Inspired less by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s impressive turn in Capote than by the condition of my checking account, I have been considering the idea of turning out a true-crime book -- a lurid potboiler, but one fortified with a little cultural history, albeit of an eccentric kind. The idea has been stewing for a couple of months now. My working title is BTK and the Beatnik. Here’s the pitch.
In late August,The New York Times ran a short profile of Colin Wilson, the last surviving member of the Angry Young Men -- a literary group that emerged in Britain during the mid-1950s at just about the time Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were interrupting the presumed consensus of Eisenhower-era America. Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and John Osborne as the Angries’ most prominent novelist, poet, and playwright, respectively. And Colin Wilson -- whose quasi-existentialist credo The Outsider appeared in May 1956, when he was 24 -- was taken up by the press as the Angry thinker.
"The Outsider," wrote Wilson, "is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeoisie, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. He sees too deep and too much, and what he sees is essentially chaos." He developed this theme through a series of commentaries on literary and philosophical texts, all handled with a certain vigorous confidence that impressed the reviewers very much.
As, indeed, did Wilson’s personal story, which was a publicist’s dream come true. Born to a working-class family, he had quit school at 16, taken odd jobs while reading his way through modern European literature, and camped out in a public park to save on rent as he wrote and studied at the library of the British Museum. Wilson was not shy about proclaiming his own genius. For several months, the media lent him a bullhorn to do it. He posed for photographs with his sleeping bag, and otherwise complied with his fans' desire that he be something like a cross between Albert Camus and James Dean.
The backlash was not long in coming. It started with his second book, Religion and the Rebel, which got savage notices when it appeared in 1957, despite being virtually indistinguishable from The Outsider in subject and method. “We are tired of the boy Colin,” as one literary journalist is supposed to have said at the time.
Roundly abused, though no wit abashed, he kept on writing, and has published dozens of novels and works of nonfiction over the intervening decades. The Outsider has never gone out of print in English; it developed a solid following in Arabic translation, and appeared a few years ago in Chinese.
The piece in The Times came in the wake of his recent autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose -- a book revealing that Wilson is still very confident of his own place as perhaps the greatest writer of our time. This is a minority opinion. The reviews his memoir got in the British press were savage. So far it has not received much attention in the United States. Wilson has a cult following here; and the few scholarly monographs on his work tend to have that cult-following feel.
Perhaps the most forceful claim for his importance was made by Joyce Carol Oates, who provided an introduction to the American edition of his science-fiction novel The Philosopher’s Stone (1969). Oates hailed Wilson for "consciously attempting to imagine a new image for man ... freed of ambiguity, irony, and the self-conscious narrowness of the imagination we have inherited from 19th century Romanticism."
Her praise seems to me a bit overstated. But I have a certain fondness for that novel, having discovered it during Christmas break while in high school. It set me off on a fascination with Wilson's work that seems, with hindsight, perfectly understandable. Adolescence is a good time to read The Outsider. For that matter, Wilson himself was barely out of it when he wrote the book. Although now a septuagenarian, the author now displays the keen egomania of someone a quarter that age.
Now, just as The Times was running its profile of the last Angry Young Man, the sentencing hearing for Dennis Rader, the confessed BTK killer, was underway in Kansas. News accounts mentioned, usually in passing, his claims that the striking of sadistic murders he committed over the years were the result of something he called "Factor X." He did not elaborate on the nature of Factor X, though reporters often did often note that the killer saw himself as demonically possessed. (He also referred to having been dropped on his head as a child, which may have been one of Rader’s cold-blooded little jokes.)
But in a television interview, Rader indicated that Factor X, while mysterious, was also something in his control. "I used it," he said.
A jolting remark -- at least to anyone familiar with Colin Wilson's work. Over the years, Wilson has developed a whole battery of concepts (or at least of neologisms) to spell out his hunch that the Outsider has access to levels of consciousness not available to more conformist souls. Something he dubbed "Faculty X" has long been central to Wilson’s improvised psychological theories, as well as to his fiction. (The Philosopher’s Stone, which Oates liked so much, is all about Faculty X.)
As Wilson describes it, Faculty X is the opposite of the normal, dulled state of consciousness. It is our potential to grasp, with an incandescent brilliance and intensity of focus, the actuality of the world, including the reality of other times and places. "Our preconceptions, our fixed ideas about ourselves," as Wilson puts, "means that we remain unaware of this power." We trudge along, not engaging the full power of our mental abilities.
