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The Secrets of Singapore Valley

p. 3 of 10

          Tanov kept Arielle alive for ten days, as he returned, many times, to a room, to assail and torture and rape her. Before and during the trial, I methodically exposed myself to all available documentation as to what she had gone through during her capture: what had been done to her body, and where, and when, and how. At first, these details had been unthinkable to me, but through practice I taught myself to think them.

          Tanov’s trial ended, Tanov went to death row, I wrote my article for this magazine, and people said things to me, and I went to therapy—

          And every night and every day, I fixated on thoughts of Arielle, and re-memorized each violation of her flesh, and tried to go deep inside her physical pain.

          And one night, writing an email and mentally following the progress across my daughter’s skin of some particularly tasteless implement, I saw that what was haunting me was not Arielle’s physical pain—from which (I suddenly realized) she had dis-attached, probably early—but the bone-deep loneliness she must have known as she was forced to live for more than a week in an ugly room she would never leave alive—intermittently visited by a cruel stranger who only wanted her to feel fear. 

          Then, I was stabbed by her despair and her fading spirit, and simultaneously I knew a personal relief—because I finally could do something for Arielle.

          I could be with her in my mind—I could join her in her hell, and send my thoughts and love to her backward through time. I was certain I could reach her, so that in every past moment she might feel I was still with her if she needed me.

          I did this for weeks and months—went to feel her sadness and loneliness in that room, and whisper to her through time that I would always stay with her.

          We wondered why it was happening and whether nothing meant anything. We slumped against the unseen wall of his dungeon. I pinkie-swore I would never leave her. I put my arm around her and stroked her hair. 

          It even got boring, staying with her there. But the ache and randomness and meaninglessness of her disappearance didn’t go away.

          Why had she gone back with him? Why that single choice in that single moment?

          I actually had never cared about Tanov himself. I didn’t deliberately not care, as some attempted defiance of the man, and his disruption of my existence and my family’s. I just hadn’t been interested.

          But one night, when I was staying up late with Arielle and had nothing new to say to her, I decided to read his Wikipedia.

          And I was fascinated.  I followed links to external pages, and read profiles of the man (including one published in this magazine) that I had never read before.

          And for the first time in years, I found myself thinking easily—even automatically—about something other than Arielle.  Of course, I was thinking instead about her kidnapper, assailant and killer.  But only initially—because Tanov quickly became just one of innumerable psychopathic sadists I could learn about and compare with other members of that tribe, those deceiving men with looks in their eyes. Having memorized some entrant’s stats, I would stare at his mugshot on Wikipedia—at the challenge in his eyes, saying, I did things you thought no one could—how do you answer me?

          The aspect of the crimes I couldn’t get accustomed to was not their violence: any brute or rager can do a savage thing that lingers with a family for generations.  But to love knowing that she knows that you enjoy her helpless suffering, and that she understands that you understand that she understands she is trapped—to be fascinated and amused, turned on and compelled to continue by the game of guard and prisoner—is more peculiar. Taste enters into it:  this kind of killer savors her expressions of fear and transformation into pain.

          Caged serial killers, asked to explain themselves, may bring up their addictions to porn, their called-off engagements, their affection-starved childhoods.  And that these explanations are self-serving does not prove they are untrue.  Maybe the killer deserves moral exculpation on the basis of being compelled to strike by the impelling influence of past experience.

          I considered that possibility—the dead parent’s ancient beratements and torture tricks cycling in the psycho’s head, and the pressure to lash out building until the chosen object can be taken and toyed with and decimated. Life is a closed karmic system. Past events impel new events, like dominoes falling, and the serial killer is carried along by fate.

          I also considered another model of how it happens: that he stokes his own intention, summoning the will to act; that the immediate cause of his transgression is not the sum total of past events converging on this moment, with a new event arising like the result of an equation, but a choice to proceed.

          In favor of this theory is the tendency of cunning killers to prepare.  At least, I thought so at first—that a serial killer reveals himself by turning his entire life into a staging area for his deeds. 

          But my conviction became less certain, as I considered that the inescapability of his obsessions—with the world narrating itself to him the same way, whichever way he turns—suggests that his mental life really is not within his conscious control, which in turn suggests that acts emerging from that mental life have no guiding agency.

          I considered that maybe everything that had happened had only happened because it had to—that the sordid wrongness of Arielle’s death was simply what this world was.  Events were unfolding in their strictly causal way,  and innocence had no protected position in the concatenating sequence.

