In The Enchanted, several of the main characters are men who committed horrific crimes. They wait on Death Row, for execution.
I’ve been asked how I created characters of such horror and yet humanity. How do we understand the terrible harm someone can commit, and still see them as a person?
Too often, authors writing about violence want to make the criminal The Other. The typical rapist or murderer in literature is depicted as a monster, devoid of any humanity: he is without a soul.
It is a comforting portrayal, because it tells us he cannot be one of us. He cannot be our coach, our pastor, or our brother. We can rest easy, knowing we did not create him: our culture and our society are not to blame. He is a bad seed that fell from a faraway tree. Nothing to worry about, people: Move along.
But there are problems with this approach. By “othering” the criminal we “other” the victim as well. She becomes a bit player in a false story, a device that exists to be hurt: the unfortunate weed that sprang from the bad seed. At best she evokes pity. At worst she is fodder for voyeuristic entertainment, her blood-splattered body the titillation in many a genre novel.
We also induce lethargy. If criminals are unrepentant monsters, incapable of change, then there is no way to prevent them.
But what happens if we try to understand the criminal? What happens if we open our hearts to his truths? We can see the poison. We can see the rage. Such terrible rage. Where does that rage come from?
Those are the questions we begin to ask.
And by asking those questions, we delve into complex and important realities about crime. We grapple with poverty, abuse, and neglect. We ask ourselves about the impact of domestic violence and how a tenderhearted boy becomes a violent man. We wonder why some people survive horrible childhoods and others succumb to hate. We begin to think about racism and oppression. We see the awful cycles of revenge and war in people and nations in a new light. We ponder forgiveness and consider redemption.
Violence stops being a narrative abstract, committed by a fictional boogeyman. It is real. Real people hurt each other.
Real people get hurt.
When we tell the truth of a criminal, we tell the truth of a crime. And when we tell the truth of a crime we begin to understand why it happens, and what can be done to stop it.
That is when we begin to find hope.
Rene Denfeld is the author of The Enchanted (2014), which won a prestigious French Prix award, and was named an Oregonian Best Books of the Year, Powell’s Top 5 Books of the Year, Foyle’s Best Fiction of the Year, and an Indie Next Pick. It was also given a Texas Lariat and ALA Notable Books Award for Excellence in Fiction, and was a finalist for the esteemed Flaherty-Dunnan Prize sponsored by the Center for Fiction. Denfeld lives in Portland, Oregon with her three children, all adopted from foster care. By day she works with men and women facing execution—the inspiration behind The Enchanted.