Most of us have had similar insights, often while recovering from a bad cold. But the contrast between mental states hit Wilson like a bolt of lightening. In his recent memoir, he writes, "The basic aim of human evolution, I decided, is to achieve Faculty X."
A few artists are able to summon Faculty X at will. But so, in rather less creative form, do psychopathic killers. For that is the stranger side of Colin Wilson’s work -- the part overlooked by The Times, for example, which repeated the standard Wilsonian claim that he was a philosopher of optimism.
Cheerful as that may sound, a very large part of his work over the years has consisted of books about serial murders. They, too, are Outsiders -- in revolt against "a decadent, frivolous society" that gives them no outlet for the development of Faculty X. Such an individual "feels no compunction in committing acts of violence," as Wilson explains, "because he feels only contempt for society and its values."
These quotations are from his book Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder (1972), but they might have been drawn from any of dozens of other titles. Beginning with the Jack the Ripper-sque character Austin Nunne in his first novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960), Wilson has populated his fiction with an array of what can only be called existentialist serial killers.
In these novels, the narrator is usually an alienated intellectual who sounds ... well, quite a bit like Colin Wilson does in his nonfiction books. The narrator will spend a few hundred pages tracking down a panty-fetishist sex killer, or something of the kind -- often developing a strong sense of identification with, or at least respect for, the murderer. There may be a moment when he recoils from the senselessness of the crimes. But there is never (oddly enough) any really credible expression of sympathy for the victims.
The tendency to see the artist and the criminal as figures dwelling outside the norms of society is an old one, of course; and we are now about 180 years downstream from Thomas De Quincy’s essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." But there is something particularly cold and morbid about Wilson's treatment of the theme. It calls to mind the comment film critic Anthony Lane made about Quentin Tarantino: "He knows everything about violence and nothing about suffering." It comes as little surprise to learn that a girlfriend from Wilson's bohemian days recoiled from one of his earliest efforts at fiction: “She later admitted,” he writes, “that it made her wonder if I was on the verge of becoming a homicidal maniac.”
So did BTK have Wilson’s philosophical ruminations in mind when he was “using” Factor X to commit a string of sadistic murders? Did he see himself as an Outsider – a tormented genius, expressing his contempt for (in Wilson’s phrase) “the comfortable, insulated world” of modernity?
Circumstantial evidence indicates that it is a lead worth pursuing. We know that that Rader studied criminal justice administration at Wichita State University, receiving his B.A. in 1979. Wilson’s brand of pop-philosophizing on murder as a form of revolt (a manifestation of “man’s striving to become a god”) is certainly the kind of thing an adventurous professor might have used to stimulate class discussion.
And it would be extremely surprising to find that Rader never read Wilson’s work. Given the relatively small market for books devoted entirely to existential musings, Wilson has produced an incredible volume of true-crime writing over the years – beginning with his Encyclopedia of Murder (1961) and continuing through dozens of compilations of serial-killer lore, many available in the United States as rather trashy paperbacks.
The earliest messages Rader sent to police in the mid-1970s reveal disappointment at not getting sufficient press coverage. He even coined the nickname BTK to speed things along. Clearly this was someone with a degree of status anxiety about his role in serial-killing history. One imagines him turning the pages of Wilson’s pulp trilogy Written in Blood (1989) or the two volumes of The Killers Among Us (1995) – all published by Bantam in the U.S. – with some disappointment at not having made the finals.
Well, it’s not too late. We know from his memoirs that Colin Wilson has engaged in extensive correspondence with serial-killing Outsiders who have ended up behind bars. It seems like a matter of time before he turns out a book on BTK.
Unless, of course, I beat him to it. The key is to overcome the gray fog of everyday, dull consciousness by activating my dormant reserves of Faculty X. Fortunately it has never been necessary for me to kill anyone to manage this. Two large cups of French Roast will usually do the trick.
Recent campus incidents have highlighted the importance of effective communication among administrators, faculty, and staff, as well as between campus representatives and students, families, and surrounding communities. Some commentators have argued that these incidents prove the need to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal statute known as FERPA that protects student privacy, in order to permit greater disclosure of information about troubled students. Actually, the current law works well, but colleges and universities need to better understand what that law really provides -- and each institution needs to develop an internal consensus on how to approach the policy choices FERPA allows it to make.
Colleges have worked hard to educate their employees on the importance of protecting student privacy. This effort has been motivated in large part by the need to comply with FERPA. For example, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many campuses had to remind their personnel to protect the privacy of students against illegal disclosures of information motivated not by rational concern but by prejudice and bias many outside academe had against certain international students.
