The Stories We Tell Ourselves: (A Short Story)
"When you kill someone -- I mean normal people, not hardened criminals, per se, or homicidal lunatics -- ... but when a rational person kills someone, this is a serious break in the consistency of your life, to say the least. And its a real indictment against you that you let your life get so out of control, that the only way you could see to fix it was to kill someone. You're going along, living your life, trying to make your way in the world, maybe leave a legacy, maybe not. You get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and in between you eat breakfast -- just coffee, juice, and the Wall Street Journal if you're a hard-charging type -- and you go to work, make money, pay the bills, raise the kids, -- by remote control if you have to travel a lot for your job -- do holidays, visit relatives, be kind to in-laws, work hard, work harder, take one day a week or whatever to play poker or go bowling with the guys or whatever such people do for fun, get promoted, become executive vice president of the northeast region hopping-to-it, putting-your-nose-to-the-grindstone, because time-is-money-and-money-is-time, maximum efficiency, rocketing the corporation's share price to the stars and beyond, have a midlife crisis, wondering 'Is this all there is,' hope your wife doesn't find out about your girlfriend, hope your employer doesn't find out about your embezzlement, so you can keep that rather tall, buxom, cornfed thing half your age living in style.
"And then, when the pressure gets to be too much, when you can't keep juggling all those balls, spinning all those plates, when therapy, medication, and Internet porn can no longer ease the pressure, you get to the point where all you can think about is how everything would be just Jake, if a certain person weren't around anymore. You get to thinking that this person is truly the cause of all your problems, as if he was specifically born and developed at the behest of some malevolent, universal force -- the Devil, maybe -- who has the specific intent to thwart you. You know in your heart its all nonsense, but its such a comforting notion, because the alternative is to face up to the fact that you're a failure, and impotent nonentity, whose whole life is a joke, and not a very funny one at that.
"So then you kill someone. But you don't really feel any better, even if that person's removal does provide you some, temporary situational relief: your affair, your embezzlement goes undiscovered; your past remains YOUR past and those skeletons remain securely locked in their respective closets; your gambling addiction and/or your heroin jones or your use of performance-enhancing steroids remains undiscovered, for the moment; all; all of your hundred other perversions remain your secret, your bestiality, your penchant for dog-humping, for example, being the least of these.
"So... to keep the lid on everything, you kill someone. The point I'm making, nephew, is that it can be anything, any of a million different scenarios, clusters of circumstances interacting in ways we can't even imagine. Your frayed in all directions. There's a billion loose threads and all fate has to do is come along and gently tug on any one of them. And the whole thing comes unraveled, and so do you, so you kill someone.
"After you do that, nephew, you have to go to work and arrange things so that you can plausibly tell the world, and most importantly yourself, that you did not do it... kill someone... even though you did. Because of the very fact that you had to kill indicates the profundity of your failure to control your life, what you want to do is get back to feeling good about yourself as soon as possible. But its a long, hard trip, man. Cause, partner, I'm here to tell you, you been slipping, and you ain't felt good about yourself for a long, long, long time.
"As investigators what we have to do is figure out the story the suspect is trying to tell himself: not only the outer story he's trying to build in order to try to shield himself from legal blame for the crime; but also the interior story, as he tries to convince himself he's not such a screw-up that had to resort to murder in the first place. So there's two levels of deciphering you have to do as an investigator.
"Now, a hardened criminal-type poses a slightly different challenge. With him the main thing is getting past the exterior fake narrative. He's more likely to see killing as just 'the cost of doing business,' as it were. He's not going to see it as a personal failure. The lunatic is a little different, too. We may see him as irrational, but according to the rules of the strange mental landscape he's living in, his actions are perfectly rational.
"With the lunatic there's two levels of fake narrative going on as well. The exterior story he presents is his 'alibi,' as it is in the other two cases. But, on the interior level, he regards his murder/murders differently than the hardened but otherwise rational criminal and the average person. He is neither ashamed of his crimes nor indifferent to them. On the contrary, he is proud of what he has done, the killing, which he sees as essential and rational, even heroic according to the rules of the mental place he lives in. The only reason he has an alibi is so that he can buy himself the time he needs to complete whatever lunatic mission he's on --- a lunatic mission, but a mission nevertheless. He probably sees himself more like a 'secret agent' type.
