Of Speaking the Truth, Scapegoats, and Absorbing the Rhetoric of Blame
(A Review Essay of Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter)
I. Speaking the Truth
I must begin this review essay, which I had great difficulty writing (for reasons that I hope become clear in my rhetorical wanderings), with a series of caveats, beginning here: I make no claims to represent the literary conscience of America or, for that matter, of Mormo-America—neither do I feel the need to make such claims, simply because I don’t believe I represent the mainstream American/Mormo-American literary consciousness or even, perhaps, that there is such a mainstream way of reading and thinking about the world. As a poet first, I’m attracted to language that, among other things, is lyrical, visceral, and deeply honest to human experience; that draws me toward deeper connection with my inner self/ves, with others, and with God. In short, I like words and combinations of words that cut to the quick, that don’t simply affirm my version of reality (though sometimes that’s nice, too), but that disrupt it, that persuade me to reevaluate what I know—or think I know—about myself and the moral universe I inhabit.
While this union of disruption and connection might seem contradictory, I believe that connecting with our deepest selves and with others, including God, requires a constant reappraisal of where we stand in relation to them. And that’s one thing literature does: in the words of Mormon poet-critic Karl Keller, as an “essentially anarchic, rebellious, shocking, analytical, critical, deviant, absurd, subversive, destructive” rhetorical force, literature “attempts to destroy institutions; it challenges individual settled faith; it will disrupt all life.” For this reason, Keller continues (and I echo his confession), “I have to admit that I hate starting the study of a new novel, a new poem, or a new play, because I know that one or another of my religious/moral/intellectual assumptions may be questioned, challenged, disproved, destroyed. To read sensitively is to come under serious attack. In wrestling with each new work of literature […], I have to shift the grounds of my belief, and I find this painful but productive” because, though it’s essentially “faith-destroying, not faith-promoting, […] the destruction of flabby assumptions is nonetheless a strengthening process” (20). Disruption, then, can ultimately lead to a more grounded, though paradoxically dynamic, sense of self and to deeper connection with and understanding of the universe.
And that’s one reason I keep reading and one reason, I think, why writing this review has proved more difficult than I anticipated when I first found a review copy of Melissa G. Moore’s memoir Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter in my inbox—because writing, a sister process to reading, is just as disruptive a force. Like reading, to borrow from Keller, it prompts “self-examination/world-examination/existence-examination, the search for self, the persistence amid discovered meaninglessness, a ‘destructive’ reexamination of the grounds of one’s own belief.” And like the reader, the writer should be “constantly reexamining his [or her] faith and learning where it is insubstantial and superficial” in order to create a properly disruptive, compelling, and spiritually real experience for readers (21). The specific challenge for writers in this arises in the notion that to speak the truth of experience—and to speak it well, as readers expect them to—requires more than mere self- or world- or existence-examination. It takes real rhetorical effort, including responsibility to the truth of one’s experience, to one’s audience, and to language itself.
In terms of my experience with Shattered Silence, I’ve tried to hold myself accountable to these rhetorical principles by keeping myself open to the truth of Moore’s experience as daughter of Keith Jesperson, a.k.a. the Happy Face Killer; to find or create spaces where shared language (or the approximation thereof) might open opportunities for me to connect to and reconcile my words with the realities of her sometimes grisly world. This has been no easy prospect since, first, I’m not female and I’ll never really know what it’s like to be one (though that doesn’t keep me from trying to understand); and second, the only experience I’ve had with serial killers has come through the movies or episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds. Nonetheless, I consider myself a willing learner and I’ve hoped I could meet Moore on some common rhetorical ground so she could show me, in a manner of speaking, how the other side lives.
Through this process, I’ve also thought a great deal about the desires, needs, and intellectual/rhetorical demands of my audience here at AMV and, by extension, Moore’s potential readers, wondering with what critical/rhetorical focus and what language I might best honor Moore’s intent (she is, after all, part of my audience and I feel some responsibility to her and her words); the complexity of her psychological landscape; and the intellectual, psychological, and rhetorical demands her narrative might make (or fail to make, as the case may be) on that audience.
Now, caveats (perhaps too) thoroughly expressed, time to dive into Moore’s text.
