Archive for June, 2009

What Would YOU do?


Ever heard of the Trolley Problem? I’m not sure who first posed the dilemma but I know it has spawned a ton of cool morality tests that really twist your mind and make you sweat and hope that if you are ever, ever in one of the moral dilemma’s posed, someone will just bonk you on the head instead of making you come up with an answer.

Fun stuff.

So, anyway the Trolley Dilemma goes something like this: Say you are standing near the tracks and you see a trolley coming at you out of control and you know (you know because “they” tell you) that unless you pull the lever in front of you (oh yeah, there’s a lever in front of you) that all the people  (say ten) on the trolley are going to die in a horrible firey crash. 

Easy one, right? You pull the lever.

Now “they” tell you that there’s another person standing in the place that the trolley goes when you pull the lever, who is unaware that they are standing in THE place. Let’s picture a grandmotherly figure standing there with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a big, happy smile.  Now, when you pull the lever to save the ten people, the trolley will jump the track and kill the grandmotherly figure. (The good part is she won’t know what hit her. Okay, I made that part up, she may.)

Now do you pull the lever? Or do you let ten people die because you’re squeamish about squishing grandma?

Part Three: Say, in order to save the ten people and stop the train, you have to actually push the grandmother figure onto the track knowing she will be killed?

Is one life worth ten? Will you feel like a murderer even if you’ve saved ten lives by killing? Or will you feel like a hero with some residual guilt and remorse?

When you’ve thought about your response, read on:

Interestingly enough, most people are okay with pulling the lever and grandma dying indirectly from their action. However, pushing someone to their death, even if it means saving ten people–that’s ten families that will be crushed by losing their loved one–even so, this is not acceptable. Indirect death is okay, but death directly from action is not.

What they’ve found when an MRI machine scanned the brains of people while working out these moral dilemmas is that the first scenario: pulling the level and indirectly killing someone activates the part of the brain used for solving problems and reasoning.  But, the part of the brain that lit up while pondering pushing someone to their death was the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions and how we perceive emotions  in others–empathy.

Take away or damage this part of the brain and you have someone without the ability to feel and without the ability to feel for another person. You have a sociopath. This doesn’t mean that all brain damaged people are sociopaths or that all sociopaths have brain damage, but it does show us that there can be a physical reason for someone without the ability to feel empathy or feel that pushing someone in front of a train is morally wrong, no matter what the reason.

In fact, this test was given to people with damage in this brain region and their answer was to push the person because “logically” sacrificing one life to save ten was the right thing to do. In their mind, pushing grandma is good not evil.

So, how about you? Let’s up the stakes. I know people who say they would never kill another human being. What if one of the people in the trolley was your child or your mother? Would you push the person to their death then? What if the person to be squished by the trolley was your child or mother? Would you let the other ten people die to save them?

What if a person broke into your home and pointed a gun at your child or mother? Would you shoot first?

If you answered no–that you wouldn’t push the person and you wouldn’t shoot first–do you feel that doing nothing, that standing by impassively and causing death–is more morally right than doing something and causing death?

Me? I think I would pull the lever, not push grandma…and shoot first.


Males vs Females

When you think about your favorite authors, who are they–male or female?

I did a little experiment on Crime Space.  I picked 20 random guys and 20 random gals and read their “favorite author” lists. I guess the results shouldn’t be surprising, but still…very interesting for those of us trying to appeal to both genders in our writing.  Here’s the numbers:

Gal readers preference average:  11 female authors/ 2 male authors

Guy readers preference average:  1 female author/  13 male authors

Is this simply because male writers dominate the thriller field, where blood, guns and sex rule? Or is it more than that? Will they simply not pick up a book if they know it’s written by a woman because of expectations?

Guys, please weigh in.  Tell me under what circumstances do you give female writers a chance?


Too Close For Comfort

So, I grew up in a small Pennsylvania town named after a lumberyard. We lived in the woods, basically, on a thinly populated country road with farms and acres of trees.  You’ve been to a place like this right? The kind of town that you get car-sick on the thirty minute ride to the nearest grocery store. Everyone knows everyone, people let their kids ride their bikes the couple miles to a friend’s house. Great place to grow up.

Our road was out of the way so there wasn’t any drive-through traffic. If you were on that road, you lived on it or were visiting someone who lived on it. 

