A few years ago, I wrote a longform feature about Pam Hupp, a blond middle-aged Midwesterner convicted of murdering a brain-damaged man in cold blood in an elaborate ruse to deflect suspicion from herself in the murder of her “best friend”—just before a suspicious fall that killed Pam’s mother. The story hit Buzzfeed and went viral. Podcast producers called. Serial TV producers called.
“You should write a book about this,” people urged.
“Somebody else is already working on one,” I stammered, though that would never deter me. There are a million ways to tell a story.
After parroting the fib for a while, I realized I had to go deeper. “She’s boring,” I said.
A suburban woman with no criminal record just might be a serial killer and this bored me? Had I not just written ten thousand words of backstory?
Yeah, but that was the interesting part: the miscarriage of justice that sent the friend’s husband to prison for two years, until he won on appeal. And his attorney learned of the mysterious death of Hupp’s mother and told the U.S. Attorney’s office, “Somebody else is going to die.” And somebody else did die, brazenly and needlessly, for a convoluted and ridiculous reason.
Write more than that, and I would have to penetrate the “why.” And after months of work, all I really had as motive was a couple hundred thousand dollars. Hupp was not in debt. She had a nice house and a steady marriage to a man reliably employed. She certainly liked money; old friends told me how much she had loved her first job, and a former boss remembered her chatting about her investment portfolio. But did she like it enough to kill?
My favorite theory was the slim but wonderfully paradoxical possibility that the head injuries Hupp used as an excuse for her fuzzy memory and countless self-contradictions actually had, unbeknownst to her, damaged her brain. A few zaps to the frontal cortex could conceivably remove not only inhibition but the ability to empathize, and therefore to recognize a moral wrong. But without medical evidence, that book would never be written. And even if I had a way to back up the theory, I knew people would interpret an attempt to explain as an attempt to excuse. To me, explaining does not neutralize horror; it simply teaches us what to beware. But I was not ready to risk misunderstanding while people were still grieving their dead.
The general consensus—shared by cops, neighbors, relatives, and true-crime addicts—was that Pam Hupp was evil. That is the word we fall back on, even today, when religion has lost much of its fire and brimstone. Say someone is “evil,” and people need no further explanation; indeed, the concept allows no further explanation. It means there were no rational motives or causes, no environmental or psychological influences. The forces of darkness had possessed, incubated within, or conquered that person.
I did not disagree. But to me, evil does need an explanation—and one a little more nuanced than a horned red dude with a forked tail and tongue. So I muddled along on my own, thinking hard. How does somebody lose what we call a soul? Hupp was cocky as hell, especially in police interviews and on the witness stand. Is the corrupting trait an arrogance that believes other lives simply do not matter? Or is arrogance just a corollary, and evil begins when base impulses take over? Yet Hupp did not act on impulse. She planned. And was the motive really avarice? Sure, people have been killed in arguments over a few bucks. But in those cases, the real reason is often that they feel betrayed, their ego slighted, their honor tarnished, their power dismissed.
Power. Was that what Hupp secretly craved? Had a life in the suburbs, retired early and amusing herself with celebrity gossip and mystery novels, offered insufficient scope? There are, I would imagine, few things that would jack up the adrenaline as surely as homicide. It is the ultimate act, robbing even God of power.
Dramatic as it sounds, even that did not bear writing about. Whatever the source of the evil, its manifestation was, in the end, as banal as Hannah Arendt suggested. Evil lacks social skills, notes literary critic Terry Eagleton; it lacks the capacity to understand what the rest of us find joyful or inspiring or ennobling. “If it believes in absolutely nothing, it is because it does not have enough interior life to be capable of doing so,” he writes in his compelling book On Evil.
Rather than locating the self in relationship, evil lusts after pure autonomy, a self-sufficiency and power and control that set it above others, proving its superiority. People often called Hupp a “monster,” a term Eagleton locates in ancient thought as referring to “a creature that was wholly independent of others.” Set apart, but free.
Still, he maintains that people who are evil are suffering, beneath that cocky exterior: “Evil is a kind of cosmic sulking. It rages most violently against those who threaten to snatch its unbearable wretchedness away from it.” Nothing gratifies them; all that appeals is destruction.
That empty core is utterly uninteresting. I like people who are at war with the dark parts of themselves; who are complicated tangles of saint and sinner. In all those months of research, I found nothing redeeming—an interesting word in the context—in Hupp’s personality, except perhaps a cheerful ability to steer clear of petty drama. She did not need to snipe or stew; she could stage far more compelling dramas inside her head.
Crime stories give us plots that are Shakespearean, intense enough to hold our attention, juicy enough to talk about later. We have dreamed up so many serial killers with symbolic rituals and bizarre “signatures” to their crimes that we assume they exist on every block.
“Evil is supposed to be special, not commonplace,” Eagleton writes, adding that this “is a view shared by the evil themselves.” God knows, Pam Hupp wanted attention, courted the Dateline producers, crudely texted that the defense attorney had left his balls at home. We in the media fell right in line, giving her more and more attention.
“The idea that evil is glamourous is one of the great moral mistakes of the modern age,” Eagleton remarks. It is far more boring than the good, because it is flat and self-enclosed, creating nothing new, only destroying.
Why did we glamorize it in the first place? “Once the middle classes get their hands on virtue, even vice begins to look appealing,” quips Eagleton. He is teasing, though not, I suspect, entirely. And with Hupp, he may be dead-on. There was a flatness about the life we saw above the surface: She played it safe, took few risks with money or life, did not travel, had no fascinating hobbies, had no deep close friends, was married to a loyal, quiet man who let her have free rein.
So, what? She killed to raise the stakes?
Still searching, I return to Eagleton. Evil “has, or appears to have, no practical purpose,” he writes. “Evil is supremely pointless. Anything as humdrum as a purpose would tarnish its lethal purity.” That actually makes far more sense than the lure of a couple hundred thousand. “Yet the evil do have purposes of a kind,” he continues. “They may seem to lay waste simply for the hell of it, but this is not the whole truth. We have seen already that they visit violence upon those who pose a threat to their own identity.” And the ability to make, get, and manage money was at the heart of Hupp’s identity, small though the sums might seem. “But they also smash and sabotage to ease the hellish conflict in which they are caught.”
What conflict? A feeling of impotence, or of triviality? Or just the raging Will that Schopenhauer wrote about, a dark force bent on destroying vulnerable life?
Here, at last, is the real reason I do not want to write a book about Pam Hupp.
We will never know.