Playing Chicken With Dr. Strangelove

My Two Murderers

There’s Jake:

Red faced, bleary-eyed, paunchy, he stood uncertainly before me. Did I believe him? Yes. He had told me an oft-told tale of domestic abuse: constant screaming fights with his girlfriend, drug-fuelled weekend binges, interventions by the police, referrals to the family court, periods of sobriety punctuated by sudden violent relapses.

Ever since he was a teenager and on his own since he was fifteen he suffered from depression, his “blackness”. He didn’t know why. A natural mechanic with his hands, he could always make money. Most of the time, he was angry and not just when he drank. He couldn’t say why and he couldn’t say what it was that made him mad. It could be anything. He just knew once he got mad, like once he started to drink, he couldn’t stop.

He had done time, serious time, he had been released just two years ago.

“Why did you go to prison?”

For the first time, forty minutes into the interview, words failed him. For just a moment, a sad, helpless look crept into his eyes. He steadied himself. He bit his lip (It was obvious he had saved this up)”.

“I killed somebody.”

It was my turn to be flustered.

“Who?”

“My girlfriend.”

“Could you tell me what happened?”

No. He had blacked out. All he remembers is yelling at his girlfriend and pounding on the kitchen table — she said she was leaving for good this time — and then hours later, discovering his girlfriend in a pool of blood lying on the floor.

“But you don’t remember actually doing it?”

“I must’ve done it. There was a kitchen knife right next to her. I do remember that kitchen knife. She had been stabbed many times all over her body. I must have done it.”

He did not want to revisit the scene of the crime. He only wanted to know:

“Will I be seen by someone?”

The first thing someone who is disfigured wants to know is whether you can bear to look them in the face. How disturbing do you find their mere presence? The first thing someone branded as a murderer wants to know is are you going to abandon them? Will you ever be able to forget or at least put into context with the rest of their humanness — what you have just learned?

“Yes. In about three days someone will call you.”

I was sure that the director of Community Guidance Service, a no-nonsense, imperious woman who had never turned anyone away would accept Jake. He would be assigned a counselor but it would be a man, not a woman and (thankfully) it would not be me. My write up of the interview had frightened the women in the office, fearful that Jake, displeased about one thing or another, might decide to deliver his complaint in person.

If you work as a volunteer for the Home Advisory and Service Council (an adjunct of the family court system in N.Y.C.), if you write several thousand diagnostic intake reports for the Community Guidance Service — as I had, then you encounter your share of domestic abuse. Most of it done by men, often from third world cultures, beating up on women, some of it by women, physically striking back. Rarely is the victim hospitalized. Rarely do the narratives of physical abuse run to more than a handful of words:

“Next thing I know he hit me upside the head. When I came to — there was blood on the floor.”

So I was morbidly fascinated to hear his lurid account of what appeared to be a drug fuelled fit of paranoid psychotic rage. It was, not surprisingly, unlike anything I had encouraged. Not the banality of evil Hannah Arendt famously talked about, not the showoffy gangster theatrics beloved by the movies, not the creepy efficiency of the professional killer. If you wanted to understand why Jake did what he did, your best bet would be chaos theory. He, himself did not understand, he did not want to understand why he had done it. It was a dissociated act floating somewhere in the recesses of his mind, surrounded by blackness.

Billy

It would be fifteen years before I would meet my second murderer. A fellow of the American Institute of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy I had moved to Manhattan and was in private practice as a psychotherapist. Billy, a wiry energetic handyman had been sent by the landlord to repair some faulty plastering in the kitchen wall that separated my studio apartment from the adjoining kitchen of my neighbor.

Once again, I was caught flat footed by the denouement. A natural storyteller, once he saw I was a good listener, although he worked steadily he had not stopped talking. As a young man, he sought adventure wherever he could find it. He was in fact a daredevil, who never…never…refused a dare. Nor would he ever take a backward step. It didn’t matter how big the other fellow was.

What did matter was if someone insulted him and when motorcyclists pulled up at the gas station at which he was working — and then refused to pay for the gas they had taken — he was insulted. It was personal, so personal that he had used his body to bar the cyclists from leaving with having paid. He would not back down. Not even when they surrounded him. Not even when a rider called Tiny ( 6’9’ tall weighing 290 lbs) got in his face and began listing the various ways he was going to crush his skull. The more ways he listed, the madder Billy got. Until finally they had to laugh, the guy had spine. They nicknamed him ‘pitbull’ and invited him to ride with them. (There was no higher honor in the outlaw cycling world)

Billy, like Jake, had a secret which he wanted to tell me. He had spent time, a lot of time in prison. When got out he met an older woman, a psychologist who took him under her wing.

“Why were you in prison?”

He hesitated. He had murdered someone like Jake. Unlike Jake, he had no trouble recalling it and there was more than a trace of pride in his recollection.

“I was in a bar with my girlfriend and someone said something terrible, something directed at my girlfriend. I sort of went crazy. I said nothing, walked straight to my car, opened the trunk and came back with a hunting knife. And right at the bar, I quartered him.”

“Quartered?’

Eager to explain, he made a quick crossing motion in the air with his forefinger.

“You know — to draw and quarter. You cut this way, and then you cut that way. You open them up.”

“They die?”

“Oh, yeah.”

A sample of only two murderers, but more than ever enough to demonstrate just how different real life murder is from its cinematic version. We see why crimes of passion are impossible to predict. It is like predicting the moment when an aneurism of the brain is going to burst; when a heart is reaching its final beat.

Raskolnikov

My love affair with crime stories was ignited when my freshman high school teacher introduced the class to Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment. Nothing I would ever read in the following fifty years would make a deeper or more lasting impression.

