How We Construct the Monster: Thoughts on Evil Genius, Parts One and Two

Evil Genius OneWhoa.  I’m writing for my blog.  Gasp.  What a strange phenomenon this is—something I haven’t had time to do for months.  I almost forget how.  How do I start?  What do I say?  Gahhhh!!! The pressure weighs on me so.  (Searching brain for an apt metaphor to describe this feeling – coming up with nothing).  This blog-writing business is, indeed, a weird sensation, after such a long hiatus.  It is, loosely stated, my summer vacation, and so I have time to write again.  But having not written recreationally in quite some time, the task seems a little daunting.  Of course, I write papers all the time, but blog-writing is a different beast, all together.  Still, like I said, it’s my sorta-summer vacation (I still have lots to do) and Michael and I sat down earlier today to watch the first two episodes of Evil Genius.  The show got me to thinking… … …so I decided to take a break after the first two episodes to write about it. 

In case you’re not familiar, “Evil Genius” is a documentary about the infamous pizza bomber incident in my very own hometown, Erie, Pennsylvania.  Ironically, I’ve never seen a documentary that highlights Erie’s beauty more with scenic panorama shots of the lake and the nicer parts of the city.  It’s ironic, of course, because as Erie’s scenic beauty is being subtly celebrated as an ancillary part of the documentary (and one I appreciate), a select couple of its inhabitants are being foregrounded (perhaps rightfully so) as mentally unstable murderers.  In other words, I’m not sure how I feel about my beloved little home town being the setting of a popular documentary because it’s the place where a bomb was strapped to a guy’s chest, but alas, this is where we are.  In Erie, a pizza man walked into a bank with a bomb pressed up against his chest, attached to a collar stuck around his neck.  And in Erie, the bomb detonated and killed the man wearing it in 2003.  In Erie, also, a lot of other grisly murders took place years earlier.  And all of that stuff is traced back to Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the “evil genius” who’s the subject of this Netflix documentary.

As someone who’s interested in both women’s studies and monsters, I’m of course immediately attracted to how the first two episodes of the documentary, the ones I’ve seen so far, depict Marjorie.  In a statement, the sister of Brian Wells—the man who had the bomb strapped to him—says, “we believe this act was monstrous,” a recording included in the documentary to insinuate that the woman behind this act is, indeed, a monster.  And let me be clear:  I’m not saying her actions weren’t monstrous.  Nor am I critiquing this documentary, which, thus far, is incredibly well-done and engaging.  What I am looking at is how we construct the monster woman, insofar as Marjorie’s presentation in the documentary is a construction, and how—‘cause I’m interested in this a lot too—mental illness plays a factor in that construction, and in the explanation for the crime, as a whole.  In other words, in this troubling but intriguing little documentary, I think there’s a lot to explore.  What I’m not sure of is whether or not I’ve had any grand revelations that will add insights not already discussed, in other contexts, on this blog.  Still, I had some thoughts, and enough, I felt, to start writing a piece on the series.  As such, here goes it.

My prediction is that by the end of the documentary, to some extent, Marjorie will be “humanized.”  After all, she forms an epistolary bond with the maker of the documentary, who receives and reads letters that she writes as a thank you for requested legal and financial aid.  I am waiting, then, to see this happen.  Right now, however, I think the depiction of Marjorie in the film is rather one-dimensional, and it’s the exact type of depiction we’d expect of the monster woman.  Marjorie is, simultaneously, seductive, alluring, and smart (in her youth), and a bit disheveled, violent, and mentally ill (in her adulthood).  The monster woman, as I’ve written on this blog, is often either depicted as someone who looks and acts monstrous, in that she doesn’t fit society’s definition of typical female beauty (older Marjorie), or a woman who is young, attractive, and seductive, but also quote-unquote evil.  And I say quote-unquote evil because I don’t know what evil is, or if it’s really a thing at all.  To an extent, it’s a construct, but it’s a construct neatly entwined with depictions of the monster woman, who are all either raging behemoths, or beautiful little demons.  Marjorie, throughout her life, in this documentary, is depicted as spanning both ends of the aforementioned gamut.

The monster woman is typically quite cunning.  Marjorie, who has a Master’s in education, is described repeatedly as “manipulative.”  Interestingly, in the second episode of the series, a man, Bill Rothstein, colludes with her to hide a body and then manipulates the police enough to stay out of jail at first and avoid a significant prison sentence (even though most people suspect his guilt).  Rothstein has since died, but interviewers frequently describe his intelligence, too, and their tendency not to trust him despite his extreme cooperation after helping Marjorie hide the body of her murdered lover.  Still, he is not described, frequently, as manipulative.  Rothstein has since died from cancer, but he likely was manipulative.  Marjorie, however, is frequently labeled with this word, one that has diverging effects: on the one hand, the word “manipulative” is a cutting way to describe someone, a way frequently used to describe women, put them in a box, and diminish their character (although admittedly, she probably deserves the title); on the other hand, the way Marjorie’s described, she’s also so brilliant in her insidiousness in the documentary that she’s larger than life in part because of her manipulation.  Though “manipulative” is a condescending way to describe women, like “catty,” it gives Marjorie almost a mythic aura, as the viewer contemplates a woman whose fantastic mind was often harnessed to commit heinous actions.  By calling Marjorie an “evil genius,” the filmmakers turn the monster woman into a sort of inverted object of divine contemplation, a fetishized entity that fascinates us as we try to break her down, study her, determine why she’s done what she’s done.

