Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Things I'd Rather Forget

by Michelle Gagnon

MIB memory deviceI was at a cocktail party over the weekend, talking to a friend who recently read my last book. "How do you do it?" She shuddered. "Writing about all that stuff. I couldn't sleep nights."

I explained that I usually enjoy the research, which inspired a fresh round of shudders. "Ugh. Don't you wish you didn't know about it?"

I was about to explain that in fact, writing about the dark side of the human condition can make it seem less scary. But I stopped myself. Because when I really thought about it, I realized there are things I've stumbled across in the course of doing research that I would much rather not know about.

The subject of when violence crosses the line into gratuitous territory is a perennial source of debate for mystery groups. I generally don't participate. While I can't sit through a slasher film, and rarely read horror, even the most explicit scenes of most thrillers don't unsettle me. And that's not entirely due to the fact that I've become desensitized (although that's probably part of it). What always crosses my mind when I read diatribes against that level of violence in books is this: if you only knew. Honestly, I havebundy no idea how homicide investigators sleep at all, considering the things they encounter in the course of doing their job.

When I was writing BONEYARD, I immersed myself in everything I could find on serial killers. And believe me, the reality is so much worse than anything depicted in fiction. I made the mistake once of mentioning a tidbit about Bundy to my husband over dinner. His fork froze over the plate, and he gave me a look I'd never seen before, saying, "Please, don't ever say anything like that again during dinner. Or ever. I don't want to know."

perrino On The Daily Show the night before the Inauguration this week, Bush's press secretary Dana Perrino appeared in a taped segment during the show's final moments (and no, I'm not making this up) and donned a pair of sunglasses. Holding up a replica of the memory-erasing device immortalized in Men in Black, she said, "This will just take a minute. Please focus on this spot." It flashed, and the segment ended.

There are times that I want that device. Terrible stories pop into my head at inopportune moments, flashes of the very worst people are capable of. So maybe my friend was right. There are things I'd rather forget.


  1. Nice post, Michelle. Like you, I don't get too upset watching a horror movie or reading violence in a novel. Mostly because I know it's fiction. But when it comes to the real thing, it can be tough. While researching my last thriller, THE 731 LEGACY, I had to do research on the very-real atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII. Their organization was called Unit 731 and it was all I could do to read the details of what some called the Asian Auschwitz. If you want a real eye-opener, just Google "Unit 731".

  2. Excellent post. Dead bodies don't scare me but the bad guys do. I think researching and writing about this stuff is a search for understanding. I'd rather read the pychology aspect behind the crime than the actual violence involved. (does that make sense?)

  3. Does anyone else believe that there's a dark side to each of us? In exploring its manifestations maybe we're keeping ours at bay.

    Uh-oh I can see all my friends now canceling lunch dates with me.

  4. A dark side in us?

    I spent twenty years as a youth minister in several parts of the country. During that time I worked as an EMT, did plenty of police ride alongs (as I am sure many here have) and in my youth served in the Marines.

    I've seen the whole range of personalities from meek and mild mannered church servants to combat veterans who didn't talk much to sitting on a couch in an illegal speak-easy club next to a Hells Angel murderer who regailed me with his stories. (And yes, I thought I was about to be his next victim).

    Yes. I believe there is definitely a dark side. The difference between the psychopath and the rest of society is that most of us know it is not socially acceptable to act out that dark side.

    But when in a group in chaos, like the Nazis or the Japanese of WWII, or a mind dulled by being inundated by evil input like Bundy, the door to that darkness cracks open. Once the traffic of actions starts through it, the slippery slope into evil pulls one down rather quickly.

  5. I shudder more at my own thoughts and imagination than I do at a lot of the realities out there, because I've thought up some of the same stuff before. I think, at our worst, basest moments, we all have a little of the darkness in us. Some more than others, I guess. But when I'm REALLY angry with someone (and i can count the times I've been that pissed on both hands), I can get a lot of sick pleasure out of my imaginings when it comes to the grizzly, tortured fate of whoever pissed me off. The differences are that 1) I could never go through with it, and 2) I could never be as detached as Mengele, Bundy, Jack the Ripper, et al were about it.

    But yeah, as much as it bothers me to hear what some of these people did, there are times I can at least envision shitty people who really deserve it getting the same treatment, and it takes a second for the rational part of my mind to wake up and say, "No. No one deserves that, no matter what they've done."

    But no, that stuff doesn't really disgust or bother me. I'm more afraid of things like Stephen King mentioned in Night Shift: "[I know] the thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real...and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle." Guess that's why I don't write horror.

  6. Joe, if this Unit 731 info gives me nightmares, I'm holding you personally responsible ;)
    And AW, I find the bad guys terrifying too, especially the serial killers.
    Camille, consider our lunch date canceled.
    Very well said, Basil. And that Hells Angel story sounds like it needs to be written down!

  7. Dark side in us?
    Yes, probably in all of us. I've often thought that those without a conscience are missing some wiring in their brain. Or maybe they are just missing their soul.
    What if sometimes a person is born without a soul? Like they slipped through into this world without picking up that which makes them truly human.
    Did you ever look into someone's eyes and think ...somethings missing in there?

  8. Something missing...or something extra.

    Not sure which has given me the heebie-jeebies more.

    I'm glad I hang out with mostly normal humans nowadays.

  9. If only you knew the powah of the dark side. (heavy, asthmatic breathing)

  10. Okay, we can laugh at the Darth Vader impersonation, but really we are all just Luke Skywalker walking a narrow path trying to not let the dark side suck us in.

  11. I'm going in the opposite direction, the more crime I read and write about, the more sensitive I am to it. My husband also requested long ago that I never talk to him about serial killers. He's not too sure about some of my stories either.

  12. Hey Michelle,

    Sometimes I don't know which apple to bite from on this. Would I rather listen to the news reports about serial killers and murderers or read fictional accounts of the same type of sociopaths. And I too have become so desensitized to it all that I wonder if I even have an honest emotional feeling when reading about something horrible. Maybe my reaction is just a gut instinct telling me how I should react based on social mores.

    I don't envy you having to dive deep into some pretty heart-wrenching topics but I am glad you do. I think it makes you a better writer and certainly no less a person.

    Bill :)

  13. Thanks, Bill. I love the dark side comparison, huge star wars fan that I am (the original three, not the sad ones produced recently). I will forge ahead. It was a relief with Gatekeeper to be researching something other than Serial Killers for a change, although hate groups are in their own way so disturbing (just not quite as gruesome).