The Gospel, Psychopathy, and the Executioner’s Song

I just finished the Norman Mailer true-crime book The Executioner’s Song, an account of the murders and execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. The Gilmore case received a lot of attention because 1) it was the first death penalty carried out after capital punishment was re-legalized in the US, and 2) Gilmore himself refused to try to fight or delay the execution, going so far as to send out cheeky invitations to his execution. The combination of 1 and 2 led to a bizarre situation where anti-death penalty activists fought tooth and nail to get his execution dropped or at least delayed while Gilmore himself kept telling them to bug off. (And, fun sidebar, his almost-last words were the direct inspiration for the Nike slogan of “Just Do it.”)

Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize and being suffused throughout with Latter-day Saint themes (plus, holding up on its own as a historical account of mid-century Mormon Utah), for some reason The Executioner’s Song isn’t usually included in lists of the canon of “Mormon Literature.” This oversight is especially pointed because this is one of the few accounts written by outsiders that didn’t give into the temptation to sensationalism.

Mailer is observing Mormonism in its natural habitat like a naturalist who doesn’t make opinionated commentary in her notes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormon culture are there and are interwoven with the narrative, but naturally and on its own terms, not as exotic props to get clicks/views/sales. Blood Atonement is mentioned, but so is Gilmore’s spirit (dressed in white) visiting his Latter-day Saint friend and his name going on the prayer roll. There is certainly much to say on the issue of the Church, Mormon culture, and capital punishment (for example, I heard that we’re the only state that allows executions by firing squad because of the vestiges of blood atonement, but I’ve never seen any hard evidence for that; if you have some drop them in the comments). I suspect all of that has been discussed elsewhere; what this book got me thinking about again are various strands of thought about psychopathy and the gospel that have been percolating in my head for a while.

We like consistent narratives. For people on the left murders are often committed by Jean Valjean-like victims of inequality and racism driven to committing crime in a moment of passion that they would never do in normal circumstances, and for the right they’re born-evil, sniveling, child-killing psychopaths. The complex, cold reality is Gilmore was fun dude you could go out for a beer and talk late into the night with and also not be surprised when you heard that he shot two immobilized strangers execution-style in the back of the head for a hundred dollars. 

In the execution scene, Gilmore’s last interaction involves his priest giving the Catholic greeting “The Lord be with you,” and Gilmore responds with the traditional “and with your spirit;” moments later the priest is cradling Gilmore’s bloodied body. In that moment in the book, the death penalty does seem like a sort of odd human sacrifice for civic religion. (Another example of this is what I consider to be one of the most powerful execution scenes in cinema in Monster’s Ball, where they open up the curtains to allow the audience to watch and it feels like you’re watching Hostel). 

On the other hand, moments after Gilmore, almost on a whim, killed the struggling family man (that Mailer just spent pages and pages describing) you want to take Gilmore out to the back alley and unceremoniously put a bullet in the back of his head. By talking at great length about both the victims and Gilmore as human beings Mailer forces us to uncomfortably hold the paradox without didactically shoehorning it into his own narrative, because at the end of the day that’s the reality of psychopathy. Yes, some of them are sniveling monsters, but most of them live and play among us as human beings. 

Based on the book’s information, I’m assuming that Gilmore was a psychopath (I realize that armchair diagnoses are fraught for a number of reasons, although he was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, which is the closest thing we have to an official DSM psychopathy diagnosis). However, psychopathy isn’t just doing brutal things to people. Some of the people we think of as the classic psychopaths probably weren’t. For example, there’s an interesting history of murderers undergoing what I think are sincere religious conversions and showing remorse. The Son of Sam who randomly killed people and terrorized New York City in the 1970s is now “Brother Sam” after his conversion to evangelical Christianity. What makes him seem sincere to me is that he refuses to push for his release and apparently feels like God wants him helping people inside prison for the rest of his life. Similarly, the quintessential “psychopath,” Jeffrey Dahmer, who tortured, killed, and ate over a dozen people, became a born-again Christian in jail, and, taking turn the other cheek very literally, refused to press charges or ask for protection against people who assaulted him in prison, even though he was aware that he would probably be killed, and eventually was. (Another side plug, his father’s memoir, a Father’s Story, is also an eye-opening look into how somebody handled their child turning into literally the worst thing possible). 

