Would you wear the shirt of a killer?

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.”

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Making Sense of John’s Brain, Take 43

When we accepted the fact that Cousin John was indeed guilty of killing his father (pushing him off a trail at Mt. Rainier) and his mother (gunshots), I tried to make sense of it.  Apparently there is a word for this:  Parricide.  To kill both parents.

I went to the research:  To the library, to Amazon, to the scholarly research articles on Pubmed and Psychinfo.  I came across few scholarly articles that address this, but some statistics were strangely helpful.  Like how much Cousin John fit the profile:  White, single, male, middle to upper middle class, in his early 30’s.  But as much as we tried to wrack our brains, we couldn’t make our memories fit the “traditional,” (if there is such a thing,) profile of two of the three “types.” who kill their parents.  

One: You’ve got your severely mentally ill, but no one had seen any signs of severe mental illness – No schizophrenia, no hearing voices.  Okay, a touch of OCD, but that hardly seems enough to trigger such violence.

Two: Then you’ve got your severely abused, but again, no one had seen any signs, although I do know just how well these things can be hidden from view.  But that didn’t fit other criteria – Usually the circumstances involve an adolescent who sees no other escape from the trauma, and can be trying to protect siblings.

Which just leaves #3:  The third reason, the one we were left with: People kill their parents for money.  But curiously, Dr. Kathleen Heide, who’s written the most on this subject, hardly explores that sub-type.  I guess it’s so obvious, it doesn’t require more in-depth analysis?  

And yet, how does a brain decide this is a logical course of action?  That killing your parents for money makes sense, and is not only worth contemplating, but worth planning and executing?

This is where Daniel Eagleman’s book “Incognito” helps me out:  “Criminal activity itself should be taken as evidence of a brain’s abnormality.”  (p177)  Yes.  While I don’t know, and never will know, what was going on inside John’s brain, suffice to say that something wasn’t right up there in his head.  Even if it weren’t to meet any DSM 5 criteria for mental illness doesn’t mean that all was well.  Eagleman also says, “The bottom line is this:  Criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise.”  (p177)  Yikes.  Doesn’t that just undermine our whole ethical, moral, criminal, judicial, theological, free will, order.  

I can’t quite wrap my mind around THAT right now.  But it makes sense to me that Cousin John’s brain wasn’t working in a way we recognize as “right,” or “healthy,” or “functional.”  What exactly was going on will remain a mystery.  One I’ll keep chewing on, even as I watch my own brain chew away at it.  Maybe my own brain will give up its own mysterious workings.