Identity ’18: “Unsolved” by Brandon French

I steal. I am a seventy-one-year-old retired FBI profiler – remember Duane Margo, the “Cookie Monster” who cut up and baked his victims on cookie sheets? – and I steal. Are you shocked by the incongruity? I began stealing as a child, nickels and dimes from my mother’s pocketbook, to buy milk shakes at the Rexall Drug Store two blocks from our apartment on the west side of Chicago. Milk shakes are a preference that would have interested me, by the way, if I were profiling myself. (Milk linked to mother linked to inadequate nurturing, which stimulates self-nurturing by way of stealing what is not readily given.)

My shoplifting came later, when I worked at my Uncle Edgar’s drug store in San Diego as a teenager. (Note to self: Rexall Drug store, Uncle Edgar’s drug store. Unconscious self-medicating of unfulfilled needs?) My uncle was a nervous man, even more nervous than my mother, his older sister, a woman prone to sudden moves and explosive outbursts. In retrospect, I suspect my uncle’s anxiety was accelerated by the advent of rapacious chains like Rite-Aid, Rexall, Thrifty and Walgreens, which were swallowing up the mom and poppers like grazing orcas. But what did I care? I stole from the drug store every afternoon, mostly make-up, nail polish, and cigarettes, at first Camels, then Marlboros (I loved the box), hiding them in my dust rag, which my uncle insisted I use whenever there were no customers in the store.

“Look busy, Reggie,” he barked. “Customers don’t like it when the workers are just lollygagging around.”

Lollygagging. He used a number of weird expressions like that. For Pete’s sake. Who was Pete? Mollycoddling. That’s what he said my mother did with me instead of making me ‘straighten up and fly right.’

Well, I certainly put that dust rag to good use.

He almost caught me once. I’d gone into the back of the store to unload my day’s booty into my purse, not realizing that he was already back there checking invoices. His nose twitched like a rabbit, which made his tiny trimmed mustache do the jitterbug. But he didn’t say anything, he just glared at me, his black eyes enlarged to owl size by his thick horn-rimmed glasses. I guess he didn’t want to upset my mother by firing me, when she was having a tough time recovering from the circumstances of her divorce. (Note to self: research statistical effects of divorce and uprooting on adolescents. Symptoms?)

I don’t remember stealing again until I was away at college in Los Angeles, living in a cramped Westwood apartment with my Chinese roommate Matilda. At that time I stole steaks and lamb chops from the supermarket. All I had to do was put my big, open straw satchel in the shopping cart and casually toss the meat into it. This happened by accident the first time, which gave me the idea. I had the same m.o. in graduate school at UC Davis, only with clothes, blouses and tee-shirts, parking my cart next to a rack of size smalls whenever I was in a department store.

I was very good at shoplifting, and didn’t really worry much about getting caught. If a store detective spotted me, I’d just say, ‘Oh my goodness, how did that happen? I guess it accidentally dropped into my carryall when I tossed it in the cart.’ But I never got caught. And afterward, I’d have a moment of intense relief and exhilaration, like inhaling the first cigarette of the day after going all night without one. (Note to self: Research neurological connection between drug highs and behavioral highs.)

All this ended when I entered the program at Quantico. I became haunted by scenarios of discovery and disgrace, and they drove me to clean up my act. For the next five decades, except for one slip (an exquisite $200 cream-colored blouse at Henry Bendel when I visited New York), I was a model citizen. Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. (What a hoot that movie was, especially for us female profilers, although we pretended to poo-pooh it at the time. My cousins and nieces were all over me, wanting to know everything about the Bureau.) And then out of the blue last week, when I was having my annual gynecology check-up to make certain that all those unused parts hadn’t gotten into any mischief, I stole a magazine.

Food and Wine. The issue with the babkas on the cover. I wanted the recipe for chocolate babka.

Not for me, although I confess I had a moment of temptation. It was for my friend Stephanie and her wife Jill. Two skinnies. Not that I’ve ever had much of a weight problem myself. But retirement can be fattening if you don’t watch out. Back in the day, as part of my training, I tackled “The Yellow Brick Road,” a 6.1 mile run which won me a yellow brick and the admiration of the other trainees, most of whom had declined the optional challenge. Nowadays, though, with my arthritis and fibromyalgia, I’m pretty much reduced to the Yellow Brick limp. And of course, with the advent of increasingly precise and accurate DNA processing, CODIS, and vastly improved methods of data collection, not to mention the proliferation of surveillance cameras wherever you look, the whole game has changed.

But back to that stolen magazine. (Observe how quickly I steered away from the subject. Note to self: avoidance of guilt and shame, a primitive defense). This was a major regression, seemingly out of nowhere. I took off my new, navy blue Banana Republic blazer (which I hadn’t stolen, by the way) and hid the magazine in the folds, just as I would have done as a teenager. But I wasn’t as stealthy as I used to be, nor nearly as adept and graceful in my larceny. My jacket fell out of my grasp and spilled onto the floor directly in front of my ob/gyn and her assistant, partially revealing a corner of the magazine cover. Luckily, a second before they could bend down to help me, I scooped up the jacket and clutched it to my chest like a life preserver. Walking out into the fierce afternoon sun, I felt that still familiar cocktail of relief and exhilaration, as if I’d just snorted cocaine. My God, what was wrong with me? And after all this time!

