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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Sing, muse, the wrath of Achilles" and, Perhaps, the Wrath of Joshua Komisarjevsky--Bad Plans: "Illiad," The Trojan War, and The Cheshire Murder Case--Evil Demons or Damaged Human Beings? The Curious Case of Joshua Komisarjevsky and Cy Twombly's Painting, "Vengeance of Achilles"

"Sing, muse, the wrath of Achilles."  So begins my favorite English translation of "Iliad," Homer's epic poem about a Greek warrior who killed men in battle and then wept over the loss of his fallen enemies.  Among other things, "Iliad" is about the anger (some) men feel, where it comes from, and how they express it. "Iliad" affords us the occasion to think about anger, our own anger, other men's anger, how we express it and how other men express it.  Perhaps thinking about our anger will dissipate it or channel into constructive pursuits, like writing, comedy, or other art forms.

Thinking about Achilles' anger leads me to experience feelings of empathy towards Joshua Komisarjevsky.  While Achilles was a warrior in a declared war, which gave him, by human moral reasoning, the right to kill other human beings in battle, Komisarjevsky was not that.  Achilles was involved in the kind of killing which tends to be glorified in art, while Komisarjevsky was involved in the kind of murder which hopefully gets a man imprisoned for the rest of his life in a jail or a mental institution.  Despite these important differences, there is, I suggest, a family resemblance (see Wittgenstein, Ludwig) between the sources of what motivates men like Achilles to kill in wartime, and what motivates men like Komisarjevsky to burglarize and kill in peacetime.  Feel free to disagree with me on these points.

For those of you who don't know who that is, Komisarjevsky is now on trial in New Haven Superior Court for the murder of Dr. William Petit's three girls, his wife and two daughters, on July 23, 2007.  These women died in a fire which Joshua Komisarjevsky claims his older accomplice, Steven Hayes, decided on his own to set, to kill the women, all because Hayes heard Komisarjevsky call him "Steve" and Hayes then decided the witnesses to the crime, the three women, had to die.

Joshua claims he had nothing to do with the fire which killed the women.  But he does admit he was filled with anger, and hate, for at least 26 of his 32 years.  I believe Komisarjevsky's anger, his wrath, is rooted in his childhood history of being sexually and physically abused, just as Achilles' anger, his wrath, was rooted in his childhood history.

Achilles did not have a "normal" childhood. Achilles never suckled at his mother's breast and instead was fed the innards of lions, wild swine, and bear marrow.  A baby who could stomach this food is certainly not someone to anger when he grows up.

Joshua Komisarjevsky did not have a "normal" childhood. According to The Hartford Courant report,

When he was 14, Joshua Komisarjevsky carved the word "hate" into his arm.

He began the self-mutilation the year before because it was "soothing," according to a report that his defense attorneys made public Thursday at the close of his triple-murder trial.

"I hated everything about my life. I had been abused and I wanted others to know what it was like to hurt, to lose something. I had so much pain inside and cutting was a way to get at it," Komisarjevsky told New York psychologist Dr. Leo Shea, who wrote the report. Shea based his findings, titled "Joshua Komisarjevsky Cognitive Evaluation" on 12 hours of interviews and testing of Komisarjevsky.

Shea was the final witness to testify in the trial of Komisarjevsky, 31, who faces the death penalty if convicted of the killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, during a home invasion at their Cheshire house on July 23, 2007.

Shea's report says that Komisarjevsky told him that a 15-year-old boy named Scott, whom the family took in as a foster child, sexually and physically abused him from about the age of 3 until 6.

"My earliest memories were of anal sex, oral sex, cigarette burns, etc.," Komisarjevsky told Shea, according to the report.

[All quotations from Hartford Courant article appear in red print.],0,547171.story

IF Joshua was abused, tortured really, in these ways as a young child, how deep a reservoir of angry emotion would all that anal sex, oral sex, and ciagrette burns fill in any little boy? [And it's up to the jury to decide if these crimes were perpetrated on Joshua Komisarjevsky by the kid Joshua's adoptive parents took into their home as a foster child, and, if so, its moral and legal significance.]  Had these atrocities happened to you, how angry would you have been (or will you be) at age 29, the age at which Joshua Komisarjevsky entered the Petit castle in dead of night, while it's wonderful occupants were soundly sleeping, peaceably?