          But though this was where my mind had landed, I kept on reading the Wikipedia entries, the grisly exposés, the oral histories and case studies;  I kept spending hours on YouTube, watching old courtroom statements and CNN interviews.  My reading and viewing were too automatic to call avid, but I am sure I was seeking something, guided by an unconscious intention. 

          And one day, I found it.

          One day, I saw the curse.

          A serial killer undergoes a self-initiation, undertaking a curriculum of deliberate self-desensitization during his late adolescence and early adulthood. His purpose is to expose himself thoroughly to images and ideas that make him feel instinctive aversion: bodies violated, merciless torture, children restrained and helpless. He teaches himself to feel fascination only—and to treat his own twinges of resistance as mere objects to observe.  He rehearses his future deafness to victims’ pleas—preparing to respond with dispassionate curiosity, quiet bemusement, robotic distance. 

          He turns into the tide—letting the harshest feelings break against him and go through him. 

          He discovers a place where guilt is just a convention they’ve downloaded into you, like security software—there until you see it for the spyware it is,  and victoriously uninstall it.

          It was in all their stories—a period through which they withdrew, delved into darkness, and resurfaced, with the look in their eyes transformed.  This was the curse, and the curse was how they became themselves.

          And when I saw its patterning recurrence across biographies, I thought I had my answer, the evidence of ultimate agency:  the killer had made himself this way, by teaching himself to feel no mercy.

          But then I considered that in a determined world, the killer has no choice when he curses himself—and my own cries, thinking of Arielle’s suffering, are just more predestined sounds.  And I kept going back and forth between those possibilities.

          This was the general state I was in when, one day, the name of my editor at this magazine (one Colson Graff) appeared on my phone as an incoming call. I was in no mood to accept any call from anyone—not even from such an esteemed colleague and friend as the inimitably elegant Colson.

          Colson, however, is both my friend and my boss. And so, reluctantly (and anticipating no more than a check-in, and perhaps a no-pressure ask as to when I might be ready to pitch a story or accept an assignment), I took the call.

          “Hello, Colson.”

          “Meredith—hey, hi. Hi. How are you?”

          “Fine, thanks. You?”

          I sat at my kitchen table, and tilted a glass of water back off its base, and twisted the tipped base in quarter-rotations back and forth on the table-top. 

          “Everything is fine, thanks—Charlie is fine, and he’s been saying he wants to see you.”

          We proceeded through the beats of our small talk. And then, as he does, Colson got to the point.

          “But listen,” he said, “—there’s actually a reason I’m calling. And I don’t quite know how to broach this, but it feels too weird trying to talk around it.

          “The situation is this. You’ve followed the story about Pierce Rhenshorn getting gunned down,  out in California—in Singapore Valley?”

          “I have.”

          “Okay.  Well, the police out there have taken a man into custody.”

          “That I didn’t know.”

          “And they have evidence this guy is a serial killer.”


          “And this person is conditioning his further cooperation with any investigation on first talking to you.”

          “To me.”

          “Yes—he knows your reporting. He knows your piece about Yuri Tanov’s trial.”


          And now, I started following two mental paths at once. One part of my focus was on the conversation with my editor,  and asking the kinds of questions that a typical reporter,  confronted with a bizarre new circumstance,  might as a professional be expected to ask.

          But even as I was working to show Colson—who has an empathetic gift, and knew some of how devastated by Arielle’s death I had been—that I had the undiminished acuity to size up the situation and evaluate its pitfalls, I was imagining what I could learn by sitting across from a serial killer,  and talking with him about his life and growth—by looking into his eyes and asking him about the curse. 

          “Obviously,” Colson said, “we are all very concerned to protect you from any potentially re-traumatizing experiences.  Frankly, Meredith, I wouldn’t have expected to come to you about anything like this at all.”

          “Well, he obviously has some leverage with the police,  if they’re reaching out to you.” 

          “Exactly.  He does appear to have something concrete on Rhenshorn.”

          “And what—he’ll share that info with the SingVal  P.D. if he just gets to talk with me first?”

          “That’s right.”

          “So, he is alleging that Pierce Rhenshorn was involved in something criminal.  And the police see his allegations as credible.”

          “That is what it looks like.”

          “And my assignment is to go to Singapore Valley and talk to an alleged serial killer.”

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