Even before I asked this question, I expected some interesting responses: all of them thoughtful and intelligent, though perhaps varied. But my expectations were hugely exceeded, as you’ll see from the deep, honest responses from Eileen Cook, Jessica Martinez, Robin Wasserman, Thomas Mullen, Kim Sabatini and Denise Jaden below. This is a long entry –I thought about breaking it into two posts– but the juxtaposition of each answer (the commonalities, the differences) is necessary and great. I encourage you to read on, and that doing so might make you carefully consider your own response!
Jessica Martinez (The Space Between Us, Virtuosity)
I’ve got the right answer! Pick me, pick me!
That’s a lie. I’ve been mulling over this question for weeks now and my answer still feels wrong, but I can’t seem to make myself change it.
I’m going to assume I’m not worried about the loved one killing someone else. Nobody else is in danger. I’m also going to assume I’m not worried about getting caught for not ratting, since that kind of self-interest muddies the real issue here. The real issue is which is more important: honesty or love. Right?
(By the way, if you’re thinking about this question, you aren’t really thinking about it until you insert the people in your life into the equation. Your mom. Your brother. Your best friend. Your boyfriend. Go there. It changes everything.)
I think I want to be the person who could turn a loved one in. No matter how high the stakes are, honesty is supposed to be the right answer—I’ve had that drilled into me since I was a little girl. But do I actually want to be that moral? I think so. I really do. Living with the guilt of having turned in someone I loved would be terrible, but I’d have my integrity.
Ten years ago, I think I could’ve done it.
Here’s the problem. That answer means choosing ideals over reality, principals over people, and it’s possible that age has tarnished my youthful idealism enough to pull me to the other side. In just the last few years I’ve learned something about myself: When a loved one is threatened, I go a little crazy. Maybe more than a little. When it comes to my kids or my husband or my brothers and sisters, I have a very primal, physical response. It would take superhuman strength for my brain to put lofty ideals of justice and integrity over this instinct to protect my loved ones. I can quiet all sorts of impulses, but I don’t want to quiet this one. Honestly, I don’t think I would even try, or that there would even be much of a question in my mind as to whether or not to turn one of them in. I just wouldn’t. So, I guess that’s my right answer. I wouldn’t. Too bad it still feels like the wrong one.
Robin Wasserman (The Waking Dark, The Book of Blood and Shadow, et al)
I got this question the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, and by the time the police released a photo of a suspect who looked like a random college student, the question had burrowed into my mind. When we found out it was some random college student, some ostensibly well-liked and well-adjusted Cambridge kid with friends who are still scratching their heads in disbelief…well, suffice it to say that I can’t bring myself to give you the kind of jokey answer I usually reserve for interview questions demanding deep thoughts.
I went to college in Boston; I had friends that went t Cambridge Rindge and Latin—come to think of it, I used to udge high school debate tournaments at Rindge and Latin. These are tenuous and meaningless connections, the kind of thing it makes you feel a little guilty to dwell on—except that dwelling on them is sometimes the only thing that makes the inconceivable conceivable, less a shocking reality TV show and more a tragedy, hundreds of tragedies, to mourn.
So I watch these kids—and, appallingly, I’m now old enough that a shaken and confused 20 year old getting interviewed on CNN reads as “kid”—try to parse the mystery, that evil had taken the form of someone they knew, someone they liked. I read about the kids who maybe, probably, knew what their friend did and, unfathomably, decided to help him. I imagine going online and discovering in the fuzzy photo of a crazed mass murderer the face of someone you love.
Do you call the police? Would I call the police? Yes. Obviously, yes. I can say that, easily, and I believe it. But maybe that’s because there’s a superior voice in the back of my head saying: Not me. I would never be so deeply fooled. I could never love someone who had it in him to do something like that. Some acts are so evil, they must be transformative, I think; some acts can only be committed by a monster. Who could love that? I imagine things for a living, but here my imagination hits a wall.
But: Maybe this is too easy. You asked about murder, and—as I know from watching every episode of every crime procedural on TV—murder comes in an infinity of shapes and sizes. It doesn’t come small enough to be justified…but to be understood? To be overlooked? To be written off as an accident or a pitiable moment of insanity, a wound to be healed rather than a crime to be punished?
A panicked hit-and-run, a bar fight gone out of control, an act of vengeance, an act of desperation… if you loved someone enough, wouldn’t you desperately grab for an excuse, something, anything, that could banish evil and explain the unthinkable away?
I knew someone once, I loved someone once, someone good, whom I could have imagined doing something terrible. It never happened, but I used to think about it sometimes, wondering what I would do, if. Whether I would do the right and legal thing, or whether—as seemed possible at the time—there would be a nobility in fulfilling the obligations of love, in being strong enough to understand and forgive.
