This blog post is an older one, but I've been thinking a lot about narrative and empathy lately. In fact, Jarad, Morty, and I are thinking about doing a series of posts about the intersection of narrative, literature, politics and reality in general. So I decided to repost.
I wrote my master’s thesis on the use of narrative as an argumentative device. I believed then, and still believe, that stories are the best way to convince someone else of your truth, the best way to come to any idea at all of what the truth might be. Stories add layers of complexity.
Narrative allows us to see that every person has choices to make but at the same time they are victims of the choices of other individuals, families, and societies, or even the natural world. Story embraces the paradox of life. Many things can be true at once when you see them in a narrative context. Life is messy and much more like a web than straight line. Stories create empathy and acceptance. Teaching your child to read, especially stories that are written with the perspective of a particular character or characters in mind, not only promotes academic success, but also empathy.
This empathy that we gain from reading should lead to greater understanding of others, but it should also lead to greater understanding of ourselves. To put it more bluntly, after you read a story…you might find that you have traits in common with the villain - as many as you do with the hero. You might BE the villain. The more I write stories, the more I realize that there’s only one place to go fishing for the sins and follies of the characters and that’s in the depths of my own dark heart. Why do I point this out?
Because being a human, I find that this is not the way we (I) like to read stories. For goodness sakes, if Cinderella’s stepmother read the story of Cinderella, she would probably identify with Cinderella. She might take a moment to consider how unfair the story was to stepmothers – maybe, maybe not. But given the kind of person she was, I’ll just bet that she had convinced herself that she was terribly overworked and under appreciated – especially by her horrible step daughter. Bad people don’t always know they’re bad. They’ve spent years convincing themselves that their actions make sense and that they are the victims. Look at any person that’s thoroughly bad. I can guarantee you that they at least started off seeing themselves as reacting to evil not causing it.
Being exploited, duped, discriminated against or otherwise victimized is common to the protagonists of stories and movies. There is always something to overcome. We tend to identify with the protagonist of a story. The stories we tell ourselves as a culture often focus on a clear cut narrative, hero versus villain. Along with the hero, the reader or movie goer gets to feel heroic without actually being locked in a tower for years, or being forced to live in the forest with a group of merry men clad in tights, or being tracked down by Russian spies – whatever your choice of hero has to suffer before the big win.
So when we insert ourselves into stories, we tend to insert ourselves right into the shoes of the hero without ever considering the size of our own feet. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s good to understand someone else’s suffering, good to understand their choices, good to feel their strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to follow along with someone as they make heroic choices. It makes us more empathetic to goodness. But this method of reading is problematic as well.
A very good example of this is religion. Most children who are raised as Christians – I can’t speak to other religions since I have no experience in how other forms of early religious education teaches children to insert themselves into narrative - are taught, implicitly, to identify with the disciples, the women who fed Jesus, the children who came to him, the crowd that ate his miraculous loaves and fishes. They are taught to identify with the heroes like David who bravely killed a giant. The empathetic distance is close when the student is taught or reads a narrative where the protagonist is virtuous, displaying desirable traits.
However, when David’s flaws come into the narrative later, - you know, little things like murdering one of his generals to cover the rape of the man's wife, the empathetic distance moves the reader away from King David, into judgment. The reader sees the story now from the perspective of the prophet Nathan, who clearly delineates David's sins.
Why is this a problem you ask? We want to emulate the traits of heroes, of good people. David bravely fought a giant. Robin Hood bravely fought the Sheriff of Nottingham. Cinderella had to wait patiently mucking the pigs and scrubbing the floors until a prince showed up to relieve her of a life of servitude (yes…she’s a sucky hero...but her circumstances didn't leave her a lot of leeway).
In fact, if you really think about it, the story of David nicely illustrates the point I’m trying to make. David ended up murdering a man to sleep with that man’s wife because he thought of himself as a hero, a king, a mighty warrior. The protagonist. A good person. And good people don’t have to worry about doing bad things. But in the end of the David/Bathsheba narrative David clearly realizes that he is the villain.
The prophet Nathan comes to the King and tells him this story:
A rich man and a poor man lived in the same town. The rich man owned a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had only one little lamb that he had bought and raised. The lamb became a pet for him and his children. He even let it eat from his plate and drink from his cup and sleep on his lap. The lamb was like one of his own children.
