With every high profile murder one expects to read somewhere in the news accounts some rattled neighbor saying the suspected killer was “a quiet man who kept to himself.” In fact, the whole neighborhood figured the suspect was a ticking time bomb as evidenced by the way he minded his own business, never played his stereo too loud, and was disinclined to comment on the weather.
Just take this headline from a recent issue of the Hartford Courant: “Stephen Morgan: From Quiet Loner To Accused Killer.” Morgan, as you no doubt have heard, allegedly slayed Wesleyan University junior Johanna Justin-Jinich on May 6. The subtext seems to be if Morgan had gotten out more, schmoozed a little, learned the fine art of small talk, if only he had been more of a “playa,” he would be a candidate for Time’s Man of the Year and not the FBI’s Most Wanted.
Why is it we seem to notice only the fact that office shooters and homicidal maniacs are quiet and keep to themselves? What is it about these personality traits that so unnerves the populace? The rattled neighbors never seem to mention, for instance, that the alleged killer tended to wear sandals with socks, enjoyed Harry Belafonte records, refused to water his lawn, or drove a Pinto. It is only his supposed anti-social behavior they notice, that is, his taciturnity and shyness. He may own a large collection of chainsaws, and sport hockey masks off-season, but it is only his bashfulness that is attention-grabbing.
History books are riddled with harmless, unindicted men of genius who were not constantly inviting the neighbors over for barbecue and brewskis. One wonders if Henry David Thoreau’s neighbors in Concord considered him the Victorian equivalent of The Unabomber, particularly when they overheard him muttering things like: “I never found the companion so companionable as solitude.” Nathaniel Hawthorne spent his best years alone in garret composing tales about witches and pilgrims and no doubt terrifying his neighbors with his close approximation. (“I had very few acquaintances in Salem,” Hawthorne said, “and during the nine or ten years that I spent there, in this solitary way, I doubt whether so much as twenty people in the town were aware of my existence.”) The same can be said for Kant, Kafka, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and countless other intellectuals who kept mainly to themselves. Emerson called solitude the stern friend of genius, and the bachelor Voltaire, certainly no solitary man, told Frederick the Great that “the happiest of all lives is a busy solitude.”
On the other hand, I could come up with hundreds or thousands of homicidal maniacs who were anything but quiet and who seldom kept to themselves. Jesse James was rowdy. Charlie Manson charismatic. Al Capone a celebrity. I remember reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Of the two killers in that book, only one (Perry Smith) might be called moody or somewhat introverted. The other, Dick Hickock, was a high-living, woman-loving rambler. Few homicidal maniacs were creepier than John Wayne Gacy, and yet here is how Gacy is described by his biographer Martin Gilman Wolcott: “John Wayne Gacy was never a loner, never someone who kept a low profile and lived a secluded, quiet life.” Take a quick glance at the FBI’s Top Ten List and near the top (after Usama bin Laden) one finds Jason Derek Brown, wanted for murdering an armored car guard. Does Brown sound like a quiet man who keeps to himself to you?
Brown speaks fluent French and has a Masters Degree in International Business. He is an avid golfer, snowboarder, skier, and dirt biker. Brown enjoys being the center of attention and has been known to frequent nightclubs where he enjoys showing off his high-priced vehicles, boats, and other toys. He has been described as possibly having bisexual tendencies. Brown has ties to California, Arizona, and Utah. In the past, he has traveled to France and Mexico.
And yet being a quiet man who keeps to himself remains the scariest label you can pin on a young or middle-aged man — especially if he is a bachelor — and that is unfair. Most murder victims, we know, are acquainted with their attacker. Many times it is a crazed husband who butchers his wife. Or the wife who poisons her husband’s chowder. Doubtless the reason it took police nearly two decades to apprehend Dennis Rader, the notorious BTK Killer, was that they were looking for a quiet man who kept to himself and not a husband and father who was a cub scout leader, actively involved in local government, and president of his Lutheran church’s Congregation Council.
Sadly the suspicion automatically attached to quiet men who keep to themselves will not be undone by a single contrarian essay; the bias is too deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious. Perhaps what is needed is a campaign to raise awareness. I propose a Rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps on a National Day for Persecuted Quiet Men Who Keep to Themselves. The only question is, will anyone attend?
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