II. Living Unpleasant Realities
In the opening scene of Shattered Silence, Moore describes a moment of violence from her childhood that characterizes the “unpleasant realities” of her life as daughter of an abused and emotionally abusive father turned serial killer (231). Narrating for her younger self, Moore begins, “August of 1983: I squinted into the bright blue morning sky and couldn’t help the shudder that rippled through my little body” (1). But at just five-years-old, she’d shrugged off this foreboding sense that danger was on the horizon (Moore’s older self calls these impressions “knowings”) because, in her words, “It was a lovely day, and I had a secret” (1): a barnyard home built on respect and compassion in which she was partnered with a stray mother cat in the nurturing of four kittens to independence.
But her secret was shattered when one kitten was drawn from her small circle of security by her father’s taunting call: “Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty! […] I won’t hurt you. I promise.” Moore reflects, “At that moment, I wanted desperately to believe that promise. But I had heard it before. It was not a real promise, it was a lie. It was a lie every single time” (3). As the child begged for her kittens’ release, her father gathered them from her helpless grasp, took them to the clothesline, and, in a moment of appalling cruelty, hung each body, biting and scratching, with a clothespin fixed to the scruff of each neck. Running for her mother’s help, little Melissa replayed memories of her father’s violence toward cats—memories that recalled the deep hurt and pain afresh. But she found no willing partner in her mother, who simply pulled from her daughter’s grip, and, blank-eyed, “turned back to folding the laundry into neat little piles and neat little rows” (5), a manifestation of her efforts to create some order in her otherwise unstable existence as an emotionally and mentally battered wife.
Moore returns to and analogizes this moment later in her memoir when she relates how, as a teenager, after being raped by her boyfriend and realizing she was pregnant, she wondered whether abortion was the answer. Her boyfriend’s family, she says, would have paid for the procedure. But she was looking for support beyond financial, for some human connection that could whisk her away from past abuses and mistakes—a relationship that could save her from herself and her father’s crippling influence. In short, she confesses, she wanted “a knight in shining armor—someone to slay my dragons and allay my fears. Someone to fix everything and make it all right” (155). Yet, she continues, in Sean (her boyfriend’s pseudonym) “[n]o knight had come. There was no soldier to fight my battles, slay my dragons, kiss away my fears, and chase the demons away from inside my mind” (155-6). She was alone, in her words, “[l]ike my baby kittens on the clothesline, […] suspended in mid-air, beaten back by life” (156).
So drawing this connection between her father’s violence, the deformative power it had over her development, and the string of unpleasant realities from which her life was hung—broken familial bonds, neglect, abuse, rape, teenage pregnancy, and more—Moore points to her own perpetuation of the attitude of non-action, fear, bitterness, and blame that enabled her passive engagement in the intergenerational cycle of abuse. And as becomes clear in her memoir: it took many years, much grief and pain, and maturity born of deep introspection before she could bear this cross, which had somehow fallen to her, in hope.
III. To Pretend Someone Else Did It; or Giving the Devil His Due1
I trace strains of the helpless and blame-riddled attitude Moore had developed and the rhetoric derived from it directly through her father’s pointing finger. In his own voyeuristic engagement with his past, as found in Jack Olsen’s journalistic and disturbingly vivid “I”: The Creation of a Serial Killer,2 Jesperson repeatedly casts himself in the “self-designated role as habitual victim” (124), passing the buck for his violence to his father, an alcoholic who verbally and physically abused his kids and who in turn blamed his behavior on the “might makes right” culture of his upbringing (Moore 224); the women he killed, who had just used him, he says, for sex or drugs, a ride across country or money; his ex-wife, because he hadn’t been ready to marry, but did anyway and thus, in a sense, gave up his freedom and his personal potential; his peers, siblings included, who brutalized and taunted him throughout his troubled youth; also his ex-girlfriend, the justice system, his penis, the devil—any person (or part thereof), social system, or religious idea that he feels slighted his good-natured soul. Yet, he even denies himself the prospect of this essentially pure nature when he comments that, from an early age, he was possessed of two selves: “Mr. Nice Guy and the demon” (Olsen 26), the one to whom he attributes (or on whom he blames, as the case may be) his essentially human acts of kindness, the other on whom he blames his grotesque acts of violence.
In his more honest moments he does come close to shouldering the blame for murdering eight women—close, but not quite. Discussing his first kill, he admits that the act “had come straight from my fantasies” (17), a near confession that, in the end, only buffers him from the weight of conscience because the moments surrounding the murder were essentially like moving through a fantasy, an elaborate dream: the place where the subconscious subverts the conscious mind, where we can’t really be held responsible for what we think or do. He further justifies this blame-bending charade by observing that “I tried to forget the details of what I’d done, to pretend someone else did it” (17). Just as we often forget the details of dreams, painting them in broad strokes on the walls of memory as we move beyond the pretense of fantasy into and through consciousness, here Jesperson works to slough off his reality for a more favorable lie, one that he rationalized further when he learned that two drifters had claimed responsibility for his crime, which, in his words, thus “wasn’t my problem anymore” (18). He’d found a pair of willing scapegoats and absolved himself of guilt as he watched them bear his wrongdoing across the public stage into prison.
