As many of my readers already know, my sister was murdered in South Africa thirty years ago. I have written about this in so many different forms from my first novel: “The Perfect Place,” the story of a woman who meets a man in Switzerland who leads her to remember a forgotten crime, through “Cracks” a school girl novel, where a girl disappears on the veld, and onto “Crossways” which is told from three points of view, the sister, the killer and the servant. All these books describe quite different murder scenes, different characters, and quite different plots, but at the heart of them lies the question: what drove this man to such an act of violence? What drives men or women to kill? What is the origin of evil acts of this kind?
What made my sister’s husband drive the car off the road and into a telephone pole on a dry night with no other cars on the road? This respectable Johannesburg heart surgeon was not a drinker but rather a wife-beater. There was a history of battering which ended that night, depriving six children of their mother.
One might suspect it was an attempt to kill both of them, but he was wearing his seat belt and she was not and though he was damaged he lived.
Certainly if we look at literature, the motivation to kill is as varied as is human nature itself. There are honor killings as in the very violent scene in Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” where reluctantly the twins, Pedro and Pablo Vicario, kill Santiago Nasar, the man they think has stolen their sister’s honor.
There is, of course, Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” who kills the pawnbroker and then her sister for gain. He is poor and hungry and lives in squalor and his beloved sister is about to have to marry a despicable man for money, but he also kills for intellectual reasons. He believes he is ridding society of a “louse” and that he is above the law.
As for Mersault in Camus’s “The Stranger” he kills without reason it seems. He fires and fires again on the Arab on the beach because of the heat, or so it appears, which stresses the absurdity of the action, its senselessness, the man’s detachment from those around him.
And what about the women killers in fiction, why do they kill? These killings are often indirect: the women, like Lady Macbeth or Zola's Therese Raquin use men in order to get rid of someone, in Lady Macbeth’s case for power and in Therese Raquin’s case for sex, in order to be with her lover.
In Medea’s case, perhaps one of the most violent acts of all, she kills her children to avenge her husband’s betrayal.
In my own sister’s case it has always seemed to me her husband killed her because he needed to control her. She was beautiful, one of those soft, sweet girls with a good heart and an English complexion. She was bright, curious, and well-educated. She had money and position in South African society whereas he came from a poor Afrikaans family with many children and few possibilities.
Perhaps her very goodness, her insouciance, a dreamy quality drove him crazy, and he could not bear to lose her when she threatened to leave. He needed to keep asserting his dominance over her, afraid ultimately of her power.
Reading Freud and his theories on women, one wonders just how afraid men are of women’s power. Think of the early fertility statues of women with their embonpoint, their wide hips and pendulous breasts. Women have all the power: to give birth, and then to keep the babies alive with the bountiful milk from their breasts.
Of course, with certain individuals, there may simply exist psychopathic traits which are inherited, and serial killers who will kill whatever the circumstances around them. The old problem of the origin of evil remains, of course, unfathomable but always intriguing.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.