Denying the Killer Inside Us

11/23/2011 06:05 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2012

I was asked if I feared alienating my audience with the depiction of violence in my latest novel. I was surprised because I had gone through pains to minimize the actual depiction of violent acts. A novel about a real-life group of notorious teenage terrorists who rampaged through Indian Territory at the turn of the century naturally includes violence in significant quantities. However, I took pains to minimize description of the acts. Instead, I focused on the perpetrators' motivations and the victims' reactions. To my surprise, though, far from minimizing the impact of the violence, this seems to have heightened it.

I've learned that it's not fictional violence itself that shocks us. That's usually no big deal. We play unbelievably violent video games and watch a steady stream of shootings, stabbings, rapes, beatings, impalements and traumatic dismemberments via TV, DVD and film. But most of this is faux-violence. It's violence devoid of effect. It rarely asks that we feel the victim's pain. Just as importantly, it rarely asks that we comprehend the rage and hate that precipitate the violence. We're allowed to keep our playful, comfortable distance. This type of violence asks neither that we consider the horror of the act itself, nor the horrors that can beget it. All the blood and flesh is just so much stage paint -- a mere plot point.

There is no judgment here; such depictions of violence are dramatically valuable. They have served me well in the past. But my goal here was different. To understand acts of violence and draw from them pity and terror, the audience must feel it. Not the sting of the blade or the bludgeon of the bullet; but the assault on the self and the senses that is such an act. You have to touch the live wire of the victim's torment and the perpetrator's rage. I needed an audience to understand why the central character did what he did, even as they felt the crushing pain that his acts caused his victims.

On a readers' social networking site, one commenter offered, "to say that I like (this book) would be to condone the actions of the various characters -- which I refuse to do." At first, the comment shocked me. I had never associated liking The Killer Inside Me, with condoning its characters' actions. Then I realized that this comment only made sense if the reader felt a measure of unwelcome empathy for the perpetrators of the horrible acts from which she sought to distance herself. It meant that she felt indicted by her own potential for empathy for people committing acts considered monstrous. To this reader, empathizing with those who commit butchery -- to put herself in their shoes -- is to "condone" their acts. It's the same fallacy played out politically at each terrorist attack. If you examine the circumstances that led to the attack, you're vilified as 'excusing' terrorist actions. In fact, you are... examining the circumstances that led to the attack. If, from that examination, you discover that you, too, faced with similar circumstances, might resort to violence, or at least lust after it, you're forced to face the potential killer inside you.

That is the real alienation risk for the writer -- that in an age when most of our media lovingly pet our conceptions of ourselves, audiences will not accept work that makes them question their own morality and their own purity.

It's not about the violence. The violence doesn't alienate an audience. It's about our visions of ourselves. Violence we have no problem with. We prove that daily as we ignore our various wars, cheer waterboarding during televised debates and minimize the horror of nuclear devastation. We accept violence; we just also hypocritically deny our capacity to inflict it. If a book challenges that hypocrisy, it will be tagged as "alienating." On the other hand, reinforce the audience's vision of itself as pure, and it's just good old-fashioned, red-blooded American gore -- the good kind -- the kind we love to watch.

When I'm challenged on the violence in the novel, I've learned it's less about the violence per se and more about forcing the audience to question their own purity, and capacity for what's considered evil.

Do that, and you risk alienating those who fear facing the potential for violence in themselves.