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The Right to Violence
All the bad men on TV
In the first episode of the new season of HBO’s The Vow, which centers on the empowerment-group-turned-sex-cult NXIVM, there is a brief moment in which two former members of the group discuss Keith Raniere’s mother with one of Raniere’s ex-wives. The subtext is apparent: what a horrible mother this man must have had to turn him into such monster. Raniere’s ex-wife notes that his mother would “make herself sick to punish him,” the same way he would make himself sick to get members of the group to stop asking him questions.
I will likely watch the whole season of The Vow. NXIVM fascinates me not only because it’s sex meets cult meets empowerment culture meets capitalism meets MLM meets misogyny meets pop psychology meets coercion, but also because Raniere— the leader of NXIVM and the sex-trafficking subgroup DOS—is such an obviously manipulative dork looking to rationalize his own sense of entitlement to sex. He has literally built an entire trademarked, patented set of programs and theories to defend his desire to brand and own women, and to use them for his own sexual and emotional pleasure.
This week, the notion of the “right to sex” had a moment on the internet, which honestly, whatever, it was a train wreck, I’m not going to go into fully here, just read this book. The relevance of the subject, though, is this: incels and men’s rights groups have used the concept of a “right to sex” to excuse and explain violence against women and their sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Raniere, too, believes he was entitled to control and coerce women into sexual enslavement because he, according to himself, holds unique “tools” to emotionally and intellectually fix women he has deemed “defective.” (The first season of The Vow also includes videos circulated to NXIVM members positioning Raniere as a high-IQ savant/God, so it seems he thinks this, too, entitles him to sexual enslavement and emotional control of women.)
But basically, he’s a psychopath, and when I say that, I don’t mean that he is aberrant or particularly more monstrous than, say, any number of men in power who have created entire worlds to rationalize their control of women. Raniere has simply followed several threads of male power to their logical ends.
There are a lot of shows on right now about horrible men, some better than others. I started watching Monster–The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The first episode was so tense and nauseating I could hardly stand it. I’m not sure why I didn’t just turn it off right then. But I was ashamed to realize I didn’t know the full history of Dahmer’s killings—the way he targeted Black gay men, for instance. I grew up knowing only that the name Jeffrey Dahmer meant, yes, monster—a deviant, inhuman character.
The first few episodes of the show, though, do a good job illustrating the systemic failures of police, who ignored and disbelieved witnesses who were Black and poor, allowing Dahmer to keep on. The police didn’t really care about the victims that had gone missing either, people the police didn’t considered full citizens— a young Asian boy, many Black and gay men. The killings were horrific, but so was the characteristic incompetence of police officers who, for example, spoke with Dahmer and one 14 year-old victim—after Dahmer had drilled a hole in the victim’s head—and let him go, because while the officers disbelieved Dahmer’s Black neighbors, who knew something was wrong, they believed Dahmer, a white guy, who said the brain-dead boy he was with was his gay lover, non-responsive because had too much to drink.
Anyway, the show became too sick and psychologically fucked up for me to watch after like two episodes, and I wondered why I had been compelled to turn it on in the first place. In the past year or so, I’ve been more into true crime. It’s sort of a compulsion that I think comes from needing to experience the emotional and psychological chaos I often felt as a kid, growing up, in a manner that is controlled and simulated—that is not just me recreating that chaos in my own life.
But I also think there’s something about witnessing the worst of humankind during a dark era in history that helps some viewers, including me, feel a bit more in control—like at least this isn’t happening to me, at least my life isn’t that bad, at least I’m not being murdered. That’s definitely a move that is not without moral and ethical complications. Distancing ourselves from suffering or using the trauma of others to feel better about ourselves is, well, it’s own kind of fucked up. Full stop. But there is something about witnessing male violence in particular that sometimes feels, to me, like an affirmation— like, yes, this is how bad it is.
