I like observing people. I love the witticisms that come from the mouths of strangers who I wouldn’t assume to be particularly clever based on appearance: skater boys, little old ladies, pretty girls. I also like to observe the way people communicate with one another, sort of in the way I like watching Olympic sports; I can’t ice skate well, or wrestle, or swim a mile, but I can still enjoy watching someone who can.
Earlier this month I read Caleb Carr’s novel, “The Alienist,” and just the other day I finished its sequel, “The Angel of Darkness,” which are essentially murder mysteries. The alienist (psychiatrist) of both books is named Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, and he is one of those wonderfully observant fictional characters, like Sherlock Holmes, that people like me can’t help but love. Dr. Kreizler is the pioneer of a very controversial theory of “context” in the stories.
I should add here that Caleb Carr is a novelist as well as an author on history, so Dr. Kreizler and his theories may be based in some truth. If such is the case, I apologize for not citing the real psychiatrists and psychologists to whom these ideas first belonged. Anyway, the doctor holds a very narrow view of what constitutes insanity, insisting that even the most heinous crimes–those which are impossible to understand, which seem crazy–can in fact be understood within the context of the criminal’s life. That is, a person’s attitudes and actions can be understood as the result of one’s past experiences as well as one’s current environment.
I find myself thinking about this “context” more and more since reading the book. In a way it is a simple extension of, “if you ever walked a mile in those shoes.”
About two weeks ago, I was at a cafe, outdoors, doing some writing. A young man stormed by and walked around the corner of the building, out of my sight. Shortly after, a woman who turned out to be the boy’s mother crept by the building in her old car, shouting something like, “Come back!” which the boy did not acknowledge or obey.
Eventually, after the woman had parked her car and found her son on foot, she tried to get him to get in the car to go home with her. He refused with very harsh words, and the two found themselves on the cafe patio where across from me was a group of older people chitchatting. The boy meandered toward them, and one of the men said, “You ought to go with your mom,” to which the response was, “She’s a stupid bitch!”
I felt many emotions when I heard this, not the least embarrassment for the woman. But the gentleman said, “No she’s not,” and seemed so warm and calm and understanding that I, if no one else, was slightly comforted. The boy was too large for his mother to control, and he sought refuge in the AT&T store next to the cafe. At this, the gentleman who had spoken before suggested to the very frustrated woman that she call the police for help. He asked about the boy, and the mother said her son was autistic and somewhat retarded. The man shared that he knew how it was, for he had had a sister like that, and he had had to call for help with her before too.
So the woman called the police, and she chatted with that group of older folks until the police arrived. It all seemed to end well enough since the boy seemed much calmed when he emerged voluntarily from the phone store. I did not hear most of what the officers said, but what I did hear was kind and helpful; and at the moment, I thought that’s the good community work that police are for–but I also wondered how things might have been different if the citizens involved had been black.
Though this happened two weeks ago, I still think about it, those cruel words the autistic boy had yelled about his own mother. I want to understand. It isn’t easy for me to say, “Ah well, he can’t help it.” Indeed there are people who cannot help what they say, but there is still the matter of where those words come from.
Today I wondered the same thing as I stood in line at the pharmacy. In front of me were a man and a woman who just kept being so rude to each other! There’s no better way to put it since they weren’t flat out arguing about anything, nor were they continuously talking. But when one did speak to the other, it was to say, “If you hadn’t done such and such,” or “It’s your own fault,” or, most commonly, “Shut up!” They even did this in front of the pharmacy technician, whom the woman repeatedly told that her husband (I presume) was taking one of the medicines like candy.
I looked the other way. I shook my head inside my head. My only judgment was, “These people might benefit from some counseling.” But I wondered why they talked to and about each other like that. How did they find themselves together when there appeared to be no great affection between them? Where did those spiteful words come from? And that angry tone?
I wonder about people’s lives. I wonder who was cruel to them so that they learned to be cruel to others. I wonder also about people I know who are kind and patient despite having endured tragedies–where did they learn the be resilient and peaceful?
But there is another question: can these attitudes and behaviors be explained? Dr. Kreizler is challenged on this, and accused of looking for explanations when there are none because he needs there to be a reason.
And so I question myself, and I look to my own past. Do I need there to be reasons behind every sad scene I witness? If I do, then why do I feel that need?