Interestingly, the most prominent “functioning sociopath” memoir was written by an ex-BYU Law Professor, (She drops hints of her membership in the Church throughout the early part of the book, but the chapter titled “I am a Child of God” finally nailed it for me). It’s been a while since I’ve read it but Thomas, (a pseudonym), describes being color blind in a world of moral colors. She can’t rely on some sort of internal compass because she doesn’t have one; instead she relies on a combination of utilitarianism (your own life isn’t going to go well if you burn down everything around you) and a sort of legal-theological reasoning for the basis of her morality. 

Like the virtuous pedophiles I talked about a few weeks ago, “virtuous psychopaths” are an inconvenient population for certain worldviews (but in different ways). We like to think that everybody has the light of Christ or a conscience and it’s just a matter of cultivating it, but what if they just don’t have the necessary hardware? People are judged according to the light that they have, but for those without a conscience can that light take the form of more cold, rational-legal principles? Is adherence to that “light” what psychopaths will be judged on, even though the phenomenology is totally different? Will functioning, non-offending psychopaths be cured in the hereafter and experience a conscience for the first time on the other side of the veil? (I think so, but the idea of radically changing something so intrinsic to a person is problematic for some worldviews). In Thomas’ account she talks about how she related to the Old Testament God; as long as we normies protect ourselves, is there possibly some benefit to having this kind of neurodiversity, even in the Church? 

(Fun personal anecdote sidebar, when I was in elementary school I remember asking my mom why Hitler killed himself, and my angel mother, who probably didn’t know many of the details of the Battle of Berlin, replied that she thinks everybody experiences a conscience at least once in their life, so I spent my elementary school years thinking that Hitler had a sudden stroke of conscience and essentially blood atoned himself at the end.)  

Psychopaths are also an inconvenient population for people whose ethics are not based on some “writing in the sky” as Richard Rorty put it. When pressed on the issue of how we can have an ethical structure that applies to all humans universally without believing in anything beyond us, Christopher Hitchens would often invoke his internal compass, but once again what if somebody doesn’t have an internal compass? Without an internal compass, people need to rely on some kind of external law that is outside them, but in hundreds of years meta-ethics as an academic discipline really doesn’t have a solid equation showing why, outside of our gut, we should do certain things. A psychopath who wants to, for whatever reason, adopt some kind of ethical code can’t systematically develop one by reading graduate-level ethics textbooks. Yes, I know that I’m glossing over a huge can of worms with moral skepticism versus moral realism, the is-ought problem, etc., another post for another day, but IMHO it’s very hard to get to some external law that imposes itself on us from the all-are-atoms premises of naturalism. The lack of such an external moral law of nature is not a huge problem from a practical perspective if we all just get along and use our natural intuitions to abhor murdering old people, but the existence of the psychopath problematizes that perspective, because at the end of the day we don’t really have a good response to the psychopath’s why except to say that the answer is in a language they can’t understand, but trust us. 

So, while not common, and while usually not looking like their Hollywoodized version, the existence of the psychopath raises some uncomfortable questions both about our essence as children of God, but also for those who think we can kind of coast through life on our gut while ignoring the foundation of it all. 

4 comments for “The Gospel, Psychopathy, and the Executioner’s Song

  1. I wonder if the Book of Mormon anticipated that the atonement would have some applicability to sociopaths. Mosiah 3:11 suggests that Christ’s “blood atoneth for the sins of those” individuals who were prevented from “knowing the will of God concerning them.” If sociopaths don’t have access to a conscience, perhaps they fit this description.

  2. Great post there are more types of neurodiversity than we commonly acknowledge in our day to day way we approach each other.

  3. As a follow up to Mailer’s book, I strongly recommend Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore (Gary’s brother).

  4. @Sterling: Interesting take on that passage; the easy interpretation is that it’s for the non-proselytized, but extending it to people who who are stifled from learning His will for psychological or other less geography-based reasons opens up all sorts of rich possibilities.

    @E: Indeed, I’m becoming more and more aware of that as I get older. Our working assumption is that for basic fundamentals everybody sees the world in kind of the same way we do, but that assumption gets problematized as we really get to know enough people.

    @ GC: Thanks, going on my to-read list!

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