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“Rationalizing Crime” by Jessica McHugh


I’ve asked a number of authors I admire to answer the same question–why do criminals fascinate us so much?–and I will be posting each response here on my blog. It’s a question all writers–especially crime writers–should consider every once in a while. In my debut novel, Toxicity, I’ve dug deep into the minds of criminals. I have written about the bad guys. The ones we love but hate at the same time. If you haven’t pre-ordered a copy yet, I highly recommend you doing so for purely selfish reasons.

And now that you’ve done that, we will pass the time hearing what other writers in the industry have to say about the posed question.

Today Jessica McHugh destroys my blog with her essay about rationalizing crime. For those who are new to Jessica’s work, I highly recommend picking up her stripper serial killer novel, PINS, which completely rocked my stripey socks off. I will be publishing her surreal bizarro novel, The Green Kangaroos, through my own small press this August, so be ready for that. Stay updated with Jessica’s work over at her website and Facebook fan page.

What do you have for us today, Jessica?


“Rationalizing Crime”

by Jessica McHugh

Why are criminals so fascinating? Because they’re our neighbors. Because they’re our friends and family. Because they’re us.

We think we could never sink so low, never be anything but “good people,” but anyone can become a criminal when the right shade of desperation beats down the door.

There are obvious motivations behind the choices we humans make when it comes to committing unlawful acts. Sometimes we choose poorly because we’re selfish and shortsighted. Sometimes we choose poorly because we honestly see no other way out. But the obvious motivations aren’t always the strongest.

A knot of history and desire fuels every decision we make, the individual threads of which might remain mysteries—even to ourselves. Those threads are lifelines to criminals and the people who care about them. Tug the right thread, untangle and liberate it, and you might just save someone’s soul. Tug the wrong thread and doom two people in the process: the criminal, who falls harder into the pit, and you, who get to live with the guilt of pushing him over the edge.

The division between good and evil isn’t always clear, especially when it comes to the people we love. Some of us think we can help through enabling, while others think we can help by letting go. It isn’t surprising we get the runaround during those times. We’re flustered, doubting, praying, mourning…and after making an “educated” decision about how to deal with the crimes, our hopes sometimes get so high we don’t notice the criminals continuing to pick our pockets.

It’s why criminals are not the only fascinating ones. By existing, the unlawful world bleeds into the rest of life, notably the lives of those for whom love and hope persists. It’s amazing what crimes we’re able to justify, and what we’re willing to ignore for the right kind of criminal. When your son steals the chainsaw that cost you thousands of dollars and hocks it for fifty, what do you do? When he’s an addict who sold the chainsaw so he wouldn’t feel withdrawal sickness for a day, what do you do? When he’s become an addict because heroin helps him cope with the depression and anxiety that could’ve otherwise been treated with medication he can’t afford, what do you do? Call the police? Call the doctor? Believe him when he says, “It was just this once?” Or do you push it down deep, hoping the horror and sorrow won’t sour your own soul?

This is why we tell their stories: to rationalize their crimes against us. Did they really want to hurt us, or was every bad move made for just one moment of silence before mad desperation continued beating their doors? We hope fiction can give us some insight into those minds, as well as our own. Because although some wouldn’t admit it, we desperately want to know how much we, the “good people,” will tolerate before we answer the rapping at our own doors.