Monday, August 19, 2013

Murder for Breakfast

My morning routine is just like anybody else’s, but with a sinister slant: I like to read about serial killers over breakfast.

The day starts innocently enough. After hitting snooze a few times, I put on running clothes and force myself out the door. While I run I listen to podcasts: advice, book reviews, news (sometimes). But my favorites are the mysteries. Like the episode of This American Life where two boys find an abandoned house that hints at some devastating crime.

I feed on mysteries, solved and unsolved. Which is why whatever I’m reading for breakfast is always more appetizing than what I’m eating.

When I tell my fiancé I’m reading about serial killers again he gets a worried look on his face. During these obsessive jaunts I tend to get paranoid:

“Is the door locked?”

“I don’t like the look of that guy.”

“Where were you earlier?”

At night I fall asleep watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on my laptop. Hear me out: I believe these episodes make perfect bedtime stories because the crimes are almost always solved and justice is almost always served. Much healthier than last year’s bedtime routine, when I would browse abuse forums and go to sleep outraged and terrified.

I know my habits are strange. And I was confronted with not a small amount of shame when, in one episode of my favorite show, the heroes apprehend a homeless man obsessed with sex crimes. They find newspaper clippings of rape and murder taped onto the walls of his cardboard box—enough to make him a suspect in their case. “You get off on this stuff?” the detectives ask as they wrestle him into the interrogation room.

My face turned red.

The homeless guy turns out to be innocent. He’s just seeking resolution, and maybe I am too. I think of an article that a friend shared with me years back* about the enduring appeal of Nancy Drew. I was obsessed with Nancy Drew for much of my childhood. I can remember spending Saturdays under a blanket on my parents’ La-Z-Boy, devouring one mystery after another. The art projects my mom saved from that time are all variations on the heroine’s likeness: a Nancy Drew mask; a paper mache bust of Nancy; a biography of Nancy Drew, written by me.

The article suggested that children are fascinated by Nancy Drew because of the stories' perfect mix of suspense and formula. Each book begins with a fresh case of things gone wrong—a stolen heirloom or a missing loved one. The world is off-kilter. But what follows is the same in every book: a series of clues, car crashes, and kidnapping by chloroform, through which Nancy pieces together the crime and, with the help of her lawyer dad, sends the perp to jail. The case is always closed, and the world is always set right again. In fact, the last chapter of every Nancy Drew mystery delivers a dessert-like denoument: the good guys laughing with relief as they reflect on catching the criminal. Such sweet closure. 

This kind of order swallowing chaos satisfies me just as much today as it did then. But why? 

As a human, I am in the business of making meaning whether I like it or not. From optical illusions to everyday reality, my brain can’t help but fill in the gaps. But that seems at odds with this world of random violence. I think mystery stories are a way for me (us?) to experience sense and security, acknowledging evil while also solving it.

If I believe mystery stories, I can believe that horrible events are little more than tough physics problems. If I figure out what formula to apply I can turn the world right again. Yet this thought fills me with the kind of anxiety that only a false sense of control can: It’s up to me to fix all the wrong things and I won’t sleep until I do.

Which is why I only read about real killers in the full light of morning.  

*I can't seem to track down this article online. It may be this one from the Boston Globe, but I can't get past the pay wall to say for sure.

Further reading:

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