Monday, May 26, 2008

Shaking Hands with the Devil

by Kathryn Casey

I wonder sometimes about evil, true evil.

Over the years, I've had the fortune or misfortune, depending on one's viewpoint, of interviewing some really bad folks. Many times, I've shown up at a jail or prison, signed myself in, checked my purse in a small locker, then, with two pens and a notebook, if they don't allow a tape recorder and tapes, I've followed a guard through a maze of doorways to a small room, where I sit and wait. I'm often nervous, considering what questions I want to ask, which are most important to get answered. Before long, the person I've come to see walks in. I stand up and reach out my hand, which is taken by someone who has committed a truly heinous crime, most often the murder of another human being. I smile and say, "Hello."

Not everyone in jail, of course, is guilty. And not all the guilty are monsters. I'm talking here about those, however, who have committed horrible crimes without remorse. Talking to them, I must admit, can be unsettling. We share no frame of reference when it comes to basic principles, morals, ethics, even empathy. It is, however, part of my job as a crime writer to attempt to understand such human beings, and I try.

With these types of offenders, there's a question I don't bother asking: "How could you have done such a terrible thing to that woman . . . man . . . child?"

I don't ask, because I already know. Truly evil human beings don't have the ethical struggles the rest of us endure. They simply don't care about the wife or husband who stands in their way, the kid next door, the woman down the street, or the teenage boy walking home late at night. They don't see others as equals. Let's face it, in the view of a true narcissist, the rest of us are all expendable.

A lot of people ask if researching the books I write has changed me as a person. I believe it has, but, perhaps, not in the way one would expect. Yes, I lock my doors and windows. I park under lights in parking lots. I try not to go to dangerous places after dark, unless I have to, and then, I'm as careful as I can be. I understand that sometimes, perhaps when I'm least expecting it, I may encounter a monster in the shadows. While others might doubt the existence of evil, I don't. I have shaken hands with it, heard its voice, and looked into its eyes.

Serial killers, murderers, rapists, thugs, hate-mongers, pedophiles, they're out there. It's true. But, and this may surprise you: in my opinion, not as many of them as we sometimes fear.

For every horrible criminal I've met, I've had the good fortune of encountering hundreds of truly good people, the kind who work hard to raise their families, are charitable toward others, who would never think of victimizing another individual. They understand, in their core, that every other person has as much right to live life to the fullest, to be happy, to be able to work to support their families, as they do.

I've met victims and their families who suffered tragedies so horrific, so life-shattering that I believe the same fate would have sent me to my grave. Yet, they continue not just to exist, but to grab life with both hands and to reach out to others. Some founded organizations to help other victims or push for new laws in hopes of sparing other families the same horrors. Even with all that's happened to them, to their loved ones, they worry about all of us.

At a recent book club gathering I was invited to attend, someone asked a woman, a retired schoolteacher with a kind face who'd spent decades guiding the lives of her young students, why she reads true crime. "I want to understand why people do the things they do," she said. "I don't understand how some people are capable of such terrible acts."

So, next time I'm sitting in a prison talking to an inmate who has committed a brutal murder, I'll think about all the good folks out there who need to understand the true nature of evil to figure out how to stop it. And I'll consider that Houston school teacher, when I ask the monster the questions I need answered to explain the essence of pure evil.


Donna Pendergast said...


I often struggle with the "school teacher's desire to understand" issue when dealing with jurors. When dealing with an unthinkably evil crime I often tell jurors something to the effect of "there is no understanding of the why's of Jane Doe's murder because it's pure evil and there is no understanding of pure evil just recognition of what it is"

Jan said...

It must be hard to maintain objectivity when faced with someone truly evil.

Good for you in unmasking them and showing us their real faces.

Kathryn Casey said...

You may be right, Donna. Maybe we can't understand evil. Maybe we just have to accept that it exists and that we can't change it.

I've been with some people where I can actually see it, something about the way they look at or talk about others, like the rest of us are all akin to lab rats. I think Jenna talked about this in one of her early posts, about how it made her want to run home and take a shower. I've felt like that, too.

Kathryn Casey said...

Thanks, Jan!

As I said, not all the folks in prison fit this description, but those that do, can be unnerving.

Vanessa Leggett said...

I think Donna is correct. And I am not surprised that she has had to explain this to juries with a "schoolteacher's desire to understand." A criminal defense attorney--and future Mystery Man--had this to say re: the usual response of women when asked why they read crime stories:

"I guess that I am just curious about what makes a person tick."

The answer, from a man's point of view, is pretty simple. Some people are just plain mean. It has nothing to do with family, or poverty, or not being tucked into bed at night. Sometimes the genetic pot cooks up people who are mentally and spiritually void. They are born bad, they remain bad, and they die bad.

I was once appointed to represent a man in his twenties who committed a series of robberies. He and another guy broke into the house of a Catholic bishop. The bishop and his housekeeper were the only ones home. They robbed and beat both of them and my client tried to gouge out the bishop's eye. When he went home that night, he told his girlfriend, "I almost brought you home an eye, but I couldn't get it all the way out."

Some two days later, they broke into the house of an elderly woman who was babysitting her two grandchildren. My client beat the poor old woman so badly that she was still having corrective surgery a year later. He pistol whipped the eight-year-old boy because there was not enough money in his piggy bank. The ten-year-old girl got the worst of it. After beating her, my client put is hands inside her vagina and tried to rip her apart. No one was killed, but they were scarred for life.

When I went to jail to visit him, his eyes were literally bright with hate. I had read about things like that, but this was the first time that I had ever met a person who actually glowed with anger. He had a leg that was amputated when he was six or seven years old. His family told me that he had cancer and that is why he lost his leg, but he thought that his family had his leg cut off because they hated him.

There was no childhood abuse and he did not come from a broken family. His family was middle class and he had several brothers and sisters who finished college and no one, except him, had a criminal record. I had him examined by a psychiatrist, and I never will forget what he said. He called me on the phone and said, "Jim, he is not crazy. He is just [expletive] mean."

And so it is. There ain't no why. There is only a because.

Connie Park said...


You perfectly expressed how we feel and deal with "evil" people who are right in front of our eyes. I'm like you where I always have to remind myself there are more good people in this world.

It's a strange feeling when you are faced with this person who commited all these horrible crimes and carrying on a conversation. I truly feel that they are sorry only because they got caught and are sitting in prison.

Thanks Kathryn!

Kathryn Casey said...

That's really interesting, Vanessa. Maybe we women tend to try to analyze more which, in a sense, could kind of excuse? Or at least mitigate? (Did I spell that right?) I don't know, but I know there are some who are just "bad seeds." And, of course, no excuse makes up for a horrible crime. Frightening.

Thanks, Connie. I know you as a police officer face this way more often than I do. Still, they grab our attention because they're the exception not the rule. Like you, I remind myself of that often.

wolfscratch said...

Kathryn Casey,excellent article concerning evil.
After almost six decades on this earth, and a career as a Big City Firefighter, I have witnessed many traumatic scenes, in which some were the result of very evil acts.

On 01/06/08, I began a search for a kidnapped victim: Meredith Hope Emerson's remains. The Kidnapper, Gary Michael Hilton, although arrested and encarcerated on 01/04/08, left a very evil aura in his wake. There was a residue of a pungent, acrid odor present in enclosed areas that he had inhabited, that I had never experienced before.
After two years of backtracking and researching GMH, I have talked to many people that came in contact with him. The majority of these people said that they had a very uneasy feeling, as well as a chill go up their spine. Some stated that the hair on the back of their neck literally raised.
Kathryn, have you ever experienced these reactions while interving one of these purveyors of evil?