I Have Known Monsters
an essay about a serial killer
On the Spokane Indian Reservation, when I was nine or ten years old, my friends and I were kidnapped by a future serial killer. But we didn't know that we were being kidnapped. We thought we were playing a game of cops and robbers even as it became a game of criminal and victims. And I call it a game because, as an adult, I understand that the future killer had used us as practice—as rehearsal for his future crimes. It's a common pattern of escalation for serial killers. They begin by torturing and killing insects then they torture and kill small animals and then they torture and kill larger animals and then they torture and kill humans.
That future serial killer was a white kid who was a few years older than us and big for his age. He was living on our reservation with a sister who'd married an Indian guy. I vaguely remember that the future killer had committed small crimes in his hometown and that his parents had sent him to the rez in the hopes that his sister would reform him. I definitely remember the sister as being kind and generous so, in retrospect, their parents made an understandable choice.
Though I also wonder if the parents had simply given up on their son and sent him away to free themselves from any responsibility. Or did they banish him because they were afraid of him? And it’s possible that they, through neglect and violence, helped create him. Maybe that future serial killer was a victim of severe trauma. Or maybe he was born already broken. Do I have empathy for such a doomed child? Yes, yes. Do I have empathy for monstrous adults? Only in the sense that they should be treated humanely as they spend the rest of their lives in prison. I don’t believe in capital punishment but I do believe in life sentences without the possibility of parole.
I don't remember if the future serial killer committed crimes on the rez other than what he did to my friends and me. There were five of us being held hostage—four Indian boys who lived on the rez and a visiting white boy. That kid and his religious parents visited every summer. They'd stay for a few weeks doing missionary work. On most reservations, and certainly on our reservation, a white Christian outsider would usually be ignored or bullied. But that white kid was special. He was a natural diplomat. I don't want to use his real name so I'll name him after the big brother in To Kill a Mockingbird. I'll call him Jem.
But I won’t give that future serial killer a name other than monster.
That monster trapped us in a small trailer house by locking the only door from the inside. He had the foreknowledge and skill to reverse the door knob. He terrorized us by brandishing his knife collection. He slapped us hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to leave obvious marks. He didn't bruise our faces. And then he took Jem into the one bedroom and shut the door. I don't know what happened to Jem in that room. He was only in there for a few minutes before I busted open a window with my elbow, opened the door from the outside, and led our escape. I was just a desperate kid but I still feel guilty that we didn't try to rescue Jem.
The future serial killer heard us rush out of the trailer and chased us. Jem took advantage of the distraction and made his escape. He rescued himself. As I ran, I looked back and saw that the future killer had stopped chasing us. And I saw Jem running the other way. A few days later, Jem and his family left the rez. I don't know if they left because their mission work was finished for the summer or because of what happened to Jem. Or maybe it was some combination of both. I only know that we never saw him again. Jem and his family never returned to our rez.
I don't recall that the future serial killer faced any repercussions for what he'd done to us. And I don't recall that any adults took it seriously. I don’t recall that any kids took it seriously. Did they think it was just rough play? There was a lot of rough play on the rez—injury and sometimes death by misadventure. Indians die young. Indians suffer. A 2014 review of research literature at the University of Washington found that Native Americans “have a higher risk of experiencing traumatic life events than any other ethnic or racial group, and are twice as likely as the general population to develop PTSD.” According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, the suicide rate among Native Americans “is two to four times as high as that for non-Indian populations.”
Maybe, for rez Indians, our fear is so constant that it becomes, like breathing, an unconscious reflex that we rarely notice.
I don’t remember when that monster left the rez. I sometimes wonder if my storytelling brain has turned a small incident into a large drama. I remember different details each time that I think about that terrible day with the monster. How many of my memories are fiction? Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate. But then I remember this inalterable fact: the kid who terrorized us grew into an adult who killed people.
When I was a child, I looked into the eyes of a monster—a human, yes, but still a monster. As an adult, he was convicted of murdering two people and was a suspect in other murders and disappearances. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison after a plea bargain. But I always assumed that he'd die in prison. And, yes, I've wondered about him over the years. My journalist and law enforcement friends would give me updates on that killer if I asked. And that's how the years have passed. It's been almost five decades since that monster terrorized us. He's become a smaller and smaller part of my life.
But he still influences my political thinking. For instance: If you’re one of the people who believe in the defunding and disbanding of police and the prison system then I can be fairly certain that you’ve never met a monster. And I’m sure some of you will respond by noting that cops can be monsters, too. And I agree. I agree. There are indeed certain jobs that attract monsters. Police officers, surgeons, and CEOs all have higher degrees of sociopathy. Some monsters are more destructive than others. Some monsters don’t commit murder. Some even save lives. All of them lack empathy. Nearly all of them want to inflict pain on others. Some are in love with blood. Sociopathy is barely understood. So how we identify and stop these monsters? Who will identify and stop them? There are monsters who can’t be rehabilitated. How do we protect ourselves from them?
Who will be the monster hunters?
I've previously told this story onstage and in print. I didn't think I'd ever need to publicly tell it again. But, a few weeks ago, while doing research about a different crime in Spokane, I found a recent obituary for that monster. He'd served his entire thirty-year sentence and died only a few months after he'd been released from prison. In the photo that ran with the obit, he looks surprisingly old but otherwise unremarkable. I'm not sure that I would've recognized him if I'd seen him on the street. And that plain-faced monster died without ever revealing the full truth about his many crimes.
I thought of his victims, the known and unknown. I thought of their grieving families. And I thought about Jem. I can tell you that Jem’s real name was unusual—so unusual that I'd always assumed it was a nickname we'd given him. But I Googled that unusual name and found that it was indeed his real name and that he'd disappeared back in the 1990s. He'd lived such a nomadic and solitary life that his family didn't report him missing for nearly a year.
And then I learned that human remains found in the early 2000s had recently been identified through DNA testing. It was Jem. His body was found in another state near an Indian reservation. So I wonder if he'd been traveling to visit other reservations where he and his family had done missionary work. Maybe he was chasing his youth. Maybe he was chasing his pain. There's no information about Jem's cause of death. And I do need to make it clear that the monster was in prison on another charge when Jem disappeared. The monster didn’t kill Jem. There is no official cause of death mentioned in the news story. Was it murder or suicide? Did he die of exposure in the wilderness? Did he have a heart attack while walking a trail? After all the decades, the mystery might never be solved.
When I close my eyes, I can see Jem running away from that reservation trailer house. I thought I saw him escape but maybe he was never free again. Maybe the monster never grew smaller and smaller in his memory.
The news story about Jem's disappearance, death, and eventual identification includes a photograph of him, taken when he was in his early 20s. A handsome guy. Gold hair. Gold mustache. A stranger who was briefly my friend—an enduring friendship that transcends its brevity. Or so I’d like to think. I’m quite aware that Jem might not have remembered me.
Was he still a practicing Christian when he died? Who among his family was finally able to claim his body and properly bury him? Or is he still waiting for somebody to bring him home?
Dear Jem, I remember standing on the shore when my mother was baptized by your father in the Spokane River. I remember your father dipped my mother backward and beneath the water. It was a strange and beautiful ceremony. Scary, too. My mother didn’t know how to swim. I suppose that I was meant to be baptized but I must have declined the opportunity. I don’t remember if you were there, Jem. But I’m going to pretend that you and I stood on that shore together. I’m going to imagine that we locked hands, ran down the dock, and leapt into the water. I’m going to imagine that we blessed ourselves. I’m going to imagine that we enjoyed at least one more hour of sacred childhood before the monster broke parts of us.
I’ve healed, Jem, but I don’t know if you ever did.