I Want to Tear You Apart

I write all of my books to music, as I’ve mentioned before. Some of my books are written while listening to music, but the process for Mr. Monster was different, and a little unique. Every day as I sat down to write I would pull up She Wants Revenge, a sort of Interpol-ish band that I really like, and listen to the song “Tear You Apart.” It was almost like a ritual before writing, to get myself into the right mood and frame of mind; once I’d listened to the song I’d turn my music off and dive into the manuscript.

The song, if you haven’t heard it, is dark and shocking and conflicted and awesome–it captures perfectly the way I wanted John and his story to feel in the book. The lyrics tell the story of a young man struggling shyly and awkwardly with a crush: he likes a girl, but he doesn’t know how to talk to her. He grows closer to her, kind of sweet but also kind of creepy–just a little obsessed–until the chorus finally allows him to express himself, using words we’re fairly certain he’d never have the courage to say to her face: “I want to hold you close,” etc. etc., getting more and more intimate until we’re shocked by the fierce “I want to ******* tear you apart.”

This is the most wonderful depiction of sociopathic romance I’ve ever seen: a superficially sweet attraction is in fact obsessive and premeditated (“Got a big plan, his mind set, maybe it’s right, at the right place and right time: maybe tonight.”) You can listen to it here, in the official, bad-words-bleeped-out video on youtube, though I recommend that you don’t actually watch the video the first few times–it’s cool, but it’s telling a very different story than the actual lyrics and I want you to experience it first the way it was intended. The young man in the song tries to get closer to the girl, to find excuses to talk to her, but when he sees her he gets too freaked out and actually throws up and has to hide. As his emotions bubble closer and closer to the surface they become harsher, more dangerous, until the line between love and violence is suddenly and shockingly broken, and his dream of making out turns into a violent fantasy. One of the lines I especially love is “Lie still, close your eyes girl; so lovely, it feels so right,” which would sound fairly innocuous in a peppy pop song by, say, Jimmy Eat World or Matchbox 20, but here takes on a deliciously subtle connotation of necrophilia. This man’s problems go far beyond not knowing how to talk to a girl: he literally doesn’t know how to feel or express love in anything approaching a healthy or positive way.

This is incredibly accurate to the sociopathic mindset–in fact, it is the mental link between love and violence that defines most serial killers and sets them on the path toward murder. A child who is beaten or abused by an authority figure, especially if that abuse is sexual, develops a completely unique set of emotional benchmarks that literally change they way they feel and perceive love. Think about how you define love, intimacy, and family interaction: getting a hug from your dad, giving a hug to your child, snuggling on the couch with a baby in your lap or a comforting arm around your shoulder. Most people in the world learn about love from loving people–we get a hug and kiss from our mother and it makes us feel good, and we learn to connect our concept of “love” with actions such as “hugging,” “comforting,” “helping,” and so on. Now imagine on the other hand a mother who beats her child, viciously and with very little provocation; she might even say something like “I’m doing this because I love you,” partly to justify the beating to herself as a valid form of punishment. In especially dysfunctional homes that beating might be the only physical contact or intimacy the child ever has with his mother–what emotions and actions will that child associate with the concept of love? Now consider a father who sexually abuses his daughter, or beats and berates his wife in full view of the children–what perception will those children gain of the concept of love and physical intimacy? For many of these children the entire concept of love is broken: they don’t see it the same way we do because they’ve never experienced it the way we have.

This is not to suggest, of course, that abused children will grow up to be killers–it’s true that most abused children grow up to become abusers, but the percentage that actually turn into killers is fairly small. It’s also true that some people become serial killers without ever experiencing abuse–their wires get crossed not by the actions of others but by their own fantasies, born of pornography or other media, teaching them that people are objects and that love is a form of control.

Turning a child into a serial killer takes a precise mix of ingredients: first you need the right mindset, the early stages of Conduct Disorder (a precursor to sociopathy) that change the way a child sees and interacts with other people. Then throw in some crossed emotional wires, either through abuse or extensive sexual fantasies, linking his feelings of love and attraction with thoughts of violence, control, and pain. Once the child has these thoughts in his head he needs an opportunity to act on them, whether through accident or design, but this is the key–the decision to hurt another person still lies wholly within that person’s power. They can still say yes or no; no one is “forced” to become a killer or a rapist or an abuser, though it can often be very difficult to avoid.

