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Horrible Crimes, Literary and Pop Culture References, and Parenting

As I read and listened to the news about a horrible crime committed in Canada this week and last, various literary and pop culture references have flashed through my head. Is this where his ideas came from? Or does the creativity of writers of fiction behind books and movies feed off of criminals like this?

I immediately thought of Kathy Reichs' books, where the main character is a forensic anthropologist who works with the Montreal police on obscure cases. Then, as Ottawa Citizen reporter Meghan Hurley started interacting on twitter with someone claiming to be the killer, I thought of an episode of Flashpoint where the suspect entertains and engages with his "fans" and provokes police using twitter.

Later, with body parts appearing across the country in Canada and some also being eaten by the murderer, I thought of In Kamloops. At first, I had only vague memory of the image. Then, as I asked around on twitter and described it, Mary Lynn came up with the answer, and it all came flooding back . It is a poem in a children's book called Alligator Pie. It sits in the three to five year old section at the Ottawa Chapters store, where I purchased a copy today.

Source: Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee, Illustrated by Frank Newfeld.

A little rhyme, perhaps intended to teach good Canadian children about their geography (otherwise I would never have heard of Napanee before Avril Lavigne), but oh so creepy and filled with gore. The kind of thing that sticks with you until you're an adult and makes you scared of men with long chins and hairy knuckles.

When we're in the car, we listen to CBC radio most of the time. My children hear the news. They know about Canadian politics, local issues, and the weather forecast. They get a good laugh when Stu Mills talks about a singer called The Mighty Popo (because Popo is bum in German, which is of course hilarious if you're a kid). But they also hear about war, earthquakes, starvation, and murder. Yes, they've been listening with me to the news, from the initial foot that showed up in Ottawa to the capture of the suspect in Berlin to even more body parts showing up in British Columbia. I've listened with them, putting my trust in the CBC to share the facts in a way I'm comfortable with instead of being The Daily Mail or worse.

I asked my friends on twitter today if they remember the first murder they were aware of as a child. Most of them could recall a murder, ranging from ones that happened in the woods behind their house to ones highly reported in the news. From Jon Benet Ramsey to the Columbine massacre to serial child killers in Canada and the United States to mall shootings and more. Most of them remember a horrific murder such as this that they learned about between the ages of five and ten, sometimes picking up a magazine they weren't supposed to see, sometimes from the hushed voices of adults, sometimes from the other kids at school.

We can't protect our children entirely from the horrible things that happen in the world, but we can help them to understand them. That is why I talk to my children about everything from politics to sex to murder. I'd rather they learn about it from me or with me and have the opportunity to ask questions immediately, than to learn about it from a source I don't necessarily trust and have to process it themselves or get answers from questionable sources. If we listen and talk about it together, I can give them a frame of reference. If I pretend it didn't happen, turn down the radio, or talk in hushed voices, I feel like I'm telling them this isn't something we talk about.

On one hand, I think children are exposed to too much gratuitous violence in video games and movies, but on the other hand, I think they are sometimes being too sheltered from reality. Rather than giving my children a world view based on fictional cannibals and violent video games or on nothing but rainbows and unicorns,  I prefer to simply listen to the news with them, and find a way for us, together, to understand the world and try in some small way to make it a better place.
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Reader Comments (16)

I agree. There is a definite difference between shielding children from non-fictional violent television and video games and talking to them about real life situations. Talking to our children is important at every age, as difficult as some of those conversations might be.

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

First murder/murderer I can remember - Clifford Olsen. He was in our community and it change how parents watched their children overnight. I was approached by a man in van matching the description and I ran to school (was less than a block away), straight to the office, and my parents along with police were called. I don't know, and will never know, if it was him, but that event changed me.

I tell my son (age 4) about things to be wary of in our community. Right now there are a number of suspect cat killings. We've discussed why our cat is now an indoor cat (even though he rarely went out to begin with). We're also a military family, so related discussions do come up. We don't go out of our way to introduce violence and crime topics to our child; we keep it to (what we believe is) a need to know.

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLara

I listen to CBC radio almost exclusively, but this isn't something I'm exposing my kids to at their ages (5.5 and 2.5 years). It's too much.

I'm fascinated, though, by the connections to pop culture and this crime. Beyond that horrifying Lee poem.

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

In Grade 2 our vice principle was shot and killed by a former boyfriend. I'll never forget our teacher sitting us down in a circle and reading us the newspaper article (which described how she was found - face down in her bowl of cereal). However, she opened things up for discussion, and allowed us to talk about the murder all day with her. I think she was also very upset herself. Maybe some parents were angry about what she did, but I think it helped a young child understand violence and how it can take the lives of people we care about. I agree - talking to our children is best!

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMisty Pratt

I remember the disappearance of Etan Patz, the first missing child whose photo was printed on the side of a milk carton. My sense of humour does tend to be a bit dark at times, but after the most recent coverage of this case that led to an arrest, even I can't read or share milk carton jokes now without cringing.

I am slowly learning how to temper my desire to be a bubble-wrapping mom with my kids' natural desire to grow and mature. And I'm still gobsmacked that Luka Magnotta may have sent body parts to elementary schools on the West Coast. Jaw-dropping and frozen there. I don't even know how to explain it beyond, "This man is very, very sick."

