Updated: Nov 1
"We Need To Talk About Kevin"
(Paranoid Planet, Episode 7.7D, Chapter 2)
A few weeks ago, in late August 2023, I was watching a little-league baseball game in which my son was playing, when I received a rather unsettling email. A ball hockey colleague was informing me, along with everyone else in our league, that Kevin, our regular Saturday morning teammate, had just been arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Robyn, his wife of seven years. It is an understatement to say I was shocked, as I am sure everyone else was. A few days later, a couple dozen of us met in a sports pub to mourn and commiserate. What exactly happened? How could this have been done by our friend? How could none of us have seen this coming? There were too many questions and too few answers. The dominant feelings were confusion, surprise, and regret for not having noticed that something was wrong, or said anything that might have prevented this horrible thing from happening.
The news stories were brief, repetitive, and none-too-specific. The flow of information dried up within a week. The crime, it would seem, was perpetrated late on a Friday evening, after which Kevin placed his wife’s body inside his car and then drove away, leaving their 4 and 6 year-old children alone in the house. There is no indication that the children were harmed or aware of what happened. Some news stories reported that Kevin phoned a family member to ask that the children be taken care of. He was described as desperate and apologetic, but did not offer any specific details. Worried that something terrible had happened, this family member contacted the police.
On the following afternoon, police officers located Kevin and his vehicle some 130 kilometers away from his home near a secluded sand quarry. He had doused himself with gasoline and was intoxicated with an undisclosed substance in an attempt to commit suicide. His wife’s lifeless body was found in the back of the car. Its condition was not clearly divulged, but press photographs revealed that a large plastic bin had been placed in the back of the SUV. It was large enough to contain a body, but probably not lying straight. Robyn’s exact cause of death was not stated, nor was the manner in which her body was found, but the fact that Kevin was also charged with interference with a corpse is disturbing. This charge and the lack of explanations has given rise to grisly rumours produced by sensationalist radio-journalists of the lesser sort. A few hours later, Kevin pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charge. A psychiatric evaluation occurred over the following days and he was declared fit to stand trial. After that, total radio silence. We’ve all been left with a puzzle that’s missing too many parts. It was—and remains—infuriating to know so little and to be able to do nothing about it.
Over two months have passed since that happened and I still feel as troubled and confused as I was the first day. I do realize that I am only a peripheral bystander in this whole affair, and I cannot imagine how difficult all this has been on Robyn’s and Kevin’s families, their close friends, their neighbours, and especially their children. I never even fraternized with Kevin beyond the hockey rink, but for over ten years I played with him on a weekly basis, sat beside him, shared strategy, joked around, and sometimes exchanged some harsh words and even some shoves—this was testosterone-fueled garage-league hockey after all. Still, I considered him a friend. And I venture to say I still do, maybe more than before, even though I may never see him again. And I think that is because I don’t want to start seeing him as a monster, as he no doubt appears to many others—especially the journalists who didn’t know him. These events were grievous and appalling, but I knew Kevin too well—at least I think I did—to now accept the grotesque and simplistic description the media have painted of him. God forbid that this story ever gets turned into a Netflix docudrama. I’m not sure I could stomach it.
Deep inside me I wish that this story were false; that some grave misunderstanding took place, or that it was all a bad dream. Perhaps some new information will be released that will help me make sense of how a couple of seemingly happy and successful suburban parents could suddenly become a headline on voyeuristic internet tabloids. I have no present hope for good news, but I do long for understanding, and closure, and the knowledge that this man had found himself in such a horrible crisis that he just couldn’t think straight. It wouldn’t excuse the crime. But at least it would give it some meaning. I pray most of all that he can somehow find redemption.
In times like this, the mind races to patch together some kind of story that can rekindle hope. Anger and despair have to turn into something more upbuilding, or it just leaves us bitter and cynical. And so, I can totally understand why even the worst criminals, cult leaders, and domestic abusers can attract devoted supporters who refuse to believe they did anything wrong—even in the face of damning evidence. It is true that we should avoid rushing to judgment. But we should also not be blinded by our desire for a more meaningful story. As I’ve many times told my critical thinking students, the best thing we can do to avoid self-deception is to be patient and tolerate uncertainty. But let’s face it. Waiting sucks. And so does feeling confused and disillusioned.
I wish I could say this was my first brush with a wretched criminal act. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. In a previous episode (Episode 3.1) I relayed my short-lived friendship with an inner-city Church leader who would later become a convicted pedophile, and also my father’s friendship with the mother of a young man named Marc Lépine, who would later become Montreal’s most notorious school shooter. In both cases, I continue to be disturbed by how notoriously bad we can be at identifying people in crisis before they perform these horrid events.
