EVIL GENES: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend

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Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend

Excerpt from Introduction

“Back to the real world after panic attack. Must ease Jack out. Can’t tolerate the smoke or the late night ‘sloppies.’ He is still a good friend to have.”

There they are: Carolyn’s last written words, directly from the diary found lying on her bed stand after her death. Words mattered to Carolyn. Did she suspect what was about to happen?

I knew who Jack*—the “good friend”—was. He and my sister Carolyn had lived together on and off for years, beginning soon after Carolyn had decided to move up from southern California to Sequim, Washington. Sequim rhymes with “swim.” As the tee-shirt says: “Sink or Swim in Sunny Sequim.”

Sequim is an oddly bipolar town, crouched in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. Mount Olympus, less than thirty miles west near the coast, gets nearly seventeen feet of rain a year. But by the time the air travels over the mountains to Sequim, a paltry seventeen inches a year is all that’s left—not much more than Tucson. The same air then continues over Puget Sound, picking up moisture again to drizzle up to a yard a year in Seattle. Wedged between two mother lodes of rain, Sequim is actually a postage stamp desert weirdly laced with irrigation ditches, streams, and rivers, all of which funnel rainwater and snowmelt from the Olympic Mountains down toward the sea. Living in Sequim is like living in a vortex. You can look up nearly every day and see bright blue skies overhead. But often as not, the town is surrounded by a ring of ominous storm clouds, kept at bay as if by some awesome force.

Retirees often move to Sequim, attracted by the unusual juxtaposition of mountains, sea, sunshine, and mild winters. They build huge homes on bluffs and hillsides overlooking the ocean—virtual villas with lovely gardens and masses of windows to take in the scenic vista. But after a year or so, some retirees discover their chirpy realtor had inflated the average temperatures for the area by ten degrees. Newcomers expecting the climate of Tucson often find temperatures closer to those of Juneau. It’s never exactly cold in Sequim, but it’s never exactly warm, either. Year-old villas are often for sale in Sequim.

Both my parents were living separately in Sequim, each for different reasons, at the time my sister moved to town. My father reveled in the outdoors. After being a veterinarian for thirty years, he spent his retirement days happily felling trees in the National Forest and hauling them home to peel and insert them in his ever-growing complex of log structures: log cabin, log storage shed, log garage, log guesthouse, log pantry buildings, log woodsheds, log sauna, log covered bridges, log greenhouse, and even, for reasons only he could explain, a three-story log water tower with a thousand gallon tank and a panoramic view of the jutting peaks of the Olympics. The entire complex was nestled in a private forest of soaring Douglas firs, graceful hemlock, and spidery madrone.

My mother, on the other hand, reveled only in my father, which was a little creepy using cialis senza ricetta medica, all things considered. Long after their divorce, she had tracked him down and moved about three miles away to a small apartment near Sequim’s slightly bedraggled downtown, across the street from a dusty field of quackgrass, wild barley, and a gaggle of Garry oaks. Despite the proximity to my father, it took years before my mother finally realized that merely extricating herself from alcohol and acting nice wouldn’t resurrect her ruptured thirty-year marriage. So she lived a lonely life serving as a hostess in a Mexican restaurant. Gradually, as the owners realized her skills, she became the restaurant’s bookkeeper and, ultimately, a manager.

Carolyn, like my mother, had moved to Sequim for a reason.

About a decade after my parents’ divorce, my mother had begun dating a wealthy man emphysemic—a wheezy fellow named Ted who planned to take her and his oxygen tanks on an extensive trip through Europe. Ted and his breathing apparatus were perhaps no great catch, but he was good company for my mother, as she probably was for him. And in all the years of our family’s moves around the United States, my mother had never before been overseas. I remember listening to her talk about her upcoming trip to Europe with Ted, her breath coming quick and eyes sparkling as she wondered about the food in France—was it as good as they say?—and the cathedrals, and even the width of the streets. It was the first time in years I’d seen her show any real animation or enthusiasm.

When I saw my mother again several months later, rather than discussing baguettes and béchamel, she told me how her Mexican restaurant made vegetables look greener by taking the lid off the steaming pot. She was mum about her social life, so only much later did I find out the particulars. Apparently, about a month before departure, my mother had mentioned her pending European adventure during a rare, probing telephone call from Carolyn. A few days after the phone call, Carolyn had pulled up her Southern California stakes and abruptly moved to Sequim. One leg still limp from her childhood bout with polio, my sister tucked herself and her crutches up beside the less-than-active Ted while my mother pitched in to get her situated in her new apartment. Carolyn had a dazzling knowledge of French food and wine. She paused frequently in her connoisseur’s conversation—each pause just long enough to catch Ted’s eye.

Soon Carolyn was comfortably ensconced beside Ted’s oxygen bottle on a flight to Paris. Just another underhanded episode in a life-time of such episodes. My mother never did get to see Europe.

*Names and identifying details of Carolyn’s friends and acquaintances have been changed, as have similar details of several other individuals for the sake of privacy.

The Successfully Sinister

Prompted by my sister, even as a child I used to wonder about subtly nasty characters: the ones who get really close to you so the knife goes deeper. I read about the alluring but sometimes sinister wives and concubines of the Roman Emperors and Ottoman Sultans. Were these women perhaps like my sister? I learned of the evil machinations of Count Romulus, some two thousand years ago in North Africa: his legendarily malevolent nature has carried down even today in the naming of Star Trek Romulans. I shivered over stories of China’s Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, famed (perhaps unfairly) for her beauty, charm, love of power, and utter ruthlessness. She was accused of killing her own grandchild to retain her hold on the throne—her narrow-minded policies undoubtedly set the stage for China’s gruesome self-immolation during the twentieth century. Like tens of thousands of other children my age, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and wondered at how the horrific policies of a single demented leader could resonate in an echo-chamber of banal evildoers, and result in the deaths of millions.

“There are two ways to get to the top,” says my business executive husband, with his hypersensitive bullshit detector. “One is to be the cream. The other is to be the scum.”

Ever since the early fascination with my sister’s many devious successes, it is the scum who have long held my interest.

Selected Works

Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend
“A fascinating scientific and personal exploration of the roots of evil, filled with human insight and telling detail.”
--Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor, Harvard University
Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler
“Always revealing, sometimes explosive, and often hilarious... a book any reader is sure to drink up.”
--critic and writer, Brian Arundel of the National Fisherman
"The Killer in the Lecture Hall," The New York Times, April 19th, 2007.
A professor’s reaction to the Virginia Tech Massacre.
Picture Board Game
Herd Your Horses
A perennial best-seller that was selected as a top-100 game by Games Magazine.