I wish I knew why motorists stopped to gawk at every bit of roadside carnage. We are drawn almost against our will to stare at the sorrow of others. I suspect the same impulse is at work in the trial of Steven Hayes. We cannot get enough of the horror of it all. It's a slasher film made real. Reporters line up hours before court opens to get a seat. "More," we demand, even as we decry the crimes as intolerable. We're twisted all right.
So is Joshua Komisarjevsky.
When Hayes's lawyers unveiled the prison diaries of Komisarjesky in an effort to save their client's life, they did us a favor. We were invited to drink our fill of the fury that produced the Cheshire slaughter. No need any longer to guess what could transform Hayes and Komisarjevsky into killers: We can read all about it.
"I'm not insane," Komisarjesky tells us, "because I've seen whats (sic) in my head play itself outin (sic) reality. I've tasted, seen and felt that this pain exists externally." Later he writes: "I was suddenly aware acutely aware of a seething cauldron of disconnected rage lying behind my sorrow; Repression's shaddow.... a reminder that all humans can be as inhuman as the animal species we are." (The mispellings are Komisarjevsky's.)
This killer writes easily of the great hatred within him. "HATE, just a word I carved into my left arm as child," perhaps after his rape at the hands of another at age six. This hatred and rage went somewhere deep in Komisarjevsky, and lay in wait. He found a sick and twisted sense of power in his late-night escpades as a cat burglar, always robbing us not just of goods, but of the peaceful serenity we associate with home. His hatred festered, an aggressive instinct stoked to white hot fury not just by the normal inhibitions of society, but by the utter impotence arising from his inability ever to recover what was taken from him as a child. He nursed this private rage, hardly able to accept its defining force; until that night in Cheshire, when he just let go. That was the night he saw his own terror in the eyes of others and realized he was real; he was no longer alone. He created soulmates. Some he destroyed; at least one, Dr. William Petit, Jr., he sentenced to the very prison he inhabited: a world of dark taboos violated, a world of mocking disdain for the restraints of civilization, a world where the desire to kill surfaced and could not be tamped down.
"Do you have the strength to speak that words that will condemn me to death for the things you see in yourselves?," he writes. Is he talking to his jurors, or to all of us? For a lifetime he wanted to kill, and then he did, shattering every taboo we recognize as defining a civilized person. Now we too are invited to transgress. We, too, are asked to kill. Komisarjevsky whispers to the jurors: do as I did, you'll enjoy it.
I read Komisarjevsky's words and I wondered, really, about rubber-necking at highway accidents; I wondered about the breathless Twitter accounts by reporters attending the trial daily, all professing horror but seemingly so energized by this ring-sde seat at the gates of Hell. If this were really something so strange, so horrifying that we could not bear it, we would not be hanging on every gory word. Are we insatiable because of some unconscious realization that we're all on trial, our secret rages laid out in a forum now for all to see?
I reread Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents last night trying to shake the sense of fatal attraction this case yields. I was reminded that our instinct for aggression is ever present and must be tamped down to do the work required to live together. Before we swore allegiance to the flag, we raged in our infantile need for instant gratification; all that opposed our will, our desire, our want, was foreign, a force first hated, then reckoned with, and finally held at arm's length in the uneasy truce we call culture and civilization. We never truly stop raging at reality's uncompromising limits: we are such stuff as frustration is made of. So we let off steam with dark humor, viscious wit, gossip, the thousand and one ways that we feed morsels to the beast within, the devil that never really dies, but lays in wait within every breast.
Until that devil breaks through the inhibitions we call civilization in the form of the impulsive acts of men like Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes. They broke the toe-hold conscience chipped in the dark facade of fury, so we stare, each of us, knowing that what they did was wrong, and fearing that should their acts not be the work of isolated mad men, but of everyman acting out of a shared secret rage we have tempered with the work of centuries, all would be lost. We stare at these men with an unstated and perhaps unconscious shock of recognition.
We all deny that we could ever commit such acts, spawned as they are from hatred and rage for the things we say we cherish. But we keep staring at what we say we hate. We can't help it because at some level nothing human is truly foreign to any of us. We are all capable of the unspeakable, so we take solace in speaking about it, a shared sort of communal reinforcement of conscience's contested sovereignty. We recognize something dark, Komisarjevsky calls it his "shaddow", in this horror, in this acts of brutality. Most of us shudder at the recognition, but some are attracted to it. I am told that at least one woman from Alabama seeks to write to Komisarjevsky, sensing a soulmate or some lost soul to love? The men we confine to death row attract such odd love letters.
I am not writing to excuse Joshua Komisarjevsky or Steven Hayes. They should be removed from society. Something in these men snapped and we cannot tolerate their acts.
But I worry that the public display of rage this trial yields actually looses the inhibitions against savagery. Did Komisarjevsky let hatred and rage grow into an overpowering force as a result of his childhood rape? Perhaps. But what now of the rage of Dr. William Petit, Jr? What now of our rage? What occurred in Cheshire in the summer of 2007 is an outrage; it is beyond the bounds of what can be tolerated in a civilized society. We cannot live together if we do not stifle the aggression within that can so easily be mobilized into a lethal kind of madness.
I worry that the clamoring after these men's death represents a triumph of the very darkness we should be taming in the name of civilization. We do not civilize by killing; that is the act of savages living without the restraint of law. To overcome the articifial repugnance against killing that we call civilization is no easy thing. We must stir the very beast that Komisarjevsky let loose. We must become the Devil we seek to slay. We must relax the inhibitons that so tenuously restrain aggression.
My hunch is that we are transfixed by the Hayes and Komisarjevsky cases for dark and disturbing reasons. Their killing frenzy is a reminder of what we all know to be a simple truth: the devil lurks within us all. So we watch, and we cry for their blood in a court of law, hoping and pretending all the while that if we can kill in just the right way we can avoid becoming just like the men we love to hate. This is a dark trial not just because of what was done to a mother and her daughters. It is a dark trial because it reflects on the darkness within us all.