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.”

Good? or bad………

Quick, without thinking, off the top of your head:

Are people born generally good?

Or bad?

Chances are you find yourself on one side of that question or the other.  It’s one I ponder often.

In support of the “Good:”

Anne Frank says, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  Do you agree?  Genesis says that we are created in the image of God.  What do you think?

Or, supporting the “Bad”

You’ve got good ol’ John Calvin, of Total Depravity theology:  “For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive.”   Or Martin Luther:  “But what, then, is original sin? … it is his inclination to all that is evil……”

And a “prophet” of our own time, Stephen King:  “The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.”

But here’s a related, and important, question:

Do you think you can tell the difference?  Can you tell a “good” person from a “bad” person?  (Please excuse the over-simplification here.  I don’t think we can throw away the key on anyone, no matter what, and even the very best person has dark sides. But…..)

I used to think I had pretty good instincts, pretty decent radar for such things, having had, in my life, several lengthy run-ins with folk who were, to oversimplify, “morally bad.”  Not to be too blunt, but do you think you could recognize a psychopath?

On one hand, I think most of us think we could.  I was listening to Ira Glass’ podcast of “This American Life.”  Here’s a link to the introduction, where Ira talks with “Cheryl” about her young son’s violent and anti-social behaviors (He’s tried to kill his siblings.  He’s 8.)  http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/521/bad-baby?act=0#play

It will leave you chilled.  Once again, what I want to believe about people – and kids – is challenged.  We know so much about brain function and anatomy, and that we all differ in our empathic abilities, and that kids “on the spectrum” (of autism and aspergers’) have fewer connections from the region of the brain that detects, interprets, responds empathically to another’s emotional state.  But we also know about the brain’s plasticity, the ability to learn, to make and forge new connections, with the right environment.  On the other hand, obviously there are limitations to that as well.  Someone tested with a 70 IQ is not going to cure cancer, no matter how enriching and stimulating their childhood world.  But our brains tell us “Of course, we can tell the difference between someone who is “bad” – that is, evil, immoral, with psychopathic tendencies!”

But what about James Fallon, author of “The Psychopath Inside: A neuroscientist’s personal journey into the dark side of the brain.”  He says that if you have any indication that someone is a psychopath, don’t engage them, don’t try to love them, don’t try to change them.  GET AWAY FROM THEM as fast as possible.  And he considers himself one. http://www.ted.com/talks/jim_fallon_exploring_the_mind_of_a_killer 

Okaaaaaaaaaay.  But, a psychopath WOULD say that, wouldn’t they?  But rats:  Are people basically good?  Or basically bad, and have to be taught how to be good?  And do we just run from people who give us the willies?  But the literature says true psychopaths don’t GIVE us the willies.

I don’t have any answers, other than I’ve learned to be humble about my brain – and my gut – reaction.  After all, I had a psychopath to Thanksgiving Dinner, and no one knew it until it was definitively proven to us.  Did we miss the signs?  Or were there no signs to miss?  All I know is that once again, I have personal evidence that our brains let us down all the time.  It’s good to remember.

Neurogenesis: Neuro-theologically speaking (part 2)

O dear.  It’s embarrassing, but apparently I perfectly fit the target audience for the BBC’s show “Sherlock,” which is beloved by teenaged girls and middle-aged women.  At least that’s what my teenage daughter, who got me hooked, tells me.  In my defense, I choose to believe Sherlock’s fans are highly intelligent teens and middle aged women.
Really – even if you are not a teenaged girl OR a middle-aged woman, you should check out this show.  It’s brilliant.  And it provides a brilliant example of neuro-plasticity (see previous post) and redemption as one could hope to see.
You see, Sherlock, while a brilliant solver of mysteries (too many “brilliants?”  Just trying to pay homage to the British-ness of the show) he is also – as he describes himself  – “the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet.”   He also labels himself a “high-functioning sociopath.”   “Sociopath” is not a clinical term, although some use it interchangeably with psychopath.  One blogger explains it this way:“So when Sherlock describes himself as a “sociopath,” what does he mean?

He is likely referring to his difficulty with empathy, his tendency to disregard others’ feelings, and his ability to feign emotions to manipulate people. He is not describing himself as violent, amoral, or criminal.”  http://thesherlockfandom.tumblr.com

These are the kinds of people we consider “unredeemable.”  These are the kinds of people – usually men – who when they are violent, end up filling our prisons, often with life sentences or the death penalty.  And then we throw away the key and assume there is no rehabilitation. Brain scans of those with psychopathic tendencies show certain consistent patterns, including shrunken amygdalae.  Some see this as in-born and unchangeable as say, Downs Syndrome.  Yet read this excerpt from Sherlock’s wedding toast to the man he now understands is his best friend:

SHERLOCK: “The point I’m trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet…..I am dismissive of the virtuous  … unaware of the beautiful … and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend….Certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.  John, I am a ridiculous man … redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship…  John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss …  so know this: today you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved – in short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.”  http://arianedevere.livejournal.com/65379.html
Does the end of this speech sound like a sociopath?  The cynical might say it is mere manipulation on Sherlock’s part.  The faithful might say that his friend John’s constant, reliable, steadfast, insistent care and expressions of love have changed Sherlock’s brain, making him (maybe just slightly) more capable of genuine relationship.  Could it be that what Sherlock says is true?  That our relationships can save us?  That redemption, as understood by the Christian faith, is possible?  That our Maker is brilliant in fashioning brains that can be changed by our hearts?  No, that is not a scientific statement.  But again, it reflects the intersection of spirituality and neurosciences, and the hope shared by both.
So what do you think?  Are some people beyond redemption, beyond saving, beyond changing for the better?  I’m curious what you think – what you believe – Let me know!