A couple of weeks ago, I wrote two web posts about a real-life murder that took place in Atlantic County, New Jersey, in 2012. Still unsolved. My summaries were based on a pages-long newspaper story by Rebecca Everett. Several of the people she interviewed said outright or implied that the mishandling of the investigation and prosecution kept the family from having closure.
“Closure” is something we hear a lot about after tragedies. But that seems a slippery concept to me. Is there such a thing, really? Or, after a violent episode are people haunted by some combination of guilt and wishful thinking that suggests they or Someone surely could have done Something? They don’t even have to say specifically what those Somethings were, though they may have specifics in mind. Do they tell themselves that they shouldn’t have let their teenager take the car on that rainy night? That they should have kept their child with a stuffy nose home from school that day? That they always knew there was something off about Uncle Max? And on and on.
Even in cases where a death isn’t unexpected, when it isn’t a sudden catastrophe, does this same second-guessing come into play? Do was ask ourselves, Why didn’t I insist she get her mammogram? Why didn’t I say I’d drive him to those AA meetings? Maybe I’m mixing up “closure” and “guilt” or “responsibility.” Or maybe they are somehow cousins.
You’d think the most unequivocal sort of closure would come in death penalty cases, in which victims’ family members are allowed to witness the execution of their loved one’s murderer. It turns out it doesn’t work that way. Not always.
Said the mother of a slain Houston police officer, “I wanted to be sure it was finished, and that’s why I went.” Possibly, this mother did achieve closure. “It was just too humane,” said the mother of a murdered daughter. No closure for her. (The first quote is from a 2017 New York Times story, the second from WebMD.) Perhaps the experience gives the viewer a feeling of retribution, but it doesn’t offer consolation. The loss is still real and present, the empty chair still there. Revenge seems to me a totally different animal than closure.
As a writer of crime fiction, I have to think about this, even in my stumbling way. Recently, I read a story about a private investigator whose client was murdered in a set-up the investigator himself engineered. Although I didn’t expect (or want) the fictional investigator to lapse into a full-blown depression, he doesn’t question his actions, take any responsibility for the death, demonstrate any regret. This struck me as unrealistic and unsatisfying. I guess you could say this particular character achieved closure with no trouble at all. He would have been a better person if he hadn’t.