I feel pity for Colonel Williams if he’s guilty

Barbara Amiel on the blessing and the curse of human sexuality

Col. Russell WilliamsReading about Col. Russell Williams, the soldier who allegedly has a taste for stolen ladies’ underwear, sexual assault and murder (likely sexual murder, though police are tight-lipped on details), gets one thinking, or at least it gets me thinking, about the “why”: why do any human beings have this special predilection? As far as I know, no other species kills for sexual excitement. Possibly there exists in tall grasses or stony wastelands some terrible creature, weird bird or testosterone-filled amoeba that needs to tie up the object of desire in sticky strands of something in order to satiate needs, but wouldn’t we have heard of it were it common?

A number of animals and insects kill their mates, but for logical reasons. The victim may be a food source or is simply an irritant. They may become homicidal because a mate refuses to mate or insists on it. The black widow spider does not inevitably kill during or after copulation any more than the praying mantis, but both can do it if the male is not cunning enough to dismount at the right moment and escape being a tasty snack. The notion that these insects are aroused sexual predators is one of those myths that human beings—who may indeed need violence to achieve arousal—have ascribed to the innocent arachnid in a display of redirected psychopathy.

Perhaps our uniqueness in this matter explains our culture’s fascination with a hint of sexual murder. The presumed innocent colonel had barely been fingered and fingerprinted before the announcement was made of a book about him to be published this fall. The author is a newspaper reporter, in itself not a promising start, but so in a manner of speaking was the great author Émile Zola. All the same, were it Zola or Tolstoy, a book purporting to say anything insightful about Williams by this fall, when he will be inaccessible and any letters, diaries or genuine artifacts unavailable, can only be alluring trash at best based on tittle-tattle.

It starts with children’s books—this preoccupation with sexual murder. All those princesses who get knocked off by Bluebeard- type husbands. I remember the fairy tale of The Robber Bridegroom in which the young maiden watches another beautiful young maiden going through the Grimm Brothers’ version of date rape with her fiancé and his friends. The girl is force-fed alcohol, stripped, put naked on a table and cut into pieces and eaten. Yes, kiddies. And that’s what will happen to you if you take a chocolate biscuit from a stranger. In such fairy-tale worlds, the victim is usually a beautiful young girl, often a princess. There isn’t any explicit account of the murderer getting “off” on his nefarious deed, but there’s a fairly not-so-subtle subtext. The murderer doesn’t kill his ugly blacksmith or the old woman in a shoe. No literary genre here but what history professor Daniel A. Cohen calls a “cultural motif”—the beautiful female murder victim.

In the Williams story, she’s green-eyed 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd, who now joins a long list of beautiful young victims featured in newspaper accounts as far back as the 17th century. Actually, reporting murder trials became common in 18th-century English journalism; the 19th century went further, making a genre out of printing court testimony with all the naughty bits about what was done to the female corpse.

There aren’t really reliable statistics on sexual murder because until recently most jurisdictions simply kept track of the worst aspect of a crime (if you burgled, raped, mutilated and then murdered, the evening’s work would simply be listed as “murder”). A lot of sexual murders may never make it to print or TV. But add an incongruity between aspects of a person’s being, that’s front-page crime. Anyone can steal from the collection plate, but if the bishop does, it’s top item on the evening news.

Outstanding citizen in one facet and criminal deviant in another—it is mind-blowing. I’ve never quite looked at my dentist the same way since the British cosmetic dentist Colin Howell, father of 10, super implant man and apparently dentist to the Jordanian royal family, was remanded for trial last year on murder and indecent assault after allegedly using chloroform to drug female patients. And, of course, Britain’s Dr. Harold Shipman, whose motives are cloudy but included material ones, focused on elderly women (gerontophilia?) and murdered dozens, possibly hundreds of them. His patients, those who survived, adored him.

Williams is said to be on suicide watch. He may have confessed already—although if you are a military commander, allegedly being caught stealing used lingerie is enough to drive a man to hang himself. But as a handsome high achiever, probably good at the administrative tasks that make you a base commander in peacetime, we come back to it: what makes humans criminally assault, let alone kill, for sex when you could get bondage and sadomasochistic partners from the Yellow Pages?

Human sexuality is a blessing and a curse. You can be wired for a need that is illegal and happily becomes legal—like homosexuality and oral sex—or wired for one that hasn’t made it yet, like necrophilia. You can be a psychopath who remorselessly enjoys killing as a thrill-seeking device, or a non-psychopath who desperately needs forbidden thrills for arousal. Nothing I write should be construed as underestimating the terrible suffering his actions may have caused, but I feel pity for the colonel if he is guilty. Repressing urges, psychologists and experience tell us, can be effective or heat them up. In Williams’s case, the pot may simply have boiled over.

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