A COUPLE of years ago, Eleanor Wachtel of CBC Radio phoned me to ask if I'd take part in a discussion on cycling paths. After a few seconds I realized I'd misheard -- the topic was actually "psychopaths." I did agree and ill due course the discussion was aired. We talked about the current fascination with serial killers -- The Silence of the Limbs was the movie hit of the day. I mentioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Crime and Punishment, L'Etranger, etc., and said that writers had traditionally taken pleasure in creating psychopathic, or at least psychotic, characters. My co-panelist was a psychiatrist at the Clarke Institute in Toronto who dealt with psychopaths on a daily basis. He said it was curious that in fiction these characters were interesting, whereas the real-life ones were for the most part numbingly boring.
As I read Savage Messiah and Descent into Madness, I remembered that interview. I've never been much attracted to non- fiction hooks about sensational killers -- even quasi-fictions like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I wondered what was the cause of in%, distaste; and what, if anything, a writer of fiction might learn from such books.
Savage Messiah, by Paul Kaihla and Ross Laver (writers for Maclean's), is, as the jacket claims, 'the shocking story of cult leader Rock Theriault and the women who loved him." TheriauIt, a barely educated Man with scholarly pretensions, became Ieader of a religious cult that favoured polygamy. He began his mission ill Quebec and moved to more tolerant Ontario during the 1980s. His most noteworthy characteristics were hypnotic blue eyes, a severe drinking problem, and a perverse hobby - performing surgery on his followers. He particularly enjoyed castrating the males and doing assorted amputations and other major surgical procedures or) his wives. In the court transcripts, these operations are described in horrifying detail by the cult members. Even unsqueamish readers will squeam. This hobby of Theriault's terrified his devotees. A headache might become an excuse for a lobotomy.
Eventually, lie went a little too far. In 1988, lie botched an abdominal operation oil one of his most ardent followers, Solange Boilard, and she died in slow agony. Undeterred, Theriault followed this up with a makeshift amputation of the arm of GabrielIe Lavallee. She eventually made it to a hospital and reluctantly exposed Theriault. In 1993, he was sentenced to life imprisonment (i.e. 10 years). Several of his wives have taken an apartment near the prison and impatiently await the release of their beloved husband and messiah. Descent into Madness, by Vernon
Frolick, a public prosecutor in British Columbia, deals With "the Madness, the murders, the manhunt" of Michael Oros in the mid-1980s. Oros was a draft dodger who'd fled the United States to live in northern British Columbia (Oros too had been a cult member; like Theriault, he loved the wilderness). Ultimately he terrorized an area of bush the size of Great Britain Britain and was suspectud of having killed at least one individual. Descent into Madness combines flashbacks into Oros's past with the drama of his last days, during which the Mounties made an elaborate plan to bring him in. Things went amiss when an RCMP constable, Joseph Buday, was shot by Oros before he himself was gunned down in March 1985.
These two books, though they were certainly not meant to be stylistic masterpieces, are in fact quite well written. The prose is for the most part transparent and serviceable. Both hooks also contain fictional reconstructions of incidents and conversations that are loosely based upon fact; we are admitted, at times, into the minds of the two main characters. Such techniques, once regarded as appropriate only to fiction, allow the authors to make their narrative more dramatic, as well as giving them opportunities to indulge in inventive flights and occasional purple passages.
In the case of Theriault, however, the authors don't have to invent any bizarre and revolting behaviour. They can simply quote from the eyewitness accounts of the horrors be perpetrated. Nor do they over speculate Oil what made the man tick; instead, they foreground his actions.
Frolick's subject, on the other hand, is a man who lived alone in the wilderness. Much of what Oro, did is typical of the kind of thing people do in the hush: they hunt, they fish, they trap, they build cabins. None of this is terribly sensational. Even Oros's killings were done in what seem like traditional ways. It's the inner man Frolick wants to tantalize us with. He leans heavily on a set of diaries that were recovered by the Mounties; in them, Oros reveals himself without reserve. Having such ammunition would seem to be a major advantage for the book. Paradoxically, it turns out to be a heavy burden.
The fact of the matter is that TheriauIt and Oro (in spite of his diaries) are not very interesting -- as characters. Unlike fictional figures, they have no author to control them, to give them motives we can identify with. What becomes clear about Theriault is that when he was drunk he became a monster, and acted like one. Oros, we soon learn, is paranoid schizophrenic. His visions and resultant crimes are caused by chemical imbalances in his brain. These two men have abnormal personalities and make the world suffer accordingly what's interesting about them is how they make the world suffer, not why. Which means the prize goes to Rock Theriault and, by extension, to Savage Messiah. Oros can't compete with him in actions that are egregious and disgusting.
Analogously, I was struck by the resemblance between the therapists who are quoted in these book., and literary critics. Except that for the therapists, it no game. They have the profoundly dangerous task of "interpreting" warped psyches. Should we condemn the experts (as the authors do, a bit self-righteously) for occasionally misreading" TheriauIt and Oros? Those of us educated, in the '60s, on a diet of William Blake and R. D. Laing and Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, will hesitate. Didn't we learn that madness was a kind of wisdom, not a sign of brain damage? Wouldn't we have been quite indulgent towards a visionary (Theriault) who only wanted to lead his followers back to Eden? Wouldn't we have forgiven a few idiosyncrasies on the part of someone (Oros) who could quote Zen koans, compose haiku, and fill his journals with philosophic observations?
All in all, these non-fiction books were quite a change from my usual reading. How refreshing to be able to look at clusters of photographs breaking up the monotony of words, words, words. What call a fiction writer learn from them? Certain useful tidbits of information: how to dissect a body with amateur tooIs; how to survive in the wilderness; how to organize a police search. Truth may be stranger than fiction, butt it's not as satisfying -- witness the emptiness at the core of these real-life characters. I must admit I prefer the way fiction fills the void and makes the world cohere. Now isn't that a very '60s idea?