The incident reawakened my passion for solving mysteries, that inexhaustible quest for answers. It also caused me to recollect what a psychiatrist had called me when I was in my twenties.

“Greedy little piggy,” he’d said, apparently not caring if he hurt my feelings. “Whatever Reggie wants, Reggie takes.” (Note to self: stream Hitchcock’s Marnie and review kleptomania.)

Michael, my last romance, had a different bone to pick with me. “Every time you ask me a question, I feel like you’re gathering data. Stop profiling me,” he’d shout. I honestly wasn’t aware of doing that until he pointed it out. Occupational hazard, I guess.

I was simply on a lifelong quest to understand the mysteries of human behavior, my own included. My house became overrun with books, psychology, neurology, child development, books about attachment and the lack of attunement, the formation and deformation of empathy. Journals about human sexuality, perversion, criminality and psychopathy. Books about specific sociopaths, including fifty copies of my own, Addicted to Evil (Simmons, Regina. Karnac, 1996) in which I argued that serial killing was an addictive behavior that shares the characteristics of all other addictions. (Well-reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, no less, as “a fresh twist” on the subject, and available in paperback on Amazon for $12.99, if you’re interested.)

After the publication, I was a sought-after speaker, especially for my stories about various psychopaths that my colleagues and I had profiled (“Mr. Potato Head”, the Arctic Icicle Killer, Freddy Friendly-Face, and, of course, “The Cookie Monster.”). That’s how I met Michael, my ex, as a matter of fact. He was a forensic psychologist who’d read my book and wanted it autographed.

But while I could explain how we created the profiles, and how they helped us track down the culprits, I had to admit that none of us could account for why they became killers, any more than I could explain why I’d become a thief. (Or an FBI profiler, for that matter.)

These are the questions I continue to ponder. Yes, I can reference the violent battles my parents waged, and my terror that they might kill each other. I can factor in my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s borderline personality. I can cite that I was an only child who had undoubtedly been spoiled, within the limited means of my parents, and that I became somewhat entitled in my expectations of life, like the much maligned millennials.  I can also recall the precocity that drove me to read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams when I was nine, and my fascination with Leopold and Loeb (“The Crime of the Century”} when I was eleven. (I wrote to Leopold, putting forth my theory that it was Dick Loeb and not he who was the psychopath. My mother was horrified when he wrote back, addressing me as ‘my very dear young lady,’ with ‘Joliet Prison’ as big as a black eye on the envelope.)

But the seminal event in my upbringing, I suspect, occurred one morning when I was four years old and jumped out of bed, knocking over a vaporizer shaped like a tea pot, which spilled a quart of boiling water onto my feet, causing first and second degree burns.

There was a blizzard that morning, one of those infamous Midwestern howlers that thrash the trees and pound the windows like angry gods. I was home from nursery school for the second day, sick with a cold. My father was taking care of me, as usual, while my mother was off teaching p.e. to grade schoolers, and apparently we were playing some kind of game. Then, for no reason I can recall, I jumped out of bed. The next thing I remember is my mother carrying me back and forth across the living room rug as we waited for the pediatrician to slog through the snow. I recall screaming in pain while she alternately comforted me and shouted at my father that it was all his fault!

In my father’s last letter to me before he died of leukemia, he referred to the incident and said he had inadvertently “done something” which frightened me. I did not ask him to elucidate (Why? Was I afraid to know?), and now, of course, it’s too late.

Fact: Whatever that ‘something’ he referred to was, I developed mysterious symptoms afterward, a persistent dry cough and chronic stomach aches, for which there was no physical cause. The pediatrician suggested that my parents consult a child psychiatrist, which in 1948 was a radical idea.

Fact: After the consultation with the psychiatrist, my mother filed for divorce. A month later, she changed her mind.

Fact: During that same year, my father began to drink heavily, and suffered a major heart attack. He survived the coronary but continued to drink to excess for the rest of his life.

Fact: Within days after we visited the psychiatrist, my nervous symptoms disappeared.

I suppose that my father’s profile is relevant. Younger son of two Russian immigrants who fled Odessa at the beginning of the last century, shrewd, suspicious, ‘People of the Book,’ who were ravenous for their sons’ educations although they themselves were illiterate, and fatally infected with the iconic American hunger for material success in the new world. My father graduated from law school but flunked the bar after announcing that he was a communist in 1924, a bad year for radicals. He subsequently followed his musician’s heart into opera, becoming a mediocre tenor in the Chicago Opera Company. Late to marry (age 40), he found work as a furniture salesman and occasional high holiday singer for various synagogues. But unlike his older brother, who became a successful insurance broker, my father’s income was spotty, and his jobs came and went.

