Thursday, September 6, 2012

Seeing Dead People

Elizabeth Zelvin

The opening session at Killer Nashville, and certainly one of the high points of the mystery conference, was “The Rocket’s Red Glare: Putting the Pieces Back Together after a Fireworks Factory Explosion.” The presenter was Dr. Bill Bass, a noted forensic anthropologist and creator of the Body Farm, otherwise known as the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Dr. Bass, with co-writer Jon Jefferson, is bestselling author Jefferson Bass. Their novel, The Body Farm, was the basis of the TV series of the same name.

The session’s listing on the Killer Nashville schedule included the following: “WARNING: very graphic slides – not for the faint of heart (or stomach).” On the other hand, Dr. Bass, an experienced public speaker who is both informative and entertaining, assured the audience that within minutes of beginning his talk, he guaranteed to have us laughing. Mystery readers know that law enforcement and other professionals who deal routinely with death often use humor to distance themselves from what to the uninitiated appears shocking and even, literally, sickening. Mystery writers tend to fall somewhere between the two. We write and talk with ghoulish relish of body counts and ingenious ways to kill people. But we’re not so sure we would react as heroically as our fictional protagonists if confronted in real life with violent death.

Dr. Bass’s talk was not the first I have attended since becoming a mystery writer at which photos of the victims were shown. I believe the photos taken by the murderer that a forensic psychologist displayed at a meeting of the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime a year or two back were the work of Jeffrey Dahmer. But a quick pass on Google indicates that he was only one of several serial killers who used a camera on his victims. And back in 2003, at a Sisters in Crime conference, a speaker from the New York Medical Examiner’s office—without warning his audience beforehand—showed at least one slide of someone falling from on of the World Trade towers on 911.

These experiences create a moral dilemma for me, and perhaps for other mystery writers who attend such events. What do my reactions reveal about how I prioritize my values? Which matters more, compassion or authenticity? Would I rather be cool like a person who can handle time in the trenches (at least the visual trenches) or repulsed and distressed like a normal person? Do I in fact have any control over my reactions? And what is the responsibility of the presenter to the audience?

I admit that during Dr. Bass’s talk, I wanted to prove to myself that I had enough stoicism to be able to look—if only briefly—at the slides. The bodies of the twelve people who died in the explosion at an illegal fireworks factory were coated in silver nitrate from the blast, a circumstance that allowed the eye to gloss over some of the extreme damage to the bodies, many of which had lost heads and limbs. I looked quickly at and then away from the serial killer photos, if I remember correctly. And I still resent the 2003 presenter who forced into my mind the indelible image of a New Yorker plunging to his or her death, after I had deliberately avoided such images on and after 911 itself, until the time of the presentation.

Mystery writers talk a lot about “getting it right,” and we do consider it a matter of integrity to present a more accurate picture of death, law enforcement, and forensics than the notorious CSI and other TV shows. I’ve heard enough talks and seen enough pictures to know that the carelessly sprawled limbs of the violently dead have no resemblance to the gracefully posed faux dead in plays and movies, on TV, and in paintings and other forms of art. This very carelessness, the indignity of violent death, arouses my compassion and encourages me to write about murder with an empathy that goes deeper than the entertainment value of a mystery.


Sheila Connolly said...

If you watch enough episodes of Bones and CSI and even NCIS, you've probably seen almost every possible indignity forced upon a human body (or at least a replica of the results). Should that make us blase about it? Or are we protecting ourselves by saying, oh, it's only a fake?

I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that graphic depictions like this, while shocking and potentially offensive, exist to serve the goal of identifying and finding a killer--serving justice. Gore and decomp should not be purely gratuitous.

Sandra Parshall said...

Most writers present a sanitized picture of death. Only a few will go all the way. I don't think we have to describe every little detail, but we have to include enough to make an impression on the reader. A human being has died, murdered by another human being. That's important. The conventions of the subgenre place restrictions on the writer, of course. You won't see much blood and gore in a cozy, and you might see more than you want to see in a dark thriller.

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