19 April 2007

Good things come to those in Boulder

The University of Colorado recently hosted the 59th Conference on World Affairs, and the little I sampled this year was thought-provoking, inspiring, and motivating. Basically, there are so many fascinating people who come to town (and you also learn about the ones who live here) and suddenly I have new ideas of who I might be in a few years.

Wsshhhp! Rewind: I have been sitting at home for several months plodding/plotting away at my first novel, and needed to get out a bit, which nicely coincided with the World Affairs Conference, if you say it in the lazy way as I do.

So I cleared an entire day last week and went to several sessions. I decided to start with the thing that was calling to me: a discussion about thrillers. Moderated by my friend Robin Beeck, it was an occasionally interesting but somehow dead-end discussion -- mostly people wanted to know what books and movies the panelists liked and discuss the boundaries of the genre. One person on the panel was annoyingly ill-suited to discuss the topic, which can be an annoying aspect of the conference in general. (And in being unable to riff in interesting or confident ways he seemed the least representative of a typical panelist -- he seemed comfortable only in his own niche. More of the people I heard speak were broadly conversant, more adept at holding forth and constructing on-the-fly ten- or fifteen-minute essays on topics of someone else's choosing.)

But then I went to the plenary session on violent crime and that was amazing. I was so glad I went. I missed the first 25 minutes or so, and am sorry to learn it wasn't recorded. Two people spoke of the effects of violence on their lives. One is a lawyer, Mark Levine, whose sister Janet March was murdered. The brother and her family are convinced that the murderer was her own husband, who since tried to kill Mark and Janet's parents and is now suing the grandparents for custody of the couple's children. The brother, a lawyer, took up several causes in his fight to get their issues with his brother-in-law taken seriously. Perry March is a man he and the others around them didn't recognize as evil until it was too late, Levine says of his and his family's naivete. Levine has gone on to advance grandparents' rights, a cause "I didn't even know existed before this," and changed Tennessee law so that children can no longer be returned to homes with murderous or abusive parents convicted of civil or criminal charges.

The second person speaking of the effects of violent crime was Terri Jentz, who recalled surviving an attack in 1977 by a psychopath who first drove his truck over her and her friend's tent in an Oregon campground before he started hacking them with his axe. Jentz has since written a book about her experiences and helped to get the statute of limitations for attempted murder abolished (it used to be that after three years the case was permanently closed) in the state of Oregon. To hear her tell it in her book, Strange Piece of Paradise, Oregon was a criminals' playground up until the mid-to-late 1980s, when victims' rights organizations gained ground and the justice and penal system came under increasing scrutiny by citizens and pols. Her book has a stunning revelation or a profound observation on every page: I can say it is absolutely worth reading without having even finished it yet. From her willingness to confront truths on so many levels unflinchingly honestly, and what she has shown she can draw from her experiences so far I know I will appreciate any conclusions she draws from this.

One of the conclusions she discussed here was that telling the stories to others is powerful and essential to the process of reckoning with evil and crime. She wrestled, however, with whether to disclose the real name of the man who attacked them, because he is still at large, still abusing women. Jentz said she decided to keep his identity hidden because there is a cult of personality that exalts people who commit violence in this culture and she doesn't want to feed any hunger he might have for notoriety for his brand of evil. We could all tell that had been a very difficult decision from the way she spoke of it on Wednesday.

I found the ideas that came out of this discussion revelatory. They confirmed my belief that there are bad people and there is evil in the world; they gave me an extension of that idea, too: that I can be someone who alerts people to that evil and perhaps even suggests alternatives or ways to stop it or mitigate some of its effects.

The most articulate person on the thrillers panel at CWA was a Washington Post writer, Patrick Anderson, who has a love for the genre and has written a book about them. He recommended Michael Connelly (and one of my faves, Ian Rankin) among others (George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane also got high marks; more than once he said, "and I think James Patterson is the pits!"), whose book The Poet I just read. It had a great observation by an FBI agent that serial murderers and other forms of psychopaths are "from the moon," that they don't share the same set of assumptions and values the rest of us do. I think of how my six-year-old daughter sometimes has similar trouble understanding that her cat can only think like a cat; he'll never be able to think like a person as much as she wants him to or thinks he should. We all want others to think like we do. I know I want people to think the way I do when I'm railing and ranting at drivers from inside the soundproof cocoon of my car, but I know we also do when we're accustomed to being around people who try to do the right thing as a rule and we come across someone who doesn't share the same notion of the right thing to do.

As for me, I am still grappling with the question of whether it is moral to earn my living by creating violence in fiction. People have a hunger for violent stories, true or invented, and I don't know whether it's a hunger for resolution, or a confirmation that yes, Virginia, there really is evil in the world. But I think there might be ways to work with it, ways to show that violence doesn't actually kill and stop but only makes its survivors more determined to live. Now I just have to figure out how to translate all of this into my story. So for my own sake and the sake of my writing I am so glad I went to the conference and heard interesting people speak. (And now I have another goal in life: to be one of the panelists.)

In my research for this blog entry, I found the following quote from Dr. Stanton Samenow, author of The Criminal Mind: "The perversion of confession is that you empty the cup of evil so you can fill it up again." That is a topic for a whole 'nother entry, as is the talk Joe Wilson gave at the conference.

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