As a high school teacher, there were many times a student’s behavior would become crystal clear after meeting his parents. I’d run into problems with work ethic or attitude or whatever, and I’d think, “What’s the deal with this kid?” Then I’d meet Mom and/or Dad in a parent conference and immediately realize, “Oh, of course that’s why he [fill in the blank].” It would be some sort of weird mirror image, where son’s classroom surliness was reflected in dad’s obvious displeasure at coming to school for a meeting.
Even so, I never felt this was a question of genetics as much as it was learned behavior. The nature vs. nurture question has always felt sort of beside the point. I mean, it’s obvious to me that while some personality traits are clearly handed down from parent to child (case in point, I have my dad’s social awkwardness and my mom’s passive-aggressiveness – a winning combo!), much of the way we act day-to-day has everything to do with the way we were taught – explicitly or implicitly, by parents and other sources – to make our way in the world. I was taught by my parents to be civil and to err on the side of kindness, and those are two lessons that have served me well. As I grew older, I was able to extrapolate that into an understanding that I should appreciate diversity, keep an open mind, and, above all else, try to remember that not everyone sees the world the way I do. I don’t think I won any kind of genetic lottery; I just know my parents and the way they tried to raise my brother and me.
Some people aren’t so lucky. In one of my other blog experiments, I wrote a review of Werner Herzog’s death penalty documentary, Into the Abyss. It’s an important movie for lots of reasons, but in this review I staked out why I’m against the death penalty, across the board. The biggest reason is this: Even though I absolutely believe we have free will and are wholly responsible for the decisions we make, some people are less capable of making informed decisions thanks to damage that occurred to them in their youth. At some point it feels like we have to admit that some people’s capacity to make the right decision has been fundamentally weakened by forces out of their control. Childhood abuse and neglect. Parents whose own moral compasses are completely out of whack. Homelessness. Drug and alcohol abuse. Kids whose parents are just straight-up garden-variety assholes. Can we really hold everyone to the same standard of decision-making?
Ian Rankin explores this issue for the first time in the tenth book starring Detective Inspector John Rebus. As with most of the books in this series, Dead Souls focuses on two cases that initially seem unrelated but which eventually intertwine in ways that are compelling and inevitable, and in this case both of them touch on the question of how much a criminal’s past is to blame for his present. The more obvious example is Darren Rough, a convicted pedophile (who himself was a victim of sexual abuse as a child living in an orphanage) who served his jail sentence and has now been set free. When Rebus discovers that Rough has been assigned an apartment with a view of a children’s playground, he “outs” Rough to the other tenants with disastrous consequences.
The other case – the focal point of the novel – involves Cary Oakes, a serial killer born in Scotland, imprisoned in the States, and released to his native country on a technicality. In the course of Rebus’ investigation – what does Oakes have planned now that he’s back in Scotland? – the detective learns how the killer’s sense of morality may have been warped beyond repair by external factors over which he had no control.
Rankin being Rankin, there are a panoply of other features with which Rebus has to contend: a third case involving the missing adult son of two of Rebus’ childhood friends; a fling with an old high school flame; thinly-veiled criticism of the 1% (fifteen years before it was popular); the fallout from his daughter’s near-death experience in the previous book; the responsibility of the media not to turn killers into celebrities; and so on. It’s a little busy. But somehow Rankin keeps all the plates spinning, even while he attempts to explore larger issues of morality.
It feels a little overdue for Rebus to suddenly stumble across the realization that – hey! – maybe people’s lousy childhoods have an irrevocable effect on their adult lives. But when the results are this good, better late, as they say, than never.
David Kilgour and The Heavy 8’s – End Times Undone (2014)