Defining monstrosity down

Posted: Feb 09, 2005 12:00 AM

February has been a bad month for monsters.

John and Linda Dollar of Beverly Hills, Fla., are monsters. Or, to use the legalese required in these circumstances, they're monsters if they did what they've been accused of.

Mr. and Mrs. Dollar allegedly tortured at least three of their five foster children. According to the authorities, the kids say the Dollars electrocuted them when they "stole food." The Dollars pulled out their toenails when they "messed-up the place." The children were kept locked in a closet with a wind chime on the door knob so that their "guardians" would know if they escaped. Physical exams reportedly corroborate the testimony.

Three of the kids were so starved they will probably never grow properly. One of the twin 14-year-olds weighed 36 pounds, the other 38. Their condition was discovered when the 16-year-old - who weighed 59 pounds - was brought to the hospital with suspicious head and neck injuries. The other two kids, aged 14 and 17, were treated better because they were the Dollars' "favorites" - although being raised and "home-schooled" in such an environment, which reminded investigators at the scene of pictures from Auschwitz, constitutes its own kind of torture.

The Dollars were picked up by the police in Utah driving a gold Lexus, which they bought in part with the money they got to take care of their foster kids.

Around the same time, an Alabama woman was arrested for deliberately starving her three children, aged 11, 9 and 8, to death. And defrocked priest Paul Shanley was convicted of raping and assaulting a boy by a Boston jury.

Monsters of a different sort play a big role in my life these days. My house is drenched in Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, and other cute and cuddly beasts. My daughter still can't get enough of "Monsters Inc.," a wonderful movie that nonetheless perpetuates the idea that monsters aren't by their nature evil. In the film the creatures are just as terrified of human kids as the kids are of the giant creatures.

A lovable monster is a very new concept because, first and foremost, monsters are about evilness. The original meaning of the word "monster" derives, via Old French, from a word for "divine omen or warning." The Latin monstrum comes from the verb monere, meaning "warn." A monster was a deformed person or animal that people mistook for a harbinger of evil or bad spirits. The idea that monsters were horrible creatures came later. It wasn't until perhaps as late as the 16th century when the literary notion that monsters were big slobbery dragons and beasts was well established.

So in sense it shouldn't surprise anyone that our understanding of what monsters are has evolved. The problem, it seems to me, is that not all evolution is synonymous with improvement. About a decade ago, Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco wrote an elegant book, "The Death of Satan," in which he argued that America had lost the ability to speak in terms of evil. He called it a "tragedy of the imagination," and he was right.

For decades, a therapeutic culture of "understanding" was on the rise. Except for acts of racism and so-called homophobia, there was a mad rush to "understand" evil people. Were they victims of a racist culture? Were they abused themselves? Were they expressing their natural frustration with the patriarchal capitalist system? Blah, blah, blah.

The tragedy of the imagination was that we couldn't appreciate that evil is real and it exists. In a society where everyone is a victim and it's not right to "judge" others, there's just not much room left for real monsters, while society itself becomes monstrous. Hannibal Lecter became a charming rogue, the Grinch who Stole Christmas became the victim of the judgmental Whovilleans in the Jim Carrey movie, the ersatz Mayberry of Andy Griffith became a nest of fascists in "Pleasantville."

In international affairs, I think 9/11 stemmed the worst of this rot. You can now call people who proudly declare war on democracy, behead innocent people, and yearn to murder women and children "barbarians" without much fear of politically correct blowback. This is good, because a moral compass must have some familiar stars.

But at home we still don't have a good vocabulary for monsters like the Dollars. We can call them monsters, but it doesn't have the same effect anymore because the gears have been stripped from the word.

But, you know, it's funny. I think we want - and need - a word for monsters. For example, my 2-year-old daughter has never seen a film or a book that would give her the impression monsters as a group are evil, while she's been inundated with the notion that they're good and friendly. And yet this lover of "Sesame Street" is still afraid of monsters. She will use the word and ask me to scare them away.

I always oblige, and I never tell her monsters aren't real. I just scare them away and give her a hug. But she's smart beyond her years. She knows monsters are real.