Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The girl without a face

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is running a series of articles, titled "Touching Evil," about a forensic science class at Duquesne University that established contact with a serial killer in order to try to learn from him. The mostly female class wrote letters to a man who had killed "at least" eight women and who is now incarcerated at Oregon State Penitentiary. Today's front page article, "Serial killer's need to control shows in letters," describes the first two letters that the students received from this man.

What jumped out at me right away were the words, "need to control." I have been thinking about the question of control a great deal lately. My own impulse to control and also my response to others whom I perceive to be trying to control me. The other absolutely fascinating fact that surfaced from the article came from an anecdote that the students' professor told them about another serial killer and how he chose his victims: "He said he would go...to areas in Philadelphia and he would walk around and look and walk and look and walk and look. 'I finally knew which one it was,' the killer told the homicide detective, 'because she was the girl without a face.'"

My grandmother, Lena Dougherty, has given me priceless treasures. She lived her faith and her experience with intensity and humor. But one gift that she gave to me was perhaps a mistake or a misjudgment. She gave each of her grandchildren a large, hardbound book, published by Time/Life from "The Year in..." series. Each of us received the volume for the year in which we were born. My own book was "The Year in 1966." What Grandma Lena didn't know about me is that I have always been a voracious reader. From a young age, I would pour over all the Time/Life volumes she had given to our family -- each of my three sisters, born in 1969, 1971, and 1973 had received a book, too. I absorbed many important and beautiful facts, such as the lunar landing of 1969 and the "British Invasion" of the Beatles, but I also learned about things that no eight year-old can or should have to process: about the Manson murders, for example.

In my own birth year, 1966, a man named Richard Speck broke into an apartment where nine nurses were living and killed them all. I wish I could say that after I'd begun to read it, I immediately closed the book and forgot all about the atrocity. I wish I could say that I didn't return to this article more often than to the others in the book. But I was transfixed by the details of his crime, by the terror of the victims, by the emotional trauma suffered by the lone survivor. In my bed at night, I would imagine myself in the room with the other young women, and mentally rehearse my escape. The idea that one day I might find myself in similar circumstances, in which I would need to have planned such an escape, never met any challenge. It was a fixed certainty. The "serial killer" became a familiar persona in my nightmares. He took various forms, but what strikes me now, as I look back on him, is that no matter what face he showed to me, his desire to annihilate me was always the driving and total motive of his life. And not because he knew me and wanted me dead. No, his was always the face of a stranger, and the particulars of my own life were never available or even of interest to him.

I am confessing to these things now because it seems that the dynamic at work in the personality of a serial killer, the drive to wipe out others, is simply a caricature of the ordinary, everyday evil one can find in any average heart. Ron Freeman, the retired Pittsburgh homicide commander and Duquesne instructor who invited his students to write to the serial killer, commented that the tone of the letters they had received was typical of serial killers, whose goal is to "dominate, manipulate and control."

If we look to the culture we live in, to workplace social dynamics, to advertising and sales, to the way that children are reared and educated, to all kinds of interactions we have with others on a daily basis, how many of these is entirely free from any attempts to dominate, manipulate and control? Even many "morally upright" persons, who have lofty ideals and goals, do not shrink from using domination, manipulation and control in order to achieve their ends. But what would human interactions be like if there were no trace of domination, manipulation or control in them? And what could induce anyone to live without these motives? And if we were to desire to abandon them, what power on earth could help us to do it? But most of all, if we were to abandon these things, would we lose our faces and become potential victims to anyone who still operates according to these methods?

When I was a teen, I began collecting wisdom quotes, which I would copy out into my journals and onto slips of paper that I would staple to walls and window frames. This was a time in my life when I rejected the Church because I saw, in the particular form she showed to me and I was able to see: domination, manipulation, and control (in the way my catechism classes were conducted, in the way our pastor was attempting to raise money for a new church building, in the way that choir members and parishioners jockeyed for position in a kind of social hierarchy). I hope my pious friends will forgive me for what I say. And yet, even during this period, the quote that best expressed an answer to the kind of freedom my heart longed for came from the heart of the Church:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Love does not insist on its own way. These words were written by St. Paul, but they came as the result of what he had learned from Christ. Christ never insisted on his own way. The things that he did insist on all came from beyond, from the Father, with whom he is in communion. "My teaching is not my own," he said. Even so, he never forced, never dominated, never manipulated, even though he had the power to do so. He "emptied" himself of all such means because he embodied the kind of love that St. Paul describes. Instead, he appealed, invited, tirelessly demonstrated this love, betting on it being so attractive that people would seek after it and cling to him without abandoning any of their freedom. And some people did follow him.

What if Christ had risen from the dead and there had been no one to see him? What if Mary Magdalene had not been in the garden, looking for him? What if the disciples, who were on their way to Emmaus had never ever hoped? What if the apostles had had nothing to fear and had never gathered to mourn their dead Master? The grace and truth and life would still have been there, but humanity would not have seen or touched the Word of Life. This is the same question Jesus asks of us when he says, "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8b). Even though the ones who loved him didn't understand what he had told them, they had faith in him. Their faithfulness was not in their being astute or intelligent or having prophetic knowledge. Their faithfulness was in clinging to his memory, to the living memory of a man they continued to love. Even if the disciples, on their way to Emmaus, had ceased to hope, they could still remember that they had hoped. Evidently, that was enough.

We can see this love at work in the world, this love that does not insist on its own way, that does not dominate or manipulate or control, and we can tap into it as a source of our own victory and triumph over all that would seek to dominate us. Love is not an escape plan, or a wall that the weak can build to shut out those who manipulate and control. It is not a refuge for cowards. Love is what happens when we begin to be fascinated by something that does not come from us. When we begin to ask, "Who are you?" and recognize that we will never receive an answer until we listen with all our strength for the response. It is the question (not the answer that we can generate in our own minds) that will give us our faces.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."