51. Murder in the Dark

This piece is an academic and clinical retelling of Margaret Atwood's "Murder in the Dark," from her eponymous 1983 fiction théorique collection.

You know how this game goes. Someone is designated detective while someone else is made the killer. These assignations are secret, of course. The rest of the players are ordinary townspeople. The lights are turned off, and we grope around in the darkness until the murderer strikes, tapping her victim and fleeing the scene. When the lights go on, the victim declares herself, and the detective interrogates the survivors to discover the identity of the murderer. Everyone must tell the truth, except for the murderer, who must always lie. The game ends in one of two ways: the murderer is found out and lynched by an angry mob, or she dodges each accusation until she has killed everyone but the last citizen, who can finally identify her with certainty and knows as certainly that the knowledge comes too late.

Like all games of deception, murder in the dark is serious business. Everyone wants the thrill of getting away with something, or the relief of being believed.

This is not the only way to play. We can say that "the murderer is the writer, the detective is the reader, the victim is the book" (Atwood, 1983, p. 30), in which the writer/murderer must deconstruct reality and create in its stead a fiction that more closely embodies the writer's reality. To make this fiction, the writer has language alone to craft a reality, using ancillary senses like sounds, smells, tastes, textures, affective intensities, all the modes of embodied knowing that are considered less reliable than vision. No matter the genre, the writer engages in deconstructive murder so that the reader not only visualizes the fiction but also bodily experiences it. Where the reader/detective may seek resolution and certainty, the writer seeks to destabilize the primacy of any one sense, of any one reality. The senses we are raised to privilege are insufficient, and reality cannot be known in a single sensate way. This game always ends, and ends in one of two ways: the writer gets away with it if she is adept enough with language to convince the reader of new affective potentials and worldings, or she is caught if she approximates her reality solely through vision, failing to provoke in the reader anything felt.

But we can play games with even this game. We can correlate detective to doctor and murderer/victim to the nonnormate patient who can and does pass. For patient as for writer, this is about deconstructing a lived reality in order to be believed. Unlike the writer/murderer, the patient's goal is not to evade suspicion but to survive, which is contingent on the detective's belief in her truth, not her deception. Unlike the writer/murderer, the patient must at times lie for her truth to be believed. The patient doesn't draw murderer because there is a crime she wants to get away with but because she is condemned, possibly to death, unless she plays the game. This is a game of theatrical performance, on the page or in the hospital or asylum, enacted by patient/murderer to dupe the doctor/detective, the one charged with determining if the nonnormate patient/murderer is disabled, nondisabled and malingering, or masquerading as some third thing yet to be defined, toying with a standardized conception of truth.

This game also ends in one of two ways: the patient's exaggerated self-presentation fools the doctor into believing her version of reality so that she is granted treatment, or her masquerade fails to evoke in the doctor a felt experience and empathetic understanding so that treatment is denied. The patient can only win by acquiescing to false representations of her embodied experience. She is murderer, striving to deconstruct the doctor's reality to reveal her own, which is always undergoing deconstruction, but she is also victim, compelled by medical inflexibility to reconstruct her reality as a tactical exaggeration, a fictional real that makes her experience more sensate to the doctor and less authentic to her.

You can exchange "patient" for "scholar," "doctor" for "academy," "victim" for "scholar" or "scholarship," and "dies" for "fails," if you prefer.

Of course, she is also victim if the doctor denies her, and she dies.

Regardless, that's always me in the dark, double and divergent, with designs on you. I am Eelam Tamil American, female, queer, afflicted with fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis, visceral pain, depression. By the rules of the game, you know I am not dependable. I dissemble as intensely as I cajole you with the truth.

I've already told you who I am, and you have drawn detective.

Now: do you believe me?

(–14. There Is a Reason They Call It a Theater)