The thought came to me when I was fifteen and trying to sleep on New Year’s Eve. Nothing I recall had happened to incite it. I’d spent the night babysitting my younger siblings while my mother attended a party, and she returned home around one in the morning and everyone went to bed. (My parents had divorced, though they continued to quarrel as if married.) My brother was sleeping in the bunk below mine, and as I stared at the ceiling and listened to the house settle, I thought: Why don’t you go into the kitchen and get a knife and stab your family to death?
It wasn’t an impulse; it was a kind of philosophical question that I found myself pursuing. I thought of true-crime cases and wondered at the difference between, say, Charles Manson and me. Why was he capable of killing? Why was I not? Was it a matter of morality? But for me morality was tied to religion, and I’d declared myself an atheist a year or so before. Nor did man’s law amount to an automatic deterrent; some killings — those sanctioned or even performed by the state — were viewed as “right.” But wasn’t a life a life? So, if I wanted to get a knife and stab my family to death, as I knew I didn’t, why would that be any more “wrong” than a soldier killing in combat? Because my family was “innocent”? But weren’t many victims of war also innocent? And why was I wondering in the first place? Didn’t serial killers similarly brood before acting? I knew some did. I’d read the letters they sent to the press and police: Stop me before I kill again. I don’t want to do it, but I must. Maybe I was one of them. Maybe there was no difference between me and Charles Manson. You can’t choose what you are; you simply are.
I tossed and turned. The quiet of the sleeping house was loud — how loud was the quiet that followed murder? Maybe I was destined to know. I desperately wanted proof — irrefutable proof — that I would never hurt anyone as, more by the minute, seemed inevitable. It explained my interest in warfare and horror movies and birds of prey. I was literally sick with fear.
Though years would pass before I first heard the term, I was having a panic attack. I also had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Not that I physically performed the compulsions: repeatedly washing my hands or counting my steps. No, I suffered from what’s now known as pure obsessional OCD, commonly referred to as Pure O: morbid, or in any case unacceptable, ruminations “cleansed” by still more ruminations. The subconscious logic is homeopathic — like treated with like — and I was afraid I was going to kill, so over the next several months, I would dwell on murder when the fear came over me, repelling action with appalling thought.
Welcome to hell.
I avoided knives, and if forced to use one, I would hold it limply afterward like a rat by the tail and quickly discard it. I refused to see any movies or watch any TV shows potentially featuring violence, including comedies. So it was with books. Once, for an English class, I was assigned to read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” about a Southern family on a road trip, which struck me as the funniest story ever — until the family encountered The Misfit, an escaped convict who killed them one by one. I naturally saw myself as The Misfit, and, socially speaking, I was a misfit: I favored crowds over intimate settings, thinking crowds would keep my “urges” in check; but even then I might spot a pretty girl and picture myself killing her, since I knew that lust and murder were synonymous to a certain kind of homicidal mind.
I confessed my thoughts to my parents. They were dismissive, knowing my tendency to exaggerate, though my mother was concerned enough to seek out a therapist. He proved passive and useless, but there was a psychologist at my school, Mr. Hughs, who helped me considerably. I saw him for an hour every week in lieu of attending class, and he assured me that I wasn’t a Manson in the making. I didn’t believe him. I knew little about Manson at the time, but he was the most famous killer in America (though he never technically killed anyone), so I’d fixed on him as a prototype.
“But you’re nothing like Manson,” Mr. Hughs repeatedly told me. “You’re an exceptionally smart, talented young man.”
“And don’t you think Manson is smart? I mean, why can’t you be smart and a killer too? It happens, right? It’s got to.”
On and on it went: me trying to talk Mr. Hughs into confirming the worst. Finally one day, in the middle of a session, he stood, exasperated,and reached for a diagnostic tome.
“This is Charles Manson,” he announced, and he read aloud a profile of a psychotic personality type. I don’t remember what the type was called, but I instantly knew it didn’t apply to me. Of course, I might still be a killer of another type, but I learned something else from Mr. Hughs that somewhat set me at ease: he was counseling a teacher, a man, who’d been troubled by thoughts of killing his family. But they were just thoughts, Mr. Hughs emphasized. Everyone has strange thoughts — including those of murder.
The obsession began to lift, replaced by others. I had “cancer” on numerous occasions. I was “manic-depressive” and “borderline,” and only slowly did I realize that my real problem was OCD, which no therapist, including Mr. Hughs, had ever identified, since, again, I didn’t manifest the compulsions.
And then, years later, my first obsession briefly returned.
I was living in L.A. by then, and conducting another round of my long affair with a married woman I’ll call Anne. We’d met in New York, and I was friendly with her husband, but I lusted for Anne as she did for me, so we fooled around and stopped, and then we started again when I was in New York for an extended stay. I felt guilty about the affair, and returned to L.A. thinking it was over, but Anne followed me, telling her husband she was visiting friends. She’d obviously fallen for me, and her behavior seemed increasingly proprietary, with her insistence on serving me, as if trying to force a sense of debt, sulking or crying when I didn’t respond as desired. I was ten years younger than Anne, whose intensity rattled me, though it did make for pyrotechnics in the bedroom.
One night, as I was driving her to a bar in Hollywood where she’d arranged to meet friends, I pictured myself clubbing her with a tire iron that was lying on the floor of the car. Somebody had broken into the car that day, smashing a window, and the Santa Ana winds were blowing, causing traffic lights and palm trees to eerily sway, and Anne was sulking in the passenger seat, as she’d been sulking before at the house. All of this contributed to an anxious frame of mind, and the thought of attacking Anne triggered memories of similar thoughts at fifteen, and I was suddenly sure I must be a killer after all. I imagined Anne’s murder in horrifying detail, afterward dumping her body like the Hillside Strangler, an L.A. serial killer who’d surely driven with a victim on this very stretch when the Santa Anas were blowing. I was trying to scare myself, of course, as I had at fifteen, treating like with like, and that sparked a panic attack, which was worsened by the silence in the car and Anne’s ignorance of my ruminations. I sweated and struggled to breathe, my pulse racing, till finally, desperate, I did the unthinkable.
“Anne,” I said, as calmly as I could, “I have to tell you something: I just thought about killing you.”
Yes, I admitted it, but she wasn’t distressed. She’d always had an interest in psychology, especially of the abnormal sort, and her curiosity outweighed her fear. She immediately asked me a series of questions as if conducting an intake session, probing my childhood and drawing connections between this event and that one. We talked raptly till the very second we greeted her friends, somehow acting normally with them and resuming our talk the second we left the bar. I’d never been so forthcoming with anyone, including Mr. Hughs, and Anne was equally forthcoming with me. It continued for hours, both of us sharing our darkest thoughts, even in bed, where we seemed to melt into one another when the talk gave way to sex. I’d always thought fucking was fast and hard and making love was slow and gentle, but I was wrong, as I learned that night. In fact, before then, I’d never made love, since I’d never been truly naked. That was the difference: shedding all that hid my heart and exposing it to touch and light.
A reedited version of this piece appears in the nonfiction collection Subversia.