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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#85 Writing the Bad Guys: Compassion and Nonfiction by Guest Bloggr Gail Griffin

#85 Writing the Bad Guys: Compassion and Nonfiction




Gail Griffin's essay, "Writing the Bad Guys: Compassion and Nonfiction" wrestles with the aesthetic and moral issue of how to humanize evil or reprehensible characters. As she writes, "The moral feeds the artistic here. As nonfiction writers we can create believable characters from real people only if we see them as people."




 In 2010 I published a book that anatomizes a 1999 student murder-suicide at Kalamazoo College, where I taught for 36 years. It was a new kind of project for me as a nonfiction writer: my first book-length narrative; my first crack at synthesizing so many different kinds of sources, from police report to interviews to archival records to academic research far afield of my own discipline. I had also never really faced one of the more challenging tasks for a nonfiction writer: how to write a "bad guy" who is, or was, a real person.


That person was Neenef Odah, a 20-year-old Iraqi-born student from Seattle. On the night following the college's Homecoming Dance, where he saw his ex-girlfriend, Maggie Wardle, dancing with another guy, he lured her to his room, pulled out the shotgun he'd hidden there for ten days, shot her and then, as they say, turned the gun on himself.


Maggie was easy to write. Her family and many friends spoke to me about her; I had access to scrapbooks full of photos, awards, and art work; and she was recognizably kindred to a certain female student I had known well over my years on the job: very bright, ambitious, empathic, gregarious, talented, struggling to negotiate the path opened to her by second-wave feminism while still anxious to have the validation of a boyfriend. Neenef played that part for eight months, though he was clearly ill-equipped; when she looked to the other fish in the sea, he was needy and demanding, unable to let her go. An old story, one that far too often ends as this one did.


Neenef posed a much greater challenge to me as a writer. I had far less access to him—his friends were more reticent, his family understandably unresponsive to my enquiries; and he brought with him a cultural background that was alien to me. He was also, of course, a murderer, and a suicide; his interior life was a dark tangle. The exchanges via Instant Messenger pulled from his and Maggie's computers by the police offered a gold mine, revealing him to be inarticulate, emotionally stunted, and aggressively manipulative. But where did that leave me? I had to make a character out of him, and a character isn't a collage of symptoms.


From the get-go, comprehending Neenef had been a top priority for me. It may sound ironic at first when I say that as a feminist, I was much more interested in investigating the perpetrator than the victim. After 20-plus years of learning and teaching about violence against women, I was sick to death of hearing about women's behavior and how it did or did not encourage male violence. It seemed obvious that to get a grip on violence against women, the object of scrutiny needed to be the perpetrator: What makes a suicidal young man want to eliminate the woman he believes he cannot live without? How is he like or unlike other men who are violent to women?


I did my best, working what George Eliot would have called my "moral imagination" overtime to see my way into Neenef's hopeless desperation. My treatment of him often features in readers' responses to the book. I've been complimented on being "fair" to him. Some of Maggie's relatives think I was entirely too fair, insufficiently damning. Some people who know me have been surprised that I didn't make him out to be more of a monster.


These responses have made me think again about Neenef and ponder how we view those among us who do monstrous things. I was thinking about this at this year's AWP conference, during a session on nonfiction. The conversation turned to the question of empathy: How integral is it to writing true stories about other people's lives, even when they do something despicable? At one point Ana Maria Spagna spoke, offering a distinction between empathy and compassion. Empathy requires feeling with someone, participating alongside them in their life. Compassion is an acknowledgement of someone's humanity, including all their actions.  If empathy sends me out of myself into someone else, compassion is a larger embrace, bringing someone back into the fold as part of the human community.


But this embrace should not be confused with forgiveness, or even with understanding, per se. On the contrary, compassion says, "In your monstrousness, you are one of us. We recognize you." Thus it acknowledges that the horrific acts we like to term "inhuman" or "subhuman" are, in fact, wholly human. To estrange them by categorizing them as beyond the human is to delude ourselves, compromising our understanding of ourselves in all that we're capable of. I don't remember ever feeling empathy for Neenef as I wrote.  I found him, frankly, appalling. But I recognize compassion in my version of him, because I strove to make him fully human.


Compassion is not "fairness," and when I'm congratulated for being "fair" to Neenef I'm uneasy. "Fair" is simply the wrong word here. It suggests giving credibility to his "side of the story," or piling up his good points to balance the scales somehow.  Either one of those strategies makes me shudder. To make him human, on the other hand, I paid attention to his suffering, as an abused child; to his loneliness and cultural alienation on a Midwestern, mostly white campus where he was bombing academically; to the cold shadow of a punitive, demanding father; and to the ways in which his outlandish attempts to deny Maggie Wardle her life before he actually took it do not isolate him but in fact connect him deeply to our own patriarchal culture.


This is, for me, the moral challenge of writing other people. We want to make our bad guys recognizably human, of course, because otherwise they don't succeed as characters, fictional or otherwise. But to do so we are called upon to open ourselves to the fullest notion of their humanity. The moral feeds the artistic here. As nonfiction writers we can create believable characters from real people only if we see them as people.


