It is almost impossible for the average, genuinely humane person to comprehend horrendous inhumanity.
We know far less about the people around us than we’d like to believe.
For me, this fact is proven continually by the reactions of friends, family and neighbors when some horrific act is perpetrated by someone in their midst. Think on it: The recent Nashville Christmas bomber. The airline pilot who intentionally crashed his planeful of passengers into the Alps. The Unabomber. John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who played a clown for children’s parties. Each time when these terrifying actions come to light, one reads and hears in news the reactions of the people best acquainted with the alleged destroyer–childhood friends, neighbors, teachers, coworkers, acquaintances: “But he was just such a quiet person. Eccentric, maybe, but just quiet.” “But she seemed so normal – look at her prom photo; she would never have tortured someone.” “He never acted depressed; not at all.”
Then, slowly, significant details and patterns begin to emerge, demonstrating the depth of sickness, the unimaginable mental illness or the soulless center of each of these individuals, and we are all forced to readjust our view of this “healthy”, “everyday”, “normal” person. We are even (terrifyingly) compelled to readjust our own thinking about ourselves. We are, after all, average, ordinary people. Does that mean that we…? Surely we couldn’t possibly ever…. The thought is so frightening that we desperately shunt it aside.
For that reason — because it is so hard for the genuinely human and humane person to comprehend true inhumanity, or to imagine themselves participating in it — protests continue to litter the airwaves. Old playmates insist, “But we lived in the same neighborhood growing up. He had a regular childhood!” “There was nothing in her upbringing to indicate she’d ever grow up to do such a thing. Nothing.”
At these remarks, I can only shake my head.
No one, no one at all – not child services, nor counselors, nor neighbors, nor extended family members, nor childhood friends, nor even siblings – no one ever has more than the merest glimpse into the reality of another’s childhood. I recall the smooth façade of normality that my own mother donned like a mask when in the company of others, and I do not doubt that few people realized how very mentally ill she was, or the havoc she created in our home. And, even in that regard, I know only what I, personally, endured. I can’t speak to what the others in my family experienced, either good or bad. And I will always be well aware that many of my childhood acquaintances thought my mother the best person, the coolest Mom in the world.
The simple truth is that we all wear false faces, adjusting and gearing our social façade to meet the expectations and needs of those around us and not be thought too strange, too otherly. Sometimes those masks slip. But for most of us, the loss of our carefully-constructed disguise results in only momentary confusion or embarrassment, and not a descent into demonic acts.
The best psychological and physical science still cannot completely explain what drives some people to horrific behavior. Might it be emotional or chemical imbalance? Was it the result of a bad reaction to psychoactive drugs? Is it genetics, or socialization? Both? Mob mentality? Could it be just a malfunction in brain development? Or is it all of these, combined with other factors as yet unknown? Some might say that many such people are simply born without a soul, and I suppose that is as good an explanation as any.
Someday, science may piece together the puzzle of these monsters who wear the faces of human beings, and we will understand at last why they became what they are (and, more importantly, perhaps how to prevent it happening ever again.) But for those of us who live within at least a semblance of normality and humanity, we will probably never comprehend what created the monster. We will never be able to dwell within their twisted minds.
If you appreciated this essay, you might also like “Epitaph In An Elevator”, which you may find in the Archives from September 28, 2018.