On a fresh Tuesday morning three months ago, a prisoner from the cell block next to mine put on his crisp white uniform and reported to his job as a prep-cook in the kitchen. I had come to know Martin as a gifted artist, a capable barber, and a guy who had been behind bars for twenty years. The few times he waltzed around my jugular with a pair of barbering scissors revealed an exceptionally polite man, with a winsome smile and a patient ear for my awkward assassination of French verbs. But that morning in December, it would be a very different Martin that the prison would experience; a Martin who could barricade himself and a female kitchen steward — a mother of newborn twins — at knife point in a storage room for nine hours and, according to news reports, raped her repeatedly while police negotiators on the other side of the thick steel door bargained for her life.
It has taken me twelve weeks to be able to write those words. It was a week before I could even talk about it. The day Quebec’s LCN network reported the details, I couldn’t eat. In eighteen years behind bars, I’ve seen guys swigging each other’s puked up methadone; I’ve seen a prisoner with his eyes sliced in half — by his own hand; I’ve even seen a whole tier of convicts shuffle through the drained life-blood of a 22-year-old suicide victim, high-fiving each other on their way to a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowel of tomato soup (top that one, Senator Boisvenu). What I’ve never seen is anything like Martin.
In the weeks that followed, my reaction to what Martin did could be called predictable. The husband and father in me felt deep sorrow for the victim and her family. The prisoner in me was sickened to the marrow, angry that no other kitchen cons had intervened; smashed him with soup oar, cleaved his skull with frying pan, cut his throat with a paring can opener — something! Finally, the human being in me was left with only one question — the same one everyone asks when nothing makes sense. “Why?”
In the past few months, Canada has become the winter palace of “why?” In Kingston, a mother and father are convicted of murdering three bright and chirpy teenage daughters; in Vancouver, grieving stakeholders sift the memories of 50 butchered women; on a highway in southern Alberta, the lives of five young men and women are vaporized in a lighting strike of jealousy — and the newspapers, courtrooms, and church pews are filled in an attempt to find meaning. The problem is that is while Canadians quarry through mountains of nonsense, looking for that one nugget of sense, they’re probably missing the most important question of all: Why ask why?
In his provocative book, The Science of Evil — On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University (and cousin to that other famous Baron-Cohen) looks at intolerable human behavior with a fresh set of eyes — through the lens of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the scientific method. As a young Jew, raised in a community of Holocaust survivors, Baron-Cohen had an early introduction to things that make you ask why. For instance, why did German army officers turn Jews into lampshades? Or why did a German doctor amputate the hands of one family friend, then use advanced micro-surgery techniques to reattach them backwards, with her thumbs pointing down? The answers young Simon received were the usual ones. The Devil did it. God was testing us. The Nazis were evil. But none of these satisfied him — or did anything to prevent future genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. So Simon the university student kicked “why” to the curb and focused instead on the who, what, and when of the matter. The answers he eventually found may change forever the way we understand cruel human behavior.
The problem, Baron-Cohen says, is not the presence of evil, but the absence of empathy. By empathy he means “our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” After decades of investigating autistic brains, he and his team discovered that the venerable human quality we call empathy is actually a measurable substance that can be seen in action during an fMRI brain scan. Some, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, are what the Professor calls “super-empathizers” — unable to move from caring for others to thinking solely of their own interests. Others, like British mother Rekha Kumara-Baker, who stabbed her two daughters to death in June 2007, display (at least temporarily) what the Professor calls “zero degrees empathy” — or “no awareness of how they come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate others feelings or actions.” Strangely enough, zero degrees empathy is the same designation that autism patients exhibit. Why there hasn’t been an epidemic of autistic serial killers is a good question. And it’s not the only one.
How does “zero degrees empathy” occur? Is it genetic, or are there environmental factors? How wide spread is the condition? Is it treatable? Who are at greatest risk? These are the types of thorny questions that Baron-Cohen and others are fearlessly pursuing. But whether they find the answers may rely less on meticulous lab work than it will on getting into the minds of those who already know. I think I know a good place to start looking.
When the world was introduced to Robert William Pickton, it felt like we were watching a movie. As a writer, I couldn’t have created a more abhorrent creature. First, he was a skinny and balding fifty-something, with greasy hair and pasty white skin — a stretched version of Danny DeVito’s “the Penguin.” Of course he also smoked — at a time when Canadians were being programmed to hate everything about smoke and smokers. Even the name the media gave him — Willy — evoked images of a misogynist sodomite from the movie Deliverance. Then came the narrative. He butchered his victims — hung them like sides of pork in a meat locker — where he must have practiced necrophilia. He drizzled human flesh into products sold by local grocers. He fed some women to dogs and pigs while still alive. He ate them himself. By the time the judge said guilty, fact and fiction were exchangeable; all that was left was an urban legend for the ages — a soul sucking demon for whom a silver bullet was too good. And the world howled “why?”
What we never heard was who, as in “Who derives pleasure from methodically hunting vulnerable women, kidnapping them, torturing them, butchering them and feeding them to his pet pig? Who was Robert Pickton before he became a notation in the annals of infamy?” I’m no psychopathologist, but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck — then our boy Willy was one sick bird. Yet the DNA evidently says human. So when did Pickton lose that? Are there more out there like him, clinging by a finger to the last branch of their humanity? What about my workmates, my neighbors, my family? What about me? Those are the questions I’d really like answers to. But since “why?” seems to be the question-du-jour, I might as well ask one of my own. Why are so many Canadians in such a hurry to kill the one guy who can tell us how serial killers really happen? The answer has nothing to do with justice.
When things happen that knock our emotional pendulum as far off center as Pickton did, physics leaves the mind with no recourse but an equal and opposite reaction. When I killed the man I am serving a life sentence for, I did so in the absolute conviction that he was trying to kill me. That my conclusion was borne from seething rage rather than anything factual was something I never gave a moment of consideration to. An eye for an eye was my search for balance — the same feeling I had when I first heard about Martin. The difference is, I’m no longer a 27-year-old kid with a head full of hash resin. Maximum brutality may have quenched a passing desire 18 years ago, but I now know that fighting fire with fire never meets anyone’s long term needs. Instead, what two decades of help from others, and quiet thinking on my own has taught me is that the questions we ask are far more important than the volume with which we ask them. That’s where you’ll find justice. Everything else is just us
– For Diane