JAY RICHARDS, PhD is a forensic psychologist whose specialty is the evaluation and treatment of violent offenders, such as homicide perpetrators, mentally ill killers, and sexually violent predators. In the field of criminal psychology, he is known for ground-breaking research, innovative and provocative theoretical papers, and evocative and insightful case studies of psychopaths and other mentally disordered offenders.
Dr. Richards’ early clinical experience was gained during National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) pre and post-doctoral fellowships in clinical psychology at the federal psychiatric hospital in Washington DC that was then responsible for mentally ill persons determined to be dangerous to the president, or other persons protected by the Secret Service. A decade later, he was retained as an expert by the US Marshals to review adequacy of treatment received by White House cases and the degree of continuing risk for violence that would be posed, if they were released from confinement. He was the director for Behavioral Sciences at the Patuxent Institution in Maryland, a treatment program for offenders with mental abnormalities or emotional imbalances. He was the director of Special Commitment Center, a facility for Sexually Violent Predators located on McNeil Island, Washington, once the site of the federal prison that predated Alcatraz as America’s first island prison. Dr. Richards is affiliated with the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University where he teaches courses on topics such as the nature and implications of severe psychopathy and understanding and managing dangerous offenders. As part of his affiliation with the University of Washington, he chairs a panel of professionals charged with reviewing the risk posed to public safety by the possible release of patients held involuntarily in psychiatric hospitals because of their history of criminal offenses and active mental illness.
1. What made you want to write a book after decades working as a forensic psychologist?
Actually, I tinkered around with writing fiction for decades. I say tinker, but I was deadly serious about it. Sometimes too serious to open up and create without perpetual, harsh self-criticism. At some point, I decided to act on the old injunction “Physician, heal thyself.” I stepped away from my perfectionism and got down to work.
2. What does a forensic psychologist do?
Forensic psychologists practice psychology in legal contexts. They perform evaluations to answer psycho-legal questions, like: Is a defendant psychologically fit (competent) to participate in a trial? Was their crime a result of the person’s mental illness impairing their ability to know what they were doing or that the act was wrong or illegal? How likely is it that a sexual offender or domestic violence perpetrator will repeat these kinds of crimes? Forensic psychologists also provide forensic treatment. This is similar to clinical treatment for mental disorders or problem behaviors, but the focus is on preventing the recurrence of dangerous behavior.
3. How have your experiences shaped you as a writer?
My work as a forensic psychologist involves evaluating and treating dangerous people with mental disorders. This work has given me license to be nosy about people at a very deep level, a level of deep wonder about how people experience life.I am always aware that the stakes are high in this work. A risk assessment that is off target or a serious misstep in therapy can obstruct the patient’s progress, expose others to unnecessary risk of violence, or lead to my being assaulted.
Doing intensive forensic assessment and forensic therapy with dangerous people required me to spend long periods of silence across the table from my patients. At times these extended silences were filled with an empty void. But at other times, they were pregnant with something (terrible or fragile) that had a momentum, something that wanted to emerge and take its chances in the external world of speech and action.
This is great writing practice, learning how to sit with powerful emotion—those of your own, those of your patient (or character)—while you work to open up a space for something new. Of course, the exotic, often perplexing personalities I have encountered in this work have contributed to some of my characters, but the experience of sitting with them has informed everything else.
Another experience that shapes my writing is a persistent sense of justice that I’ve had my whole life. Ever since I was a child, I’ve sometimes felt an intense sense that something unfair or unjust was happening to me or to others and that no one would listen. This often led me to writing letters to my parents, teachers, and romantic interests that I was usually wise enough not to send. Writing those letters was cathartic, but they would sometimes become more than self-solace and take off on wings of their own. I would then see my personal complaint as experiential ore for poetry and fiction, stuff that I could refine into something valuable to others through character, story and self-reflective language.
The themes and character development of my fiction parallel this personal process. Key characters often have a poignant awareness of injustice that sparked them to action. Many characters—including some of the criminals—long for completion through a performance or exchange, but the experience continually eludes them until an injustice is addressed.
4. What made you decide to write fiction in particular?
I decided to write fiction largely because I believed I had an aptitude for it and that this capacity, or talent, came with a responsibility. It’s similar to how the responsibility to stand witness comes from having been present for a significant event and having some degree of unique knowledge about it.
