Boys Will Be…. What We Let Them Be: Ken Corbett’s “A Murder Over a Girl,” and the 2016 Election

*This article first appeared on Psychology Today

A passage from psychologist Ken Corbett’s recently published bookA Murder Over A Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, could describe the mindset of Donald Trump and many of his supporters in the run-up to the presidential election —

“Paranoia, the best of guard dogs, exquisitely splits good and bad. Guards look out in order to find the bad, they do not look in. The world shrinks as the bad is pinpointed on the horizon. Unwanted badness, vulnerability, guilt, and injury are pushed out and into others.”

Corbett is actually writing about Brandon McInerney, who in 2008, at the age of 14, shot and killed his classmate, 15 year-old Larry King, at school in Oxnard, California. But the excerpt above also describes the kind of victim-blaming groupthink that took place at McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder, as well as the ways any of us might think in our most destabilized states — when we feel threatened by the unfamiliar or the unknown.

It is this broad insight that raises Corbett’s book beyond thoughtful reportage on a devastating crime and trial, and into a must-read psychological diagnosis of our current political and cultural climate.

As Corbett observes in his book, Larry was biracial and had begun to identify as transgender, while Brandon is white, masculine, and identifies as heterosexual. Larry flirted with Brandon at school. These facts were enough for the (what appeared to be) mostly white jury – as well as the all-white, tightly-knit community of witnesses who spoke on Brandon’s behalf – to cast Larry (or “Leticia,” as she named herself) as the perpetrator and, accordingly, to blame for her own gruesome murder. In contrast, although he was sentenced to 21 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, Brandon was largely thought to be just a boy being a boy.

(The parallels between this story and the current presidential campaign are legion – Trump reframing his boasts about sexual assault as mere “locker room talk,” or a Congressman condoning one of Trump’s many outbursts at Hillary Clinton by saying, “I think sometimes a lady needs to be told when she’s being nasty”— but perhaps most disturbing of all is Trump’s own statement, “I could…shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”)

Like the media’s election coverage, reading A Murder Over A Girl is by turns similarly mind-boggling and infuriating. Hateful biases reveal themselves in plain sight, and are relentlessly justified. But Corbett not only rouses his readers to take action against injustice; his poetic writing also moves us to look inward, and to mourn the life that was stolen from Larry/Leticia — both in the classroom where s/he was killed, and in the courtroom where her true identity and sense of self were never fully understood, contemplated, or even really named.

Corbett effectively uses “Larry” and “Leticia” interchangeably throughout the book, as a way to illustrate multiple realities coexisting at the same time — e.g., a court record, the community’s perception of the victim, and Leticia’s own underappreciated and subjective sense of self. Corbett also poignantly evokes Leticia’s palpable absence from the storytelling that followed her murder, by describing all the ways in which the major players in the tragedy veil themselves both from full recognition of her, as well as from the horrific, dumbfounding, way s/he was torn from existence.

Corbett describes how each of the witnesses at trial sought to reconstruct “logical” narratives of the inexplicable event, sometimes with embellishments as if to justify, or at least explain, what took place in a more normative, palatable way than the complex truth. A dress that Leticia wore to school – and which she was reportedly wearing while flirting with Brandon – is far more shimmering, bustling, and provocative in the witness accounts, than the “sad” “little girl’s party dress” that is exhibited in court. Corbett also keenly observes the substances some of the witnesses he interviewed consume as they talk with him, perhaps to numb themselves from the complexities and trauma of the events. (Larry’s parents chain-smoke in anger; the white-supremacy expert witness sucks down coffee after coffee as he attempts to explain the unexplainable.)

In all of the varying accounts of what happened between these two adolescents, the reader notices a conspicuous absence: the full recognition of a human life that was not allowed authentic expression. Corbett explains that one of the particular reasons that Larry/Leticia failed to be recognized — in both the classroom and the courtroom — was due to a lack of education and experience about how to think through the concept of gender variance.

“Living gender, especially as it blooms in adolescence, brings forth a host of emotions and counteremotions or defenses. When a group of people, such as schoolteachers, cannot consider those emotions, cannot discuss what is being felt and thought about gender, cannot learn together, then gender variance can be felt as too much, and reactive discipline short-circuits any building of community.”

With Corbett’s careful guidance, the reader appreciates that without such recognition of a life, we cannot grieve the loss of it. And without such grief, we cannot move through tragedies like the murder of Larry/Leticia King and evolve as a people. We are instead left to hold tight to paranoid and divisive ideas about who belongs and who does not — an all too familiar approach in an election season that has seen the vilification of Mexican, Muslim, and persons with disabilities, to name only a few.

Corbett offers possible ways to move through such fear, trauma, and divisiveness by showing us with imagery, rather than simply telling us with psychological theory. He shares his own vivid nightmares, daydreams, and self-reflections throughout the course of the trial, and in so doing he models how each of us might become acquainted with our own minds — especially in moments of crisis, ignorance, and/or isolation.

He suggests that we face our fears of the unknown, as well as the whole gamut of feelings like guilt, grief, or loss that make us vulnerable. Corbett’s writing asks that we share these feelings and fears with other people, and allow their life experiences to enter our consciousness in turn, so that we may navigate our way through tragedies and struggles together, despite our differences.

He illustrates this concept movingly in his final interview with Brandon’s mother, a year after the trial. By this point she is in remission from a major drug addiction, as if waking from a dream. She says to him, “My life is a blur, until recently.” With a clear head she is able to experience the raw grief of the tremendous, unthinkable losses that have taken place — Leticia’s lost life, the King family’s lost child, Brandon’s lost freedom, and the years of her own life that she can never get back. She is also able to put that grief into words and to share it. She can now imagine herself living a life connected to other people — however different from her they may be — without substances, without denial, and without the need to push her unwanted feelings into those around her.

Indeed, this resonating final message of Corbett’s book can be summed up in the two current presidential campaign taglines. “I Alone Can Make America Great Again,” implies that some of us must be destroyed to save the “greater good”; while “Stronger Together,” grants each of us a shot at a meaningful life.

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