Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Making Sense of the Senseless

By Andrew E. Kaufman

Photo by David Levy
Like most people, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tragedy in Colorado this past week. Whenever something like this happens, I do, and in my mind, the question that always seems to arise is, how?  How can someone do something so unthinkable, so awful? 

So senseless.

I’ve written about crime most of my life. I worked as a journalist for years, and I’ve seen a lot. I was in San Diego when a man opened fire in a McDonalds restaurant filled with people; many of them died. Many were children. I remember feeling more vulnerable than I ever had before and realizing how fragile life can be when the wrong person enters it. I remember feeling scared.

Many people who write about real-life crime develop a thick skin; they must in order to get through the day, to do their jobs, and I suppose to some degree, I did, too. But I think there was also some part of me that didn’t. A part that was still bothered by extreme acts of cruelty and to this day, still is.

Now, I write books about the same kinds of people: evil ones. Granted, my characters are fictional, but I don’t think that much matters. They represent an element in society that’s very real. You might think it odd that I do this, and people often ask how I can dream up such awful things, and for that, I actually have an answer. I know why. I’m pretty sure that on some level, in some way, it helps me deal with the horrors of real life, much like the one we recently saw. It allows me to create evil, and then it allows me to see evil meet its end. There’s cathartic value there, and for my readers, I suspect the experience is much the same. We all have ways of coping with the dark side of life, and I suppose this is mine. In my books, good always prevails.

Still, you’d think with all my exposure to the bad things that I’d have an answer for what happened in Colorado. But I don’t. I really don’t. All I can think about are the innocent people, the ones whose lives have been permanently changed for the worse, that will never be the same again. People who were doing nothing more than trying to spend a quiet night at a movie.  And in the end, I keep coming back to the same question. How?

Maybe there is no answer. Maybe evil is just evil.  

In the days to come, I’m sure we will hear about selfless acts of courage and of people who lent a hand to those in need, ones who chose kindness over evil. I guess if anything good can come from something like this, it would be that the best in people often materializes during the worst of times. That’s what I’ll choose to focus on.

And I’ll keep writing.


  1. I've been thinking about this a lot too. We obviously need to get better at recognizing and treating mental illness, which often develops in the early twenties. And we need to add psychological profiles to our gun laws, as well as limits to how much and how often a person can purchase weapons. The constitution doesn't guarantee the right to stockpile.

    And I'll keep writing about crime too. It's how readers and writers process their fears.

  2. You said it so well, Drew. I’ve had those same feelings this last week, and have found it difficult to get back into my new mystery novel.

    My late husband, author Don Pendleton, went through this for years whenever a tragic event like this happened. His hope was always that the perpetrator “would not have one of his ‘Executioner’ novels in his hip pocket.”

    I was first married to a cop for 25 years, so like you, may have been a little closer to the criminal elements than some during those years. A few years later when Don and I wrote our first crime novel together, one about husband and wife cops, I was asked by the president of one of the biggest NY publishing companies if writing that “was cathartic after being close inside a cop’s world in real life,” and my answer to him was “Yes, I believe it was.”

    Isn’t it curious how we can have an abhorrence for violence yet are able to have it within our fictional world. I agree with you that there is some cathartic value there. We can build evil into our fiction but then remove it at will.

    Always, it seems good comes from these horrific events. Already we are hearing of the many acts of courage and kindness. One hopes that those good things greatly overshadow the evil that was done. Maybe that is the lessons behind it all—a reminder that good people far outweigh the bad.

  3. Linda and LJ--I do think we process our fears through our writing. We feel so powerless against all the crime in the world. But in our worlds--the ones we create--we are the ones in control. We can make the hurt go away. How can that not feel healing?

  4. We can incorporate the evil into our novels because we separate fiction from reality. I think true crime would be harder to write, especially after a tragedy. I agree with your comments that we control the outcome in our novels, our victims often are not the nicest of people, plus we deliver a satisfactory comeuppance to the criminal - completely different from the real world. My heart goes out to all the victims of senseless crime.

  5. I live in Aurora. As much as you've been blasted by the media reports, you can probably imagine our 24-hour non-stop coverage. It's been relentless and yet I would have been upset had there been anything less.

    I couldn't write. I couldn't begin to think of writing crime fiction while my community was torn apart by crime. For several days my focus failed me and all I felt was the senseless loss.

    What I'm appreciating about our local news coverage at the moment is that the shooter is simply being referred to as 'the alleged shooter' as often as possible. Not his name. The victims are being profiled and named. The attempt is being made to put them in the spotlight rather than their murderer. I'm not sure how much good it will do in the long run, but it made me feel good today.

    I grew up on mysteries and crime fiction, beginning with Nancy Drew and then on to Agatha Christie and Phyllis Whitney (who wrote Nancy Drew? A subject for another post, I'm sure), and love the genre. It's usually an escape from my normal and mundane life. But not this last week. I'm just now climbing on top of the horror.

  6. Peg, that is so close to home, living in the community. I imagine that is really so difficult. I learned from Michael Moore it was not the first senseless shooting in your town--one a few years ago.

    Many news shows are not using the guy's name, Anderson Cooper on CNN was one of the first to do so. It's time to remove his photo, too.

    I loved Phyllis Whitney's books, and yes, a nice escape into a fictional world.

  7. I failed to mention that the shooter is from San Diego, and his parents still live here. Needless to say, the news coverage has been intense but in a different sort of way than what the folks in Colorado are experiencing. Being a former news man, I do understand the need to get information out--they wouldn't be doing their jobs if they didn't cover this angle. But at the same time, I can't help but feel annoyed that he's getting so much attention here, which he hardly deserves. Quite honestly, I just don't care about him or his life.

  8. A thoughtful post, Drew. Sorry I was off the radar yesterday. Yes, this senseless act is still troubling me, too. And I agree that the media should really limit the coverage of the perpetrator, so as not to encourage copycat crazies who also might crave a moment in the spotlight.

    Peg, I knew you lived in Colarado, but I didn't realize until now that you live in Aurora. Makes it that much tougher to deal with. And yes, good to hear of brave, selfless acts, like the man protecting his wife and unborn child, who is now with us.

  9. Late to the party here; sorry. I live in Colorado, in the mountains, not terribly far from the recent Waldo Canyon Fire. For the most part, it was amazingly heart-warming to see the way the community came together in support of the firefighters, first responders, and shelters. I, for one, donated a week's royalties from one of my books. People lined the streets nightly at the shift-change and cheered the firefighters as they came back to Incident Command. Signs thanking the firefighters are still all over the place.

    Yet there were those who broke into cars parked at motels where evacuees were staying. And the National Guard had to be called in to prevent looting. These were in the minority, but there's still something that makes one wonder how people can be so selfish.

    And then, the Aurora crazy person. Everyone asks "why" but I don't think there's a definitive answer. In a book, it's an exciting read; in real life, it's tragic.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.