Harold Bloom, the great Yale critic, said it best when he noted that the novel begins “like something shot out of hell.” Raskolnikov, a twenty three year old proud but penniless former law student has convinced himself that his way out of a wretched existence is to murder and then rob a local pawnbroker. A hideous, heartless old woman who stands for everything Raskolnikov despises.

“Is this really going to happen?” he asks as he draws closer and closer in the oppressive July heat to the pawnbroker’s dingy residence. It is only a rehearsal, but Raskolnikov, feverish and faint from hardly having eaten for the past three days, can barely stand up. His thoughts dreamy and dissociated, have an outer-body quality. Forces greater than himself are pushing him to act. He is looking for a sign. When by chance, he overhears Lizaveta, the younger sister and roommate of the pawnbroker, telling someone she has an errand to run at a certain time, he has his sign. “She will be alone and that is when I must do it.” A knife will not do. In his feverish state he may not have the strength to wield a knife. An ax would be better. He must borrow one from the work shop of the yard keeper below the door of which is always open — and return it afterwards. To better conceal the ax, he must take two ribbons of cloth, fasten it in a loop and attach it to the inner skew opening of his jacket. The loop a simple effective choice will hold the axe in place until it is time to use it.

In one of the most botched, blood curdling scenes in the annals of literature, a maddened Raskolnikov drives the ax into the defenseless pawnbroker’s skull. When shockingly Lizaveta, the younger sister of the pawnbroker unexpectedly walks in on the murder scene, Raskonikov — with no time to think and too late to turn back — rushes at her. Petrified at the sight of her butchered sister lying in a pool of blood on the floor, she can offer no resistance or protest to the rain of ax blows that Raskolnikov is delivering.

What follows is a black comedy of insane errors. Raskolnikov in his delirious state, has not only forgotten to lock the front door, he has left it open. Incredibly overlooking the treasure chest of money and jewels which is standing before him, Raskolnikov takes the minimum of cash. He at last closes the front door locking it from the inside just in time as two house painters, their suspicions aroused by some strange noises, try to enter the apartment but can not. Raskolnikov seizes his chance and when the frustrated house painters — unable to get in, suspecting the worst, go for help — he runs down the stairs. Still in a daze, he returns to his decrepit room, replaces the ax without being seen and meticulously washes every hint of blood from his clothing. Suddenly panicking — he takes what he has just stolen — and hides it under a huge rock in an abandoned lot far from his room.

Can the fact that he is hungry and destitute be a sufficient cause for committing such a monstrous crime? No. Raskolnikov has fallen under the spell of a dangerously exhilarating idea. We can call this the Napoleonic interpertation of history. The idea that it is the genius, the great man, the uber man, the superman — and only the superman — who can alter the course of history. Such a man was Napoleon. But to be such a man, one must be willing (as was Napoleon) to sacrifice not only himself, but others. He must be willing to do whatever is necessary to fulfill his destiny. He must be utterly ruthless when ruthlessness is what is required.

Raskolnikov, in his profound self-loathing, aspires to do something Napoleonic. He will defy every taboo by which he was raised. He will rob and murder a vile useless parasitical pawnbroker — the most despicable human being he has ever known, an old woman whose life counts less than that of a roach. He will ruthlessly use that money to advance his promising career as a law student, to save his beloved sister, Dunya from bethrothing herself to Luzhin, a loathsome but wealthy social climber in need of a trophy wife; and he will at last bring happiness to his despairing mother who has pinned all of her hopes, given up everything for her struggling, impoverished son. Most of all, he will prove that — far from the powerless, penniless former student he appears to be — he is one of the chosen ones, someone who is destined for greatness.

As Dostoyevsky makes clear, Raskolnikov is not Napoleon. He is small of stature in every way. He is not great. He is weak. He may not be ordinary but he is petty. Raskolnikov can not love. He can accept the love Sonya — a heartbreaking eighteen year old driven to prostitution in order to support her dying mother and starving siblings. (Sonya who truly has a heart of gold, who, literally is incapable of hatred) — but he cannot return it.

Then why do we wind up caring for Raskolnikov even loving him? Is it because we all have some of the devil in us, but few of us dare to make a pact with the devil? If we love Raskolnikov, we love him the way we love Tony Soprano or the Godfather. As someone who has crossed the line between good and evil, between salvation and damnation, between love and hate. Who shows us — if there really is hell this what it is like to be truly damned. This is what it is like to be in hell.

What Raskolnikov can not accept until the very end is that he is neither Napoleon nor a cockroach. He is a desperately ill, self-hating, infinitely hateful, malignant narcissist. He is someone whose pathological, monomaniacal obsession to be Napoleonic in effect has made him no less repulsive than the roach-like pawnbroker he has selected to be murdered with an ax.

It takes 600 pages and all of Dostoyevsky’s genius to bring Raskolnikov to his knees. To wring from his frozen heart a first confession of love for Sonya, of the recognition of the values of love and all that it entails.

That love, Dostoyevsky promises us, will redeem Raskolinikov. But that, he tells us is a tale for a future novel (unfortunately never written by Dostoyevsky).

Raskolnikov has been caught in a spider web of toxic ideas but the unwavering love of Sonya — a Christ like figure like Mishkin and Alyosha — can save him.

We see that ultimately Crime and Punishment is a novel of redemption. The stakes could not be higher.

Raskolnikov who is eaten alive by soul murder, still speaks to us. But this is a time when instead of big brother we have big pharma. When instead of soul murder we have psychic numbing. Instead of crime and punishment, we have genocide. Instead of salvation, we have serotonin. Instead of existential crises we have 12 step solutions. Instead of drag races, there’s an arms race. Instead of trust, we have tit for tat.

It’s like playing chicken with Dr. Strangelove. Whoever takes their finger off the nuclear button is chicken.

Gerald Alper

Author God and Therapy

What we believe when no one is watching

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