A baby. Any baby. Tiny, defenceless, a personality in waiting, formed by love, school, security? Or is the future imprinted here already, determined by genes, the day of the week she is born, the set of the constellations or what mother ate in pregnancy? Is character set into flesh and blood before, during or after birth?
Thousands of people before me have asked the question: is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are, who we will become? And if it turns out that we are bad, or mad, could we have been saved? Somewhere along the line of our lives, maybe there was a time or a person who might have changed the course of history.
I don’t believe it’s possible to be inhabited by an evil spirit and forced to do wicked things, but even in this enlightened age there are those that do believe it. Casting out devils has not gone completely out of fashion even in the so-called civilised world. For some, this is the answer: the devil has squeezed inside and squashed conscience and morality, so bring on bell, book and candle and make with the exorcism.
Some years ago, it was my privilege to work for the Probation Service. I met several murderers out on life licence. One or two I got to know quite well.
The first time I came across a murderer, I was understandably concerned. My colleague told me not to worry. She said most people who killed, killed just once, usually a relative. They were sad rather than bad. She proved to be right. That first man was sad indeed. He had killed his wife in a fit of rage and alcohol and lived to regret it. The next one had killed an old lady by mistake. He meant to kill his wife and when I met her, I could almost understand why. In each and every case of those I grew to know, remorse was uppermost in their minds. Remorse and shame and waste, for the life they had taken and for the life they could no longer expect to lead. And each had killed from a combination of depression, frustration and anger.
I believe everyone has that capacity to snap, given the right circumstances. There but for the grace of God…. and all that. It’s easy to deny that, from a comfortable, middle-class, money in the bank, credit available, loving home of family and children. But it takes very little to rock that world. Take away the job, pop in an illness, add some exterior stress, like an unavoidable bully. Now give the house a structural defect. Employ a rogue builder who takes your money and leaves the building worse. Drink too much and crash the car… Yes, I’m building a plot line here, you’re reading soap opera based on wretched excess, but it’s often not far from what makes that snapping point.
As writers, we watch our characters grow beneath our hands and on the page. We name the baddie, give him a possible situation and allow him free rein to deliver the plot. Likewise with the hero. He begins with a few ideas and makes the right choices throughout our story to win through and save the day.
I’m glad to say I never met a serial killer, nor someone who would go to a school and fire on defenseless children. I have no idea what provokes that sort of response.
But I do wonder about the sort of society we live in that would breed such behaviour. I don’t just mean guns, though I’m pleased I live this side of the Pond where they are fewer, but the violence on screens, both large and pocket-sized. Can children really differentiate between the death they cause with a button and real killings? Have we hardened their hearts and anaesthetised their minds through role play?
Role play enables learning in many situations. Why not through computer games and television?
Or is this sort of behaviour totally unpreventable: a case of nature versus nurture? Are they evil or insane?