Power, Crime and Race in the Watergate Era: An Interview with Forensic Psychologist Jay Richards

tags: Robin Lindley, interview, Jay Richards, Silhouette of Virtue

Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and features editor of the History News Network. His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, Re-Markings, and other publications. He has a special interest in the history of medicine and neuroscience. He can be reached at robinlindley@gmail.com. Click here to view a list of his other interviews.

Every action carries a motive from the past.

Jay Richards, Silhouette of Virtue

A small college town in southern Illinois in 1973 provides the setting for Dr. Jay Richards’ debut novel, Silhouette of Virtue. As the country wrestles with abuse of power by a president and a failing war in Vietnam, the town of Oakton is shocked by a series of rapes of young Asian women. An African-American professor at Oakton’s Shawnee University is accused of the rapes, and the only other black faculty member, philosophy professor Nathan “Ribs” Rivers, advocates for a fair trial despite lingering doubts about his colleague’s innocence.

In the novel, Dr. Richards brings to bear his unique practical experience as a forensic psychologist who has studied and treated homicidal and sexually violent offenders as well as his wide knowledge of myth, literature and philosophy. The novel traces Professor Rivers’ quest for truth about the brutal crimes as his career and family unravel. In seeking truth, Rivers faces his own spiritual crisis as well as racism, violence, and the dark pathology and malevolence of others.

Silhouette of Virtue is based in part on actual crimes that occurred on the campus of a college in Illinois in the 1970s. The novel has been praised for its vivid writing and multilayered accomplishment as a mystery or thriller as well as a philosophical novel. National Book Award Winner Charles Johnson commented: “Jay Richards’ crackling prose style sends philosophy singing off the page.” And Pam Berns wrote in Chicago Life, “A wonderful book . . . I was immersed again in the ambiance of the art world and campus life during the Watergate years.”

Dr. Jay Richards is a Seattle-based clinical psychologist working in forensic, correctional, and consulting psychology with extensive experience managing and treating mentally ill offenders. He is renowned for his innovative research and is on the faculties of the University of Washington and Seattle University. He also appears as an expert on criminal psychology on a variety of media, including NPR, Dateline, and The Washington Post. He has served as the Superintendent of the Special Commitment Center, Washington State’s program for legally designated Sexually Violent Predators, and as the clinical administrator of the fabled Patuxent Institution, Maryland, for treatment of mentally ill criminals, among other positions. His professional writing includes Therapy of Substance Abuse Syndromes and numerous articles on psychopathology, criminal behavior and sexual offenders. Dr. Richards’ fiction writing is also informed by his experience teaching English and African literature in Nigeria.

Dr. Richards recently discussed his novel and his work at his Seattle office.

Robin Lindley: You’re a forensic psychologist. How did you come to write your new novel, Silhouette of Virtue?

Jay Richards:

The plot of the book was inspired by an actual event that occurred at the campus of Northern Illinois University while I was attending back in the 1970s. There was a series of sexual assaults, and a black graduate student was accused of being involved. As in the novel, the campus became very polarized. On one hand, he was one of us and there was nothing wrong with him. He was friendly with everyone. He was highly intellectual and very gentle. Many of us thought his being accused had only to do with the fact that he was black. But there were other people saying that the police weren’t just pursuing him from some racial motive. There was real evidence that implicated him. Also, one of the victims was Asian at a time when the Vietnam War was winding down, which added another racial component to how people viewed the assaults.

I eventually left campus and couldn’t easily follow how the events played out. That allowed my imagination to run with this and ask how could this have played out and who was condemned. And I asked, what would it be like if the ante was raised by constructing a fiction where it wasn’t a graduate student but a faculty member and a series of rapes that were more brutal than in reality—to try to intensify the drama of the real event and bring in ideas.

