even try to reconcile them.
Some things are mysterious. Sometimes, our brains give up trying to understand and reconcile every fact, and decide answering the unanswerable is less important than living with the unknowable. In a nutshell, eventually every faith practitioner comes to the same conclusion. So I don’t give my husband a hard time about his tshirt; instead, to quote Iris DeMente, we both just “let the mystery be.”