What do you do when you discover a colleague is a killer? Cultural depictions of serial killers help us avoid confronting what we can't abide: that murderers might be as ordinary as the rest of us
"You do realize that don't you? There aren't evil guys and innocent guys. It's just... It's just... It's just a bunch of guys." -- Ben Stiller as Steve Arlo in Zero Effect
The second that police arrested central Missouri radio-talk-show host James Keown, a former colleague of mine, for the murder of his wife, he seemed to cease to exist as an ordinary human being. He became something else -- something sinister and otherworldly: an appalling curiosity.
The judge that ruled in the case this summer in Massachusetts voiced this transformation when she pronounced him an "evil human being." The victim's mother went further, saying Keown was "no longer a person" in her mind. "He's just a mass of flesh and bone. A real person never would have done so evil a thing."
Similarly, the mixture of horror and fascination I receive after I reveal to people that I knew this person is weirdly predictable. The questions that come aren't at all focused on the circumstances behind the event but instead about the nature of the man involved. What was he like? Did he seem like, you know, normal?
Keown never seemed to be anything but a “normal” person to me in the year that I knew him. He had a regular job, was polite, well-mannered, and articulate in conversations about politics or sports. When I tell people this now, it seems to shock them. It's as if they expect that a man who killed his wife would drink blood for breakfast or carry headless dolls around all day.
The year I was acquainted with Keown was 2006, when I was in charge of the crime and county government beat for the News-Tribune in Jefferson City, Missouri -- a small, sleepy state capital where little happened beyond politics and most folks liked it that way. Keown hosted a daily two-hour weekday talk show on KLIK, a local news talk-radio station that aired conservative blowhards like Bill O’Reilly in the afternoon. Keown himself was a bit of that same pompous, know-it-all sort, but that may be ingrained in the code of the broadcast radio and TV personality’s DNA.
Nonetheless, when I chatted with Keown at events we were both covering, I felt he was sort of a kindred spirit. We had both experienced bigger cities outside of Jefferson City, and we both understood the provincialism of the politics of the town and could see through its leaders -- especially the media-whoring prosecuting attorney who was frequently a guest on Keown’s show.
Keown was a smart guy, possibly too smart and charismatic to be stuck in a small market like Jefferson City. Rumors swirled around him though. One of my news-hawk coworkers, the type that could sniff out every rumor about town, whispered to me once that Keown had lived in Boston but moved back to his Jefferson City hometown after the tragic death of his wife Julie the year before. My coworker rumbled that authorities had been sniffing around Keown as "a person of interest." I categorically dismissed the idea of Keown having anything to do with the death of his wife, however. He was too much of a straight arrow, too intelligent and successful. He was neither a sleazy womanizer like Scott Peterson nor an alcoholic or a troubled loner -- the typical profile of the murderer we read about or see on TV.
But after he was arrested while on the air by the Boston police and the details of the investigation came out, Keown was transformed in my mind. In writing accounts for the local paper about the murder, I discovered the truth -- that it wasn't a run-of-the-mill, in-the-heat-of-passion gunshot or stabbing. Keown slowly poisoned his wife by continually putting small amounts of antifreeze in her Gatorade and demanding she drink it often. It took several months for her to condition to worsen from stomach sickness to hospitalization for a kidney condition to lapsing into a coma from kidney failure and eventually death.
The end was particularly horrible because Keown had called an ER after his wife was having some sort of bad kidney reaction. The doctors told him to giver her treatment immediately but he waited 10 whole hours to take her to the hospital. That's when she succumbed into the coma.
And the reason? Keown was charismatic and ambitious but also apparently a pathological liar. They moved to Boston after Keown told his Kansas City employer -- an educational consulting company -- that he had been accepted at the Harvard Business School and asked if he could work remotely from the Boston area. Six months later, Keown was fired when his boss discovered he had lied about being accepted to Harvard and had stolen a Web site design he was asked to develop for the company.
Keown didn't reveal to his wife -- or anyone else -- that he got fired and didn't actually get into Harvard. His debts mounted into the tens of thousands, and it got to the point where he was going to have his utilities shut off. So he then attempted to kill his wife to collect on her $250,000 life insurance policy.
Keown's computer revealed that he did a Google search using the words "ethylene glycol death human" and "Can you buy arsenic?"
In writing about this in lurid detail, I cloaked myself in impersonal distance and treated Keown's murder like I would the weather or skyrocketing property taxes. Like the mother of the victim and the judge ruling on the case, I could not adapt to the idea that Keown the with-it radio guy and Keown the calculating murderer were the same person. It’s much easier to believe a man is a monster than to accept that a person you know and respect could be capable of murder.
Perhaps we need to rationalize horrific acts by undermining the apparent normality of killers. In centuries past, many irrational acts committed by people were blamed on superstitious causes -- ghosts and spirits, the anger of the Gods, demon possession -- all things most of us today see as ridiculous.
But as sophisticated and educated as modern Western Civilization allegedly is, is our sense of good and evil any less primitive? The pop cultural treatment of serial killers seems to work as a coping mechanism. The physiology of killers' brains is perceived as categorically different than ours. Villains like Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs are classified as psychopaths, and we're told that their brains do not impede their violent impulses like a normal person.
The Joker in this summer's The Dark Knight and the title character in Showtime's serial-killer-who-kills-other-serial-killers drama Dexter are examples of attempts to humanize killers and make them appear more psychologically complex than the usual cold-blooded sociopath. But their back stories have them witnessing or enduring a superhuman amount of pain and suffering, which only serves to set them apart from the rest of us again.
Typically, serial killer entertainment, going back to Sherlock Holmes stories, revolves around detecting the killer but revealing the abnormal way his mind works, a mind that masquerades as normal but must be extracted from society. This serves to reassure our nagging doubts about the nature of evil. We need this type of narrative to help us back into the philosophically safe grounds that are good guys and there are bad guys. Passion and selfishness, which motivate most acts of violence, are quintessentially human emotions. These crimes fascinate us because they remind us just what the motives we can recognize in ourselves could lead to.
For that reason, our culture works at the same time to associate these all too human deeds with a loss of humanity, so we can reassure ourselves that we are not like these murderers, that we have nothing to be afraid of for ourselves.
It’s a welcome illusion considering the alternative -- that we are constantly surrounded by men like Keown who are capable of doing anything under the wrong circumstances. It’s an idea more frightening than Hannibal could ever be.