Not long after Adam Lanza killed 26 people at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, Princeton professor Christy Wampole contributed to the New York Times an essay called “Guns and the Decline of the Young Man.” She argued that two previously valued social identities—whiteness and maleness—are on the wane, and what we’re seeing in incidents like the one in Newtown is a sort of death rattle. “Young men—and young white men in particular—have increasingly been asked to yield what they’d believed was securely theirs,” Wampole wrote. And they’re lashing out.
In response she suggested “empathy,” but in a peculiar way. Wampole, a professor of French, had recently published in the Times an argument against irony, constructed on what seemed to be a rigorous misunderstanding of the concept. Here she presented irony undiluted, arguing that society should make room for the feelings of the other, in this case the white man; not incidentally the social symbol from whom other others—women, people of color—had been making similar demands forever. We’d need to develop curricula, Wampole suggested, responsive to the emotional needs of the men whose social anomie was best expressed in mass murder.
This was ridiculous, but there was a basic empirical point: that men, and therefore masculinity, could be implicated in so many shootings. That relates to the point David McConnell makes in a new book, which at first glance could be easily as facile. Consider its title: American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men (Akashic Books). Consider the lonely man on its cover, facing away from the camera, into the gloom.
If there’s a thesis, I can’t detect it—and that’s the remarkable, even heroic, thing about it. The author of two previous novels, McConnell is interested not in making broad claims but in telling stories about how and where masculinity expresses itself as murderous violence. Contra Christy Wampole, he writes, “Straight men, who really are socially powerful, have been accustomed to a veil of discretion when it comes to the truth about their private selves, their weaknesses, anatomy, fears, silliness.” But theirs are stories too, and McConnell tells a number of them. Some you’ve heard: about the killing of Billy Jack Gaither, for instance, who was gay; or the famous Jenny Jones case, in which a gay man went on TV to confess an attraction to a male friend, who afterward killed him. This last tale actually constitutes part of the book’s introduction: McConnell hasn’t really told us the why before he starts in with the what.
So this is more of a meditation, shorter on analysis than it is on simple thoughtfulness—indeed, on empathy. McConnell writes about six situations in which both murderers and victims were men. Where possible he interviews the killers in prison; in one case, which bears shades of Truman Capote, he professes admiration for Darrell Madden, a smart, articulate inmate whom McConnell calls “the rare double agent that ‘gay panic’ stories seem to beg for”: a gay porn actor turned skinhead who, with a friend, posed as a sex worker to lure and kill a gay man.
Some of McConnell’s harshest opinions are for the media coverage of these occasionally high-profile cases. Another of his subjects, Benjamin Matthew Williams, torched three California synagogues and killed a gay couple before being caught. In jail he became “the demonic darling of reporters,” McConnell writes. “No matter how silly, contemptible, or emotionally disconnected, everything he said was treated with gravity.”
One of Billy Jack Gaither’s killers is interviewed by “garish” Connie Chung, and later becomes the subject of media speculation about his own sexuality (from prison, he tells McConnell he’s “bisexual,” but it’s more complicated than that). McConnell disdains the easy “gay panic” narratives seized on by the media, and you notice a trope emerging: where gay panic was once the province of defense lawyers, it’s now, in a more punitive way, the media’s—no less reductive, though, and no less pathologizing.
McConnell can veer, from time to time, toward the woo-woo. He warns us in the introduction, when he details his methodology but notes that, where appropriate, he’ll try to imagine what his subjects were thinking. Discussing the crime spree Benjamin Matthew Williams went on with his brother, McConnell writes, “My hunch is that Matthew would have taken the lead throughout.” This isn’t very helpful. The author gets more mileage from his (you don’t say) empathetic tendencies in one exquisitely weird scene in prison. He’s interviewing Darrell Madden: “I made up a hypothetical exchange—hustler and john—just a few remarks, which I showed Darrell.” Madden edits the script; he tells McConnell things McConnell literally couldn’t have imagined about the dialogue that transpired between Madden and his eventual victim. That’s not the only strange thing about this story: it’s told backwards, starting with the aftermath of the crime and ending somewhere prior to it, when Madden lived in LA and worked in gay porn.
Like Capote, McConnell blurs the lines of fiction and nonfiction. But only aesthetically—I don’t mean to suggest that McConnell embroidered his work, as Capote is thought to have done with In Cold Blood. McConnell thinks of facts in terms of form, like there’s something to be gained from telling violence as stories, though he won’t tell us what. He writes: “Sometimes a splendid pointlessness floods imagined constructs like stories. Nothing ends the right way. We just back off.” McConnell backs off of his readers here; he won’t tell us what to think. We’ll take from this book what we will.