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Getting to Truth, Through Fiction

edward rulloff family tree fiction the prisoner's apprentice writing May 23, 2021
Edward Rulloff

Once a seed like your great-great-grand-uncle murdered a bunch of people gets planted, no matter how much you want to ignore it, you're powerless against the enormity of the questions that roil inside you. So I gave in and swung to the other side of the pendulum, reading everything I could on psychopaths, sociopaths, and the genetics and epigenetics of violence.

Long story short, it appears that the heritability of antisocial behavior can be as much as 50%, by way of both genetics and shared environment. Following that logic, if the brothers shared equal tendencies and I am the fourth descendant, by my math I’m down to 6% evil. Manageable, maybe, but move over, Pollyanna. I’m way more noir than I thought.

Friends, consider yourselves warned.

As for Edward Rulloff, no obituary, census or biography I read could do more than lay out the facts of his life as they were known, providing a stack of answers to questions like who, what, when, where and how, but only deepening the mystery of why. Turns out if you wanted to bury the deepest secrets of your soul forever, all of human history prior to Facebook was a pretty good time to do it in.

He was an intellectual by day but a thief by night. Why? He let nothing get in the way of his maniacal ambition yet risked his life repeatedly for his greatest friend. Why? He’d been a physician, lawyer, inventor, professor, and linguist who impressed some of the greatest minds of the day, yet killed four members of his own family. Why?

Something motivated Rulloff to become what he became, to commit such intense acts of generosity and depravity. Human nature lets us pass judgment effortlessly, but understanding is remarkably harder.

Marcel Proust famously said “The only true voyage of discovery... would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hun- dred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”

What had the world looked like through Rulloff’s eyes? That question haunted me from the moment I learned that his story was linked to mine. Eventually, I realized there was only one way I’d ever be able to stop obsessing over him, and that was by tackling the thorny question of why through fiction.

Why didn't I write a biography instead? 

Non-fiction can tell us much about the world, delivering information straight to the front door of our consciousness where we can organize and interpret facts and concepts. Fiction has a different power. It acts more like a cat burglar who sneaks in through a back window in the middle of the night and plants ideas in us while we are sleeping. Fiction lets us live the life of another, to feel his most secret vulnerabilities and desires. A neat, factual, non-fiction answer to the haunting question of why Rulloff behaved as he did was never going to satisfy either writer or reader the way a fictional experience could.

Little did I know, that novel I was never in a zillion years going to write turned into a multi-year odyssey into the dark and admittedly-fascinating landscape of human tragedy.

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The Prisoner's Apprentice

Inspired by the shocking true story: deep in upstate New York in 1846, a child met a murderer. Together, they changed the course of history. 

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