When he finally began taking responsibility for the murders, it was in taunting jabs leveled at law enforcement officials in graffiti penned on public restroom walls and in letters to newspapers he felt needed to be corrected because they had some details of the killings wrong. His words were thus meant more to stroke his own ego than to actually bear responsibility for his actions and their influence on the world, including on those he claims he cared for most: his children. Indeed, in his imitation and escalation of the violence of his past—developing from an abused boy and young man to an arsonist and a torturer of animals to a defiler and serial killer of women3—he propagated the culture of bitterness, blame, and brutality he had once despised, passing a ruinous and soul-numbing legacy to his posterity because he continually gave control of his life to forces of fear, manipulation, and blame. His choices thus precluded the possibility of influencing his family line for good.
And while I’m perfectly willing to admit that Jesperson’s brutalized past, punctuated with some degree of mental illness, may have severely restricted his freedom to choose, each matter of abuse and murder ultimately hinged on his decisions. In other words, as much as trouble came rushing to meet him as a result of his past, he ultimately chose to tackle it headlong in the middle, fists of desire ablaze.
IV. Metabolizing Blame, Shattering Silence
Born into such a caustic family culture and conditioned early on with and into its finger-pointing and violence-enabling mentality, Moore was destined to fill her parents’ roles as enablers and “habitual victim[s],” to pass this destructive legacy on to the next generation in her family line. That is, she likely would have fulfilled such a role if she hadn’t listened to the series of preternatural “knowings” (1)—still small promptings—that led her away from her father’s influence, that inspired her to reach for something more, and that helped her mature into a woman with strength enough to metabolize this culture of violence and blame by: 1) establishing a support system for herself outside the home, including the building of positive friendships (one of which led to a healthy marriage) and religious affiliation (she joined the LDS Church in her early twenties, though she seems to have been spiritually sensitive from childhood and had fellowshipped with other faiths through her teens); 2) by educating herself in ways to overcome the negative influence of her past; and 3) by choosing to educate others in these possibilities for encouragement and developing the will to overcome.
Moore’s actions in this regard—from heeding the nudges of conscience and instinct despite not understanding why, to forging new friendships and institutional affiliations meant to facilitate sustainable personal and cultural change—illustrate the moral courage required to stand against and ultimately to absorb injustice at any level, including the familial: the relational space we are most intimately acquainted with and thus most vulnerable in. Of those who exercise such courage, the late Carlfred Broderick, renowned Mormon psychologist, family therapist, and marriage and family scholar, observes, “Although [… some] children may suffer innocently as victims of violence, neglect, and exploitation, through the grace of God some find the strength to ‘metabolize’ the poison within themselves, refusing to pass it on to future generations” (38). Elsewhere he calls these individuals “transitional character[s]” because they change “the entire course of a lineage” “in a single generation, […] filter[ing] the destructiveness out” of the family line “so that the generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives” (qtd. in Tanner).
Moore observes of this metabolizing process, especially as it relates to the transitional work she’s undertaken in her life and which she means to represent rhetorically in her memoir, that “[i]n order to keep atrocities from happening [at any level], we must learn” from the violence of our collective past; and such personal and cultural education begins, she suggests, with individuals who have “enough courage to shatter the silence” of injustice and violence and to share with others what they’ve learned in their confrontations with “the darkest side” of humanity. Only then, she concludes, “[o]nce we acknowledge [… this darkness] and refuse to sweep it under the carpet,” can we fully overcome our personal and cultural victimhood and live fully in the light (223-4).
V. Having Survived To Tell the Story
Despite these heady claims for shattering the silence imposed on her as a victim of intergenerational violence and her life as daughter of a serial killer—perhaps, even, because of them and the challenge of negotiating complex psychological terrain in a vehicle of words—Moore’s memoir suffers from a tragic rhetorical flaw: while the writing is earnest and offered to readers over the altar of good intentions, there are times when it barely manages to convey more than the tone of a personal diary. The text is very loosely-written (to the point that it could use an extra series of revisions), riddled with grammar, usage, and unjustified time-jumping issues and inconsistent analogies that ultimately undermine her attempts to craft a more affective, universally compelling, and silence shattering narrative, something I believe her unique experience demands, especially when coupled with the generic standards of the memoir itself and of affective language use in general.