I’ve also recently had to grapple—along with hundreds of graduates from my former high school—with the fact that my former English teacher, mentor, and colleague perpetrated sexual indecencies with teenage boys over a twenty-year period, for which he was recently convicted. Again, the news has been sporadic and vague, and much of the details have to be learned through the grapevine of former schoolmates. Like many others, I was initially tempted to dismiss these charges as spurious. But when I discovered the identity of the men who pressed charges—men whom I respect and consider truthful—along with some of my own experiences with the suspect, I grew convinced that they were telling the truth and that my former teacher, mentor, and colleague had been living a double life, and that he had fooled me as well. It also led me to revisit many of my memories, and to conclude that, had things worked out slightly differently, it could have been me who would press charges against the accused.
I am not a huge fan of true crime, though I do admit I dabble a little. I’m especially fascinated by the psychology of high-profile murderers like Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Timothy McVeigh (The Oklahoma City bomber), Marc Lépine (The 1989 University of Montreal shooter), Mark David Chapman (John Lennon's assassin), and of course, Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK's assassin)—all of them angry men who were profoundly unwell, but for whom the term psychopath doesn’t seem to apply. But watching shows about old cold cases, biographies of serial killers, and obsessive internet sleuths—as I did to prepare for this program—do not capture the angst, the trauma, and the despair such crimes dump on their victims’ families and friends.
Without wanting to sound flippant, I am reminded of a popular old Sesame Street skit in which the loveable blue-haired monster Grover acts out the words NEAR and FAR. There is such a thing as too near, and there is such a thing as too far. Our perception of criminality will be hugely affected by the emotional proximity or distance we keep from a particular crime, from the person who perpetrated it, and by its direct and collateral victims.
Sometimes being too close prevents us from seeing the full picture, on account that our feelings blind us from the complexities of the case or the confused intentions of the culprit. Inversely, remaining emotionally distant from the story—as we often remain when consuming crime-inspired infotainment—leads us to trivialize the experiences of real people, victims and perpetrators, most of whom are not inveterate monsters but tragic figures who in a moment of crisis, made irreversible choices that they will forever wish they could erase.
I’m not sure whether there exists a sweet spot in the consumption of true crime stories, a golden mean where we can both grasp the big picture objectively and also empathize with the people the stories depict, without giving in to our baser impulses, from callous voyeurism to emotional knee-jerks.
Sometimes the truth just leaves us feeling angry, empty, and sad. It’s not the story we want to believe. But if it’s the only story that’s true, it should be the one we are willing to live with. Because if our world is full of psychopathic monsters rather than miserable wretches who can actually change—with the right kind of help and enough time—then we live in a world where there can be no closure, no healing, no forgiveness, and no hope of redemption. That may be a world in which we can gawk at the misfortune of others while telling ourselves that we would obviously never do something like that, but I’m not sure that’s a world in which I want to live.
Michel J. Gagné, 2023.
If you would like to make a donation to support the children of Kevin and Robyn,
please go to:
* * *
"My Bunk Is Better Than Your Bunk"
(Paranoid Planet, Episode 7.7C, Chapter 2)
A February 2020 psychology article by Roozenbeek, Vand Der Linden, and Nygren, found on the website of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, explains that one of the most successful ways to prevent individuals from believing false information is through the practice of “Prebunking”.
Prebunking consists of informing an audience of a story’s false claims and the deceptive methods its authors used to produce it. It has become a popular watchword among academics, journalists, and podcasters who study and critique conspiracy theories, because prebunking, which focuses on informing vulnerable individuals before they become exposed to these misleading stories—like, say, first year college students—reduces public paranoia far more effectively than does the traditional method of “debunking”, which aims to change the minds of those who are already committed to a conspiracist interpretation of an event like the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, or the side-effects of vaccines. Debunking is both difficult and expensive, especially when it’s done through fact-checking websites, investigative news programs, legislation to limit deceptive media, or onerous public debates that generate a lot of emotions but little sober reflection. Debunking efforts also often fail to get the most influential conspiracy theory promoters and their ardent followers to listen earnestly. Prebunking methods, on the other hand, are cheaper and far more effective, especially when they are included in general education courses in high school or the early semesters of college. Prebunking not only helps young citizens consume media more judiciously; it can also dissuade emotionally vulnerable individuals from being manipulated by radical political groups and cultish organizations.
Roozenbeek, Vand Der Linden, and Nygren’ article is titled “Prebunking interventions based on ‘inoculation’ theory can reduce susceptibility to misinformation across cultures.” It is based on a psychological study they conducted that led them to conclude that prebunking activities, including an online role-playing game they designed called “Bad News”, lead to “significant and meaningful reductions in the perceived reliability of manipulative content […], indicating that participants’ ability to spot misinformation significantly improved.“ And this trend appears to be reflected across demographic categories including age, gender, education level, and political ideology.