What happens these days when it's discovered that a child has been sexually and physically abused by an older person?  Many years of psycho-therapy by a highly-trained analyst or psycho-therapist are the usual course of treatment, usually accompanied by years of psychotropic medications to relieve the depression and suicidal ideation which often follows as a sequelae of such childhood torture.

And what treatment did Joshua Komisarjevsky's adoptive parents get for him?  I'm sure they meant well, but......   According to the same Hartford Courant article,

Komisarjevsky told Shea [the defense psychologist] that his parents tried to get him help through their church and "got the elders to put their hands on me, to cast out sin, to heal me. I was so scared and felt smothered, I felt desperate to get out of that circle of people."

Shea said that Komisarjevsky was taught Bible studies at home "to exorcise the demons within. He was seen by pastors and church counselors to help him deal with his perceived sinful nature," Shea wrote.

The sexual and physical abuse which Joshua was subjected to as a child was turned by religious legerdemain  into Joshua's self-perception that he was possessed by demons which had to be exorcised, to help him deal with "his perceived sinful nature."  In another psychological tour de force, sexual and physical abuse perpetrated on a young boy was transformed by the adult world into an act of sin by the boy, Joshua, rather than a crime to be prosecuted, punished, and atoned for by the criminal who perpetrated these outrages on that little boy.

At about age 9, Shea [the defense psychologist] said that Komisarjevsky would leave his home late at night and wander in the woods near his house "monitoring houses and the activities therein for curiosity," Shea wrote. 

Komisarjevsky had a long criminal record for breaking into homes at night, eventually using night-goggles, and burglarizing the houses.  Until the Chesire invasion, there is no record of his harming anyone in the houses.  Who knows what thought train led the little nine-year-old boy to begin to surreptitiously observe how other people lived their lives?  Perhaps he was so troubled by his own family life, and all the traumatic things which happened to him while he lived with his adoptive parents, that he felt a deep need to watch, from outside the windows, how "the other half" lives.  Whatever the connection, no matter the reason, this move, from seeking help, talking about the trauma, to peeping into and then breaking into homes, was a most unfortunate development in the life of Joshua Komisarjevsky.

I see connections between Achilles and Komisarjevsky.  Both men had troubled childhoods.  They each had their own reasons for feeling anger about their early lives.  It is true that not every man who has a troubled childhood turns to violence.  But it IS a predisposing factor.  Read about Komisarjevsky's psychologist, Dr. Shea, in the following report about the rest of his testimony about how early life traumas affected Joshua Komisarjevsky.

Komisarjevsky was a troubled student and eventually left the classroom after fifth grade to be schooled at home by his mother.

In 2000, Komisarjevsky said he began experimenting with marijuana and alcohol "but then started heavy drugs," Shea [the defense psychologist] wrote, including crystal methamphetamine, LSD, cocaine, crank and prescription drugs.

Shea agreed with New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington that such a "perfect storm" does not necessarily lead to criminal behavior. When Dearington asked how widespread childhood sexual abuse is, Shea said that one of three females and one of six males is sexually abused.

"It doesn't necessarily lead to criminal behavior. I would agree with that. It predisposes him to it," Shea testified Thursday.

The connection between Achilles and Komisarjevsky, their common wrath, became visually clear to me last Friday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I was in Philly for a wedding. My oldest friend, Ron Mazzuca, with whom I was staying, suggested we go to the art museum.  The collection of Rembrandt's "Faces of Jesus" was remarkable, but when I got to Gallery 185, Modern and Contemporary Art, first floor, I knew I'd hit pay dirt about the sources of my own anger and, perhaps, the wrath of Achilles and Komisarjevsky.

Gallery 185 holds Cy Twombly's (American, 1928-2011) masterpiece, "Fifty Days at Illiam: Vengeance of Achilles."  Twombly created 10 panels depicting the the last 50 days of the Trojan war, the subject of Homer's "Illiad."  As a catalogue of the paintings explains, "Twombly designed the installation so that the four paintings on one side of the room present a predominantly Greek mood, passionate and explosive, while the four across from them embody the Trojan character, contemplative and cool."  Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 133.

