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?"
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, and compassion.
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.