When I was in high school, a friend of mine committed suicide. It was shocking, terrifying, unexpected. No one knew what demons haunted him, though in the aftermath, at the funeral, there were whispers. Abuse. Depression. The corrosive power of over-expectation. He used a shotgun; there was an open-casket funeral. I was scarred for life. I still can’t fully imagine what it was like for his mother.
What I couldn’t conceptualize nor understand as a child, I am all too cognizant of as an adult. Many times on my failed journey to have children of my own, my friend came to mind. After every miscarriage, I would tell my husband God knows something. He knows that something might happen down the road that will break us, and he’s keeping us from that horror. An illness, a tragedy. Would we have made a child who eventually took their own life? Or worse, made one that took the lives of others? I’m a thriller writer; it is fundamental to my nature to ask these difficult questions of humanity. Why would I not query myself, too?
What is a villain, and why do they eventually act? This is a predominant theme in my work. What makes people do terrible things to one another? Is it something in their upbringing? Is it their own internal chaos? Is it genetic?
The marriage of my own curiosity to the reality of miscarriage aside, there has been a gene identified that is common in sociopaths and psychopaths—the MAOA gene, the warrior gene. In my novel IT’S ONE OF US, a self-actualized, well-therapied, formerly institutionalized killer questions his own nature and the possible presence of this gene that could be causing his twisted desires. He is a thinker; he wants to understand why he is the way he is. It doesn’t matter in the end; he is compelled and can’t help himself. Can’t stop himself. He must kill, or be killed. It is his only path. He has no ability to choose another. He is predestined to be this way.
Choice is everything.
It would be enough to end the essay here, but so many more layers went into this story. The killer is the child of a sperm donor, who has—at the opening count—27 other children. Is it possible only one of them is a killer? Are there more? What genes were passed down from this stranger to his many progenies? It begs the question: Where does the darkness inside truly begin?
I was deeply affected by two real-life stories while planning and writing IT’S ONE OF US. The first was Robert Kolker’s fascinating HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD: Inside The Mind of an American Family, a deep dive into the Galvin family. Of their twelve children, six of the ten boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s a mind-boggling statistic, and finding out the Galvins were not alone in their situation was even more shocking. Kolker brings the family’s struggles to life against a backdrop of psychiatric failures and possible solutions, and I was lucky enough to interview him about the book. A key takeaway—the humble supplement Choline in utero may have preventative properties for a host of mental illnesses. The doctors running the study will be long dead before they are able to prove this, but the early results look promising.
The use of marijuana in the teen years is also a possible trigger of schizophrenia in those who carry the gene (because as it’s now been proven, this is a genetic disorder), which is explored more fully in the book and podcast DONOR 9623. In an incredible expose, Dov Fox shows the sperm donation industry as murky, ungoverned, unregulated, and oftentimes, completely unethical. Donor 9623 was a liar and charlatan, mentally ill, full of grandiosity and pompousness: and despite knowing that he failed the stringent psychological tests required of all donors, the clinic used his sperm dozens of times, possibly exposing the multitudes of children he sired to a host of medical and psychological issues.
I should make it very clear—my killer does not suffer from schizophrenia or any other mental illness. He is simply a monster, a sociopath who wants to understand his own pathology as the product of a sperm donation handled by an unethical firm. His mother does everything right. He is not a product of abuse. Nature versus nurture is a long-held dichotomous argument about psychopaths; his nature was just that. He was born this way, not made. The darkness inside him comes from a long line of darkness, some exploited, some hidden away.
But these two stories of genetics gone awry planted so many seeds of thought into my already fraught experience with the creation of life. When I did my own genetic testing to see if something in my background might explain my infertility, there was a small discovery of a certain mutation that resulted in meetings with a geneticist and them encouraging me to have my entire family tested.
Though it was a relatively benign mutation regarding folic acid uptake, I couldn’t help but wonder—why did everyone related to me need to be tested? Was there something more they weren’t saying? Something they weren’t telling me? Is this the path forward, in many ways—a blood test will tell if someone is predisposed to kill?
Again, the fantastical nature of my imagination ran with it. The result is IT’S ONE OF US, an intense thriller that explores nature, nurture, motherhood, family, and lies.
(this essay first appeared on Crimereads in 2023)
We have started to do some genetic testing and I even had my mom and maternal grandparents willing to be tested along with my husband. We found some underlying predisposition thyroid issues and certain vitamin deficiencies. They even stated to me that when these results come in, not to panic, that it is a predisposition not a certainty. Lifestyle can have a lot to do with the end result, if you eat healthy and supplement for vitamins, and exercise that you’re less likely to suffer from these issues in the future. I think it is parallel to the nurture vs nature argument.