I believe that fiction, like all the arts, is a mode of knowledge. It is valuable because it allows us to feel and perceive in new ways. Those new points of view are often introduced to us by characters who are unlike the people we know in our own lives. And if the characters are familiar to us, we get a more intimate look at them. Fiction brings us “inside” these characters and shows us what the world looks like from their perspective.
Fiction is the one creative art that gives us this inside perspective through language. It is not exact knowledge. It’s more like the kind of knowledge you acquire by intensely playing a game until you dissolve into the flow of it. There is no substitute for fiction, although you don’t need it to live. It doesn’t bake bread, it opens hearts and minds.
5. What inspired the plot for Silhouette of Virtue?
The plot is loosely based on a series of sexual assaults that actually occurred on the campus of a Midwestern university that I attended in the mid-70s. In the real case, a popular African-American graduate student was accused of being involved in the crimes. Early on, I viewed these happenings as having cultural significance, especially in regard to how it forced students into two camps:
one that viewed the charges as racially motivated, and the other that insisted that race had nothing to do with his being a suspect. I observed these events from the fringes, and after I left the university town I got only fragmented glimpses as the chain of events played out over several years. There was no internet and the local papers buried the story, so I had no way to follow it closely. As a result, my imagination was given considerable rein. I bumped up the ante by accelerating the pace of events and by making the both the accused man and the amateur sleuth who tries to find the truth African Americans on the university faculty.
6. How did people you’ve met in your years of work shape the characters for the book?
In his poem “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot writes of a poet who meets “a familiar compound ghost, both intimate and unidentifiable.” I consider the characters in my book combinations of real and imagined people. One of the criminals in the novel is a combination of a close childhood friend, a sadistic patient I had in a therapy group in a forensic hospital, and a black Trickster-figure character (Skeeter) from John Updike’s Rabbit Redux. There’s also a character (with a nod to Superman’s Lex Luther) that is based on an eminent scientist who tries to hide his mean streak and use his authority to mastermind crimes. The protagonist and sleuth, Dr. Nathan Rivers, is the admixture of a perpetual grad student in philosophy who had a noble and compassionate soul, and my impressions of several African-American poets, whom I’ve never met in person. And, oh yes, I shouldn’t forget, a good pinch of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in the 1939 film Hound of the Baskervilles.
7. Do you have plans to write another book soon?
I’m playing with the elements of what may become a sequel to Silhouette of Virtue. It would feature the philosophical sleuth from the first novel, Dr. Nathan Rivers, but in a totally different setting, and perhaps even a different era. I would like that book to have some of the adventure, suspense, detective themes, and investigation of racial and sexual identity (as well as wry humor and parody) that are in Silhouette.
I also have a book in progress. It’s a Bildungsroman along the lines of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. It portrays a kind of coming of age story over the course of a decade and captures the tone of culture and society during that passage. The story is set in both America and Africa, and is inspired by my travels in Nigeria during my own coming of age (mid 20s) and my brief friendship with novelist Leon Forrest. Forrest was a writer who was deeply African-American and also somehow African in his sensibility, which was more like that of a lyrical epic poet or African praise singer. Remembering and thinking about him gives me hope that I can pull together something that covers all this territory in an interesting way.
8. What’s one thing you want people to take away as a message from your book?
A suspense novel tells the story of a mystery about the identity and whereabouts of evildoers. The most important clues are in the aberrant or flawed personalities of the criminals, which are always partially revealed and partially concealed in the crimes they commit. The big message of the Silhouette of Virtue, like many detective mystery stories, is that by trying to untangle a mystery like this, we readers learn more about the mystery that is all around us and within us and others. In other words, the take-home message is that the real world around us is a terrifying, beautiful, and mysterious place and we are part and parcel of that world.
9. In Silhouette, does your protagonist, Dr. Nathan Rivers, reflect your own view of the world and how it operates?
Yes, I think so, but he acts on that worldview more consistently and courageously than I can. He’s a lot less worried about making big mistakes. Like Rivers, I’ve always been drawn to people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and complexities of all kinds. Also, I’ve always wanted to understand what it means to lead a well-lived life, which is a central motive that drives Rivers in the book. Finally, as a black man myself, I share with Rivers the “double-consciousness” that African Americans often develop as being in the American society, but not of it in many ways. This dual identity frees me, like Rivers, to look at America from “the outside” and propose something that I believe is ultimately more American.
