My Violent Art

by Patricia Pearson

This is part 1 of a 6 part series.

This article first appeared in Saturday Night magazine

“Ah! How solid we would be within ourselves if we could live without nostalgia and in complete ardor, in our primitive world.”
– Gaston Bachelard

“A story about murder, whether real or fictional, is also, obliquely, a story about the existence or absence of God.”
– Wendy Lesser

A girl holds a gun to the head of a man, perhaps for a flash, maybe for minutes, she doesn’t say later, you fill in the blanks. The gun would be heavy, because her hand is small –she’s thirteen years old, and even in my thirties I was awkward with my grip on a Smith & Wesson. I’d guess that it bobs and slips against the man’s skull in spite of her adamant straining. He’s still driving his cab, bouncing over potholes, when he first feels the metal butt. I don’t know what he does then: winces, swears, turns electric with terror.

She probably growls at him, this girl, with a scabrous anger born of her own fear. Snarling about the money, or saying: ‘yo, fucker, freeze,’ or ‘stick ’em up,’ or some other refrain she’s picked up somewhere, thrown out now in a rudimentary attempt at ritual. Then she kills him. And the sound of it deafens her. And the reverb throws her arm back into the gloom of the cab. And the power and shock of murder make her rush like nothing else, no drug she’s done

She offers this up to the guy she’s fucking, and he brags to someone else, and the gossip crackles outward from there: it’s so easy for cops to trace the talk they could do it in their sleep. And then she’s arrested.

And somebody calls me on the phone.

“This sounds like a story,” they say.

I know it does.

I can guess where their curiosity’s going as they lean back in their chair, swiveling lightly, doodling with an editor’s red pencil. Because the shooter was a girl, because cabbies are so vulnerable, because there might be a gang link, or a gun control hook, or a battered child defense.

They call me because I’m a crime writer. Or let me say that I was. It’s important. To say ‘no, stop bringing these stories to me’ as if I’m a disinterested connoisseur of murdered children. Stop handing me the rotten heart of human nature, saying: make this diverting.

It seems far too indignant, the way I take umbrage at these offered assignments — the way I actually bristle with insult. The editors don’t see the ground they’re on, and I realize that I need to explain. I need to run down my resume for them, and mark the points at which I lost control of violence and it, instead, took hold of me.

My curiosity took a morbid turn in college, when the first wave of serial killers washed across the bookstore shelves. I was an instant convert to the spare, plodding paperbacks then being published about Ted Bundy, Kenneth Bianchi, John Wayne Gacy. Serial killers interested me the way wild weather does, as a magnificent force of chaos. I remember curling into my hand-me-down armchair, one hand supporting my tilted head, reading a report on Gacy, how he’d crammed dead, discarded boys into a crawl space in his cellar and covered them with lime, until there were so many that the house began to choke.

That a man could surround himself with ghosts of his own making, that intrigued me. That he could give himself over to senseless, relentless predation — that posed an extraordinary imaginative challenge for a girl raised in a tranquil valley in a peaceable nation, by a family whose notion of conflict was the smiled remark behind one’s back. “His courage bowls you over. His brutality makes you shudder,” Diderot once wrote, setting the murderer apart from the crooked politician or hum-drum thief.

I never cared for the ingenuity of crime: the great bank robbery, the perfect heist. I had no interest in detective fiction. I wasn’t a social activist, given to freeing people from prison. I was, perhaps, a psychologist manqué, wanting to solve the puzzle of vicious minds from the vantage point of my armchair.

When the murderer made his literary debut in the 19th century, via Poe, Doestoevesky and Stendhal, he was a secular adaptation of Satan, whose hold on the Romantic imagination was falling away. “The figure of the criminal,” writes the cultural historian Joel Black, “is all that remains in the modern age of the sacred and demonic characters of the age of myth.”

Nothing else had mythic power for me then. I was coming of age without respect for danger in the flat, relativized landscape of the late 1970s. Madonna trilled vapidly on the radio. Politics were platitudes. Sex meant dissolute recreation on a Saturday night and no claim made on Sunday morning. Moral purpose had evaporated; ritual was scarce. One night, I dreamt of dismembering my boyfriend, of whom I’d grown bored. I carted his head and shoulders about in a state of embarrassed bafflement, searching for a place to put him, worried that his family would discover this inexplicable thing I had done. It seems to me, now, that the dream was an apt summary of my generation’s peculiar malaise. We were being haplessly destructive in the aftermath of a social revolution — dumping our lovers, wincing at pregnancy scares, avoiding commitments, getting too drunk too often, staggering a little under the weightlessness of things. When the Baby Boomers tore up the fabric of meaning, leaving no instructions as to what to weave next, the unequivocal meaning of murder remained. My shelves began filling with True Crime.

In 1987, I headed for the University of Chicago, Fort Brain, Kingdom of Abstract Thought, the most relentlessly intellectual campus in America, there to study cultural history, except that I could not. I was too compelled by the way the place was surrounded on three sides by bullet-shattered ghetto. I read the weekly “Campus Crime Map” — most recent rape here, last mugging there — with a quickening interest, imagining Bloom and Bellow as they puttered from seminar to library, lost in Aristotle, hopelessly vulnerable to a shakedown with a box cutter, if they were lucky, or a .457 if they were not. I learned that assault rifles were being run through to Libya by gangs in the burned-out projects of Cabrini Green a few blocks from my dorm. The violence around me was everywhere implied, and everywhere highly arousing.

I was drawn to the sense that life was actually at stake, here on the South Side. I skipped my readings on Foucault and explored the surrounding Projects with my camera, taking quick swings through in a car, hopping out, hopping back in, getting the hell out of there. I began to hang out at the Checker Board, a tiny South Side blues club where whites are scarce but not unwelcome, where I danced for hours, chasing my beer with Jack Daniels. Junior Wells played there a lot, sometimes commenting on my moves — “You doin’ good, girl” — offering an easy grin beneath his excellent brown velour fedora, and my pleasure was different than his, more ruinous and hungry, but there was an intersection there, and I got hooked. I transferred to Columbia and enrolled in journalism school. I wanted to study danger.

This is part 1 of a 6 part series.