The main character in the novel, Nathan Rivers, was inspired by a friend that I had back in college who I’ve since lost contact with. He was as close to a philosopher-poet as anyone I’ve ever met. He was an African-American graduate student in his forties at Northern Illinois University and was intensely involved in all of the intellectual activities on campus. He was a guy who didn’t always have his head in the clouds and could come to terms with practical situations that affect people.

When you have an intense idea about someone—whether in literature or in life—and how they represent certain ideas, over the years, as you encounter these ideas, the image of that person also grows and matures. The [main] character of Nathan Rivers grew around that.

Robin Lindley: You bring back the world of 1973 America with the Watergate hearings and waning days of the Vietnam War as well as the racial strife then. What drew you back to the period?

Jay Richards: A couple of reasons. It was a formative period for me. While I was coming of age during the 70s, I often felt like I was watching a lot of the social upheaval from the sidelines and not really in the heat of it myself. This was my way of going back to that time period and re-living it, this time from the center of the storm.

Also, I find this period very interesting because it was a kind of in-between time. The civil rights movement was already well under way. The antiwar movement and countercultural revolution had pretty much played out. Our perception of authority was really being challenged with Watergate and the Vietnam war. A lot of things were coming to an end in that period, but it wasn’t clear what new beginnings lay ahead.

A lot of us thought that the civil rights movement would eventually lead to lasting change and the democratic integrity of our nation would be safeguarded because we had intervened so dramatically to avoid undermining our system. There was a sense that things might return to normal, but that isn’t what happened.

Robin Lindley: And you have said that the role of fiction is “to create and share a vision of the world that is worthy of humanity.” Your novel is ostensibly a mystery, but is actually a multilayered work of literary fiction.

Jay Richards: The primary intention behind the novel is a philosophical one. It’s a novel that tests ideas. I wanted to explore what would happen if I took a philosophical approach to life, as the protagonist Rivers does, and tried to live by that point of view. I wanted to see how that would play out, and how the novel might inspire the reader to explore the same question.

For example, I want the reader to see how Rivers is struggling to maintain his integrity in the face of a very complex challenge. I wanted to implement the wealth of ideas we’ve gleaned from the past three thousand years of philosophy. It’s really about how that worldview plays out in individual lives of the characters, and hopefully the readers, so that they can hopefully lead a better life.

One of the unique elements of fiction is that it gives readers an experience of the “inside view” of what’s going on in a particular story and set of characters. Fiction moves the emotions and communicates this inside view, which is why I think it’s a powerful vessel for social change. If it’s successful, the reader gains new perspectives on the world, because they get to see the world through the eyes of the point of view characters.

An example in the novel is Cosgrove, the university president, who abuses his authority. He has a Machiavellian view, believing that there is a natural hierarchy in a material universe which is a closed system. He believes that some people are naturally more powerful than others, more intelligent than others, etc. This belief justifies his Machiavellianism, and he believes that people like him should decide for others what the outcomes should be because they have the power to force the outcomes. You see him play out that view, but you also see the trauma that caused him to have this view, which frames it as a compensatory philosophy, one chosen because it protects his ego.

By contrast, Rivers is full of idealistic, egalitarian views. But he too ultimately believes there’s order in the universe, but for him the universe is an open system and more than material. His ideal of social order, however, is not an aristocracy of intelligence and power and wealth. He’s trying to promote an aristocracy of compassion.

So those two perspectives are contrasted in fiction through insights into those characters and their actions.

Robin Lindley: Your protagonist, Nathan Rivers, is a philosophy professor who is also a musician, a martial arts expert, and poet. The other prominent black character is Calvert Duncan, a bright professor also, but a manipulative person who is accused of the rapes at issue. Was Duncan also based on a person you know?

Jay Richards: Yes, Duncan was similar to a childhood friend. He was attractive, charismatic, and good at sports, but really mean. He’s named Duncan because I align part of the book with Macbeth. Duncan is not Macbeth, but he’s meant to stir up that association. And his Lady Macbeth is his distorted image of his mother. Duncan’s goal is to always be the dominant, triumphant person by force or by stealth. In doing so, he ends up doing destructive and self-defeating things.