This is the place where we find John Cleaver in Mr. Monster: he has the disorder, he has the skewed perception of love, and he has a beautiful girl thrust wildly into his life–in the past he’s always avoided this kind of contact, knowing what it could lead to, but that’s simply not an option anymore. He drives Brooke to school; she talks to him at lunch; even his mother starts pushing them together, hoping that a good, healthy friendship will help pull John out of this silly sociopathic funk he’s been wallowing in. But John is not very good at healthy friendships, and the pressure is building, and the closer he gets to her the closer he gets to simply breaking down, losing control, and tearing her apart.

17 Responses to “I Want to Tear You Apart”

  1. T.J. says:

    You’ve inspired me! Ok, not in the way that’s mentioned here, but to listen to music that’ll fit my character’s mood. I think that’ll help get me in the right mindset.
    By the way: need more bacon-maple bars like a zombie needs more brains.

  2. Creeptastic! I’m going to look up that song. Mine is ‘The Howling’ by Within Temptation although ‘What Have You Done Now’ is the other one I listen to regularly while I’m writing.

  3. Love the analysis and illumination. I use music too when writing; it must be fairly common. Soundtracks get it done for me most of the time, but during action or high-emotion scenes, I need hard rock or metal.

  4. Eliza says:

    That is a great examination of that song! I’ve always loved it. A lot of their songs have some very twisted psychological motivations winding through them.

    I write to music as well, though I’ve been struggling to find the right thing for my current WIP. That’s okay, though. I’m in the early stages. At what point in the process do you generally find the right kind of music for your project? Or does it vary from work to work?

  5. I look forward to reading Mr. Monster–it sounds really intense.
    And that’s a pretty interesting song you listen to. I sometimes use music to get me in the mood to write as well, since I can’t really focus on writing while the music is playing.

  6. Mike L says:

    That album is easily my favourite of the last ten years, and top 5 all-time for sure. I can’t write with music playing, but I’ve had several stories inspired by just the right song – 1 by The Pixies, 1 by Megadeth, and 1 by Placebo so far. Sadly, nothing by She Wants Revenge yet.

    I also had to gripe at my book retailer yesterday. For a large chain, they’re doing a pretty poor job of filling pre-orders and I haven’t received my copy of Mr. Monster yet. They seem to have fixed their problem and I hope to have it within a couple of days. I’m looking forward to it.

  7. Max Moseley says:

    I know this is kind of off topic, but what exactly are you writing now?

  8. Lily says:

    I’d like to take the idea of love and violence a bit further and say “connection and violence.” Granted, most connections *are* related to love, even if it’s just sympathy for a stranger, but those like the ability to instantly read and interpret body language aren’t. Sociopaths, of course, are incapable of normal connections, love-based or not, but may yearn for them and, as you mentioned, in unfortunate cases seek them through control and violence.

    As I read your post, I kept thinking about that scene in the kitchen where John is threatening his mother:

    “She was terrified of *me. . . . *

    “This was it. This was what I had never felt before — an emotional connection to another human being. I’d tried kindness, I’d tried love, I’d tried friendship . . . . and nothing had ever worked until now. Until fear. I felt her fear in every inch of my body like an electric hum, and I was alive for the first time.” (pg. 214)

    Teenagers are notorious for lashing out at their parents when being unwillingly parented, but Mr. Cleaver takes it a step further, and ends up creating an unexpected connection through fear. Since he doesn’t have the underlying web of “I love you and so you make me frustrated and angry,” though, the emotions leading up to the scene are just “frustrated and angry.” I don’t think John was trying to express — or thought his actions expressed — filial love.

    I’d argue that John Cleaver has a better idea of love than many serial killers. While he had a rough childhood, he didn’t endure sexual or — I believe — verbal abuse. He demonstrates comprehension of the elements of love involved in his Mom’s behavior toward him and the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Crowley even before his inspired speech near the end of the second book. As much as his fantasies about Brooke involve hurting her and creating an epiphanic connection through control and pain, I don’t think he’d mistake those actions with love, certainly not the love of his mother or the Crowleys.

    The reason I bring all this up is that there’s a scene in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novella “Suspicion” which reminds me of John’s reaction to his mother’s fear.

