Hartford Courant columnist Helen Ubinas asked in her blog today for reactions to the fact that a book based on an accused murderer's account of a horrific Hartford-area crime is sold out at bookstores across the city. This despite near-universal expressions of disgust at the book's publication, and proclamations that no decent person would ever read it.
Something prompted me to write a comment to Ubinas's post, and as I typed what I thought would be a couple of sentences, my thoughts expanded into a short essay that started to feel like a blog entry of my own, so here it is:
Based on the description of the book in yesterday's Courant -- it contains horrifying details, many supplied to the author in lengthy handwritten notes, which the killer concluded with smiley faces -- the book is a window into an unspeakably twisted psyche. I question the wisdom of peering into that window (I haven't sought out the book), but I think the impulse to do so goes beyond train-wreck voyeurism.
Looking at an accident scene invites us to put ourselves in the victim's place, and reminds us how fragile life can be: A moment's carelessness, or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time, can change everything forever. If we know the victims, even remotely, or if we're feeling contemplative, an accident can also prompt us to ask why such terrible things can happen. Partly in order to avoid the same fate ourselves, but also on a more cosmic scale -- why do bad things happen to good people?
Those feelings certainly apply to the Petit family, but their tragedy goes beyond the scope of "ordinary" accident or mischance -- and the book promises at least a partial answer to the the "Why?" question that goes unanswered in more random events: Human beings (for lack of a better term) decided to inflict this horror on innocent people, on children -- and from the brief account in the paper, they did so on a whim, as some kind of sick amusement. It's only natural, I believe, for us to want to try to make sense of that, and I think that's where the appetite for this book arises.
The motive for publishing the book is obviously self-serving on the part of the killer -- and he is a killer, under the law and by any moral measure, even if we accept the transparently "exonerating" account that pins all homicidal acts on his partner. Depending on how the book is put together, the author and publishers could be seeking a quick buck by exploiting a terrible tragedy, or making a good-faith effort to shed light on the workings of the criminal mind.
Either way, I think the likelihood that the book will offer meaningful insight is nil: Only sociopaths could have done what was done to the Petit family, and sociopaths by nature are incapable of seeing people as anything but objects for their exploitation. The sociopath's fundamental lack of empathy means he would never put himself in the place of an accident victim or ask why something terrible could befall another person. The incapacity to ask that question means he can never answer it for the rest of us.