Now, I don’t believe there is. Not anymore, while I’m safe in my cozy belief that no one I know and love will ever doing anything deeply wrong. Now, I believe crime deserves punishment and that everyone, even and especially the people close to me, should bear responsibility for their decisions. I am, in general, a disgustingly rule-abiding person: I tell the cashier when he gives me too much
change, I stop my bike for red lights even when the street is deserted, and as my best friends from high school will attest, I have never allowed a single piece of homework to be copied.
I follow the rules partly because in a lot of ways, it makes things easier— and because I’ve only ever had easy rules to follow. But if it hurt? If it meant sacrificing someone I thought I loved, something I thought I needed? If the alternative was telling myself a story, you and me against the cold unfeeling world, you the victim of circumstance, me the one to protect you from yourself and all those people who wouldn’t understand, what would I do?
I hope I’m old enough and wise enough now to know better. I hope I’m strong enough not to fall for anyone’s crap, including my own. I hope I’m the kind of person who will always do the right thing, no matter how hard it gets. But more than anything I hope I’ll never have to find out.
Thomas Mullen (The Revisionists, The Last Town On Earth, et al)
What would I do if someone I knew told me they’d committed a murder?
Funny, I wrote a book about that. Actually, it’s come up in two of my books, so I should have a good answer to this. Sort of. Well, I do, but those answers are each about 400 pages long.
You’re probably hoping for a shorter answer.
OK, all kidding aside (since this is serious business), you actually don’t have many options here. Any options. You can pretend you have options, but you don’t. If you think that one of your options is to help them get away with it, then you have now committed a major crime yourself (it’s called “accessory after the fact” if you’re into legal lingo). Which means that your friend or relative’s crime has now become your crime.
Sure, you love this person. It’s your brother or your father or one of your best friends, or maybe your boyfriend. But let’s be realistic here – there’s pretty much no conceivable way that they’re going to get away with it. Set-up’s like these do not end well. They try to get away with it, but they can’t. They get busted. Eventually. Maybe it takes a whole year or three, but there comes a day when they let something slip or get photographed at a sporting event and some random witness to the crime sees it, and, you know.
The cops then come for them, and get ‘em. If you helped them get away with it, then the cops are coming for you too.
This sounds more heartless than I mean it to. I don’t mean to be coming off as numb to the feelings you have for this person, whom you apparently love, even though he or she murdered someone. (And we’re assuming for sake of argument here that it was a big accident, or that the murdered person somehow deserved it, or something.)
My point is that this is your life. You only have one. (As that dead person knows very well.) You have not killed anyone. You probably have never done anything that’s even as remotely bad as that. But if you vouch for your pal here and try to help them get away with it, then you have let their crime become your crime. You’ve pretty much traded away your own freedom, just because someone you love did something really, really stupid.
You’re better than that. Your life, to be blunt, is worth more.
Which means you have to talk them into turning themselves in. And if they don’t, then you need to do it for them. Which will be hell. Which might mess you up for a really long time, because you’ll feel guilty. (Which is crazy, because they are the one who is guilty. But that’s life. Life, as in, the sentence they might get.)
And then they’ll go to jail, which will also suck. Having a friend or relative in jail is not fun. I know this quite well, actually (long story). Good people do bad things sometimes, and they pay a price.
Don’t pay it for them.
DENISE JADEN (Writing with a Heavy Heart, Losing Faith, et al)
Every time I sat down to answer this question, I was reminded of something that happened in my own life many years ago. When I was twenty, I was driving and hit a couple of pedestrians. One of them died, and to be honest, it was only because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the road. While it wasn’t “pre-meditated,” I was still at fault.
During the time following the accident, I was an emotional mess. I had to face up to what I had done in some pretty big ways, including police dealings and meeting with the adult son of the woman I had killed. It was one of the hardest times of my life, and I remember thinking at the time that if I ever had to go through something like that again, I’d sooner kill myself.
But eventually there was another side to the tragedy. I learned a lot about forgiveness and grace, and I think there is a certain amount of freedom that comes with owning up to your mistakes, enduring the consequences of those mistakes, and eventually forgiving yourself. In my case, I didn’t have much choice but to own up to them, but in hindsight, I’m thankful for that. I would never have wanted to be the person who killed a person, took off from the accident, and lived with that secret for the rest of my life.
If I had a friend who confessed committing a murder, I would want them to own up to what they had done, both for their own sake and for the family of those whose life they took, and I believe I would keep trying to convince them to that end. Living in guilt or shame won’t do anybody any good, nor will harboring such a devastating secret. If my friend wouldn’t admit to what he/she had done and accept the consequences, I don’t know what I’d do. Pray, for sure. Keep talking and hugging and loving him/her. But would I send an anonymous tip to the police? Honestly, probably not.