David McConnell – author of the novels The Silver Hearted and The Firebrat, as well as numerous pieces for the Granta website – has a new nonfiction book out this month called American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men. Patrick Ryan spoke with McConnell about how such a dark topic invaded his psyche, and about how he approached his sources – some of whom are behind bars.
PR: American Honor Killings recreates – in a very compelling, novelistic fashion – six different cases where men have murdered other men. The victims in each case are gay, and the murderers are, for the most part, young. While you’ve written some pieces of journalism and memoir for Granta and for other publications, you’ve been primarily a novelist until now. Where did the idea to embark on a true-crime book come from?
DM: I guess I wanted to do something more urgent than wordsmithing in my mansard. Violence has always loomed large for me as an imaginary thing. But violence is also on our cultural stage in a way it hasn’t been in earlier generations. I wanted to look at the reality, look for the source. I chose the particular crimes I did, because it seemed that if I could put myself in the place of both the killers and the victims, my understanding would be more nearly perfect.
Can you tell us a little about how you went about writing the narratives and how your approach might have changed or evolved along the way?
I started out with a novelist’s overweening confidence. I really believed that understanding the truth of these stories would take an aggressive imagination and ‘talent.’ But I discovered that the powerful sensation of capturing something, of being right, which you experience as a novelist, can be misleading in journalism. Just when everything fit to my artistic satisfaction, I’d learn that I had a key fact wrong. I’d have to start over and describe something in a way other than I’d choose if it were up to me. This is very humbling. But I discovered a different kind of pleasure in it. It may be like a free-form poet trying to write metered or rhyming verse for the first time. The meter was strict accuracy.
I revised quite a bit, but much less than I do ordinarily. There was a built-in plot to these stories, so I didn’t have to worry about any self-conscious tinkering with plausible sequences of events. That can cause novelists the worst doubts. Yet I was occasionally left with unanswerable questions. Why did two killers go to a porn store after a murder? I asked six or seven times and never got a satisfactory answer. But in the end I found even the ambiguity or motivelessness appealing because it was lifelike. Despite revision I think my learning curve is still just perceptible in accounts. The earlier ones, besides being farther in the past, are slightly grainier. My confidence grew as I went along.
In an analytical way, American Honor Killings has more to do with our notions of masculinity than it has to do with the idea of gay panic. And, in fact, you’ve said that you wanted to shift the characterization of crimes such as the ones you write about away from gay panic. Is the ‘gay panic’ defense on the verge of expiring, or has it already? And what’s the danger of using such an umbrella term?
It’s a term that solves the singular mystery of any killing – motive – before you even have a chance to think about it. No wonder defense lawyers love it. But if you’re at all interested in what really goes on in the world, that kind of categorization just isn’t enough. Besides, as I keep insisting, gay panic often isn’t accurate. Of the six cases I write about in detail, several days or more passed between the ‘provocation’ – if there even was a unique precipitating event – and the murder. Can you panic for days or weeks? To me it seems obvious something else is going on. I think the violence exists in the hearts of these men long before the victim comes along.
Let’s look at the case of the Williams Brothers – can you recount that for us briefly?
The two Williams brothers were raised as religious extremists and later tried to start an apocalyptic war in California all by themselves. They terrorized the Sacramento Jewish community with fire-bombings, tried to torch an abortion clinic and finally assassinated two gay men. The older, more domineering, brother harbored smirky delusions that were truly grandiose. His manner was so smug he got in a famous on-air spat with Tom Brokaw, and the California Attorney General wanted to try the case himself just so he could take this kid down.
You write that ‘hate groups, by their nature, can thrive without conspiracies, without organization of any kind.’ That’s a very chilling observation – one that’s arguably more chilling than just the idea that an individual can become worked up into such a state of rage that murder seems a viable act.
What anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin and Paul Brousse described as the
‘propaganda of the deed’ in the 1870s has fired the imagination of the fringe right wing in the internet age. The Williams brothers, or the older brother, Matthew, at any rate, developed a whole incoherent theoretical framework for his crimes. In that, he’s unlike most of the far more personal killers I write about. He resembles Timothy McVeigh or Anders Breivik, though I don’t think he had quite their creepy seriousness of purpose and self-discipline. The point is, they all expected the entire world to fall into line behind them once they got the violence going. That’s the way many so-called ‘hate groups’ seem to work.
Matthew Williams wasn’t gay; his victim was. His crime, you write, was ‘an authentic instance of hatred that can’t be psychologized away – an idea of what’s right, not simple emotion, caused him to kill.’ How does that not make this particular murder not a case of gay panic?