    The speaker is Dr. Emmenberger, a physician notorious for performing surgery without anaesthesia in the Nazi concentration camps (all his “patients” were volunteers; he promised to have them moved to a better camp if they survived the operation.) He currently works in a private institution for the rich and dying, and is chatting with the protagonist as a way to pass the time before killing him:

    “I dared to be myself and nothing besides. I devoted myself to that which made me free — murder and torture; for when I kill another human being — and I will do it again at seven — when I place myself outside of every human order that has been erected by our weakness, I become free, I become nothing but a moment, but what a moment! An intensity as huge, as powerful, and as unjustified as matter, and in the screams and in the torment that bursts out at me from open mouths and glassy eyes, in the quivering, helpless, white flesh under my knife, I see the reflection of *my* triumph, *my* freedom, and nothing else.”

    Utter control — over his victim, over death, over life, over matter itself — sets Dr. Emmenberger free, just as John’s control over his mom in the kitchen makes him feel alive for the first time.

    I think John’s problems stem less from confusion over love’s nature and how to express it and more from the feelings of helplessness engendered by his lack of connection — any normal connection — with other people. He can’t communicate properly with the people important to him, can’t even read them like other people can — heck, a stranger can probably tell more about his mom’s emotions at a glance than he can — and it’s frustrating beyond belief. Conrol, hurting, and killing if it came to it, are a way to forge his own connections that *he* can understand and wield. It’s a form of one-upmanship and maybe even, at some level, revenge (see how *you* like it when you’re in a situation you don’t know how to respond to!)

    Whatever it or the cause is, however, I think that Brooke should find someone else to date. :)

  9. Martin says:

    I always write to music, but for some reason it has to be instrumental music. If there is lyrics, then my brain stops focusing on the writing and starts listening to the words.
    My favorite band to write to is the Japanese band MONO. Their songs are so dramatic and they even have sort of a three act structure to them, which makes the words flow faster and faster as the songs build up to the climax.

  10. Christoph says:

    Dan, you should totally add a “Now Playing” to the side bar. It is really interesting, and might lead to wild guessing what you are writing at the moment just by getting the feel of the music you hear. Sounds like fun!

  11. Rose says:

    I always write to music as well. There’s something about it that really kicks into the inspiration, and for me – either those with lyrics or simply instrumentation tend to strike me. I can focus on either a specific set of lyrics or just the rhythm to evoke a mood. I usually create playlists for the things I write and have certain songs playing when I’m working on a scene or chapter. I’m kind of a chameleon when it comes to listening to music, so it’s reflected in the moods I create.

    Very interesting expansion and interpretation of “Tear You Apart.” I’ve heard it before, but I can definitely see how you used the song with John Cleaver.

  12. C12VT says:

    Actually, it’s not true that most abused children grow up to become abusers, though they are at an increased risk for this (about 30% of abused children become abusers as adults; see http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics). Not to nitpick, and yes, 30% is still pretty high, but I think it’s important for abuse victims to know that they won’t inevitably repeat the cycle – the odds are actually somewhat in their favor for breaking it. And the perception of abused=abuser can lead to stigmatization of the victims.

  13. Andrea says:

    Definitely an appropriate song. I’m also reminded of “Angry Johnny”; http://www.lyricsdepot.com/poe/angry-johnny.html

  14. Hannah says:

    Now I’m really curious as to what motivated She Wants Revenge to write that song…
    I always kinda pictured the end of I am Not a Serial Killer to fit with ‘Mama’ by My Chemical Romance, or ‘Bird and the Worm’ by Muse. The end of Mr Monster I linked to ‘Famous Last Words’ by My Chemical Romance.

  15. Eden says:

    Was pointed this way by someone else — it makes me a bit uncomfortable that you’re repeating the false perception that all abused people become abusive. It isn’t true, and it’s really harmful for abused people to be bombarded with that message in the media they consume, too.

  16. admin says:

    I didn’t say ‘all,’ I said ‘most,’ which is, according to my research, still true. I apologize if new studies I’m not aware of have proven that false; if there are, please point me to them. I agree, however, that bombarding abused people with that message is potentially harmful, if we are not also bombarding them with the message that they have the power to break the cycle. I did not include that hopeful half of the message in this article, and for that I also apologize.

  17. Eden says:

    The study linked in an above comment, by C12VT, shows statistics of 30% of abused people becoming abusers. That means 70% do not, which means the majority do not.

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