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The devil is in the deviant details

The last two days I’ve been following the sentencing hearing of Colonel Russell Williams. (For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Col. Williams was commander of Canada’s largest military base. About two years ago he started breaking into homes in his neighbourhood(s) and stealing the underwear of women and girls. He took photographs of the underwear, and also of himself wearing it, in the bedrooms of these women and girls. He also took pictures of himself masturbating there. He meticulously documented and catalogued everything. His pattern of behaviour escalated: he started breaking into houses naked, then naked while the women were home (in the shower, for example). Later, he started sexually assaulting women. Ultimately, he murdered one woman in her home, and then kidnapped another woman and murdered her in his home. He videotaped the rapes and murders. Then he was caught. He confessed. He pleaded guilty. His sentencing hearing is now underway in a courtroom in Belleville, Ontario.

I’ve been following the hearing on Twitter. Meghan Hurley, the Ottawa Citizen’s crime reporter, is live-tweeting from the courtroom, along with a number of other journalists. Hurley captures and relays the evidence being presented, as well as details she observes in the courtroom, in an ongoing series of 140-character-or-less tweets.

Now here’s the thing. The last two days of evidence have involved a fair amount of graphic detail. Hurley reported much of it, but sometimes she said something was too graphic or disturbing to report. Whenever she did that, I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly was being held back.

Meanwhile, I was seeing all kinds of tweets that other people were shutting down Twitter or no longer ‘following’ Hurley (and the other reporters) because they found it too disturbing to read the gory details.

So I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me for being so interested in the gory details, especially the omitted ones.

I do tend to be a little morbidly curious at times. I’m reading a book called Stiff right now – it’s about cadavers. And I was fascinated by the Jim Jones cult suicides in 1978, when 900 people killed themselves on command, by drinking the poisoned kool-aid. No detail was too gory for me. Despite the publicity ban on the Homolka/Bernardo trials back in 1993, I was one of those ghoulish people who accessed the forbidden details on the group on a foreign server. If there’s an editor’s note urging discretion before viewing ‘disturbing’ material, I always look.

Why is deviance so compelling? There are so many aspects to deviance which fascinate me. The psychological and sociological and cultural dimensions of deviance. I want to know if the deviant escalation of individuals also applies to societies. In other words, does a society become increasingly deviant over time, the same way a deviant individual might? I want to know just how deviant deviance can get, which is where the gory details come in.

(I have no interest in horror movies, by the way. Just reality.)

It’s not that I’m insensitive. If I were sitting in that courtroom with Meghan Hurley and the victims’ families and the colonel, I’d probably be sobbing throughout it all. But here, on my couch, watching the gory details emerge on my Twitter feed, I’m okay. I just want to know more. I just want to try to understand why the Colonel became what he became.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if it’s deviant to be this interested. Or is it just human nature?

18 comments to The devil is in the deviant details

  • MoS

    What sentient person in Canada do you think is “unfamiliar with the case”? Yes, you are morbidly curious and your appetite for every detail of this man’s crimes may well be something you should discuss with a counsellor.

  • SM

    I don’t think that it is deviant. On the contrary, I think that shutting our minds to the far corners of what human behavior includes is a big mistake. As a group, we deny acknowledging over half of behaviors. We invent new language to disguise some of our most basic deviant behaviors, calling lying “spin”, calling starvation of homelessness “inadequate support systems”. We hide our sexual behaviors from our families and children, with a big wall between sexuality and nearly every other relationship we have. Here, we call Williams a monster, when no, he is a human male, pretty unusual but by no means unique. Lets steel ourselves to hear what he has done. I DO want the chance to prepare myself though. I don’t want to sit down to dinner, forget to turn off the TV before I do, and hear wildly nauseating details. He is human, and so am I. This is not some supernatural demon that we can pretend has nothing to do with us. This is part and parcel of the broad spectrum of what humans are.

  • Human behavior is fascinating, and the more extreme, the more fascinating. It takes a brave person not to look away.

    On a secondary note, I watch NFL football and recently the announcers have referred to players who “drink the KoolAid”. I assume this is another way of saying they buy into whatever the coach is asking of them, but the analogy disturbs me.

  • I think you are very, very brave to write this.

