WRITERS WHO ARE REAL OR POTENTIAL MURDERERS
I recently heard someone state the offhand opinion that Patricia Highsmith was a sociopath who managed to use her “condition” to produce excellent fiction. The New York Times has a big, fascinating article today on a new biography of Highsmith (“She kills so many dogs… She hated dogs. She couldn’t bear sharing attention”), who in fairness I think was not really a sociopath but just a very troubled person. Also, as the photo above suggests, a pretty sexy one as well.
But there are some sociopaths who’ve written novels. Come to think of it, I’m surprised there aren’t more. Writing good fiction, at least in the traditional narrative sense with recognizably human characters and so forth, requires a capacity for empathy that sociopaths by definition don’t have… but it offers a god-position that a sociopath would presumably find appealing. (So maybe many sociopaths do write novels, they’re just not good enough to be published. Wouldn’t that be interesting… to learn that there’s a vast scattered library of manuscripts by sociopaths out in the world.)
Last summer at Readercon I was on a panel called “The Killers Inside Us” about the portrayal of sociopaths in fiction. We talked about real sociopaths (Bundy, etc), and sociopaths invented by writers (Ripley, etc), and finally the conversation turned to writers who were sociopaths.
I said that an interesting thing about reading the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom is that it reads like a document/artifact of pathology. The Marquis de Sade tried to write a story, he really did… it begins with characters and prose, sentences and a story… but as you go on, all of that breaks down and gets stripped away until you end with, literally, just a list of tortures. The last section of the book is just a numbered list that goes on for pages and pages graphically describing increasingly absurd, insane tortures:
113. He embuggers, and whilst sodomizing, opens the cranium, removes the brain, and fills the cavity with molten lead.
Allegedly the final pages were a draft, but de Sade never fleshed them out (he was repeatedly interrupted, while writing the manuscript in prison, by the political turmoil of the day), and when reading them you get the sense that they are the rawest representation of what was going on in his head.
A subject I didn’t bring up on the Readercon panel, but I wish I or someone else had, was the case of Krystian Bala, a Polish novelist who murdered a man and then wrote a book in which the first-person narrator kills someone in almost exactly the same way. David Grann wrote a terrific article in the New Yorker about this in February 2008. It’s not online but if you want the full text, email me, nick.antosca [at] g mail.
Bala seems to have been a real sociopath–and his novel sounds like the kind of thing you’d imagine a sociopath writing: A first-person tale of being a Nietzschean superman, a manifesto about why it’s okay for him to take the lives of those around him.
The interesting thing is, say Bala had been exactly the same person and written exactly the same book, but never killed anyone–even though he wanted to and had none of the moral restraints most of us do. In that case I think it could be argued that that version of Bala was heroic. Same with Highsmith, if she really was a sociopath (again, I think she probably wasn’t). Same with Nabokov, if he really did have erotic inclinations toward barely-adolescent girls (and I actually think he did). Who is genuinely heroic–the pedophile who never molests a child even though he has the overwhelming & unrelenting urge to do so, or the average person who feels no such urge?