Legitimate interests in student development have also motivated concerns for privacy. Under ordinary circumstances, according college students a measure of privacy -- even (or perhaps especially) from their own parents -- can without question help their development into independent, autonomous adults. FERPA itself actually reflects this period of transition by shifting primary legal control of the student’s records from parents to the student once the student attends a college or university.
In some circumstances, FERPA has been invoked as the reason not to share student information, when in reality the law would permit disclosure but the interests of student development and autonomy weigh against it. For example, FERPA permits but does not require colleges and universities to notify a student’s parents of certain drug and alcohol violations of the institution’s disciplinary code. Many institutions do not notify parents of every incident involving a minor illegally in possession of alcohol, choosing instead to begin with an educational intervention to assist the student in making better choices, and only notify parents in cases of repeated, serious, or dangerous violations.
The decision not to disclose less serious violations is a policy decision, and should be understood and described as such. It should not be held out as a decision required by FERPA. Unintended and potentially dangerous consequences can arise if legitimate policy goals are confused with legal mandates because institutions may then forget that FERPA grants them discretion. It is especially important to remember that FERPA expressly permits appropriate disclosures in times of actual or potential emergency, as well as in various less drastic circumstances in which an individual seeks to communicate sincere concerns for a student’s well-being or the public welfare.
Although FERPA restricts disclosures of information obtained from a student’s records, it was never intended to act as a complete prohibition on all communications. One threshold point that is often overlooked is that FERPA limits only the disclosure of records and information from records about a student. It does not limit disclosure or discussion of personal observations.
In other words, if a college or university employee develops a concern about a student based on the employee’s observations of or personal interactions with the student, the employee may disclose that concern to anyone without violating, or even implicating, FERPA. (Of course, there may be other reasons an institution would not want to, or could not, disclose that concern, and, in most cases, the initial disclosure should be made to professionals trained to evaluate and handle such concerns, such as campus mental health or law enforcement personnel, who can then determine whether further and broader disclosures are appropriate).
Even when information is part of a student’s records and therefore covered by FERPA, the law provides several exceptions that permit appropriate communications under circumstances in which the student or others may be at risk of harm. For example, FERPA expressly permits the disclosure of information from a student’s records “…to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.”
This exception doesn’t permit indiscriminate disclosures of personal information, but it does set a fairly low threshold of good faith for determining when disclosures are needed to protect health or safety, what disclosures are appropriate, and to whom they may be made. FERPA also permits disclosures, among others, of any information about a student to other college officials with legitimate interests in the information or to the parents of that student if he or she is their dependent for tax purposes; of information regarding the results of certain student conduct proceedings involving violence to the general public; and of any relevant information to other schools where a student seeks or intends to enroll.
The National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) has just published a “FERPA and Campus Safety” Q & A to provide accurate information about FERPA to campus administrators and others. This document answers frequently asked questions about FERPA and suggests important elements to consider in setting institutional policies. And while advocating compliance with FERPA, it also puts into perspective the critical importance of campus and public safety in today's world.
This is not to suggest that colleges and universities that have dealt with complicated situations and made difficult decisions have done so in anything less than good faith. Nor, certainly, is it to say that concerns for student development and autonomy have no place in the analysis when determining what, when, and to whom to disclose. But institutions should recognize these concerns for what they are -- self-imposed policy constraints, not legal mandates -- and balance them accordingly, and responsibly, against other equally relevant policy considerations such as safety. If we don't, others may well make the choice for us, quite likely without full consideration of the factors that are important to us and in ways that we won't like. It is thus critical that colleges and universities evaluate in advance both their understanding of FERPA and how they will exercise their discretion under it in response to campus incidents.
Nancy E. Tribbensee and Steven J. McDonald
Nancy E. Tribbensee is general counsel for the Arizona University System. Steven J. McDonald is general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design.
A recent survey of college and university officials found that 66 percent of institutions now collect criminal justice information about would-be students, usually through self-disclosure on the application. The survey revealed that a wide range of offenses can get an applicant additional screening that can lead to rejection, and that less than half of the colleges that use this approach have written policies to guide admissions officers or train those employees.
As the head of the Center for Community Alternatives, the organization that asked the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to conduct the survey, I am troubled by the survey’s findings. CCA’s core mission is removing the barriers to employment, education and full community reintegration faced by individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and we know, from both the research literature and from our own experience, that access to a higher education can have a profound effect on individual lives. If past criminal convictions are preventing significant numbers of young people from going to college, then we all lose out.
