The lady and I recently watched Netflix’s The Staircase, a docu-series about the novelist Michael Peterson who was charged with murdering his wife in 2001. Similar to Making a Murderer, it’s another fascinating investigation of the American justice system. I highly recommend both of them.
A bit of a disclaimer, though: these are not mystery stories. They are not about whether the suspects did or did not murder the victim (I realize the marketing image I chose to plop down to the right of these words poses that very question, but it’s the most compelling way Netflix could find to sell you on it).
These docu-series put the American justice system on full display, exposing its flaws. They will make you question your faith in the fundamental tenet of American justice that a defendant should be considered innocent until proven guilty, and they will make you question our very humanity, especially given the context of the cruel times in which we live. If you watch them, they will anger and sadden you because the reality they portray is not one we confront often, or maybe because it’s one which we are increasingly forced to come to terms with.
That’s all I will write about those series here. Don’t worry. There aren’t any spoilers except to tell you neither of these stories will satisfy your need to know the answer to the mysteries.
However, there is an element to Michael Peterson’s case that angered me in particular.
In one of the Staircase episodes, the sisters of Kathleen Peterson (the victim) are rummaging through Michael’s writing. They are looking for passages he wrote that might suggest a hidden persona or darkness within him.
They are trying to interpret literature when they can’t even demonstrate an understanding of what literature even is.
Of all the injustices the series puts on display, this one cut me deeply. Certainly, the corruption within law enforcement, the bad science, the sickening ambition of prosecutors, and the naivety and narrow-mindedness of people who serve on juries are all incredible.
But one of the hardest obstacles to overcome for me as a writer of dark fiction is the anxiety of what people will think if they read my work. Will they be concerned? Will they think I’m a psycho? Will they think I am sick? Will my mother look at me differently? Will my father be disappointed?
Will someone someday use my writing against me?
I think most people misunderstand a fundamental tenet of storytelling and writing fiction, and I think it comes from a place of innocent ignorance. I think people who aren’t writers and who try to imagine what it takes to write believe the ideas we use come from within us and that our writing must be a reflection of pieces of our own psyche.
Of course, in some cases, to varying degrees, that is potentially and partially true.
However, for the most part, we’re not writing about the darkness in ourselves. Perhaps, when we’re young and still new to writing, that is more true than we’re willing to admit; however, I firmly believe, as we mature as writers, our focus turns outward, and we instead write about the darkness we see in the world. The world is a messed up place, and we are trying to investigate it, understand it, and communicate what we find. We are conduits. We take the world into us, and we spit it out as another brick in road to understanding our own humanity.
Good writing, substantial writing, meaningful writing, worthwhile writing all has to do that.
Writing about dark ideas is not an invocation of them. It is a repudiation. We shine our lights in the black corners of humanity to show the rest of us what we’re capable of so we can learn and grow.
Back to Michael Peterson. I think it’s understandable, then, why I regard what Kathleen Peterson’s sisters attempted to do with Michael’s writing was such a violation. We have to be willing to grant that, at least to the extent he was able, Michael’s fiction was not him revealing secrets of himself but him revealing secrets of humanity, some of those being ignorance, the irrationality of anger, and the power of belief and the devastation it can cause.
And ironically, Kathleen’s sisters intended to use that writing against him.
Make no mistake. I am not claiming Michael’s writing was in complete altruism. I don’t know him or his writing. However, if he’s writing about the darkness within himself, it is a darkness that is core to the human being. Therefore, it is a darkness we all share. It doesn’t prove Michael Peterson is a bad person. It simply speaks to the darkness in all humanity.
The trouble is, to a jury of people who don’t understand literature or how to interpret it, such writing could affect their view of Michael.
And the idea that someone would use a piece of fiction to pass personal as well as legal judgment on someone makes me angry and sad, because like the subjects of our writing, our fears are manifest. We know they’re real, and as writers, it’s inherently necessary for us to admit vulnerability to them.
Submitting to that, in my view, is necessary to create good writing, and for readers to appreciate that work and find its use, they have to be willing to grant us the freedom to open ourselves not so we can reveal what’s inside, but so we can take the world within us and project it onto the page without fear that it will be used against us.
For writers to be able to do what we do, we have to trust that readers will grant us the benefit of the doubt, that we will be considered innocent until proven guilty, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent in this world that people tend to make snap judgements about others despite a lack of compelling evidence.
Staircase and Making a Murderer go beyond the American justice system. They expose how we, as people, choose to believe things as true without sufficient objective proof to support that belief or despite legitimate evidence that establishes doubt about that truth.
Without getting too philosophical, there’s a kind of willful submission to delusion because we, as human beings, want to believe something even if there isn’t enough evidence to support it. And once we make up our minds about something, we cling tenaciously to those beliefs.
In Michael Peterson’s case, we want to know if he murdered his wife. As I wrote, the series does not satisfy that desire. Instead, it peers at this phenomenon we see in the human world and shows it to the viewer. That is the purpose of the series, and we, as a people, have to reckon with it and the terrible potential of humans acting on belief instead of knowledge. After thousands of years of human civilization, the evidence is stacking up to suggest we cannot, as a species, figure out that we cannot believe a fact into existence.
To all of my fellow writers out there, what you do is brave. You know many people will not understand, but you persist for those of us who do.
Ours is an art form of many sacrifices, but one we can never compromise is the courage to peer into the darkness and tell the world what we see. The fact that many people will not understand, some may judge us, and a few may seek to use it against us might be a burden we have to carry.