September 8, 2012

Tenderness: A Psychtember Review

Most of my Psychtember reviews will be formatted differently than my standard reviews, to reflect the mental health theme. I've structured things as though the book is the patient and I'm giving it an assessment. Each axis is an aspect of the book that I'll give my thoughts on (characters, plot, etc.), and the validity score refers to how psychologically accurate I think the book is. Then I may list some other books that this one "shares symptoms with" (i.e. novels dealing with similar topics) and provide the patient's "statement" (quote) before giving the "diagnosis" (my shooting star rating). The rating still reflects my overall view of the book, using my standard rating system. 

Patient: Tenderness by Robert Cormier 

Presentation (from back of book): "Eric has just been released from juvenile detention. Now he's looking for some tenderness — tenderness he finds in caressing and killing innocent girls.

Lori has run away from home again. She is also looking for tenderness — tenderness that is about more than just sex, tenderness she finds in Eric. 

Together, they begin a harrowing journey that will either save or destroy them."

*Note: it's difficult to avoid spoilers entirely in this kind of review. I have white-texted the most obvious ones, but there may be some milder spoilers. You have been warned.


Axis 1. Characters

Eric: he's a difficult character to understand or empathize with — not surprising, given the fact he likes to assault and kill girls — but it's clear what the author is trying to show us: he's basically a psychopath with mother issues (the Freudian interpretation of his behaviour is addressed in more detail below, on Axis 4). Interestingly, Eric does feel some emotion — which goes against the traditional understanding of psychopaths, but is in line with recent research findings. He doesn't seem to feel much guilt about the girls he's murdered, but one could argue he feels culpable at another point in the story (major spoiler, highlight to read: ironically, it's about the one death that isn't his fault, Lori's, and he actually cries). I never really understood what Eric got out of murdering these girls, but we're told he experiences these "moments of tenderness" (hence the book title). 

In a strange way I preferred Eric's character to Lori's, because he's more rational, and in some situations he can be nice and considerate. He actually forms a bit of an affectionate relationship with Lori, so it feels like he's not wholly "bad." At the same time, it's obvious, of course, that he is very psychologically disturbed, and although we don't actually see the murders he's committed, he thinks about what he's done or going to do to these girls with fondness and excitement. We see different aspects of him as we go through the book, elevating him to a complex, more-than-black-and-white level and almost making him a sympathetic character in some respects. However, there's no getting around the fact that he is an unrepentant murderer, and that never goes away.

Lori: I found Lori even harder to figure out than Eric. She has these unusual "fixations" as she calls them, that are never explained properly, which involve kissing strange guys. More worrying is that she believes herself to be in love with Eric, and she continues to stay with him despite the fact that she knows he was charged with murdering his parents, and she's heard rumours that he's murdered young girls. I just had to keep asking, "WHY? Why is she behaving so idiotically? Why is she risking so much?" It actually made me kind of mad that she was so careless with her life. 

She seems to be motivated a lot by a need for attention, as she's very insecure, and she's drawn to charismatic guys (which Eric can definitely be when the situation requires it). There's also the reason given — and I thought this could have been put a good deal more subtly — that she loves him because he doesn't assault her or treat her like other guys have. Lori's attracted a lot of male attention, often unwanted, in the past, and though she is used to using her body to get what she wants, she doesn't like it. 

But she does not have a speck of sense in that head of hers, and I found her to be a very frustrating character, who I honestly didn't feel really sorry for. She seriously has no sense of self-preservation. Also, there was one thing she did in particular which I took issue with (spoiler): she encouraged Eric to hang out with a girl that fits his "type" when she knew he could be a killer. In essence, she was helping to put that other girl's life at risk!

Eric and Lori:

Honestly, the two of them together is pretty much the worst possible combination of two people: he's a psychopathic killer of young girls, and she's a young girl who always thinks or does whatever is completely counter-intuitive. The only thing that could have made it more disastrous is if she had been the physical type that Eric was drawn to. (And if she was, she would have been dead shortly after they met and there wouldn't have been much of a story!) 

Interestingly, though, Lori does have an effect on Eric. At the beginning he comes across as quite the cold psychopath, but Lori brings out different sides of him, shaking him up. He isn't as rational and careful after spending some time in her company, and at the end it almost seems like he's losing his touch. It's just possible that he isn't an entirely hopeless case, and she may have changed him a little bit. It's tempting to think that if they began some kind of romantic relationship, she could "save" him, but he needs more help than she can possibly offer.

