Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Haunting "I": Self-Singing, Ego-Stroking Rhetoric

In his recent reflections on the late Frank McCourt's influence on American memoir writers, poet, novelist, and critic Jay Parini observes that the memoir has "always been the central form of American literature." As evidence for this sweeping claim, he points to the writings of Governor Bradford (Of Plymouth Plantation), Benjamin Franklin (his "fabulous autobiography"), Henry David Thoreau (Walden), Mary Antin (Promised Land), and Booker T. Washington (Up From Slavery), as well as to "any of a thousand wonderful immigrant memoirs from the 19th and 20th centuries." "[T]his has been our most essential form," he continues, because, in his words, "the United States has always been about singing one's self, as Walt Whitman might say. The individual stands in for society. His or her story is rapidly taken as democratic."

Sometimes, though, this cultural tendency to sing the self is simply ego-stroking masquerading as life writing. Such is the case with Jack Olsen's "I": The Creation of a Serial Killer, the aptly titled, self-promoting, and disturbingly vivid biography of Keith Hunter Jesperson, a.k.a The Happy Face Killer, which I recently read (enough of it, anyway, to get a view of Jesperson that has been haunting me ever since) to get some background for my forthcoming review essay of Melissa G. Moore's Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer's Daughter (which will be active on the other side of this link Monday morning).

The major problem I have with this book isn't necessarily its voyeuristic engagement with Jesperson's psychopathology, its visceral descriptions of his killings, or Olsen's fragmented and journalistic style (of which I am not a fan at all), though these are enough for me to tell you to stay away---far, far away---from the book, unless you're really that interested and just have to know more. No, the most chilling thing about it for me is Jesperson's complete disregard for anyone but himself, a characteristic reflected in his blame-bending, ego-stroking rhetoric. His language (which comes through sections of autobiographical writings layered between sections of Olsen's research-based narrative) refuses compassion and is all about justifying his increasingly twisted "I"---the paradoxically self-loving and self-loathing psychopathology that informs and affirms his animalistic version of the world.

By the time I'd skimmed my way through two-thirds of the book, I was sick of combatting his violent rhetoric, his rhetoric of violence, his ego-infused language, in my attempts to find some common rhetorical ground upon which I could exercise compassion toward him---and I closed the book because his words made me sick and, more so, it made me sick that I couldn't see his humanness struggling beneath those layers and layers of words. Sure, there's struggling involved in his story, though not with any sense of compassion or decency on Jesperson's part, but I'll spare you those strangling details.

In short, through my experience with this text, I caught wind of a rhetoric I don't have the language or the compassion to penetrate and diffuse right now, perhaps ever. And, I must admit, the prospect of this impenetrability, which I see reflected more deeply in Lucifer's persistent "I," has me chilled, at times, to the core.