    I too wonder about this kind of thing, about what makes someone become this way, about how they evolve and how we as a society evolve along with it.

  • I think it’s like how when you pass an accident, everyone has to take a look. I too have been following the case closely (I blame my mother who has a fascination with all those A&E murder shows) and at times, I’ve had a horrible sick feeling in my stomach reading it – but I keep reading it.
    Curiosity is human nature – I think some people just have a higher tolerance for what is “too much” – like a gag reflex or higher pain tolerance.

  • Em

    Great post. I’ve always been very similarly interested in these things, and it motivated me to get an MA in forensic psychology and aimed me on my current career path with law enforcement & behavioural sciences.
    Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being interested in sensational cases like this. Especially the Williams’ case, which is very unusual AND so local. Unless you are seeking and using the information to fuel a (problematic) fetish of your own, or it is inspiring/compelling you to commit similar crimes, it is ultimately just an “interest”. Everyone is interested in something – this topic just happens to be a bit taboo.

  • I think you answered your own question: “I just want to try to understand why…

    That’s the initial bait. That and the disquieting fact that someone capable of what he’s done would seem so appallingly average that you’d barely notice him if you passed him in a mall.

    What may set the hook is that no real understanding is possible. Even if you persist, it’s kind of like trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Variants on the fact that something hidden in the man’s mind is horribly, evilly wrong may be as far as anybody can get.

  • Our society sanitizes everything into statistics and simple terms like “sexual assault” can mean a slap on the ass or being raped multiple times and in multiple orifices.

    I want to understand why we do that even more than I want to understand the deviance.

    Sometimes I do have a morbid curiosity about the details in these cases (I’m avoiding the Williams case details about the murders though) and I have it because I’m always trying to figure out where I fit in those bland faceless statistics. I’ve hurt myself very badly by using the statistics to show there’s nothing unusual or deviant about things I’ve experienced. Like the societal stats made it okay and made it silly for me to continue being haunted by them.

    I don’t want to be anonymous, a number in a row of numbers. I want to be a person and my experiences revealed and remembered for what they were.

    So when I don’t turn away from the details, and I know that is a very uncomfortable thing for others, but for me it lets me honour the individual and their hurt and offer all the support I can. I can’t “connect” with a statistic. I can with a person.

  • Some people need to know the details and others need NOT to know. I’m with you in the first camp Zoom. And Stiff is a great book.

  • I share this morbid curiousity (and Stiff is one of my favourite books – Mary Roach is a gem – I can suggest others like it, if you’d like). I think it’s what lead me to my degree in psychology, and what made me love psychopathology and criminology. Deviant behaviour is wildly interesting, and I think the fact that we find it interesting makes us totally normal. I somehow doubt that true deviants think they’re doing anything out of the ordinary, or they wouldn’t do it.

  • Joanna

    How can a horrific story be told without horrific details?

    Filter and sanitize it? No, I would not like anybody to decide that I need to be spared from experiencing the human nature at its worst, if I choose to look it straight in the eye.

  • Maria

    I have been having a difficult time putting my interest in this type of crime/behaviour into words. Very well said!

    Have you seen the videos of his confession? There are currently only two parts. These videos of his confession are something else altogether……. a man possessed no doubt, two entirely different people right there before our very eyes. No wonder psychologists and profilers are so intrigued by him.

  • Maria

    The following is a quick article that I thought you might find interesting… I did in reference to the whole family scenario.

    There was also another but I can’t seem to locate now in regards to how he is attached to inanimate objects…. and that even in his letter to his wife he references his cat (not a human)…. he is concerned for his wife and her dream home (again not a human). It explained how that part of him coupled with his OCD could result in what we have heard… keep in mind it wasn’t completely thorough as the profiler had never personally spoken with Williams. I will try to find that article it was a good one.

  • Abnormal psychology is definitely interesting. Maybe it is because of how it lets us draw comparisons: between society at large and the ‘deviant’ individual, between that individual and ourselves, etc.

    When confronted with a mass of similar people, it is difficult to establish the limits of what human beings can be like. Nobody in a group of normal people will have the talent of Mozart – or the viciousness of Jack the Ripper. By examining extreme examples of personalities and behaviours, we can establish the full scale of human capabilities, and thus develop a better sense of where everybody falls on it.