Other times, it feels like too much of the same old story. Or like the stories themselves don’t quite get the My husband is into Hulu’s The Patient, yet another show about a psychopathic serial killer, and I’ve been watching it semi-reluctantly with him. This plot isn’t based on a true story, but the premise is that the killer holds his therapist hostage, wanting to get well. Of course, the killer just goes on killing, and not much happens other than a massive amount of tension and psychological torment in each episode. But The Patient is interesting to me because Steve Carell is great, and because there are some loose associations between the violence of fascism (with recurring references to Nazism) and the violence of white men— the latter of which we often understand as individual and freak, rather than typical in a culture that teaches men that their violent impulses are normal and natural and permitted.
There are so many films and shows at the moment about violent male killers, and most of them characterize male violence as a case of a bad apple driven to extremes. A Friend of the Family is a truly fucked up story about a neighbor who gets chummy with a mid-century Mormon family, before kidnapping and assaulting one of their daughters AND convincing the parents that he’s not a criminal WHILE coercing both parents into sexual encounters. Jake Lacy, who plays the creepy-saccharine-sweet child abuser is great in the show, mostly because he pulls off playing a handsome, charming man who you hate and feel disgusted by the entire time.
A couple weeks ago, I finished the AppleTV miniseries Black Bird, a show about another serial rapist and killer. That show was terrible in the sense that it wasn’t very good at all, but I couldn’t stop watching it because Taron Egerton is just so fucking hot. The entire moral landscape of the show is very good guy/bad guy— Egerton is the bad boy turned hero, fighting to save women; Paul Walter Hauser, who plays the killer Larry Hall, is depicted as obscenely disgusting, and his performance is so melodramatic— such a performance of a MONSTER—as to be almost comical.
The general logic behind all these representations of male psychopathy, I suppose, is that people are interested in the dark recesses of the human psyche, that kind of bullshit. But really, what is so dark and illuminating about men who kill in a culture that tells them they are entitled to violence?
I feel most sickened by these shows when I start to feel any twinge of what Kate Manne calls himpathy, or the pivoting of our sympathetic faculties away from victims and on to abusers. In The Patient, the serial killer who has chained his therapist to the floor of his basement lives with his mother, who is doting and somewhat removed: she knows he’s a murderer, and gives him a hard time about it, but doesn’t call the police or disapprove of her son kidnapping his psychologist, because she feels badly that her son was abused by his father.
As I’ve written before, the story of a monstrous man driven mad by a mother who loves too little or not enough is a key feature of American mythology. Manipulative, smothering, and cold mothers are a common feature of our cultural representations of male psychopathy. This signals a fear of women, of reproduction, but also a fear of care—of how it threatens male power. But the bad mother of the killer also serves to arouse sympathy for men who perpetrate violence, and to remove them from responsibility. Suddenly, a woman is to blame for the crime!
One of Nxivm’s tactics, as a NYTimes report on their methods shows, was in fact to ask group members about their childhoods and then spin them a yarn about how their mothers (and maybe fathers) had placed them into positions of disempowerment. In the first episode of The Vox, we get another character who also appears to believe in the right to violence: Raniere’s defense attorney
On the most basic level, the default assumption that mad men are created by bad mothers, or bad fathers, is tied to our belief that families, not society, shapes people, even when it’s glaringly obvious that men become violent killers because we live in a culture that tells them that it’s in their nature to hurt and take what they want.
There’s also something deeply unsettling, for this reason, about the MONSTER archetype, which like our narratives on rape and gun violence, suggest that male violence is a surprise, rather than evidence of men simply following the violent logic of masculinity and misogyny to their conclusions.
Men grow up with a sense that they have the right to all sorts of violence: the right to bear arms, the right to sex. To be clear, no one has the right to violence, to sex, to ownership of another person’s body. But this has been the logic of misogyny and masculinity for centuries, and passing that thinking on to young boys is a form of violence in its own right.
I’m not sure if I what I feel in relation to these male psychopaths is always empathy, but it’s telling that these are still the stories filling our screens: the ones that urge us to ask why why how how, ignoring how obvious the answer is.