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

Oh my husband would be so delighted to read this! It has been an on-going theme between us:- him liking to have the radio on for background and me concerned about what the children would hear on the news. What will delight my husband further still is that, after reading your piece, I am inclined to agree with you.
It's ironic really - I am incredibly open about all manner of things with our children, as I firmly believe that we parents are an important sounding board and leaning post. Now I realise that whilst I am comfortable to discuss sex and drugs and depression and teenage troubles, I clearly need to find an ease with talking about murder and rape and violent crime and politics.
Thank you - I think my marriage just got smoother!

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKim

When I was a kid I was intrigued by Jack the Ripper and I still have interest in unsolved mysteries and serial killers. I remember being aware of Paul Bernardo's name, and Karla Homolka, but I don't know what I really knew. Then there was a murder in our neighbourhood, a man killed his wife and then himself about three blocks from my house. The first one that shook me was when my high school principal and his wife were shot for no reason except that two guys tried to rob them and didn't know anyone was home.
My husband and I tend to talk about news and current events openly at home because it's what we tend to talk about, but I don't know how we'll censor ourselves as she gets older.

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

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The first murder I remember is my cousin... I was really young, and so was she.
I don't think protecting our kids is smart, but I really don't think they need all the details either. The kid will depend on how much information I would give out.

June 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I love your advice. My kids aren't really interested in the news as it's not that real to them. They're 7 and younger. But sometimes I point out things that are happening, especially the amazing stories or massacres that involve children, to remind them that the world is big and varied and that they are among the best off people in the world.

I don't have much to add on this topic, but I remember that Lee poem nearly by heart from my own Canadian childhood. I always found it disturbing, especially the illustrations.

June 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

Hi - Another big topic you are tackling! There are some great books about having the media on in the background for many hours and how it affects children. Screen Time and Talking Back to Facebook come to mind. Lots (not just a little) research shows it is plain old not good for children to have media on constantly in the background, there is a significant language development impairment, and they are actually absorbing the violence and reacting emotionally to the violence. I think it's ok to let them hear the news and discuss it with them, but it depends on the individual child and parents can discern the emotional impact on each child, but having it on constantly has been shown to have deleterious effects.

I wasn't suggesting that having media on in the background all the time is a good idea. We don't have a TV at all in our main living area. It is in a separate space that is designated just for watching TV. Our children hear the news mostly in the car, where we have CBC radio on.

June 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

How much reality is there, really, in a brutal body part hacking/eating murder story? Yes, it's happening, but, it's not LIKELY to happen. It's extremely rare, unusual, horrifying, and brutal. I don't see the benefit in sharing that type of story - yet.

Earthquakes, floods, war, starvation, and even murder are things that happen, and often, and are part of the greater fabric of humanity and the world; being open to sharing those stories, talking them through, explaining them have gains - they broaden our children's worldview and understanding, and help establish greater more well-rounded perspective on our world; and from it, as you say, can come seeds of hope to make our world a better place. Only if you see what's wrong, can you hope to fix it.

But news reports of one freakshow that remains at large only serve to frighten children who can't comprehend completely - no matter HOW MUCH we explain - torture murder and cannibalism. Honestly, adults can't even comprehend the brutality of certain crimes. Regardless of how thoroughly we address the issues, our children DON'T have the frame of reference that comes from YEARS of experience and reading and living; explanations can't build that - part of it only comes from living.

I am all for exposing our children to the less-than-beautiful side of human nature and nature; life is not all sunshine & rainbows. I also agree that crafting the way your children are exposed (i.e. through your measured explanations instead of via video games & movies) to violence is the better way to go about it. But certain things in your early experience can really shape your understanding of your world; especially when they are outside of your full ability to understand them. Your memory of the book in question serves to prove that point. (though, perhaps, had your parents talked you through that book, maybe you'd have been less scarred by it?)

In this specific case, I'd turn the radio off, and if questioned, I'd offer a more gentle explanation/description than could be found in the newspaper or on NPR.

ps: That book is frightening, even as an adult. Holy s&*%.

Maybe if my kids were younger or if I was homeschooling, I might feel differently. However, most of the people I polled the other day remembered learning about some sort of horrific murder for the first time between the ages of 5 and 10. I know if my kids don't hear about this horrific incident from/with me, they are going to hear about it at school. I'd rather be able to provide some context, as I don't trust the average 2nd grader to be very good at doing that. If this was a murder in a far off land, maybe I wouldn't. But this is very close to home and very high profile. I feel it is important to discuss it in a safe environment.

June 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I really have to agree with Kelly on this. I don't know how old your children are but I am 32 and just heard about this and I am HORRIFIED! What is the point in exposing your children to this? I understand it is local and very high profile- but that does not mean your children need to know about it now. And if they hear about it from school? I would like to think my children would come to me about it and then, carefully we would talk about it- giving out as few details as possible, emphasizing it is something that does not happen hardly ever, and then talking to them about how important it is for them to obey us and to be safe.
Just like this murdering spree, horrible sex crimes happen to children every day and the news, many times (because remember, public or private, they need ratings) will tell the details. Do my children need to hear this? ABSOLUTELY NOT.
When I am pregnant and post-partum I cannot watch/listen to news at all. I find myself replaying gory details of stories in my head over and over and becoming more and more anxious about them and sick to my stomach. I know this is just what my children would do as well. The news is never on in any form in front of children in my home or car. I can read a paper or go online for important information, or listen by myself.
But, if your children were older (and I'm not talking 5-10), more like 14-18 I would be more open, but I still don't think the news is trustworthy at all. You don't know what they are going to say.

June 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBlackmarigold

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