Sympathy for the Devil: An interview with Amy Butcher

This is a caption --photo by John Doe
Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder is Amy Butcher’s first book —photo by Ben Leddick

Three months after the release of her debut memoir, Visiting Hours, Amy Butcher has returned to Iowa City, where she graduated from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program in 2012. This summer she’s leading a workshop for the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. We met up at the Foxhead to talk about her first book, and her next project.

Your book is about your relationship with Kevin, who was a friend of yours who killed his, Emily, when you were in college. What was your greatest struggle in telling this sensitive story?

I knew when I began writing this book that it would be controversial, that some would disagree not only with what I was saying but also my right to say it, and that the material and my perspective would inherently invite polarization. My close friend murdered a young woman two hours after walking me home, and what I experienced in the months and years that followed was a traumatic struggle. It was a struggle to process this event, to negotiate two disparate identities of a person I cared for and trusted.

It was a struggle to to find closure in case documents and mental health records that, instead, proved Kevin experienced a dissociative (or “psychotic”) break and in this way never meant to harm Emily and was, in fact, incapable of acting upon right or wrong in the moment that he killed her. What do you do with that? The very thing I’d hoped might clarify this case only cracked it open wider. And makes it inseparable, I think, from ongoing conversations about mental health care reform and violence.

In many ways, whenever you write, you write about love.How does love — your unapologetic desire for it, your appreciation of it — inform your work?

I do the best I can—I think we all do — but I’m most interested in when our best is not enough. The essays I respond to most are those written on love—I mean that term in the general sense—or lack thereof, written from the point of view of later understanding, and in this way they are like gifts: of insight, of tenderness.

How does love fit into Visiting Hours?

In Visiting Hours, that love is sort of inescapable; for all the sadness and anger I’ve felt for Kevin, there’s also still that tenderness — this is a boy who was, in many ways, my parallel: same age, same sort of upbringing, same ideas for what the future held. And how different now those futures are. But far beyond Kevin and this book, yes, I write frequently on love. It’s really the only thing I care about—how all consuming and where it goes.

Do you think mental illness should always be included in discussions of capital crimes?

I do. Not necessarily because I believe mental illness is always a factor, but because in the cases where it is, it plays an especially consequential role. If you spend any real time with the statistics that surround mental illness and incarceration—that the rate of mental illness within the prison population is five times that of the general public; that there are three times as many mentally ill in jails as in hospitals; that the United States currently has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world — it becomes impossible to believe that these two are not, more often than not, intrinsically linked.

Early on in the project, I read a really heartbreaking, really compelling essay — “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mom,” by Liza Long — wherein Long writes on simultaneously striving to help and fearing her mentally ill, violent teen. It’s a difficult essay to take in; at one point, Long is told by her son’s social worker that her best option is to file charges.

“If he’s back in the system,” the social worker tells her, “they’ll create a paper trail. That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

According to the Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise each year. Our prison system has more or less become a place for those we don’t know how to help or those our systems have invariably failed. It’s easy to look at someone who has committed a violent crime and impose upon him the mental state we are privileged to in health, but it serves no one, least of all future generations.

Despite the evidence in this case, statistics like those you just mentioned, and burgeoning criminal psych informed by neuroscience, some readers have criticized you for refusing to condemn Kevin—for having too much sympathy for the so-called devil, in other words. What’s your reaction to that?

As someone who knew Kevin well and as someone who spent three years researching and writing about this event, I think my position holds value. I’d argue, too, that no one has exclusive claim to life’s events; a thing like this happens and it affects us all. The support I’ve received from those equally shaped by this event attests to this, but of course the criticism is natural and I knew to anticipate it.

What’s next? A book of essays?

A novel and a collection of essays, the latter of which I find a home in far more easily than I do a book. I love the fluidity of essay collections, the breadth and that sense of process. I’m working now on what might be considered a collection of travel essays, pleasant not only in the deviation of form it presents but also in the fact that I am largely absent from the material. I’ve spent the past two years hitchhiking around the largest oil field in America (in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska), witnessing the annual migration of nearly half a million Sandhill Cranes and otherwise seeking out strange experience as a means of understanding how others live a bit more fully.

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