I'm enjoying the latest Anita Blake book, Dead Ice. Once again, Laurell Hamilton provides me with a trove of topics to think and write about. I am less than 20% into the book, and my mind is already churning. These novels are as much psychological thrillers as paranormal fantasies, and Ms. Hamilton imbues her characters with enough insights to fill several textbooks, although the "education" is delivered in a truly entertaining way. Today's thought experiment is the contemplation of the claim that, "Almost no one is all bad... There are so few true villains, just other screwed-up people who pass the damage on." Hmmmm... Truth or Fantasy? That is the question of the day.
I find that Laurell Hamilton always writes truth. I know she's been criticized (by me, in fact) because her books have become increasingly interior, instead of keeping the action on the outside, where we can read about extreme sex and violence, thanks to the paranormal nature of the genre but there is drama in her exploration of her character’s interior/character. Now, no one should diminish the joy of reading about paranormal-level sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But Laurell Hamilton also explores the psychological ramifications of all that extreme sex and violence. I guess when you've written 28 books about a set of characters, it's impossible to just say, "And then they lived happily ever after." She asks the question, what does it do to her characters when they kill the bad guys and love the good guys? It all leaves its mark, just as it does with humans. And it's those scars that she pokes and prods and exposes to satisfy her readers' curiosity – and provide me with a lot of fodder for blog posts.
Anita Blake is a complicated character; her psyche is a labyrinth. In the interest of addressing the topic du jour, I will oversimplify and simply say that she is an uber-alpha-warrior of the highest order, with extraordinary and varied paranormal superpowers that she acquires as the series progresses.
Anita worries that the evil she combats is rubbing off on her and that she's becoming one of the monsters she hunts. Her loved ones assure her that it's not true and she spends a lot of time trying to reassure herself she has done only what is necessary. It comforts her to think that she only kills bad guys. But, as the series evolves, it gets harder and harder to identify the bad guys and pinpoint, what, exactly, caused them to cross that invisible line from good to evil. It's hard for Anita to hear that there are no true villains, but one of Anita's defining characteristics is her militant insistence on facing unpleasant truths, so she takes this unpalatable fact and tackles it head on.
Because it's true: no one is all good or all bad. The ubiquitous "they" talk about how Hitler loved babies and Himmler loved to dance. These facts humanize our villains, and we don't like that. It is human nature to dehumanize our enemies. In fact, the military does this on purpose, so that soldiers will be able to do their jobs and kill enemy combatants if and when it becomes necessary.
For humans without a personality disorder, killing in cold blood is something that needs to be taught. Killers must be made. Soldiers need to learn to overcome their natural altruistic instincts. One effective way to accomplish this is to erase the shades of grey and leave only the parts that are black or white. I have a friend who used to do that: when someone betrayed or disappointed her, and it was time to move on, whether in romance, friendship or even more professional relationships, she would need to psyche herself up to make the move by demonizing the other person. It was actually hard to watch her take white out (I'm dating myself again here--look it up!) to all the good in a relationship or a person so that all that was left from her viewpoint was the bad stuff. But I understood why she did it, and I never pointed out the incongruity of her new perspective with the love and affection she felt in the past for those who'd fallen from her grace. She has since learned to temper this tendency of hers, but it's still her go-to defense mechanism.
We don't want the people we hate to have understandable reasons/motives for their bad behavior. Blaming them for not having the tools to not ‘pass the damage along’ is so much easier than being compassionate about their inability to break the cycle. I don't want to feel sorry for my tormentor. I don't want to believe they are doing the best they can. This actually begs the question of evil, which is a topic for another post. If those we don't like can be classified as evil, we can be justified in ignoring or actively hurting them back. As Anita Blake would say, it's pretty to think so. But the truth is uglier and more complicated.
I never wanted to understand that my mother's serious deficiencies as a parent weren't her fault. Well-meaning friends and relatives repeatedly told me that she couldn't help herself. But my question was always, "Why not?" Why couldn't she help being an undermining bitch? I do. A narcissist raised me, but I've managed not to pass the damage along. I’ve broken that cycle with my own children. If I can do it, why can't everyone? I know, that is an obnoxious question.
Well, that is the $64,000 question isn’t it? I don’t have the answer, although I've asked the question many times before. I don't think that Laurell Hamilton is trying to suggest that bad guys aren't bad or that they don't deserve to be punished; they are and they do, and Anita is certainly a vehicle of retribution. I think Ms. Hamilton is trying to say something more nuanced; that even the dark can be illuminated to some extent. It's still dark, but the streaks of light make for a more interesting palette. Grey is the color of truth, even in fantasy.