Duncan is in a way an anti-Rivers. They are thrown together in the minds of most people in the college town by what Rivers calls the lazy mental process of association--- they are the only two African-American men on the faculty of their Midwestern University. They’re not initially friends, but they start to interact casually and discover, as they test each other psychologically, that each one of them is formidable and different, like matter and anti-matter. So they steer away from each other until they’re thrown together again through the rape investigation.

Robin Lindley: You delve into history in the book, and Rivers certainly appreciates the past. He says, “Every action carries a motive from the past.”

Jay Richards: It’s true. The book takes historical themes and sees them as motives that are living within people. For example, there’s a dramatization of the dilemma of the Civil War in the novel in the form of a play in which Abraham Lincoln’s ghost keeps reappearing. It’s tongue in cheek, but it’s actually quite ghastly when you think of the reality it portrays. A slave in the play is used as a breeder and is linked through eternity with Lincoln. And, before he was president, Abraham Lincoln went to this house in southern Illinois called the Old Slave Ghost House. It was a salt mine and slaves could be legally used on the site [in the free state of Illinois]. That house became important to the anti-Underground Railroad forces as a place where slaves were returned to the South. They would be captured in that area and brought back to the South.

So the book has places of historical and metaphysical weight, as well as characters.

Robin Lindley: The name of your hero, Rivers, evoked for me Langston Hughes and his poetic line “I have seen rivers.” Did you have Hughes in mind?

Jay Richards: Yes. And there were many connections with rivers and the important role they play in the black past. The rivers Nile and Niger and Mississippi are all rivers with powerful symbolic meaning for African Americans. I intentionally mythologized many elements of the African past through Rivers’ Afro-centric point of view. There’s an Afro-centric theme in the book that some readers may gloss over.

When I traveled to Egypt four years ago, I made a definite attempt to visit sites in Egypt from the pharaonic age that were influenced by black Egyptians. I was with two historians in the car and we were in a convoy of military vehicles on the way to Sudan because you can’t travel without protection toward Sudan because of highway robbery and attacks by anti-government forces. At Abu Simbel, near the border with Sudan, the historians had a big disagreement. One said that we were going to the site of the original pyramids and where Egyptian culture got its formative mold. And the other emphasized the sites up north and dominance of the Lower Nile Kingdom. That’s an argument that’s even played out with the new movie Exodus.

Robin Lindley: With white actors in Exodus playing Egyptian roles.

Jay Richards: Yes. Egyptologist Bob Brier [of Long Island University] has commented that not all the Egyptians looked like African-Americans, but very few would have been able to sit at a lunch counter in the South [before integration]? The ancient Egyptians portrayed race very differently than we think of it. They had four or five types that were relevant to them. They saw Nubians as a distinct type from the Egyptians, and they also saw Semitic people as distinctly different. Someone’s ethnicity depended as much on their language and culture, and not on the racial categories we tend to have, which are physical types. And one’s type, did not determine one’s caste, as the modern concept of race traditionally has.

Robin Lindley: Rivers has an African walking stick called Kheleke that appears several times in the novel. What is its significance?

Jay Richards: One of the conventions of the classical detective novel is that the protagonists often have paraphernalia. These characters are usually eccentric and have diverse and sometimes obscure interests. They enter altered states of mind to make connections that would otherwise be unavailable, like Sherlock Holmes, who uses a violin to get into that state. The stick, Kheleke, is meant to remind the reader that this is a world where things are symbolic and, as with Holmes, this world is not quite normal.

The walking stick also connects Rivers to the time he spent in Africa as a young man, when he travelled to Botswana and worked there. It was a formative experience for him, because he left for Africa in rebellion towards his father’s desire for him to become a minister.

The stick also represents the power and danger of mental concentration or poetry. Robert Graves said, “A poem is like a lion. It can kill a man.” That object represents that idea because it can kill a man but it also is used to concentrate Rivers’ mental forces, much as an anchor hold a ship in a circumscribed space.

