We've all heard that serial killers are known to torture animals before they move on to people, so what does it mean when your six-year-old daughter starts purposefully starving her fish?
My husband woke me at 6 a.m.
"Her fish are dead," he whispered. "What should I do?"
We woke her. She cried. I held her. New fish were purchased.
They died, too.
As goldfish came and went, our six-year-old's interest waned. I don't know what possessed me to buy that last pair. She told me she didn't want them, but I felt compelled to get them anyway. I suppose I didn't want to stop at disappointment. I just wasn't ready to give up.
This time, however, the fish didn't die.
I was pleased and even a tad proud of myself for sticking it out when the rest of the family had wanted to call it quits. Our daughter, however, seemed less excited. As the fish lived for weeks, months, and then a year, her initial disinterest grew into dislike. She now wanted a pet lizard and needed the tank to house it. She began rooting for the demise of the fish, often whining, "Why won't they just die already?"
One day she even asked me to flush their still quite alive bodies down the toilet. I said I would do no such thing and I gave her a lecture about how pets require commitment and dedication.
I thought I'd gotten through to her. It was months later when I learned I was wrong.
That was when I discovered, through an accidental slip of the tongue, that my daughter had not been feeding her fish. This wasn't because she was lazy or even that she'd forgotten. She'd been doing it on purpose, to speed along their demise.
How could my child do such a thing? Was she lacking in empathy? Would she grow up to bully others? Or worse, was this a sign that she might be a budding serial killer? Didn't they torture animals before they tortured people?
These suspicions terrified me, so I did my best not to give them power. Surely my kid was a good kid. Surely she wasn't someone who lacked empathy. Surely other normal and well-adjusted children had done terrible things to family pets. Surely there were mothers on my very block who could tell me horror stories if only I was brave enough to ask.
Wasn't it possible that I only suspected this because I had watched too many episodes of Criminal Minds, had recently read The Stranger Beside Me, and was working on a book about FBI profiling? Wasn't this just writing-induced paranoia, the same kind of paranoia that causes me to think I have cancer, tinnitus, and restless leg syndrome, among many other maladies, whenever I write health stories?
Yes, that was it. Of course it was. While I might be neurotic, my child was perfectly normal. Sure, she might end up in therapy someday, mostly as a result of living in the same house with an overly suspicious mother. But she was no budding serial killer.
I really wanted to believe this.
I took over the care of the fish and, somewhat penitently, I began treating them like special, heavenly beings. I talked to them, sang to them, and kept them company, as if doing so would cancel out my daughter's sin and prevent her from growing up to become an axe murderer.
Still, the poor fish seemed fated to suffer.
An early snowstorm knocked out the power. The tank went black and cold and stayed that way for days. The fish were only supposed to be able to survive in temperatures above 75 degrees. The tank was much colder than that. I worried and fretted. How could they ever live through this?
As it turned out, they could.
I worried again when an algae bloom turned the entire tank into a green, sloppy soup.
It didn't faze them.
When I accidentally dropped the lid, still plugged into the outlet, into the tank and heard a "zzzzt," I almost had a panic attack. Surely I'd electrocuted the poor things!
They lived on.
Over time, as I grew more attached, my daughter grew more insistent that the fish had overstayed their welcome. She whined, "Why can't we get rid of the fish? I want a lizard!"
"A girl who starves fish can't be trusted to care for a lizard," I said in the same flat tone of voice I might use to say, "What about the word 'no' don't you understand?"
She argued that she would never starve a lizard because lizards were cool. She'd only starved the fish, she said, because fish were stupid.
I was wounded. I saw the fish as tiny miracles. She saw them as expendable. How could she not see that they were precious living beings that deserved to be in this world just as much as she did?
It was in that moment that I thought back to my college days and specifically to a fraternity party, one during which many people, myself included, had drunkenly dangled live goldfish above our mouths, opened wide, and swallowed.
I wasn't a serial killer. To the contrary, most people saw me as a compassionate person.
My daughter was just as compassionate. During most of her six years of life, she'd delighted and amazed me by her kindness to others. Without my prompting, she'd created "get well" masterpieces for sick relatives, purchased gifts for teachers, and even come up with the idea to host a toy drive for needy children. Hadn't her teachers remarked on her high level of emotional intelligence? Hadn't one teacher even given her an award -- called a "Bucket Filler" -- for her kindness?
Hadn't the FBI profiler I was interviewing taught me to look for patterns of behavior rather than outliers? Indeed she had, and this incident with the fish was an outlier, nothing more.
From experience I knew that love wasn't universal. Some people easily empathize with the tiniest of beings, including goldfish. Others squash bugs without a second thought. Some people despise snakes, rats, and spiders. Others adore such beings and keep them as pets.
Love, I realized, also wasn't automatic. Many people, myself included, grow to appreciate tiny beings over time.
If I wanted my daughter to value the smallest of beings, I'd have to teach her that value, just as I would have to continue to teach her about the importance of kindness, empathy, forgiveness and compassion. She would not learn these values by me forcing her to care for a pet she didn't want.
I ran my fingers through her hair.
"Love usually grows over time. By showing affection and performing random loving acts, we can come to love that which we assume is unlovable, " I said.
She was quiet, the kind of quiet that led me to believe she had no idea what I was talking about.
"I love you," I told her. "I will always love you. I'll love you even if you hate what I love. That's what love is."
"I love you, too," she said, "But I still want a lizard."