An Interview with David McConnell
Sebastian Junger said of David McConnell's American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men, "Not only is this book the best sort of true-crime writing, but it is also a stunning exploration of the concept of manhood in America. Refusing to judge or to gloss anything over, McConnell turns his impressive skills as a writer to a topic that all of us think about and few dare to discuss."
In American Honor Killings, McConnell creates riveting accounts of four murders in which a young man or group of young men felt their honor violated by their victim's homosexuality, actual or perceived. From Matt and Tyler Williams, fundamentalist Christian brothers who shot and killed a gay couple as the couple slept in bed, to Darrell Madden, a former gay porn star who posed as a prostitute and picked up a john only to kill him with a young recruit in his neo-Nazi posse, to Steven Hollis and Juan Flythe, two teenagers from suburban Baltimore who, at the behest of their gang leader, killed one of their best friends because he was joking around with a gay man, to John Katehis who answered a Craigslist ad and killed an older man for no discernible reason -- the stories McConnell tells are inexplicable and confounding. But each of them reveals an undercurrent of entitlement and fragile honor in the sense of masculinity of some American men and boys that can explode into sexual violence and murder. He contextualizes this violence with examinations of pop culture and its clumsy treatment of homosexuality and masculine honor, and also shorter accounts of other high-profile murders of gay men.
McConnell's previous books The Silver Hearted, which was a finalist for the Lambda and Ferro-Grumley awards, and The Firebrat, were works of fiction, and he brings the same deft sense of narrative drive and evocative setting to his nonfiction.
Place seems to play a very important role in the narratives of the murders in American Honor Killings. Whether it's the Central Valley of California in the case of the Williams brothers, small-town Oklahoma for Bradley Qualls and Darrell Madden, the suburbs of Baltimore for Timothy Rawlings, Steven Hollis, and Juan Flythe, or the outer boroughs of New York City for John Katehis, you describe each place with great, telling details. Each of these places seems almost claustrophobically isolated. How much do you think place informs the nature of the crimes and the criminals you write about in American Honor Killings?
Part of it may just be chance. I'd visit the places where these crimes occurred and my initial journalistic response would be to ask, "So where am I?" The details of place still existed while everything else depended on people's memories, and I wanted as much hard, factual detail as possible. In a deeper sense, though, something novelistic may have been involved. Art is always better at getting at the truths that matter. Often the first job when writing a story, as the authors of Genesis knew, is to create the setting where everything will happen. I don't know whether I've ever thought much about it, but place really is key to origin stories. Claustrophobia and isolation are wonderfully apt ways to describe the conditions in which violence is born. Certainly there's a sort of claustrophobia of imagination (if only these guys had had a broader view of what being a man can involve!) and a claustrophobia of social opportunity (if only these guys had had the chance to escape the vortex of poverty and ignorance!). Place can be infused with this kind of desperation. I remember being particularly affected by it when I was in Oklahoma.
What about the places you visited in Oklahoma made you feel this sense of desperation?
I grew up in Cleveland, which had and still has an urban inferiority complex. I felt something similar in Oklahoma. Certain places have a self-consciousness about their own geographical or historical marginality. Ardmore is where one of the Oklahoma murders took place. I spoke to some people and visited a women's shelter there. Ardmore isn't Tulsa or Oklahoma City. You have to zoom in for the name to pop up on Google Maps. It's a nice enough small town with a few strip malls on a highway. But I mention in the book how a woman from Ardmore called me when I got back to New York. Her son was in prison, and I couldn't do anything to help. Her description of the town was so plaintive: "Sir, you have to understand, this is a very corrupt place."
I find it interesting that you chose to start each of the chapter titles with the names of the victim or victims of each crime, when the stories you tell are really the stories of the killers, not the victims. Did you consciously resist describing the lives of the victims more? In a way I think it's integral to the theme of your book. To describe the victims' lives in too great detail might reinforce a connection between their lifestyles and the crimes. It seems that you are trying to work against that and understand the crimes as they originate in the killers' personalities.
While I was writing, I used a list of names of those involved to identify each case, as if the titles were taken from the tab of a file folder. I liked the way it was clinical or merely functional. But I was concentrating on the stories of the killers for precisely the reason you state. I wanted to look at the origin of the violence. In general it's hard to write about the victims of crimes. You don't want to pull punches or merely eulogize them, which is often what we mean when we say journalists ought to pay less attention to killers, more to victims. But eulogies don't make for good journalism, unfortunately. Even so, I was uncomfortable with how natural it is to forget about the victims of murder, to think, for example, of "The Manson Case" instead of the "LoBianco Case." Murder is erasure enough. My solution was probably a little subtle, but I decided I'd always list the name of the victim first. It's only a gesture, but it was important to me to give them the place of honor, even though I knew I was writing the story of their killer.
Did you get any pushback from families of victims -- or for that matter families of the killers -- in your reporting process? Of all the family members of the killers, you deal most extensively with the mother and father of John Katehis. Was this more a coincidence of the fact that you attended Katehis's trial or was something else at work there?