Robin Lindley: You have studied Africa and you taught in West Africa. Does that use of the walking stick come out of African myth?

Jay Richards: Most African Kings have staffs similar to Kheleke, with a ball or animal head at the top. They represent power that has been concentrated. Moses, for example, had a stick with snakes wrapping around it—a caduceus. So the stick brings in a mythological dimension. It’s like a pop-up image from our normal plane to the mythopoetic plane.

Robin Lindley: You also touch on Native American history and note that more Cherokee Indians died on a particular section of the Trail of Tears in southern Illinois than on any other part of that trail.

Jay Richards: Yes. Rivers, because of his spiritual and philosophical openness, is drawn to these historic sites and their remnants. He even shapes his own motives, emotions, and direction based on these artifacts, and the ideas they represent.

At one point in the novel, Rivers is drawn into the forest on a wild goose chase that turns out to be a vision quest. During the quest he encounters a kind of voice from the spirit world that tells him, “This is not your culture. You don’t know anything about this and haven’t studied it.” To which he responds, “This is our land. The natives were here. I’m here. Their memory is here and their presence is here.” He tries to adopt that position, and the spirit world responds to him in the form of a fox.

So this novel isn’t a typical mystery novel, but closer to a meta-mystery novel. In the process of pursuing a mystery, we learn more about the mystery inside us and the mystery that is all around us. Often, people who write meta-mysteries don’t resolve the whodunit questions posed by the mystery plot, which can be frustrating for the reader. But that’s not the case here. In this novel the practical whodunit mystery is resolved. But in the course of doing that, Rivers encounters many internal mysteries as well. These mysteries show him that there is an essential order in the universe that human beings can relate to that is not random or relativistic. In other words, the mysterious “out there” has a structure and a face. It is human enough that we can relate to it. And that is different than [university president] Cosgrove, a chemist, who sees the world as random and atomistic—a world of matter and motion that is chaotic.

Readers who like the whodunit genre mystery without the extra fixings will find this novel perplexing. It breaks out of that genre and for some that’s bad, but for others it’s refreshing.

Robin Lindley: You’re an expert on crimes driven by psychopathology. How does that expertise figure in the novel?

Jay Richards: It’s a key part of the book.

There are two types of psychopaths in Silhouette of Virtue. On one hand, there’s the university president here who can do terribly psychopathic things without any conscience. Then on the other hand there’s Duncan who is a person with great potential, but who has been spoiled by the psychopathic traits. It’s unclear if the traits are from nature or nurture, but he consistently acts in a psychopathic way.

Another character, Carper is a lower level antisocial type. He’s a petty criminal. He’s mean-spirited and he’d like to be more psychopathic like Duncan, but he doesn’t have the guts and he’s too fearful to pull it off.

So the book has these types that are informed by theories of narcissistic, antisocial, and psychopathic personalities.

Robin Lindley: How would you define a psychopath?
Jay Richards
: Psychopathy, the disorder that psychopaths have, is a cluster of different traits. One of the most primary characteristics of the disorder is a lack empathy for others. Psychopaths also have very shallow emotions and impaired ability understand emotion. It’s said that they know the lyrics, but can’t follow the music of emotion.

Robin Lindley: Are those traits also typical of sexual offenders?

Jay Richards: In my novel, you have three people who would qualify as sexual offenders. They’re predatory. Duncan is envious of others and has a need to triumph over them, so he tries to hit on Rivers’ partner Sharon, a white woman. He also tries to seduce Apple, a young Asian girl who is a friend of the Rivers’ family, out of a need to undermine Rivers by taking his women.

Carper is motivated more by a feeling of inadequacy. He doesn’t believe that he has any other chance for a sexual relationship except through rape and assault. He was abused himself as a child, and his primary motive is to keep that a secret and deny that he has also become a child abuser. Others will pay the price so he can keep that reality under wraps.