It is 1973. A small college town in Southern Illinois is terrorized by a spree of sadistic assaults. The rapist tells the victims—all Asian women—that he is making them pay for America’s betrayal in Vietnam. When the only other black faculty member is accused of the crimes, African-American philosophy professor Nathan “Ribs” Rivers struggles to suspend his doubt about his colleague’s innocence. Rivers reluctantly yields to the urgings of his students and takes up leadership of a campus coalition formed to advocate for a fair trial.
In SILHOUETTE OF VIRTUE (Face Rock Press; 2014), Rivers embarks on a vision quest for the truth that is as much about his character as it is about the crimes—a quest that threatens to topple his family and career, ignites a spiritual crisis and plunges him headlong toward lethal unknowns.
SILHOUETTE OF VIRTUE is based, in part, on actual crimes that occurred on a university campus during the mid-1970s, and is also informed by experiences gained by the author while studying and teaching African literature in West Africa later in that decade.
Telltale Lights and Triple Trouble
Welts had risen on his left arm above a puncture that barely breached the deepest layer of skin, just enough to draw a single purple bead of blood from the dark curve of his forearm. He washed the shallow wound repeatedly in the clear, icy spring outside the cave and dabbed on antibacterial jelly. First things first. He was intent on getting warm and having some damned coffee. He built a small fire and drank the hot, bitter brew from a tin cup (he had used too much powder) as he collected his thoughts and feelings.
In the moment of his encounter with the fox, he was not seeking animal guides and mystical communion. But now he was trying to fit the experience into the best framework available to him, the one that included the most and left out the least. He knew little of Indian animal totems and their meanings beyond the idea that they were psychic mirrors, deep pools where aspects of primal consciousness floated, enjoying independence from humanity before the womb and after death. He recalled his first thought as the animal had materialized. He had wanted Bear, strength and sovereignty, but Fox had come to him instead. His arm stung; he was glad it had not been Bear after all.
Fox had something to do with the sun, with shape-shifting and, of course, the cunning trickster. Learning to be invisible, quiet, and observant, holding one’s counsel, finding harmony in the four directions. The Pharaonic Egyptian vision of Fox was much darker. Seth, the deserter, drunkard, fomenter of confusion, who killed his brother Osiris and, by scattering the severed body parts like seeds to the wind, became the unwilling instrument of Osiris’ perpetual rebirth. Seth, the envious god, usually appeared with the head of a fennec fox or some fabulous foxlike animal. That was a life or death connection. A dead-end, Rivers thought.
And what of the words he had received? Wet stones, sunlight on water. He did feel his path crossing something, someone. After all, he had come into the forest intending to encounter himself and to cross the bad brother—the brother he never had—Duncan.
He took his time climbing down to the river, and fished until almost midday, quitting satisfied, having caught nothing, but also having cast out and reeled in a thousand thoughts. The sun had warmed the woods enough that, on the return climb, he first opened and later shed his parka. He stopped to lie on the dry grass at the crest of the ridge, enjoying the sun strike his exposed neck and penetrate his wool shirt. He decided that if he didn’t find anything leading him to
Carper or Duncan that day, he would gather his things the next morning and follow the river back to where he had left the hiking trail. He could call Harlan from the diner in that outpost. Maybe, just maybe, Harlan would recommend that he keep looking for a while. Maybe his plan wasn’t totally ridiculous. But for the moment, Rivers had left off searching in earnest for the men he believed were the keystones that held together a heavy and twisted arch of deception.
He spent the day much as he had the last, but didn’t go as far away from his base of operations. He was less eager about covering big stretches of land, and wary of tiring himself out again. As night fell, he decided to use the last few minutes of good light to climb up the ravine ledge where he was sure to find some thick pieces of dry hardwood for a long-lasting fire. He moved slowly, using his diamond willow pole to push away brush, but protecting its newly hardened point, not using it to lift or balance his weight.
Only a few hundred feet up the bluff, a pinpoint of red light low in the sky hovered for a moment and was gone. He stopped in midstep and crouched instinctively. He knew the flash could not possibly be Mars or Sirius (too low in the sky for the first and in the wrong direction for the other), and he had seen no aircraft since he left Oakton.
When he began to doubt the perception as anything more than an illusion, a pinpoint of red light bobbed, this time for a few seconds before going dark.