The second panel, "Vengeance of Achilles" is a tangle of light black threads in a swirl at the bottom.  As the eye moves upward, the black lines darken and then smear on the white paper. As the mass of lines curves to the right, the black lines begin to merge into a thick blood-like mass, which finally begins a downward curve, which ends almost in a point.  Above the curve of black and red is scrawled the word "VENGEANCE," which appears as if scribbled by a child, or by a man exhausted by life and ready to die, or kill.  The overall effect is one of a chimney of smoke curving up and over, where it becomes a focused tongue of  hot fire.  The image also looks like the profile of an eagle stalking its prey, ready to strike, kill, and devour, on a moment's notice.

To see this for yourself, here is a photograph of this image. (The quality of the copy is poor, so please look at a better copy by clicking on the link at the end of this paragraph.)   Feel free to find your own meaning in its mysterious depth.  Here's a web link to a much clearer photo of the painting: 


Sing, muse, the wrath of Achilles and, perhaps, of Joshua Komisarjevsky.  Or perhaps, the wrath of each and every one of us.


  1. Seems like you are making a connection to Achilles and Komisarjevsky that doesn't make sense to me. Were you sexually abused? Didn't your mother love and take care of animal guts stew? Why so much anger when you have had a loving wife, nice kids, friends and a good job?

    You certainly are going down a narcissistic and self-destructive path. You call it freedom and clowning/comedic. I call it compulsive, intrusive, obnoxious, and degrading. You, one of the best and most perceptive listeners and conversationalists, can no longer listen or share in other's insights and joys. And thus you resort to relating to strangers and abusing bystanders.

    You are in danger of becoming unlovable or of giving love in return...losing your friends, and yes, your family too.

    Those of us who care about you don't want you to be miserable or unfree. We don't give a lick about whether you return to work or not. What we do expect is mutuality, sensitivity, and consideration. All those traits that make love and friendship possible.

    We pray that you will return to that Bob that we loved and respected and had the free will to reciprocate.

  2. That's a very interesting Comment, Anonymous. And I'm not being at all sarcastic in saying that.
    The emotional connective tissue between Achilles, Komisarjevsky, and me is rage. Anger. In my case, anger at myself for not making changes in my life years ago. For Achilles and Komisarjevsky, well, you can do the analysis yourself, you're obviously an intelligent person.
    As for your concerns about the way I am managing and conducting my life, most of what you're thinking about me is probably more about you and your own psychological struggles than it is about me. You fantasize that you know me better than I know myself. You don't. But I do hope you get whatever help you need to work through whatever it is about your own life which my life is apparently the occasion for you to think about. If you would like me to help you with this, please feel free to call me on my cell phone, 860-759-9860. I would be happy to meet with you or just talk with you over the phone.
    I can tell you're in some kind of pain. Although I don't share your pain about these matters of concern to you, I do feel compassion towards you and would be happy to help you in any way I can.
    The ideas, thoughts, and hypotheses you have about me are just that--your imaginative productions, which say a lot about you, but nothing about me. I learned a very important lesson a year ago, when I wanted to kill my body. That is, I learned that the thoughts I have about myself are not always a reliable guide to what is in my best interest. Instead, my body, which has a "mind" of its own, is sometimes a more reliable guide.
    At the present time, my body-mind tells me that I am living my life the way God, or Mother Nature, or Life, intends me to live it. I have come to realize that it is better for me to rely on my own sense of how I should live my life than take polls or votes or consult focus groups of relatives, friends, or strangers. I listen to all that these people have to say to me, and I listen carefully. But, in the final analysis, I must make the choices about what is best for me. If I make mistake and "ruin" my life, as you fear, at least it will be the result of decisions I have made. Therefore, I find what you say interesting, curious, and revealing--about you, but not of much value to me, except in so far as I'm interested to learn how my life strikes other people in the world.
    Probably the most interesting thing about you and me is this. You have chosen to remain anonymous, Anonymous. I, on the other hand, have chosen to live openly, out there for all to see, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Apart from what you have to say about me, your choice to remain hidden, behind a veil of anonymity, speaks volumes about how you feel about your own life, and the fact I have chosen to expose my outward life and my inner-most thoughts says something quite different about me. I'm not saying which choice is "best," for that depends on one's goals in life, but our choices are certainly different.
    I was serious when I offered to talk with you about these issues, or anything else which might be helpful to you.
    All best wishes,

    Bob Dutcher