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 alt.fan.karla-homolka 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?