There are people who commit sexual offenses who don’t have psychopathic traits. In fact, most people who commit sexual offenses are normal. Most men commit sexual offenses because they were drunk or didn’t understand the context or they were temporarily motivated by a powerful emotion. So most people who commit sexual offenses will never do it again. It seems counterintuitive, but first-time sexual offenders have the lowest recidivism rate. People who commit multiple sex offenses, on the other hand, are a highly motivated group of people who have a sexual disturbance. This group is responsible for the bulk of the crimes.

Of these repeat sex offenders, only some are psychopaths. Many child molesters feel terrible about what they do. Even though they feel driven to do it, they only pursue it when they are drunk or depressed. Those offenders with psychopathic traits, however, don’t care about how it affects the child or how society views it. In fact, they may feel society is wrong because there’s some society in some obscure corner of the world where this kind of behavior is acceptable. Those people have a personality that allows them to be exploitative without empathy or remorse for other people. They are the sexual psychopaths.

In my novel, the three people involved in sexual offenses never have any remorse. They’re never sad about it. They may cast blame for why they engaged in these events but they never feel “I’m a bad person.” So they’re sexual psychopaths.

Robin Lindley: Who are some of your influences as a writer?

Jay Richards
: I’d have to say Ismael Reed, a postmodernist who writes detective novels that are funny and out of control. In his work, he’s intentionally trying to further a set of ideas that he calls “neo-HooDooism,” which he sees as the remnant of African culture that is at the heart of African-American vernacular culture. It’s not the culture of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is very American. It’s more like the Pentecostal Churches which are closer to African tradition in how they worship and in how they embrace the role of the mysterious and mystical.

I’d also cite Charles Johnson as a significant influence in terms of how he uses philosophy and creates characters, specifically black characters, who have a complex and deep internal world. One of the problems of blacks in the western society is that our inner world is seen as inaccessible or not present. In other words, the black person is fully seen only in the physical form. Charles Johnson is a writer whose black characters have deep and complex interiors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is also an influence. In The Scarlet Letter, these woods scenes come out of nowhere. Why are they in the woods? That setting doesn’t seem to fit the social drama of the fallen woman. Instead, it brings up the image of the Native Americans, the people who surrounded the Puritan world and gave it another context. The Puritans had ideas of evil and dark figures with ominous powers that I relate back to Native Americans, slaves with second sight, and even Dionysus. They surround you and there’s a need to sanitize and cultivate the garden.

More pointedly, Hawthorne’s influence on this novel is in his musical use of a symbol of the scarlet A, which changes meaning throughout The Scarlet Letter book. First, it’s a sign of shame on the heroine’s cape, but it transforms to a heroic badge of honor by the end of the novel. Throughout the novel it symbolizes the fate Hester cannot escape as she goes through transformations, which eventually purify her. I tried to use a symbols in a similar way in my Silhouette of Virtue. An example is the club or walking stick, which starts off having mythological meaning, and later becomes an exotic martial arts weapon. By the end of the novel, the stick returns to its solely mundane use, after Rivers is wounded and needs support to walk. This symbolizes Rivers stepping out of the mythological world and back into the world of the living, and the walking wounded.

I also relied heavily on John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghost as a model for this novel. Gardner’s book is about a university professor and philosopher who finds himself engaged in convoluted, cryptic plot twists around a murder. Like Rivers, Gardner’s protagonist is also struggling internally with some emotional problems that come and go, although Gardner’s Mickelsson is at times psychotic, and Rivers never really loses his grip on reality. Mickelsson is trying to sort out what is real and what is part of his psychosis. He’s also trying to uncover a strange conspiracy, which he traces back to the Sons of Dan, a Mormon sect. A history professor commits murder to protect the faith from information that would invalidate Joseph Smith’s revelations. So like my novel, Gardner’s amateur sleuth is dealing with his internal world, in addition to a set of external conspiracies and criminal events.

Robin Lindley: Your book seems to align with Gardner’s view of moral fiction.

