Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Killer of Lover's Lane, or, the Ten-Mile-Flats Murder: Transgressions of Closure

Audio File / Podcast / mp3 file

When I was a teen-ager in Norman, Oklahoma, there was a long-standing unsolved murder. It was something straight out of Friday, the 13th or any other movie where illicit sexuality is promptly punished with a chainsaw, and where unnatural desire is slashed with a big phallic knife. Two Norman High School students -- juniors, I believe - had parked at the very end of Main Street in the low-lying floodplain, Ten Mile Flats, on the edge of the South Canadian River.

It was an isolated spot at a bend in the river, near a sandy bank. It was a part of a point bar, I believe. Weeping willows, mimosas, persimmons, and cottonwoods created a secluded, park-like Lover's Lane in the heart of the prairie.

Apparently, they were parked there at sunset, when a member of the Norman police force pulled up. He expected to find two young adults who would be defensive and who would have plenty of excuses for why they happened to be parked there, and why they happened to be partially clothed.

Instead, the officer found a grisly scene. Blood was everywhere. The girl and her boyfriend had died due to extreme trauma and multiple stab wounds.

For years, the rumor was that the killer was a "dirty cop" -- a police officer with "peeping Tom" proclivities, but no one was ever indicted or even accused. The case stayed open, and then it finally chilled out. It was a "cold case" - an unsolved mystery that had never achieved closure.
When closure finally came, it was uncomfortable, awkward, and unsatisfying. A former police officer who had left the Norman police force was arrested in Colorado for exposing himself to young teen-age girls. Someone made the connection and requested a DNA analysis.

So, although the story was officially written, with a beginning, middle, and an ending, it was not a positive experience. One still had the feeling that there was something more, and that not all the loose ends in the story were ever tied up.

The forced ending, the "too neat" closure brought to mind urban legends. In a certain way, urban legends are constructions and extrapolations of closure. They start with closure and then work backward to make the events align to have the desired outcome.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are not examples of forced closure. Instead, they have false closure.

Fairy tales, fables, and other morality tales have imposed closure. The ending has to fit a very well-defined and well-known set of values and roles in a particular society.

What does narrative closure do for the reader? What is the function of narrative closure?

In many ways, narrative closure helps combat what I like to call "ambiguity anxiety." The reality that closure is almost always a false construct is interesting. It means that everyone is aware, at least on a subconscious level, that the nice, neat ending is false. It is a lie. And yet, the kinds of tales that have the kind of closure we've been talking about are almost always considered "truth" or "wisdom" discourse.

When we think that didactic tales and all the narratives with forced, false, or imposed closure are actually false, it's a little sad. Who wants to admit that we live out our lives knowing that we are deliberately embracing false consciousness?

But, perhaps that's exactly where the jouissance or plaisir is manufactured. Perhaps that's the profound meaning of it all. We know that we are -- at least for a nano-second -- self-aware and in control of the narrative we impose on ourselves. For a flash of jouissance or plaisir, we feel alive, joyous unity, with our own false consciousness. We thrill with omnipotence (or at least the knowledge of what omnipotence might mean) -- we have, for an instant, completely controlled the meaning and the reality of our lives.

But, is the imposed closure of the morality tale effective?

The fact that the two young teenagers were killed on the edge of a river did nothing in terms of changing behavior in Norman, Oklahoma. Kids continued to park in the tree-lined shadows of the edge of the river in the middle of a flat, trackless prairie.

As a cautionary tale, the event served to propose a series of actions and to create a causal chain.

As a tale of morality, of crime and punishment, the story did nothing to change behaviors. In fact, it enchanted the place and imbued it with danger and in doing so, it deepened the magic and the mystery. By uniting sexuality and death, youth and blood, Lover's Lane became, in the dark of night, ineffable.

There was not much to say after the trial, when the headlines and the photos were laid out across the front page of The Norman Transcript.

I drove home from the courthouse, where I had been filing an oil and gas lease, and fighting traffic as people left the packed courtroom. When I arrived home, my mother was pulling weeds out of her flower garden that bloomed with bright pink, gold, red, and purple zinnias and snapdragons.

"They were saying the guy they found guilty was claiming to be innocent right up to the very end," I said.

"He probably believed it," she said.

"How?" I asked.

"It was the only way he could get closure in his life," she said.

"Oh, of course," I said, but I didn't really agree. I don't think he actually wanted closure. Instead, he probably wanted the ineffable, inarticulate horror of bringing the horrors of one's imagination into the realm of flesh and blood.

I never parked at Ten Mile Flats. I was shy. I was unpopular in high school. And yet, on some level, I realized that the tragedy of youthful lovers dying in the pursuit of unity was somehow generative to the community as a whole. We did not throw virgins into a cenote or pull still-beating hearts up to the Sun God in a way that anyone was willing to admit.

Instead, we had our psycho killers who punished youthful sexuality. They died so the community could live.

Now, that's narrative closure.