Relationships? He was adored by his mother but found no favor with his taciturn, pragmatic father, who considered the manhood of someone who sang opera and wrote poetry suspect. This suspicion was reinforced by my father’s friendships with a number of homosexual men, although for people in show business, those associations were commonplace. The rest of my father’s friends were mostly Irishmen he met in bars, several of whom regularly helped him home on nights when he was too unsteady to walk by himself.

My father, as well as my mother, had a critical spirit. When they watched Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows each Saturday night and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays, they savaged the singers and dancers, shouting their insults at the small black and white screen like rowdy wrestling fans.

“Eeeeeeeee!” my father would shriek, imitating a pop singer’s flat note.

“Get off the stage!” my mother would shout at a dancer whose leg was not perfectly straight.

Nothing short of perfection was acceptable to my parents and that message was not lost on me. (Note to self: check out the impact of perfectionism on various deviant and rebellious behaviors.)

The honeymoon pictures of my parents in Florida seem characteristically romantic. She leans her tiny body against him flirtatiously and he feeds her an orange he has just plucked from a tree. But the images I remember are shouting matches, during which my mother would attempt to hit my father with heavy objects like the bakelite phone or the cast iron frying pan, and my inebriated father would roar with rage as he charged at her like a Miura bull.

My mother filed for divorce again when I was eleven, after my father crashed through the window of a liquor store with me in the car, and this time she did not relent. We left Chicago and moved to San Diego, where her brother, my Uncle Edgar, lived, and that’s how I ended up working in the drugstore.

I did well in college and graduated from UC San Diego summa cum laude with a degree in psychology. Afterward, I decided to visit my father in Chicago, perhaps seeking his approval for my academic success. My mother insisted that I only meet up with him in public places, and never in the little residential hotel where he had a room. When I asked her why, she said, “Because he’s a man.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, with considerable heat. “Tell me!” But my mother refused to elaborate.

I never learned what the child psychiatrist said to my parents that caused my mother to contemplate divorce, and without actual memories, I can only speculate about what happened on the day I was burned. It’s possible that whatever my father took from me, assuming he took anything at all, led me to believe that I could take whatever I wanted from others. It sounds like a reasonable etiology of my pilfering, does it not? In a self-helpy sort of way. Like Tom Harris’s indictment of the sadistic grandmother in Red Dragon, which is meant to “explain” why Francis Dolarhyde became a homicidal maniac. But my deviant behavior could just as well have been a reaction to a deficit on my mother’s part, a failure to protect me, or to love me without ambivalence, if love without ambivalence even exists. Either way – or both — insight is not enough. That’s where Freud’s psychoanalysis went wrong. There has to be a transformation in the brain which alters behavior, or you’re just another New Yorker couch cartoon.

News Flash: I am watching an interview with Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer who strangled at least 49 prostitutes, when the reporter asks, “Don’t you have any guilt for what you did? Aren’t you sorry?” Ridgway looks thoughtful, as if he is rummaging around in the basement for a cache of old socks. “You mean that caring thing?” he asks, frowning. “No, I don’t think I have that.” Charlie Manson said practically the same thing. “I was aware of being totally without conscience,” and “I can’t put my finger on when I became devoid of caring emotion.” Suddenly I realize something, which throughout all my years of compulsive navel gazing never occurred to me. I have no guilt or remorse about stealing. I suppose that’s a terrible thing to admit, but I want to be honest with you. It’s not that I’m without conscience. Good heavens, I still carry the pain of having accidentally stepped on a neighbor boy’s pet turtle when I was three. And there’s a whole Rose Parade of other regrets that I can’t shake off. But guilt for stealing? Not on the list. “No, I don’t think I have that.”

Boy howdy!

Anderson Cooper, whose brother Carter inexplicably jumped off a building when he was 23, said that we live in a world without why’s. Like him, I shall probably go to my grave without an answer that satisfies me, although I’ll continue to investigate, probably from force of habit, like Dr. Bernard Rieux in The Plague, because it’s my existential raison d’etre. Maybe I’m not even asking the right questions. This past Thursday, I stole two more magazines. I was on my third day of jury duty and had grown so restless and irritable that I either had to steal the two New Yorkers, or get a second packet of M&M’s from the vending machine. Yes, I know, it was only a couple of old magazines that I saved from the garbage collector, but that’s not the point. In any event, I’m hoping that I got whatever compels me out of my system, but who knows?

After all this time, the sum total of my wisdom is, who knows? Why, despite becoming an ardent pursuer of truth and justice, do I steal? Why does a firefighter start fires? Why did Duane Margo, whose beloved grandmother baked cookies to console him for the loss of his parents in a fire he probably set, become “The Cookie Monster” rather than an arsonist, or a fire fighter? For that matter, why didn’t he become a pastry chef?

You tell me.

Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago sometime after The Great Fire of 1871. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!), an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, playwright and screenwriter, director of development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and a mother. Sixty-one of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and anthologies, she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart, she was an award winner in the 2015 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Short Story Contest, and she has a published collection of poetry entitled “Pie.”

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