Jay Richards: Gardner once said that fiction should show how one can live a life of consequence in the world (though he later said fiction is only moral if it’s good entertainment). I feel that fiction can inform how we live.

Gardner taught at Southern Illinois University, Shawnee University in my novel was based on. In fact, while there, Gardner was Charles Johnson’s writing mentor. My parents were from Harrisburg, the closest town near SIU, and I would go there every summer from early childhood through my teens. Being in that southern environment, you have the sense of being surrounded by these huge forests and by the history of Native Americans and of slavery and Jim Crow. It used to be of one of the most violent regions in the country, with one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Robin Lindley: You vividly present racial tensions in the novel—issues with a powerful resonance now. You deal with Rivers and his white partner Sharon and their mixed race child in 1973, which must have been difficult in a predominantly white world. You also depict tense relations then between the police and African American men.

Jay Richards: In the novel, Rivers and Sharon talk where they should live. They’re very aware that in living the way they do in this small southern town they’re thumbing their noses at society’s expectations. Rivers says southern Illinois is probably as good as anywhere. But Sharon wants to go to Europe or Africa, where people are more accepting of a mixed race couple. Rivers says he can’t go anywhere that doesn’t have hamburgers or an African Methodist Episcopal Church. He says he’ll stay in Southern Illinois for the time being because it’s part of his roots. He’s part of the land and he’s not going to leave.

As the novel progresses, Rivers’ life is unraveling, partly because of race. By supporting Duncan, his black colleague, in raising funds for a legal defense, Rivers attracted the attention of local police. In one of the first scenes in the book, Rivers and Duncan are talking outside a bar and smoking marijuana, which was a ritual of 70’s culture, and both mean are very aware of how the police will perceive two black men out on the street so late at night.

There’s also a scene where the police demand to search Rivers’ house, because unbeknownst to him, Duncan has escaped from prison. Rivers is concerned about being beaten if he refuses, but he realizes that the detective who comes with the uniformed officers is different and won’t condone abuse. He lets the police in, but only after calling his attorney.

Throughout the novel Rivers avoids contact with the police, even though is closest friend is a black state trooper who confirms many of the cops he has worked with were racists. So there’s a police presence in the novel, both in the investigation and the crime components of the story. A major theme in this Watergate era novel is the corruption of authority, and it’s reflected in the police as well.

In the amateur sleuth and hard-boiled detective tradition, there is mistrust for the police. There’s a belief that the police will be ineffective and won’t solve the crime. But there’s a fallback position. There’s a saying, “If someone’s breaking into your house, do you call a hippie?” While he’s in jail, Duncan taunts the police and corrections officers, but he seems to know that the media is watching and with eyes on them these officers will uphold their mission—but there’s little to keep him in line, and he’ll do anything he can to antagonize them.

Robin Lindley: In your own background, you’ve dealt with issues of young black men in several contexts, including participating in parole and institutional review boards. Your book—as you’ve noted—deals with the tense relationship between many of these young men and the police—a very timely issue now.

Jay Richards: Yes. I don’t know a black male who has not had trouble with the police. By that I mean that they have a feeling of being treated differently and having to act differently. Almost every black teenager has had a run in with the police.

Most of offenders I have dealt with probably took the route to crime and violence through family and social influences, one of which is racism. But nonetheless, they were dangerous men and women. At the Patuxent Institution, Maryland where I directed treatment of offenders, we sent offenders to look for work in Baltimore. Not infrequently we’d send black releasees for work, and they’d get there and be told the job was already filled. Later in the same week we’d send a white offender to respond to the same listing, and he’d get the job. Everyone in the prison knew this was happening—that if you’re black you won’t get a job.

When you look at the reality of jobs and race, it’s pretty scary. Statistics show that a white offender without a high school degree is more likely to get a job than a black non-offender with high school diploma. If you are always the last hired and the first fired, and this goes on for generations, all kinds of unhealthy sociological problems get played out.

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