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Katharina Elisabeth Peter (Otto-von-Guericke University of Magdeburg)

American Psycho[1]: Violence as Abuse of Freedom


American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is one of the most controversial novels of the second half of the 20th century. Fewer books have sparked such heated public debates, as the story of the serial-killing yuppie Patrick Bateman.

The story around its publication, depublication and republication provides almost as much material for discussion as the book itself. „That doesn't happen to novels. In fact it's almost unprecedented.“ said Ellis in an interview. „There are non-fiction books that are stopped for certain legalities, about defamation of character and things like that (...).“[2] Just before its planned publication through the publishing house Simon & Schuster, two chapters of Ellis's manuscript were pre-published in Spy and Time Magazine and caused an infuriated outcry. The two chapters contained some of the most gruesome torture and murder passages imaginable. One, for example, describes how the protagonist Bateman inserts a starved rat by means of a metal tube into a girl's vagina. The outcry resulted in Simon & Schuster cancelling the novel's publication at the last minute as well as in media hysteria and Vintage Books using the free publicity and taking up the book to publish as a paperback. A debate about censorship, calls for a boycott as well as death threats against the author followed. The novel was called a handbook on how to rape, torture, mutilate and kill woman, even though no one had read it yet. „If you hate women, you'll love this book!“

Critics such as Roger Rosenblatt for the New York Times ridiculed Bret Easton Ellis's literary skills and called for a Don't-buy-it-campaign three months before it was even finally published in March 1991. Only few critics and fellow writers, such as John Irving and Norman Mailer, came to Ellis's aid. However, the focus of their argument was censorship rather than the quality of Ellis's writing. At the end of the day, no one wanted to be known as the only perverse person liking the book.

The few American critics who actually had something positive to say about American Psycho and considered it to be serious and important, were mostly, ironically enough, women, such as Nora Rawlinson. She noted that “the horror does not lie in the novel itself, but in the society it reflects”[3]. Others stated that compared to other novels about serial killers, such as the Hannibal Lecter novels by Thomas Harris, Bret Easton Ellis's use of violence was not exactly anything terribly new. The problem was that the novel had been judged too early and only on account of the two pre-published chapters. People simply seemed to copy opinions, as Ursula Voßmann[4] pointed out, without actually reading the whole book, if any of it.

The most extreme reactions came from radical feminists such as Tammy Bruce (NOW – National Organization for Woman), who called for a boycott of the publishing house, since she saw American Psycho as a call for violence against women. Or Tara Baxter, who spilled blood on numerous copies of the book and thought that "[t]here are better ways of taking care of Bret Easton Ellis than just censoring him. I would prefer to see him skinned alive, a rat put up his rectum, and his genitals cut off and fried in a frying pan."[5]

It is striking to note that the reviews in the weeks and months before and after the publication of American Psycho almost exclusively dealt with the violence and pornography, so graphically depicted in the novel. As soon as the big wave of hysteria stopped, critics started to look at the rest of text, which had previously been dismissed as boring and badly written, and found evidence for social criticism and a moralistic message. The greater the distance between publication and a reading of the book became, the less was written about its violence and pornography, and what followed was critical acclaim and academic esteem.

Contrary to American reception of the book, British critics, having a certain distance to the particular culture criticised, seemed to have been able to receive its moral intent easier than their American colleagues. John Walsh said very early on in The Sunday Times: „I have never read such shocking depictions of savagery as Ellis's. But I believe them to be a justifiable part of a serious, clever and shatteringly effective piece of writing. (...) Ellis's most potent thematic conceit is that modern America is a world in which all traces of individuality have been eliminated.”[6]

By now American Psycho has been more or less accepted as a serious novel that should be judged by the highest of standards. One of the reasons for this change of heart might be that some critics reflected on the idea that the violent murder scenes only take place in the protagonist's sick and cocaine-drugged mind. It is the intended ambiguity that leaves the reader wondering whether Bateman is a serial killer or just a day-dreamer with a tendency towards the depraved. Well, Bateman doesn't seem to be too sure himself. But this raises the question as to whether the violence in the book is morally unacceptable. No matter if Bateman committed the crimes or just imagined them – at the end of the day, they are just as fictitious on paper one way or the other. It also seemed to help that 'the shocking' within the literary world has become en vogue. The success and acceptability of writers, playwrights and philosophers such as Irvine Welsh, Will Self, Mark Ravenhill or Michel Houllebecq has put Bret Easton Ellis within a tradition of extreme graphic violence and pornography in serious literature with a moralistic purpose.

Ellis connects consumerist culture and violence as a means to (re-)create a sense of masculine identity. Violence just becomes another way to pass one's time, fill time that has become devoid of meaning or another idea of a lifestyle to be consumed. Bateman is a character who lacks an identity. He just tries to “fit in” (AP, 228). He has the perfect apartment, the perfect skin care products, the perfectly styled body, hair, outfit. He goes to the hippest and most expensive restaurants, clubs, shops and gyms. He has the perfect Wall Street job. He is as perfect as everyone else around him. Exactly the same. All decisions are made by the style magazines and restaurant guides he reads. Nothing about him is original. Not even his tendency to torture and kill. The same way Bateman, the empty shell, picks his public identity by the trendiest choice of designer names and labels of any kind, he adopts his killer identity through the process of reading biographies of serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, as well as from the presence of violence in the society and media around him. Like assuming his “own” style through the GQ-prescribed stylistic rules, Bateman assumes his killer identity, for “real” or as fantasy, through consuming the image of other serial killers'. “...there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, (...) I simply am not there.” (AP, 362)

Even though serial killers seem to have existed throughout the ages, their popularity in literature, film and television as well as the media attention to real-life serial killers came to a highpoint in the 80s and continued into the 90s. Serial killing violence as just another consumerist product and part of entertainment. Ellis's choice of putting a serial killer identity side by side with designer clothing, fitness obsession and haute cuisine can be understood as a cynical and deeply concerned comment on the greed-driven privileged white America at the end of the 20th century. Ellis's use of extreme graphic violence does not want to entertain or shock. It does not simply want controversy for controversy's sake. He is no Stephen King who uses splatter effects and gore for fun. His concern with violence is a more literary and moralistic one. „I'm always shocked when people are shocked by violence in my books.“ What concerns him is a privileged freedom, financially, socially as well as morally, that all his characters enjoy. Children of a rich generation who never had to fight for anything, can afford everything, are impressed by nothing and are bored out of their minds. The violence and depravity, real or imagined, become a symbol for the emptiness of this privileged life, the loss of individuality and identity as well as the abuse of the freedom they take for granted.


[1] In this paper, I refer the following paperback edition: Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, London, Picador, 1991.

[2] An Interview with Bret Easton Ellis by Jamie Clarke; this interview took place on two occasions, November 4, 1996 and October 22, 1998; http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/8506/Ellis/clarkeint.html

[3] Rawlinson, Nora: "Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho".  Library Journal 116, Jan. 1991, p. 147.

[4] Voßmann, Ursula: Paradise Dreamed: Die Hölle der 80er Jahre in Bret Easton Ellis's Roman 'American Psycho', 2000.

[6] Walsh, John: "Accessories before the fact", in The Sunday Times Books, 21. April 1991, p. 5.