The descriptions varied from tattooed gangster, to child molester, assaultive stepfather, car-jackin' junkie, and accident-causing drunk driver. Our professor smiled and nodded with each—predictable—presumption, and then she told us a story.
She told us a story about a quiet, retired working professional, a man known for his placating behavior. A calm man. A nice man. A patient man. A good neighbor; a man well-liked in the community, and how he killed his wife with a pickle jar.
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Seems the wife was…vociferous. And the man seemingly unperturbed by her…persistent form of communication. Yes dear, no dear, here's the salt dear, and twenty-years into the marriage—wham! Here's your @#$% pickles, dear!
Seems the man's placid exterior hid a deep-rooted antipathy.
While on the outside he nodded, and quietly went about his business, on the inside he was seething, a purportedly dormant volcano stirring a pot of molten fury deep beneath the surface. A man tightly capped. Only one day, the lid flew off, and while his wife's blood, co-mingled with pickle juice, seeped into the dining room carpet and her body was rolled and zipped into a coroner's bag, the man was led away in handcuffs. And so began our initiation into the complex, and fascinating world of human behavior.
I loved that class, perhaps because I love people; I love discovering what compels one person to serial murder, and another to obstetrics, especially when both are raised in the same family, with the same parents, in the same house, in the same small town or big city. And I love that motivation is as intricate as it is basic.
Emotions are complex, the impetus for action, simple. Most people act, or react, for one of few reasons: love, money, self-interest, and pride. But when these quantifiers are again broken down, they distill to one common denominator: fear.
Fear of loss, fear of rejection, fear of responsibility, fear of God, the devil, parental disapproval, adult relationships...the list is as large and varied as there are diverse people in the world.
In the case of the Pickle Jar man, I can only surmise he was afraid of one more day of verbal, and mental emasculation, but even more terrified of speaking his truth, of staking his personal ground in the relationship. Instead, he let the emotional wounds fester until he was so toxic with hurt and resentment, he snapped, and committed an act far more heinous, grievous, and permanent than booking an appointment with a counselor, signing up for Toast Masters, or telling his wife to get off her behind and get the pickles herself if she wanted them that badly.
And it is this convoluted, problematical equation of interpersonal relationships Romance authors attempt to navigate as they weave knotty storylines balancing muddled feelings, thwarted wants, and defined needs within a mutable romantic landscape. They're like FBI profilers, but where the FBI agent starts with a result and works backward, deconstructing the actions and people involved to arrive at plausible motivation and, hopefully, a satisfactory ending—in which they identify and catch the perpetrator—the romance novelist starts with an intended result—the satisfactory ending—and from there constructs the characters, motivation, and plausibility toward their ultimate goal—engaging the hearts and minds of readers. And even that desired outcome is fraught with ambivalence; the dismal prospect of failure balanced against the equally terrifying potential of success.
What about you...is there something you want as much as you fear it? Please share in the comments, if you're of a mind.
We live in an epoch in which the solid ground of our preconceived ideas shakes daily under our certain feet. ~Barbara Ward