  • Well said. I’m another who wants all the details. What I know is a lot less scary than what I don’t know…

  • Here’s a question for you Zoom, a friend’s SIL was one of the break in victims who didn’t know she’d been broken in to. If you were her after the police informed you would you want to know exactly what happened in your home or not? WHn its personal, would you want to know?

    I would. My imagnation could create worse scenarios than any reality.

  • MoS – I included the synopsis because not everybody who reads my blog lives in Canada. As for discussing my morbid curiosity with a counselor, I don’t think I’ll make a special trip. :)

    SM – I agree, nobody should be subjected to hearing it without consent or a chance to steel themselves. Also, I think we need to try to understand why this kind of deviance occurs, because I don’t think it evolves in a vacuum. There’s a context. What factors come together to trigger it? Is it preventable? Can it be channeled into more acceptable outlets? (There are certain professions, for example, in which sociopaths excel. They meet their needs without ever committing crimes.) (I would have thought a military career might be one, but maybe after a few decades it no longer satisfied his needs.)

    Abby, yes, extreme human behaviour is fascinating. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.

    Livefrom161, thank you. I wonder if Williams has any more insight into why he did this than the rest of us have. It must be so strange to feel compelled to do something you know is wrong, and which will destroy lives, including your own, but to have no idea why you want to do it.

    Valerie, yes, it’s the same impulse that makes us look at accidents as we pass by. (Interesting what you say about different people’s thresholds for this kind of thing – I averted my eyes from the Pickton case. For some reason, I didn’t want to know the gruesome details of that one.)

    Em, yes, that’s how I feel too. It’s local and it’s very, very unusual. He achieved so much success and power legitimately, yet for some reason it wasn’t enough. I can’t help but wonder why not.

    Coyote, you might be right that it’s unknowable. But the fact is, there IS a reason (or a set of reasons) why he became what he became, why he did what he did, even if we don’t know those reasons. Knowing them might make the world a better place, ultimately.

    Mudmama, I can understand why once you’ve found your voice, you would not want to be made invisible by anonymity or statistics or euphemisms.

    As for sanitizing the language and the suffering…I know this is going to sound odd, but I believe it was originally done precisely to protect rape victims. The term “rape” carried such stigma, that often women wouldn’t report it. Or sometimes a sexual assault might not legally meet the definition of “rape” even though it was clearly a grievous sexual assault. For these reasons, the definition was broadened and the term “sexual assault” was used to encompass the whole spectrum.

    Nursemyra, I just finished Stiff. I loved it.

    Meagan, that’s an interesting idea – that if true deviants thought they were doing anything out of the ordinary, they wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I agree. I think they’re drawn to behaving deviantly precisely because it *is* deviant. For example, I think if our society believed eating chicken livers was deviant, some people would feel compelled to eat chicken livers for the very reason that it’s taboo. Of course then you have to consider the relativity of deviance. Not all deviance is bad. I think society needs a certain amount of deviance in order to keep growing. Political and intellectual deviance is often a very good thing.

    Joanna, I agree with you, it doesn’t need to be filtered and sanitized for me. (However, I do agree with the court’s decision not to show the actual videotapes of the rapes and murders in the courtroom. It would have been an unnecessary invasion of the victims’ privacy.)

    Maria, thanks for that. I did watch the videos of his confession. The long silences were interesting, like he was contemplating his next move in a game of chess he was losing. (I’ll go read your article after I finish this. It sounds interesting.)

    Milan, also – deviants patrol the boundaries of normalcy for the rest of us. We need people to step over the line, just so we’ll all know where normal ends and deviance begins. It’s a line that shifts too, over time and across cultures, so it needs to be repeatedly drawn, tested, re-tested, and re-drawn. (Although in the colonel’s case, he stepped so far over the line that this doesn’t really apply.)

    Gayle, excellent point.

    Mudmama, I would definitely want to know. Not knowing – and imagining the worst – would be more horrifying.

  • Don’t live in Canada, so hadn’t heard about this one. I, too, find it fascinating – but only up to a point. He started out being just a little quirky, but slowly progressed to being downright scary. I don’t like the scary bits (I prefer to pretend things like that don’t happen), but up to a point, it’s almost entertaining. You do have to wonder: does everyone have the potential to go THAT FAR.