And that’s really the point of the documentary so far, I think: to make us fascinated with this woman.  I contemplate, as I often do when faced with situations like Marjorie’s, whether there is such a thing as “evil” and whether we can ascribe that label to human beings (of course, the documentary still does).  Was Marjorie always prone to violence and an irreverence for human life, or is this something that happened over time?  What makes the so-called monster who she is, and, as I’ve asked before, is it important that we know that?  Does everyone, no matter how heinous their deeds, deserve (for lack of better words, perhaps) some modicum of understanding from those who would judge their crimes?

And then what of Marjorie’s purported mental illness?  Descriptions of Marjorie’s symptoms often align with classic bipolar mania.  One friend describes talking to Marjorie for three hours without ever getting a word in edgewise.  Now, I know people who can probably talk for three hours when they’re not manic, but Marjorie is often speculated as bipolar in the film, and such talking is a tell-tale sign of the disease.  And when, in the first part of the documentary, the film foregrounds the directions that were given to the pizza bomber to send him on a scavenger hunt, said directions are frequently described as overly “wordy.”  Excessive, wordy writing, is often another hallmark of mania – although again, it need not be attributed to mania.

But I have to wonder, when it comes down to people who kill repeatedly, who commit monstrous acts just, seemingly, for the sake of committing them, how much mental illness can be invoked as a defense.  Where I am now in the documentary, it’s a defense that Marjorie’s taken so she can gain parole again in seven years, and those who know her claim that it’s all part of her façade of manipulation.  Certainly, mentally ill individuals have committed crimes before, and from time to time, those crimes are because of mental illness.  And yet, I’m not much a fan of highlighting a criminal’s mental illness or attributing an excess of crimes to mental illness, because I think it gives mental illness an unfairly negative depiction and lets the individual off too easily—in some cases.  In Insanity, the Idea and its Consequences, the uber-conservative (think, libertarian) Thomas Szas rails against concepts like the insanity defense, which he proclaims amount to a heap of b.s.  I don’t know that this is always the case, and I would never define myself as conservative, let alone uber-conservative, but I think, sometimes, that it is b.s.  I don’t think a woman kills a chain of individuals linked to her because she’s manic.  I think there’s something else going on with that woman, something else that’s making her commit the deeds she commits.  Which leads to a question Michael raised in our conversation: why are we so uncomfortable with just accepting that people do shitty things, and they’re not always caused by mental illness?  Why do we have to label people who do bad things as “sick” when perhaps they’re not.  Perhaps people just do really, really bad things.  Perhaps evil just exists in the world.

Diehl, of course, was given a plethora of diagnoses throughout her life: bipolar, narcissistic, a woman with a “personality disorder,” and in the end, none of them begin to define her or what she’s done.  Still, they become hallmarks of this particular construction of the monster woman, and such a mentally-ill rap sheet adds, I think, to her intrigue in the documentary.  In our culture, we’ve kind of given into “mental illness sheik,” with all the memoirs that have come out in the past 20 years.  Mental illness is depicted as, and can be, quite dazzling, quite captivating, quite alluring, and I think that Marjorie’s amalgam of mental illnesses are definitely lassoed in this way, to add to this serial killer’s so-called mystique.

Which raises the question: what happens when we glorify the so-called monster?  And is this documentary doing it?  What is the difference between humanizing and glorifying and is there something ethically problematic about depicting killers in such a light.  Marjorie is described as never having really fit in, but she’s also described, by those who knew her, as a “fascinating” and a “magnetic” person.  Maybe the question is not whether or not these depictions are problematic – indeed, they appear to  based off honest accounts from friends – but why we’re so attracted to such depictions?  Why do we like our evil – or “evil” – so seductive, so sheik, so charismatic, like Satan in Paradise Lost? As humans, most of us love to love, but what I wonder is whether we love to love even when it’s a “bad guy” we’re loving.  Not only did I relate a little bit to Marjorie as I watched the film (I’m not evil, nor a genius, but there were other similarities, including our hometown) – but I started to like her.  I found her crazy rantings over the phone to reporters, her general mannerisms and tendencies, kind of likable.  Far be it from me to say that I was drawn to a killer, but part of me was, indeed, drawn to her, just as I was drawn to Bill Rothstein, the man who helped her hide the body of one of her ex-lovers.  What is it about the so-called charming-evil-geniuses of the world?  Why is it that they’re sometimes appealing to us?

And in the end, do I feel comfortable calling Marjorie “evil?”  Do I feel comfortable calling her a “monster?”  These seem like rational labels: the sense that the documentary has given me so far is that this is a woman who kills without remorse, who finds murder funny, even, and never feels bad about what she’s done.  If it were a man, I have the strange sense that I’d be more comfortable calling him “evil,” or calling him a “monster” – and that’s completely sexist, I’ll admit.  Why is it, I have to wonder, that when I look at Marjorie, despite all she’s done, inasmuch as I may see a tinge of monstrosity there, I also see, well, a woman?  That is, I suppose, another question to ponder.


How We Construct the Monster: Thoughts on Evil Genius, Parts One and Two

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