He focused his eyes through the dusk and the evening fog rising from the river basin. At the top of the ravine, about a quarter of a mile away, he made out the silhouette of a standing man, and the red dot, he knew, was the ember of a burning cigarette. The standing man had probably used a butane lighter or a match; either could have burned brightly enough and long enough to catch his attention.
Rivers felt exposed, but knew objectively that the fog and dusk made it virtually impossible for them to see him unless, like the smoker, he foolishly stood erect against the horizon; and any path he could take toward them would be uphill. Less than half an hour of twilight remained. He approached, turning his attention from the spot where his eyes had left the silhouette, and focusing instead on every twig crushed by his boots, every brush that scoured or slapped his shoulders, and to how the dry leaves underfoot crackled almost as an echo of those that writhed up and fell quiet to the irregular pulse of the breeze.
When he turned his attention upward, he saw the dark outlines of two men having difficulty coordinating maneuvering a large amount of canvas. It looked like a comic shadow play of two old maids folding laundry and finding themselves at odds over whether a fold should be right or left, over or under. Rivers fleetingly thought of how
Indonesian stick puppets replay the Bhagavad Gita, or mock the foibles of the lesser gods. If they stayed and built a fire—he thought, refocusing himself on his goal—he could easily go in and confront them from the darkness.
He found himself more worried about what he would say than about the dangerousness of the confrontation. The possibility remained that these were the wrong two men, and he was about to barge into a peaceful campsite with a service revolver.
But there was no revolver, the safety and comfort of the cave had been so seductive that, without quite deciding to do so, he had left it safe and dry in the backpack within the cave. He realized that after days of beating himself up for being a fool lost in fantasies about manhunts in the wilderness and vision quests, time had come for him think on his feet and act decisively, or miss the chance to create something of value out of all the mistakes he had made.
The two men lit a small fire, and soon they were no longer dark outlines, but discernibly Carper and Duncan. Several times they disappeared into the nearby blackness and shambled back, shoulders hunched from burdens. They were building a bonfire. The abundance of easily harvested dry wood in this place gave Rivers a causal line to tack onto the synchronism of his running into them: they were camping on the dry upland because it was abundant in precut, seasoned hardwood, leftovers from pre-park lumbering. The bluff plateau’s panoramic view over the bluff and across the floodplain gave them the advantage of forewarning, if anyone approached them in daylight: another advantage of the place.
They could not have just arrived in the forest, and must have changed camps because they had tired of hiding uneventfully in the middle of nowhere and decided there was little reason not to make life easy for themselves. They obviously did not share Rivers’ distaste for the old logging sites that were almost clear-falls, the scars and disfigurement from careless exploitation of an ancient mixed forest. This bluff plateau site was no exception. It was strewn with timber cut from a fair sample of upper woodlands species. An inventory of the wastage would include sugar maples, yellow poplars, scarlet and white oaks, a smaller number of conifers, and a few stray cherrybark trees. Whole felled trees, odd chunks, and smooth rounds with rings marking the years from seedling to tumbling. They were left all in a jumble, as if a spoiled child had kicked over his Legos before abandoning them to the elements. Carper and Duncan may have been drawn to the place by the idea that they would be monopolizing a commodity. To a woodsman overwintering here in a harsh year, the value of the cut wood on the plateau was like the value of fresh water in an open boat at sea.
Rivers inched his way close enough to make out their features, but only as confirmations of the familiar. He could take in no nuances, or expressions. There was no rational reason for his needing to see their faces—he no longer harbored doubts about their identities—but a strong irrational desire to see Duncan’s face tugged at him, the desire to see the man who had used Rivers’ weaknesses and pretensions to virtue against him to deceive and manipulate him, play him as one of his shadow puppets.
Rivers struggled with the impulse to close in, but the time was not right. They were still meandering around the fire to keep it growing, and pulling some limp objects from a canvas bag.
Duncan walked away from where Rivers was, and into the shadows. Rivers could make out that he cradled something under one arm, while the other was making a pumping action on the object. Pumping up a basketball came to Rivers’ mind. He reminded himself of the lazy habits of association—they give you back less than what you started with. Duncan placed the object on a chest-high stump, and flicked a butane lighter—probably the one that gave their location away to Rivers—and held the butane flame to the base of the object. The additional light from the lighter and the logic of the actions told Rivers it was a fuel-burning lantern.