The niece of one victim gave me a hard time. She wasn't particularly close to her uncle and didn't know anything about the crime, but she was incredibly suspicious and unfriendly. "Who are you and what are your motives?" was the subject line of her first email. Later, another family member confided in me about her: "There's one in every family." It's true that people react to curiosity in every possible way, from suspicion to silence to gratitude to anger. John Katehis's parents were fairly typical, but I saw a lot more of them in the course of the trial. I think the key danger for a writer is laziness -- relying too much on people who make themselves available or talk a lot. Because that will skew everything. Any true story is mostly about people who aren't naturally public, who may be averse to it, even.
You describe each murder in American Honor Killings in graphic detail. Did the violence ever become too much for you? Was the book exhausting to write in this respect?
Yes. I started to feel like the literary equivalent of a forensic pathologist or like those early anatomist-artists who'd buy a corpse to draw and dissect in their studio. After building up trust, I'd eventually get a letter from or have a conversation with a murderer in which he'd describe something unbearable in explicit detail, sometimes with little asides like "Sorry, but that's how it was." Or "You said you wanted to know, so..." In order to get to that point and to keep the flow of information going, I couldn't show any particular reaction. Not horror, not discomfort, but also not forced or creepy fascination. This deadpan behavior is as exhausting as I imagine being a good psychiatrist would be. Luckily or not, it comes fairly naturally to me. Maybe I'm using the psychological version of a prepaid phone card. But phone cards run out. In truth, I'm not an eager consumer of violence myself. I wince and cover my eyes a lot in movies. In this book I like to think I was graphic as a truth-teller and not just for effect.
The crimes and criminals you describe are much more complicated than the typical media narrative of a "hate crime." Do you think the term "hate crime" has allowed us to ignore some of the pervasive sources of violence in our culture?
It's immensely frustrating that we're forced to deal with subjects as complex as violence with a vocabulary that amounts to "like," "yes," and "no." A cursor is about as articulate as a stick in the end, and even the simplest nuance is getting lost when, for many of us, our habits of thinking have become a matter of votes or clicks. "Hate Crime" is a click of a phrase. It's not meaningless or useless except that people will just, in a sense, click on it and then move on to the next story. There's almost a greed for stories out there. People think knowing about every story and categorizing them all will bring a "big data" perfection of understanding. In fact, just knowing one or two stories well, turning them over in your mind, accepting the contradictions, is a much surer route to broad understanding.
That's a great way of describing the overload of empty information that I think many of us suffer from. Do you think there's also a danger in readers fetishizing the specifics of crimes when consuming them in all of their complicated detail? Does our cultural fascination with true crime come from the same source as our fascination with fictional mysteries and horror?
I find the fascination with gore a little hard to take. If I'm warned online that something can't be "unseen" I usually won't look at it. It's hard to be sure, but I'd guess that a lot of it is driven by youth. Younger people are less likely to appreciate all the real world consequences of violence, whether it's authentic, "true crime" or just some splatter fantasy. Plus they have a tendency to dare themselves to look at or experience difficult things. I know I did. I used to love horror movies, and I had a ghoulish streak when it came to stories about serial killers. All that's gone. I've aged out. It's too upsetting. But I don't resent graphic violence if I think the artistic or intellectual payoff is big enough. Of course, that's too subjective to make generalizations about. I admire Dennis Cooper. Tarantino not so much. I love GoodFellas, but Hannibal Lecter bores me.
Though the murderers you write about in American Honor Killings come from quite an array of subcultures -- from Christian fundamentalists to neo-Nazis to suburban teenage boys -- the source of the violence they inflict seems to be the same. They all feel entitled to commit violent acts because of their self-conceptions as men, which are in turn supported by their subcultures. Do you think that the source of sexual violence in more "mainstream" groups -- I'm thinking of the boys in the high school football program in Steubenville, Ohio -- is the same?
I think of this book as a feminist work even though women barely appear in it. Crime is often about winning or triumphing or prevailing by destructive means. Rape is a vile "triumph" in the sexual realm. It's not sex so much as it is "contest" in the mind of the rapist. This is the oppositional way a lot of young men think about women. Even though the stories I treated have a subcultural aspect, I think I'm talking about a larger general truth about men, and indeed about all people. Our minds are built for struggle. The struggle can darken into something truly terrible and unacceptable. I don't want to make too baggy a generalization, but even terrorism, when you take away the politics and look at the acts of individuals, has the hallmarks of a half-formed and half-sickened masculinity.
Are you interested in exploring this struggle as it appears in other aspects of the culture in your future work, whether in short-form or book-length journalism?
I'm working on a book about my relationship with one of my informants for American Honor Killings. He's on death row for murdering a girl in northern California. He's someone whose childhood was completely messed up and I'm interested in how "damaged" grows into "destroyer." But it won't be his story so much as ours.