Ultimately, the bottom line is: they both need a whole lot of professional help.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

Plot-wise, it's actually not the most exciting or unpredictable read, but it's so psychologically twisted that you want to keep reading to find out what happens, because you just know it's headed for disaster. There's a low-level tension throughout because of the whole 'creep factor.' I was a little disappointed that the finish wasn't more dramatic; it comes off somewhat anticlimactic but it does feel fitting in a way, and ripe with irony. Still, I wasn't totally satisfied by the ending — I'm not sure what I was expecting but I think I would have liked more explanation for Eric's behaviour.
Axis 3. Writing Style

The writing style reflects the time the book was written (it was published in 1997), so it does feel a little dated. It's quite simple, with lots of similar sentence structure, but I feel like it doesn't need to be very fancy or convoluted because there's so much creepy stuff going on; the point here is not the writing.

The switching back and forth between Eric's and Lori's perspectives worked for the most part, although it was a bit confusing and jarring when it occurred within the same chapter. The 3rd-person POV used for Eric's sections provides what I think is a necessary distance that allows us to see him as a criminal; it would be difficult to have a 1st-person POV that managed to show who Eric was without alienating the reader. Unfortunately, despite the fact Lori's sections are told with 1st-person POV, I never really felt close to her or understood her.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

Psychopathy is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), but there have been measures developed to assess it, most notably Hare's Psychopathy Checklist. Personality traits on the list include pathological lying, superficial charm, cunning, and grandiose sense of self-worth. I think we can argue that Eric displays most of these at one point or another. He has no problem lying when it suits his interests, can be charismatic and devious, and believes he's very clever and can outwit the cops. Other aspects of his character, however, don't fit the profile quite as well — he does occasionally appear to feel empathy for Lori, and perhaps even remorse over one event, and he does seem to experience some authentic emotions throughout the book. Since recent research suggests that psychopaths may not be as emotionally limited as we originally thought, I don't think we can rule that out for Eric. Furthermore, his history also correlates with a few of the items on the second part of the checklist, like "early behavior problems" and "parasitic lifestyle."

It's also possible he could be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). While there is some overlap between the two categories, they are separate, with ASPD being more common (and there are actually DSM criteria for diagnosing ASPD). One would have to administer appropriate measures to decide whether Eric was ASPD or psychopathic; however, the references in Tenderness all suggest psychopathy.

As to the cause of his behaviour, the author points the reader in a very specific direction: a Freudian interpretation. Eric goes for a specific physical type of girl — tall, slim, with long dark hair — and I don't think it's any coincidence that he describes his mother as having long black hair as well. Even small things about the writing point to a Freudian explanation (for example, "Although he never dreamed, he spent sweet moments in his bed, curled up as if in his mother's womb..."). Traditional Freudian theory would likely say that he has an Oedipus complex and resents his stepfather for ruining the closeness he and his mother shared, so to take his revenge he kills both his mother and his stepfather. He wants to share a "moment of tenderness" with girls who resemble his mother, but since they represent his mother to him, he also blames them, so he kills them. It's all very Freudian. I'm not sure what the other theoretical orientations would have to say about Eric's motivations, but I think we'd need to know more about him first.

Lori, on the other hand, is much harder to pinpoint. Her "fixations" seem to present a little like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — she gets these ideas in her head which she feels she must act on. However, it's inconsistent; when it comes to Eric, she wants to kiss him, but then never does, later claiming that her fixation has disappeared and that she's fallen in love with him. So if it is OCD, it's not characteristic OCD. She's suffered from sexual abuse, so perhaps this has led to the development of these fixations? I'd even posit that perhaps she has dependent personality disorder, since she seems to latch onto Eric and not want to let him go. But it's really not very clear, and I wish we'd gotten more insight into Lori's psychological problems, to help explain why she persists in spending time with Eric.

Validity Score:
How psychologically accurate was Tenderness?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

The cops could have been rounded out and given a bit more personality; they came off as pretty stereotypical.

Patient shares symptoms with: I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

Patient's statement:

Eric Poole began with cats. Or, to be more exact, kittens. Liked to hold them, and stroke them, feel the brittle bones beneath the fur. Fragile bones, as if they'd snap and break if you pressed too hard, caressed too hard. Which he did, of course, impossible to resist. Later, he didn't just caress them but found that it was easier to fold them into his arms and place his hands over their faces and feel them go beautifully limp. He liked this way best, because it was so tender.

Diagnosis: 4 shooting stars.

For more information about psychopathy, see here.

This book counts toward my goal for the Just Contemporary reading challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I'm now going through your psychtember tag.

    Aaaand I might need to put this book on my TBR shelf. It seems dark and creepy, just how I like it!


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