That’s why these colleges’ policies concern us. Seventy-five percent of schools consider any drug or alcohol conviction negatively in spite of how common those offenses are among the college-age population. And one-third of schools consider pending misdemeanors or even misdemeanor arrests in a negative light.
Also disturbing is the ad hoc quality of the procedures used by many of the schools that collect this sensitive information. At the 40 percent of colleges that train staff on how to interpret criminal records, the training is most often provided by campus security or “other staff.” The lack of in depth-training is troubling because criminal records are often inaccurate and almost always more complicated than they may seem at first blush.
A major complication in interpreting criminal records is that state laws vary so greatly that two college applicants from different states, convicted of the same offense at age 15, could end up with entirely different criminal history records. One may end up with an adult record while the other will have no adult record whatsoever. In some states anyone older than 16 can be prosecuted as an adult and end up with a permanent record. In other states the cut-off age is 18, and those who are younger will be processed in the juvenile system, which protects them from a permanent conviction. Without training, admissions officers will not be aware of the vagaries of state criminal records and will be more likely to make arbitrary decisions based on inaccurate facts.
There are important public policy reasons to eschew the collection of criminal history information from college applicants. The fact that African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in the criminal justice population is no longer open to question. Racial profiling and the heavy concentration of police in low-income, urban neighborhoods have led to high rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction among communities of color. An African American in the city of Los Angeles is seven times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor, as a white person is. A Latino in the same city is twice as likely to be arrested for that offense as a white person. Yet government studies show that whites use marijuana more than either blacks or Latinos. Based on these facts, screening for criminal records cannot be a race-neutral practice.
Are there serious risks involved in not conducting criminal background checks? There is no empirical evidence that students with criminal records present a threat to campus safety. Only one study has investigated the link between criminal history screening and improved safety on campus; no statistical difference in campus crime was found between schools that screen and schools that don’t.
The U.S. Department of Education has concluded that “students on the campuses of post-secondary institutions are significantly safer than the nation as a whole.” The most horrific campus crimes, like the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings, are committed by students who don’t have criminal records. Rape and sexual assault are the only crimes showing no statistical differences between college students and non-students, and those offenses are most often committed by inebriated students who have no prior criminal records. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in our survey reported that they did not use criminal justice information in their admissions processes, and none of them indicated that they believed their campuses were less safe as a result.
Colleges and universities can responsibly refrain from collecting criminal background information about applicants, and by doing so will be able to attract a diverse student body and maintain a safe and secure campus. But if criminal history screening is done, it should be done according to reasonable, fair and written policies and procedures:
Remove the disclosure requirement from initial application for admission and ask for criminal justice information only after conditional admission.
Limit the disclosure requirement to convictions for felonies (not misdemeanors or infractions) that were committed within the past five years and that were committed after the applicant’s 19th birthday.
Establish admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based, e.g., remove barriers to admission of individuals who are under some form of community supervision and provide an opportunity to document personal growth and rehabilitation.
Base admissions decisions on assessments that are well-informed and unbiased by developing in-house expertiseand performing an assessment and multi-factor analysis to determine whether a past criminal offense justifies rejection.
Establish written procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process. Applicants should be informed in writing of the reason for the withdrawal of an offer of admission and should be afforded the right of appeal.
Offer support and advocacy including on-campus support services for students who have criminal records.
Evaluate the policy periodically to determine whether it is justified.
There are great social benefits associated with a more educated citizenry — more informed voters, better parents, and a more skilled workforce, to name a few. A college education is a crime prevention tool: colleges and universities promote public safety in the larger community when they open their doors to people with criminal records who demonstrate the commitment and qualifications to pursue higher education.
Marsha Weissman is executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. The organization’s full report, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered," can be downloaded from its website.
Two students died in fraternity-related incidents last week: one from injuries in a fight at Baldwin-Wallace College and one in an apparent hazing activity that involved drinking massive quantities of water at California State University at Chico.
During this academic year, fatalities have already occurred involving fraternities or their parties at Colorado State University, Eastern Michigan University, the University of Colorado, the University of Delaware and the University of Oklahoma.
Students in the anatomy and physiology course at Polk Community College last fall might have thought it odd that the instructor asked them to sign in for each class on a roster that asked for their names and Social Security numbers, since that wasn't the college's policy.
It seems morbidly appropriate, somehow, that a basketball scandal brought to light two years ago because one player killed another should result in the National Collegiate Athletic Association imposing a modified version of its rarely used "death penalty" on Baylor University Thursday.