#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.
GRIFFIN AUTHOR BIO
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.