What about the 84%?
Dr. Josie Pearse asks: Why is the murderer (almost) always adopted?
I'm talking about a stereotype that I began to notice many many years ago on programmes like The Bill which my dad watched. It was inevitable that if you were over my adoptive parents' house he would settle down at 7 or 7.30 in the evening to watch the longest running police procedural ever. He was one of millions. It was a soap opera really, at a police station with a different crime each episode. You couldn't avoid it. It was perfectly easy TV after work. My mother would mostly disappear to the kitchen and it was my cue to go home.
There was money to be made from writing for it. I heard a number of TV writers speak who got their first breaks with The Bill and at one point I decided to stay and watch with my dad, with the idea I might write something. I watched a few. It certainly followed a formula, a rhythym that chugged along with breaks for ads. Learning the formula was clearly necessary so I studied it. But I also began to notice something else. The crime wasn't always murder but when it was, I woke up to how many of the planned ones were committed by adopted or fostered adults. And if, God forbid, a serial killer was loose in Sun Hill then there was no doubt they would be adopted or fostered; none at all. I also noticed there was no other motive or explanation. The adoptees, care survivors, fostered people, killed simply because they didn’t grow up in their natural home. It put me off.
I made efforts to counter stereotypes in my job. But adoptees and care-experienced people had not at that time, as far as I am aware, organised about portrayal. I was busy finding my mother and brother, dealing with the fallout in my relationships from reunion. As a group we were fighting for legal changes, for whole files to made available to us, for realism in our searching groups around another stereotype - the reunion story - and for acknowledgement of race to be a factor in adoption. But we had not yet organised about stereotyping. That's had to wait until recently, see Care Experience & Culture.
In the job I did - adult literacy - we were conscious of early childhood differences and had regular training sessions for our comfortable, well-meaning volunteers to remind them that not everyone had a happy childhood and we shouldn't assume beginner writers would want to write about theirs. That was about as inclusive as the real world got. TV was years behind and for me, as an adoptee, honestly, I had educated myself and at work I felt part of the privileged world.
I did feel annoyed about the murderers though. My antennae were up and I began to notice the stereotype in other TV crime dramas. A stereotype is something that doesn’t change. In studying writing, you learn that character driven plot is largely about the character changing. But these murderers weren't really characters. The police were the characters. The murderer was one dimensional.
This was schlock though, so why take it seriously? As I look back it's no stretch to say that the stereotype affected me. I felt I should be grateful. I was lucky to be relatively sane, have a social life, have a job I believed in and get by financially. After all I could have gone to the bad. Not going to the bad was also my compensation and my moral containment. Only later in life have I seen how small my aspirations were. It's a pauper's aspiration. A stereotypical orphan's. As if, despite growing up in a lower middle class home, not going to the bad had to be my main drive and everything else was just a dream. Never mind imposter syndrome, what about unconsciously absorbing-the-bad-news on-every-day-TV syndrome. I can't say this is true for every #cep. But my bet is that staying right, not going bad, whatever it means to each of us, is a big thing we do.
But what about the implications of having this stereotype fed into the common consciousness each evening? What effect on the population who switch on the box each evening? The tension is exciting, problems are solved and in the end justice seems to be served but oh, wait...watch out for those people without families... They all end up in prison, right, though. So the world is safe.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries orphans were most often heroes - as they are today in children's books and comics. Without the constraints of parents they were free to get into all kinds of jolly scrapes. Moll Flanders and Tom Jones are not one dimensional, they change and survive everything life throws at them mainly because of their good natures - and despite their parental absence or rottenness. Later in the nineteenth century with the rise of the middle classes, orphans like Oliver Twist were also likely to suffer trials but through their true nature be restored to their rightful (usually middle class or wealthy) place in society. But since the twentieth centry and TV, our most common plotline is that because our parents were dead, dysfunctional, unable...we must be serial killers. I started counting eventually and by my reckoning 90% of TV serial killers were orphans.
Even great writers were using this fixed image. Three examples - all by such wonderful writers it pains me to call them out. But in the name of awareness let me do it: The Bridge - great Scandi drama. The plot point at the end means the killer has to have a birth mother. He uses her garage to wall up his victim. The Fall - by the wonderful Paul Abbott: the murderer was ‘fostered in different homes'. No Offence - the plot is about the betrayal of the main character. Beautifully done. But the murderer ‘came from the nuns.’
So why have even great writers succumbed to this laziness? Some of it is perhaps because #ceps have all this complexity in our lives - in The Bridge the killer takes advantage of the invisibility of birth mothers to...commit a series of murders of course. But the main serial killer type seems to stem from some FBI statistics prepared in 1999 and written up in journals ever since. The internet was a baby in 1999, so I imagine some writer's excitement of coming across a journal in a library after an afternoon's search. Of 500 serial killers in the United States, the FBI had found, 16% were adoptees. The figure was big, given that only 2-3% of that population at large was adopted. The problematizing began: the 16% got all the attention. Adoptees were 8 times more likely to be serial killers. On and on...too much to read in journals of social work if your imagination is a scriptwriter's and you have started seeing the possible plot...
It’s not uncommon for adopted people to be studied and problematized in the post-Freudian world. The one that always gets my goat into battle mode is the twins separated at birth and adopted by different families. The twins grow up to have identical tastes, or properties. There's only one word for the people who did the ethics review on that study...the people who knew where the two siblings were and studied them rather than reunited them...and the word is not writeable.
The point though, surely, now, so many years later, that 84% of serial killers presumably come from average, biological, unseparated families. What about them? Why don't they get portrayed in proportion to their prevalence? There may be all kind of plotting reasons why not but...84% of all people are serial killers.? Shout it from the rooftops!
The wider picture has to be that the narrative of the killer adoptee is so acceptable because a normal family is the primary unit of capitalism and we need to reinforce it's importance if this world is to continue on it's jolly, unconscious path to destruction and extinction. Simple really.
But it's not simple for people who through no fault of their own have grown up with a wound. For that wound to be explained away without any hope of redemption is rotten and lazy. It's just one more travesty. So come on writers out there, lets look at the 84%. Let's problematize them for a change. Even the right way round: 84% of serial killers are ordinary people, is so much more interesting than the bad blood angle.
There is hope. There are exceptions. Jane Campion's second series of Top of the Lake portrays the whole, messy, imperfect, triangle of mother, adoptive mother, adoptive father and teen-aged adoptee. The beauty of it is that...perhaps because I've watched so many... I did suspect the adoptee the whole way through. No spoilers. If you were adopted, over to you, it's on Netflix. You can switch on the box and relax for once.