There’s a state of false rationality a lot of these killers get into, and saying that their acts spring from emotion or panic or even simple hate isn’t These were decisions to kill. Not reflexes. sufficient to describe the enormity of what they do. These were decisions to kill. Not reflexes. Matthew and his brother barely knew their two victims. I hunted for any personal connection – for any emotional motive for the crime. One of the victims was maybe – maybe –slightly in-your-face about his sexuality, but Matthew was still only a bare acquaintance of his, and personal offense, even if it contributed, didn’t motivate him to start ‘cleaning up the world’ with his murders and arsons. He had a vision not unlike a politician’s.
Can you tell us a little about the case of Parrish, Rawlings, Hollis and Flythe? These kids identified themselves as a gang, but it’s really more of a club or a team they belong to, and you write, ‘Any team has to have a unified purpose, and certain kinds of individuality ruin that. Destruction of a weak link isn’t destruction at all. It’s fortifying, honourable, sanctioned.’ So is that what happened to Parrish?
This was a heartbreaking case because I can imagine it all turning out differently. These kids – and they were barely out of high school – got it into their heads that their friend, Steven Parrish, was secretly gay. Through some tragic folie a bande and under the influence of a disturbed, charismatic leader, they thought his gayness (unreal it turned out) would somehow weaken and dishonour their group in the eyes of other gangs. All personal feeling was quashed by this crazy misapprehension. On the gang leader’s orders, Steven’s best friend, a kid he’d grown up with and loved, stabbed him fifty times. It was equally Shakespearean and silly. It was a case of ‘would you jump off a bridge?’ but the answer came out, ‘Yes, if my leader orders it and the object is to extinguish all weakness.’
Your book has a very in-depth investigation into the case of Domer, Qualls, and Madden. Darrell Madden was the only person still alive when you started collecting your information. How did you approach him? Was he eager to talk with you, or reluctant?
He was a bit mysterious at first, because he was feeling me out to see whether he could get any money for his story. I had to tell him about the ‘Son of Sam’ laws that prevent criminals from profiting from their stories. In the end he was quite open and, I believe, for the most part truthful. An ex-porn star, he was comfortable talking about himself and even, in a sense, being used. But I had to watch out for his self-dramatizing tendency. As I write in the book, he and I particularly got along, an unnerving experience for me. To this day I get letters from him, as well as from a few other prisoners, with salutations like ‘My friend! How are you today?’ I can always sense the slight, hopeful deliberation with which they’ve chosen to write the word ‘friend.’ I don’t object to it, nor does it really upset me, but it’s strange. For my own part I’d only begin my letters ‘Hey Darrell’, just because I couldn’t bring myself to write ‘Dear Darrell’.
It’s hard not to think of a book like In Cold Blood when reading American Honor Killings. And, in fact, your recreation of the events in each murder has the same kind of narrative pull as Capote’s book. And yet American Honor Killings feels more honest to me. You aren’t afraid to admit when you hit a blind spot in terms of the facts, and you even embrace it in that you make dealing with those blind spots part of the narrative. How did you go about that?
Well, in couple of cases I could go to a living participant in a crucial event, then keep going back with further questions. Each time I’d have to adjust how I was imagining the scene. Journalists are usually content with the skeletal facts, but I wanted to create living scenes so I needed a lot of detail.
But some of that was simply irrecoverable. In the Oklahoma City case, I was especially fixated on how Madden and his accomplice had hijacked their victim, Steve Domer. A normal newspaper account might have left it at ‘the two lured the older man with the promise of sex for pay.’ But I wanted to know how it happened instant by instant. Because I was having trouble getting clear answers from Madden, I just wrote up the scene as I would in a novel, complete with dialogue. Then I sent him the pages, and he sent them back to me covered with annotations. It was by far the most perverse ‘editorial’ experience I’ve ever had, but it was a great way to get information.
You went through many different title ideas and settled on American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men. ‘Honor Killings’ because, as you say, ‘that’s what these crimes resemble’. How are these honour killings?
These killers felt homosexuality – the reality or the mere idea – put their honour as men was at risk. In the Parrish case, it’s fairly clear. You just replace the word ‘family’ with ‘gang’ and the crime matches tribal honour killings fairly closely. In the other cases, the situation is more ambiguous. But I’d say the crimes all primarily involve a diseased sense of self, more than they involve anything like a reaction to another, very different, human being.
Emotion plays a large part in all violence, but I wanted to stress that these crimes have their origin in a perfectly sober world view. Crazy but sober. At a reading recently, someone asked me the very natural question given the savagery of the murders, ‘Were these guys on drugs or on even on serious meds?’ None of them were. These were deranged acts but they were ultimately based on something that’s historically been treated as a social good, the sense of personal honour. ?
American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men by David McConnell is published by