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.