A few moments later, purple, blue, and orange flames swirled inside the lantern’s globe for a moment, and then billowed over the edge, flowing down the lantern’s surface toward Duncan’s busy fingers on the gas gauge. In the colored light, Rivers could see that Duncan grimaced as he worked the dial, determined to keep the lantern burning on the first try, and to avoid the pain and defeat of being singed, which would be magnified by Carper seeing it happen. Duncan’s grimaced face danced in colored light like a macabre Mardi Gras mask. Then Duncan got it right. The lantern’s twin mantles glowed for a moment like the eyes of a lion stalking prey by dim moonlight. The brightening flames stealthily approached the threshold of white heat and then pounced upon it. With that silent explosion, the lantern cast against the night a shell whose surface enclosed a small campsite, but whose volume was infinitely replete with lines and planes of blinding and constant light.
Rivers crouched down instinctively, although the dome of brightness surrounding the campsite was yards away. His sight had been tuned to squinting at shadow men and shadow objects lit by undulating flames and the red glow of wood coals. Since he entered the forest, until the lighting of the lantern, the bonfire had been the most intense light he had seen except when he had looked at the midday the sun. The world that the Coleman had brought into being instantaneously was solid, constant, and incontrovertibly real. In a moment of irrationality, Rivers felt with conviction that the men in the campsite must surely be able to see him just as clearly and solidly.
The stun of looking from the night into artificial daylight inflicted on Rivers a low-grade night blindness. When the colored light played over Duncan, Rivers took a mental snapshot, a close-up of the face that had been a direful beacon to him for over a year. After the lantern flared, “seeing” Duncan became a peculiar conjunction of experiences, in fact, a conjunction of three Duncans. First, was his fixed memory snapshot of Duncan grimacing in colored lights.
The second Duncan was as easy to see as anything else in the dome of light cast by the lantern. That Duncan was sitting on a crosscut round, seemingly directing or criticizing Carper, who was doing some kind of work. Due to the shock his eyes had taken, it was now impossible for Rivers to see the features of either man in any detail. In only milliseconds, the naphtha light had tripped tens of millions of receptors on, and another tens of millions off. (Rivers believed that the true workings of these perceptual shifts was still the providence of theory. In contrast, he knew as matter of fact—by analysis and by painful firsthand experience—that events can happen at speeds too fast for flesh to catch up.)
The third Duncan was a sensory artifact that had been imprinted on Rivers’ photoreceptors when the gas lantern flashed to white light. The subcellular circuit breakers that would eventually erase this Duncan were on the whack, and had not been flipped back on by homeostasis, the body’s Greek stationary engineer. This Duncan would not disappear when he closed his eyes, or looked away from the lantern light, or directed his inner vision to concentrate on something else.
The thought of Duncan’s face imprinted on his cells, even momentarily, by a common phenomenon that only fighter pilots had to take seriously, confounded him. But it also led Rivers to think in words,ideas that had been previously been intuitions. The idea dawning on him was that Duncan was his bright negative. Duncan was resplendent in his own way, but his energy was a frequency of light that clashed with his own, like energy and anti-energy in sci-fi novels, or the Green Lanterns versus the Black Lanterns in the DC Comics universe. And maybe they were not those kinds of mutually exclusive, antagonistic opposites, but each of them particularized qualities that were like yin and yang, co-creating and inseparable, a union of necessary opposites, that had never found its center of gravity.
Slowly his eyes adjusted, and he resurveyed his situation. He would soon see them more clearly than he had before, but could he get close enough to hear what they might be saying?
Absent disruption of the prevailing wind by a storm system, the warmer air drained from the heights each night. This meant that Rivers’ downhill position, usually the underdog position, was also downwind of the reveling fire they built. This was the second time tonight that being in what was usually the less desirable downhill position was working to his advantage.
A mixture of different smells washed around him: the smell of dry and green wood, of tar and pine resin from conifer logs, and the sweet pie aroma of plum wood on the bonfire. Sound drifted downhill as well, the firecrackering and softer crackle of burning timber, the clunking rumble of logs collapsing and reshaping the pyre, the low woofing and hoarse tiger chuffing of flames unfurling and retreating.
Excerpted from the book SILHOUETTE OF VIRUTE by Jay Richards. Copyright © 2014 by Jay Richards. Reprinted with permission of Face Rock Press. All rights reserved
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