The “Bad News” game lets players create fake web profiles and spread false news online using emotional manipulation, conspiracy claims, intimidation, and malicious trolling. This of course, is all simulated and does not happen against real people. The researchers evaluated the individuals who played the game’s ability to later think critically about the accuracy of the information they consume, about the sources that produced it, and the way messages trigger anger and irrational reactions.
In the words of the authors, “[prebunking] can confer psychological resistance against common online misinformation strategies across different cultures. The intervention draws on the theory of psychological inoculation: Analogous to the process of medical immunization [using vaccines], pre-emptively warning and exposing people to weakened doses of misinformation, [which] can help cultivate ‘mental antibodies’ against fake news.” You can play the Bad News game yourself by going to www.getbadnews.com, and if you’re so inclined, let us know what you thought of it by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may have heard the famous statement: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” a quote that is widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the third president of the United States never actually made such a claim, but it accurately reflects Jefferson’s views on education. Whatever the source, the claim is intuitively obvious. If we fill our minds with entertaining claims that don’t meet the basic standards of objective truth-seeking, we can’t expect the people to whom we give authority to show responsible leadership, to protect our best interests, and to practice truth-telling as a virtue.
In this age of political populism, emotional protest movements, and online sensationalism, when every citizen spends more time being entertained by a little pocket computer than making sure they don’t beleive nonsense, it is imperative that our educators, journalists, politicians, and every concerned citizen, take the act of prebunking to heart.
Michel J. Gagné, 2023.
 Jon Roozenbeek, Sander Vand Der Linden, and Thomas Nygren: “Prebunking interventions based on ‘inoculation’ theory can reduce susceptibility to misinformation across cultures,” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, February 3, 2020. https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/global-vaccination-badnews/
 “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people (Spurious Quotation),” Monticello.org /Thomas Jefferson Foundation, (n.d.). https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/educated-citizenry-vital-requisite-our-survival-free-people-spurious/
Documents related to this episode: *
1. Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. Written and directed by Mark Lewis. Netflix, 2019.
2. Baraja: La firma del asesino (The Playing Cards Killer). Written by Enric Álvarez. Directed by Román Parrado. Netflix, 2023.
3. Making a Murderer. Written and directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. Netflix, 2015-18.
4. Amanda Knox. Written by Matthew Hamachek and Brian McGinn. Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn. Netflix, 2015.
5. The Thin Blue Line. Written and directed by Errol Morris. Miramax Films, 1988.
6. Sarah Koenig: Serial, Season 1 (Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee). 2014-2022. https://serialpodcast.org/
7. The Star Chamber. Directed by Peter Hyams. Feat. Michael Douglas, Yaphet Kotto, and Hal Holbrook. 20th Century Fox, 1983.
8. Forensic Files. Created by Paul Dowling. TLC/CourtTV/TruTV/HLN/Investigation Discovery, 1996-2011; 2020-23.
9. The Keepers. Directed by Ryan White. Netflix, 2017.
10. Alessia Simona Miratta: “Montreal man charged after woman found dead in suspected femicide in rural Quebec,” Global News, August 20, 2023.
11. Paul Cherry: “Ex-teacher from Dollard-des-Ormeaux convicted of sexually abusing boys,” The Montreal Gazette, Dec 14, 2022.
12. The Case Against Adnan Syed. Directed by Amy J. Berg. Feat. Rabia Chaudry and Sarah Koenig. HBO, 2019.
13. Andrew Hammel: “The Wrongful Exoneration of Adnan Syed Part I: A Straightforward Murder Case,” Quillette, 22 May 2023.
14. Andrew Hammel: “The Wrongful Exoneration of Adnan Syed Part II: The Legal and Media Circus,” Quillette, 22 May 2023.
15. Andrew Hammel: “Fabricated Innocence: The self-exoneration and re-incrimination of Jens Soering.“ Quillette, 8 March, 2020.
16. Andrew Hammel: Martyr or Murderer: Jens Soering, the Media, and the Truth. Kindle, 2023.
17. Andrew Hammel: The Soering Case Substack. https://thesoeringcase.substack.com/p/introducing-the-jens-soering-case
18. Mike Wendling: “Will Serial's Adnan Syed go back to jail?” BBC, 6 October, 2023.
19. Till Murder Do Us Part: Soering vs. Haysom (Der Fall Jens Söring - Tödliche Leidenschaft). Directed by Andre Hörmann and Lena Leonhardt. Netflix, 2023.
20. Madeleine Baran: In The Dark podcast, Season 2 (Curtis Flowers and the 1996 Winona, Miss., furniture store murders). APM Reports, 2018-2020. https://features.apmreports.org/in-the-dark/season-two/
20. Gilbert King, with Kelsey Decker: Bone Valley podcast. (Leo Schofield and the 1987 murder of Michelle Saum Schofield). Lava for Good productions, 2022-23. https://lavaforgood.com/bone-valley/
* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.