I don’t remember details of the day. I was probably only around nine or ten. I remember the shock, mostly. The confusion. The shift in my world that this ground-shaking news caused. My childhood best friend, who lived a few miles down the street, had lost her older sister the night before. Actually, she wasn’t lost. She had been stolen. Stolen by a serial killer right off of our safe little country road.

Why? I knew that people grew old and died. I knew that people sometimes had accidents and died. But, this I just couldn’t understand. I mean, I really could not understand. Why would someone kill a beautiful, sweet person? She had a family, she had a job and a pet, she had a smile that could light up a room. If you were good and kind, good things happened to you, right? Nope. Apparently really horrible things can happen to very loved people.

Everything was fragile after that in my world. Things were different, things were not how I thought they were. Trust was gone. I felt vulnerable, unsafe, and terribly sad at the heartbreak my friend and her family were suffering through. And why did their family lose her?  There was no old age, no accident. There was only an intentional act that caused unbearable grief and pain. I could not imagine this being the world I lived in. But it was…and is. And I’m still trying to understand.

Fast forward to 1985. I am a junior in high school now living in Palm Bay, Florida. I am blissfully ignorant of the fact that a man  named John Crutchley–a.ka. the vampire rapist–lives about five miles away. In November a girl escapes from his home–nude with her hands and feet handcuffed and missing about 45% of her blood which she watched him drink–and is saved by a stranger who picked her up off the road. He is arrested and is suspected in the murder of over 30 other women, but never convicted. Four of those young women were killed in our county the previous year.

This time, what strikes me is not the shock that a human being could commit such horrifying acts, but that a human being…namely me…could be so oblivious to the world around her that she didn’t know about this until twenty four years later. Another harsh lesson.

Care to share any encounters with the darker side of human nature? I’d love to hear your stories!


Why Serial Killers?

Have you ever told someone what you write about and you suddenly see them kick into flight or fight mode?  Watched them fold their arms protectively around their body and pre-program 911 into their phone? Yeah. I’ve been experiencing this a lot lately since I’ve started focusing my writing on serial killers. So, I’d like to set the record straight up front.

My obsession with writing about violence and serial killers does not stem from a desire to kill you (unless you go 20 mph in front of me and keep tapping your brakes). It doesn’t mean I want to be a serial killer or even want to know one.

It comes from two things:

Remember that stage all two to three year olds go through? The “why” stage? It seems I have never grown out of that. It drives me nuts not to know why something happens the way it does. That’s the main reason I love science and use it a lot in my writing. Science answers questions. Psychology and neuroscience has come a long way in figuring out human behavior, but not far enough.

Research has shown neurological abnormalities in the frontal lobe of a sociopath’s brain.  So, sociopathy is a disease, not a behavorial choice. When an individual born with this type of brain abnormality grows up in an abusive or neglectful environment, they are going to have problems being empathetic, well-adjusted members of society. They just don’t have the right equipment under the hood.

 Or the other side of the argument…that the harsh environment they grew up in caused these abnormal physical changes in their brain. Either way, we know that our brains are capable of structural changes that affect our personalities. Our brains are capable of re-organizing our thought patterns, the way we view ourselves and others. So, here comes the why–

WHY can’t we stop people from growing up to become sociopaths and serial killers? WHY can’t the ones that have already become these things be helped?

Well, I know why, really. We just don’t know enough yet. Some believe these people are just born evil. That’s the easy way out.  I don’t believe in evil so I can’t accept that explanation. I think they were born into unfortunate environments with vulnerable brain structures. They are just extreme ends of other mental illnesses, a matter of degree.

 I realize this is naive. In NOT knowing, I don’t know what’s impossible. Still, I don’t think we should just throw our hands up and say “well, they are just evil, we can’t help them.” Yes, they should be locked up, seperated from society, but we can’t ignore them. We have to learn from them, understand them and figure out how to stop our future children from becoming them.

I am always shocked more by the real news stories I read. Yesterday I read a story about a dad on PCP who ate his little boys eyes. WTF?  You can’t make this kind of stuff up. Nature is cruel. Humans are cruel. Fiction writers are control freaks. 

In real life, murders go unsolved. Killers walk amoung us, free to destroy more lives.

In fiction, murders are solved, killers are caught and justice is served. As a reader, it’s why I read crime fiction. You can call it fiction, but the satisfaction, the sense of relief gained is real.  And it’s priceless in a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control. 

(The second reason–my personal experience with serial killers–will be the next post, so please come back by and thanks for stopping in!)