Which seems obvious enough. Yet as I've thought about it, living in the acidity of our current culture, it's seemed to me that extending our imaginations to grant the bad guys their personhood has become not only increasingly difficult but increasingly unacceptable. So-called "cancel culture" makes it easy, sometimes mandatory, for the bad guys to get Xed out—swept off the board, expelled from the "us" of human community. It's left to those of us who write about them to draw them back into the human realm--the only place where they can be truly known for who they are.





Gail Griffin is the author of four books of nonfiction, including "The Events of October": Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus and the forthcoming Grief's Country: A Memoir in Pieces.  Her award-winning essays, poetry, and brief nonfiction have appeared in venues including The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, New Ohio Review, and Solstice, and in collections including Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.





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#84 Stories and Stars by Guest Blogger Beth Richards

#84 Stories and Stars by Guest Blogger Beth Richards




 "Stories and Stars" depicts how Beth Richards' late night meditation on the stars leads to her discovery about the importance in writing of "the give and take of associating and shaping."


"Neither action is more important than the other" Beth says.  "Both are essential for writing the accurate, but most especially for writing the true."





I am standing in the brisk night air on the western flank of Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. Most days I begrudge the shift from daylight to darkness but this day, at nearly 11 pm, I am willing a persistent patch of twilight blue to be gone. It is a rare clear night on the island, and I am waiting for the stars to come out. At 10:30 pm I can see the moon and a few faint points of the Dipper. At nearly 11:30 I mutter, "Oh, I give up" to the still-light sky and go inside.


When I step back outside, around 3 am, I look up and reflexively duck. The stars seem so close I'm afraid I'll bump my head on them. The blue twilight is gone and the velvety night is a tapestry of planets and constellations. The Milky Way is slathered across the dome of the sky. The resident cuckoo, who has migrated from Africa under these same stars, plucks her two notes. She and I seem to be the only ones up.


I think that I expected to stand under the stars and commune with the Celtic druids and the Christian anchorites who for centuries inhabited the nearby stone huts. We share the wonder of this brilliant sky, after all. But what I think about, as my eyes dart back and forth trying to capture the twinkling of uncountable stars, is driving home drunk.


Not recently, thank you. I was about 19. My cousin and I had been hanging out in a local South Florida bar, and we were headed back to her house because we'd spent all our money drinking Chivas on the rocks. I disliked Scotch then (still do) but the words "Chivas on the rocks" were such a pleasure to roll off the tongue, and the smoky-sweet liquid helped me forget myself for a while.


That night, as we slowly turned down a side street, two starry blazes of light crossed our path. They belonged not to the sky but to a leopard. Full grown, at least six feet from nose to switching tip of tail, it stalked at the end of its leash, which was held by its owner, a wealthy socialite who amused herself by keeping exotic animals. She walked the leopard between 2 and 3 am. I'm guessing she figured that if someone like me said, "I saw a lady walking a leopard," people would say, "Sure…and how much Chivas did you drink?"


That night, I ducked when I saw the big cat's eyes. Why? Perhaps the same reason I ducked when I saw the stars above Inis Mór: A recognition of the immensity of everything surrounding me. An acknowledgment of my small place in the cosmos. My lot is less likely predator and more likely prey.


Ah, the places our minds lead us and the speed with which we travel through time and space. When my students tell me that they are "free associating," they mean that they're writing down a bunch of things that don't make sense, ideas that don't have an obvious narrative thread or purpose.


"Not yet," I tell them. But I encourage them to trust that part of their brain, those neurons always knitting a web of meaning between two seemingly disparate memories or events. Let your brain and your heart and your memory do their work, I tell them. Then use your craft. First you'll make sense for yourself—although you may never uncover all the mysteries. And then you'll use your tools so that the associations make sense for others, as well.


I'm sure I've told my students any number of useless things, but I do know that I've never told them this process is easy. I've been writing a while now, and I still don't completely understand how this happens—how I move from that flash of deep emotion or recognition to slowly build and shape the sinews that will connect what and how and why I feel. I've also never told my students that this process is certain. I'm not yet sure where my craft will lead me as I try to connect my instinctive, primeval response to two such different events, more than 40 years apart. I know that my first inclination is to make a list of similarities. Certainly many sparkling things—close by and far away—have drawn my attention over the years. But that would be obvious, and too easy. So I will try to move beyond the path of least resistance to something more, leading myself into memory and the webs of time, and into the emotions always lying underneath. Ultimately, the stars I saw may slide under a bank of clouds. That leopard may disappear into the bougainvillea. But what will make the writing—whatever that writing becomes—come together is the practice of craft: shaping a narrative, asking probing questions, challenging assumptions, always asking not just "how?" but "why?"


An island man I walked with said that all stories are true; some are perhaps a bit more accurate than others. I join that ancient storytelling dance, the give and take of associating and shaping, which lives through this ancient island, and in all of us. Neither action is more important than the other. Both are essential for writing the accurate, but most especially, for writing the true.



Beth Richards is a north Florida native who lives and works in Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Solstice Literary Magazine: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, the Crooked Letter anthology, Coming Out in the South, and the Talking Writing anthology Into Sanity. She is a graduate of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College and teaches at the University of Hartford.

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