"When you interrogate him, you've got to dispense with the exterior story right away, so you can get down to his inner drive. You've got to stoke the pride he feels for the magnificent thing he thinks he's done. Understand? You've got to stroke his ego to get him to tell you about his crimes.
"Anyway, nephew, the point I'm trying to make, in my usual roundabout way is this: Figure out the story the suspect is trying to tell himself, and you'll find the killer. I remember a case one time, it was a sad case, really. There was this young girl, couldn't've been much more than twenty or so. She had clearly been made up, disguised. Now, when a person's appearance is changed and she suddenly winds up dead, there's a question I always ask myself: 'Was this person's (the dead person, we're talking about) appearance altered to hide her appearance, or to make her look like someone?'
"The dead girl I'm thinking about, had clearly been done up in a flamboyant way, radically different from the conservative way she'd always presented herself. So it was clearly important to the killer or killers that the dead girl look like someone. If that was true, then her death would've been meant to give her killer or killers an alibi for killing the... 'original,' so to speak.
"So, in order to find out why the girl had been killed, and who had killed her, I thought it would be necessary to find the original. In order to find the original, I thoght it would be a good idea to take pictures of the dead girl, made up in the way she had been made up, and then go find out whom she most resembled. But where to start?
"Well, my boy, the first thing to think about when a young woman winds up dead in such a violent way --- and believe me, nephew, she had died rough; I'll spare you the details --- are those lifestyles where violence is common, like prostitution, for example. If the dead girl had been made up to resemble a certain prostitute, well and good. But the question remained: 'Where to start?'
"I reasoned that if it was important for the dead girl to resemble somebody else, then whoever killed her would want her false identity officially confirmed as soon as possible. Therefore, the thing to do was wait. It happened soon enouhg, almost immediately, in fact. A woman came into the coroner's office to positively identify the dead girl. She said she was her sister, from Kansas, and, very conveniently, her only family.
"She had a good story. She said that Agnes --- that's what she called the dead girl, Agnes --- had been an aspiring model and actress, and that she was always experimenting with different looks. She said that Marilyn Monroe had been Agnes's idol; and that if a plain old farm girl called Norma Jean Baker could transform herself into the Hollywood sex goddess to millions, then so could she, Agnes, do the same. Agnes had been a very confident girl, her 'sister' said.
"Id lost touch with Agnes in the last few years," the woman claiming to be Agnes's sister said. "But she'd always been a good girl, if somewhat... headstrong and ambitious. I'm sure she wouldn't've gotten into anything immoral or sordid... you know."
"Translation, nephew: 'I'm almost certain that my headstrong, ambitious, confident little sister got into something immoral and sordid and dangerous, without me to look after her.' It was all very pat, very neat, very efficient. This woman, who called herself 'Margaret,' had all necessary documentation proving her identity, the identity of 'Agnes,' and her relationship to the dead girl --- all forgeries, of course, expert forgeries but fakes nevertheless.
"So, we put 'Margaret' under surveillance. And it turned out, nephew, that when she wasn't wearing padding under her clothes to make her look thirty pounds heavier, a black wig, bifocals, and dull brown contact lenses, she was a stunning green-eyed redhead. She didn't go anywhere near Kansas. We traced her all the way back to Los Angeles, where she ran a high-priced escort service.
"Her name was Angelique Devereaux and she looked like an 'Angelique Devereaux.' She was a bitter former actress, who'd never made it big, not even medium. Well, there was this sixty-year old, billionaire. Angelique had him on the hook and was reeling him in nice 'n steady. Then a new girl joined the... agency, a girl calling herself 'Stephanie Diamond.' The sixty-year old billionaire investor I mentioned, was bedazzled and as a result, transferred his affections from Angelique to Stephanie... along with all that money.
"Angelique Devereaux was one of those 'No man ever leaves me!' kind of women. There had been... incidents in high school and college... Anyway, 'Agnes,' the dead girl had definitely been made up to look like Stephanie Diamond. There's no doubt about it.