Speaking generally to how the memoir’s standards for content, tone, and propriety have developed and expanded over time, William Zinsser comments that “[u]ntil the 1990s, memoir writers drew a veil of modesty over what they wrote. There was an agreed-upon code that you didn’t reveal the most squalid details of your life.” However, with the advent of tabloid TV, “shame went out the window,” Zinsser observes. “No family was too dysfunctional for people to talk about and write a memoir about,” though these memoirists simply “took pleasure in playing the victim,” in heaping personal failures and perceived wrongs on “parents, siblings, and coaches” in order to absolve themselves of responsibility for personal choices gone awry.
Yet, Zinsser continues, a few great writers “turned things around” with psychologically and rhetorically demanding memoirs that “dealt with childhoods every bit as terrible as those written by the whiners and the bashers,” but that were instead “written with love and forgiveness.” These writers didn’t pass the buck for personal weaknesses or present failures; in fact, Zinsser asserts, they “were as hard on their younger selves as they were on their elders.” And with this acknowledgment of their own accountability, they refused to engage in and thus absorbed the prevailing rhetoric of blame, saying, in effect, that, yes, “we come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived to tell the story.”
Though I’m fairly certain Moore is unaware of this movement of memoirs written with an eye toward the fallibility of one’s elders and one’s younger self yet all the while grounded in the virtues of courage, love, and forgiveness (an unfortunate lack on her part, which, if filled, could have infused her narrative with greater rhetorical stature and influence), she does acknowledge, however unconsciously, the space created by such writers when she claims that she lives “in the perfect place at the perfect time” to tell her own story of survival (xv). And that, I believe, is the singular merit of Moore’s book, formal inconsistencies and weaknesses notwithstanding: having survived her childhood amidst a tribe of fallible, bitter, and violent people, she’s found a way to metabolize the rhetoric of blame and to ground herself and her story in the possibilities of personal and rhetorical growth and change, of forgiveness, and of a world that yearns together for a way out of violence into “[h]ealing, temperance, tolerance, charity, love, and joy” (224).
1. Since Moore is enrapt in her own psychological journey here, she doesn’t spend much time discussing her father’s. In fact, unless the two treks unavoidably cross paths, i.e., when Jesperson’s cruelty immediately affects his daughter, she sidesteps any discussion of his past and the impact it may have had on his choices and his psychopathological development, though she does hint at the complex relationship he had with his own father. However, because I felt that confronting Jesperson’s language would provide insight into his violent behavior, I turned to his biography (which Moore admits she “didn’t want anything to do with” ), written by Jack Olsen and smothered with Jesperson’s words, as a means to this end. (See my longer, though still quite brief, take on “I”: The Creation of a Serial Killer, in this post on my personal blog.)
As regards this confrontation, I must confess some debt to Patricia, who commented in a brief discussion we had elsewhere on Moore’s book that “[s]omehow, the killing act takes shape first in killing language. I want to understand what killing language is and how it works, if I can.” As I read Shattered Silence with Patricia’s words in mind and noticed how Moore refers to “[b]lame [… as] a language [… she] heard all the time” in her home (12), I began to consider how blame turns language violent and how this rhetorical violence escalates into and is often used to justify violent behavior, including killing. This section is my effort to situate Moore’s text, her psychological development, and her freedom to choose in relation to the rhetoric of blame embedded in her family line.
2. Warning: this book is not for sensitive readers.
3. While I’m loathe to claim a causal link between Jesperson’s ascent up each tier of violence, I’m convinced his expansive pursuit of increased risk and passion was one factor feeding his psychopathology.
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Broderick, Carlfred. “I Have a Question.” Ensign (Aug. 1986), 38-41.
Keller, Karl. “On Words and the Word of God: The Delusions of a Mormon Literature.” Tending the Garden. Ed. by Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson. Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1996. 13-22.
Moore, Melissa G. and M. Bridget Cook. Shattered Silence. Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2009.
Olsen, Jack. “I”: The Creation of a Serial Killer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Tanner, Kristi. “Becoming a Transitional Character: Changing Your Family Culture.” Forever Families. Aug. 2002. 8 Aug. 2009.
Zinsser, William. “How McCourt Rescued Memoir.” “Memoirs and McCourt.” The New York Times. 24 Jul. 2009. 8 Aug. 2009.