"We ended up busting Angelique Devereaux and her lover/co-conspirator for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Her co-conspirator was one Esperanza Maldonado. So you see, nephew, Angelique Devereaux was gay, not bisexual, just gay. The reason I mention this is because it has some bearing on how the body of that poor girl, 'Agnes,' had been treated en route to death.
"You see, Angelique wanted that rich guy's money and nothing else, of course. But, still... the fact that Stephanie Diamond had attracted him away from her, as it were, had offended her --- Angelique's --- sense of feminine charm. Its helpful to think of the fairy tale, Snow White. Angelique could never stand the idea that there just might be a woman "fairer" than her in the land, to the opposite sex, in whom she, Angelique, didn't even have any interest. But still, she has always understood ours to be a culture in which a woman's attractiveness to men is, still, real currency.
"Yeah, well, anyhow... the thing is.... flowing from this dynamic.... acts of sexual anger, I suppose you'd call it, were done to the dead girl....
"Hey, nephew, did you see how I worked in that Snow White reference? That one was an accident, but it helps me prove my point, the true point that I want to make at long last. You never when, where, or to what use you'll put what you learn, even the rather... esoteric stuff. That brings me to the reason I'm telling you all this, why I asked to see you, this afternoon.
"Nephew, you are now seventeen, about to graduate from highschool, and you have no clue as to what to do with the rest of your life, or at least you pretend not know. My boy, it is your vocation to be a scholar of some kind. You are an intellectual by nature, but you've never been very comfortable admitting it. You have always turned away from this. You are like Jonah, in the Bible, who refused God's mission for him to be a prophet, and ends up being swallowed by a whale.
"People say that it is women, especially, who tend to downplay their intelligence in order to make themselves more attractive to men, but men are afflicted the same way, I think. America is not a culture that likes to grapple with complexity, or even admit the existence of complexity for that matter. But you are what you are, nephew. You know, over the years I've watched you develop one false identity after another. One time you styled yourself an athlete, or a "jock," as you young people call it. Another time you tried to be the Clint Eastwood/John Wayne-type tpugh guy. Another time you wanted to be a Cassanova, the lover. I must say, nephew, your rapper phase was painful.
"Your mother said that it was all one 'phase' or another you were going through, but I knew better. Nobody knows you like your uncle, boy. You weren't going through phases, you were trying to escape yourself, because you hoped that by becoming someone else you would find a place for yourself in the world. That is an anxiety that hits a lot of people, maybe most people. You know, it may be that nobody, if you question them closely, believes he was born in the right time in history, the right place, in the right culture to suit his outlook, and in the right social class, more or less; some people probably have this feeling to a greater degree than others.
"I don't know what to tell you about that, nephew. You just have to work through it. You are where you are and nowhere else. You are who you are and no one else. This kind of existential anxiety is what being human is all about. The imagination is our most liberating faculty. But it can also be an albatross. If I go here, should I be going there instead? If I do this, am I missing out on that? If I become x, would I not be happier and more fulfilled by doing y, or z maybe? And on and on it goes.
"So now, nephew, you're talking about being a cop and you want to go to the police academy. That's fine, I won't discourage you. But it won't work out for you, if you try to be a 'Dirty Harry.' You will have to use what you've got to be the best cop you can be. That is the reason I've been telling you all this about deciphering the 'story' the suspect is trying to tell himself. As I told you, decipher the story, get that right, and you will find your perpetrator.
"A good way to get very valuable initial practice in doing this, nephew, is by studying things like history, English Composition, literature, sociology, anthropology, the Greco-Roman classics, and so on, all the humanities, social sciences, stuff like that, the kind of things you've always excelled at in school, nephew. Like your uncle, my boy, you were never much of a math and physics guy.
"Anyway, in studying these kinds of things, you have to deal with ideas, told from different points of view and different motives, and contradictions, things like that. You have to think for yourself in trying to come to some conclusion about 'What happened here?,' or 'What is going on?' Take my advice, nephew, and go to college first, a good liberal arts school, where you can get a well-rounded education. Take four-to-six years. Why not get a master's degree in history or something, that way you can always teach.
"Think about it, nephew. The police academy will still be there in four years, six years."
"Thank you, uncle. I just might take your advice. You've given me a lot to think about. I just might do that."