One day someone came to visit the rich man, but the rich man didn’t want to kill any of his own sheep or cattle and serve it to the visitor. So he stole the poor man’s little lamb and served it instead.
David was furious with the rich man and said to Nathan, “I swear by the living Lord that the man who did this deserves to die! And because he didn’t have any pity on the poor man, he will have to pay four times what the lamb was worth.”
Nathan responded, "You are that rich man! Now listen to what the Lord God of Israel says to you: “I chose you to be the king of Israel. I kept you safe from Saul and even gave you his house and his wives. I let you rule Israel and Judah, and if that had not been enough, I would have given you much more. Why did you disobey me and do such a horrible thing? You murdered Uriah the Hittite by having the Ammonites kill him, so you could take his wife.
CEV version of the Bible 2nd Samuel 12 1-9
It was upon hearing this story that David realized…he wasn’t the hero at all. He was the villain.
There are times time that the villain should speak most intimately to our hearts. There are times when the value of a story is not in propping up our good feelings about ourselves or making us feel heroic but instructing us in how our actions tyrannize or otherwise afflict those around us.
What if you read the gospels and realize that you are a Pharisee? Someone who has so much confidence in petty acts of religiosity that he actually protests a healing, or people eating when they are hungry? (Has this realization happened to me? Maybe…)
Stories are the best places for us to understand the only evil we can do anything about. Our own. So next time you read think about asking yourself if you’re identifying with the right character. In the meantime, here’s a Mitchell and Webb link with some people who are coming to terms with just that.
Also check out this link to the Slacktivist. Fred Clark does a great blog post about not being on the wrong side of history. It was his post that reminded me about the skit.
This Friday's Book Review will feature Orla McAlinden's new book The Accidental Wife. She is an award winning Irish author (her new book won the Eludia award in 2014) and she has written several book reviews for Sacred Chickens.
The following blog post is published here with her permission. It's a lovely rumination on writing and grief. Please check back in for the review and the link to her book on Friday. The link to her new book is also found throughout and at the end of this essay.
Guest Post by Orla McAlinden
Burial to book launch…
I never intended to write a book (or three) it just kind of happened. Now that the launch for my first published book, entitled The Accidental Wife is organised and confirmed for Wednesday 21st September, in Barker and Jones Bookshop Naas, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote a few years ago about how the floodgates opened and the words poured out. I should of course have shared this two weeks ago, on my dad’s birthday, but that’s me…the genius idea always comes a bit too late.
So here’s the essay, written three years ago when I hardly knew how to switch on a laptop!
My father’s parting gift
365 days ago, I had no idea that one year later I would have written a memoir. I have always known that I can make words leap and soar and bounce around, but I never felt I had anything about which to write. “How many books about Teenage Mutant Ninja Vampires does the world actually need?” I wondered.
My father and I, 1970s Armagh, clip-clopping along. We shared many interests: a passion for horses, history, old books, peace and quiet. These shared hobbies drove us out into the highways and by-ways of rural Armagh. He taught me to ride. He walked beside me, holding a long rope, for years, until I was judged safe, and released. During these long, self-indulgent trips a relationship grew that transcended the hero-worship small girls have for their fathers. We were friends.
My father died a year ago today, after an accident from which he was recovering slowly but satisfactorily. We re-arranged the furniture, on Friday, to facilitate his return from hospital on Monday. He died on Sunday morning.
The early, numb weeks passed in a straightforward fashion. I had four very young children, and a husband to organise. Women whispered at the school gates. “Isn’t she doing well? Isn’t she coping great?” I wondered what all the fuss was about. Friendly people commiserated and I would reply, “Yes indeed, he was a very elderly man. Yes, it was for the best. Yes, things could be a lot worse.” I really thought I meant it!
Afterwards? What I’d call ‘the lost weeks’. I would spend a morning full of murderous rage and frustration; tearing the house apart looking for my wallet, only to find it in the salad drawer of the fridge. I would return from Tesco to feed my family of six for a week, with a half-dozen unripe, unwanted mangoes, and no milk. I leapt to my feet, cursing, late for the school run, having sat down for five minutes, two hours previously.
As always, in times of crisis, I turned to the written word. I ploughed through heavy tomes by eminent psychologists and sociologists. Eventually I landed, by chance, upon ‘You’ll get over it’ by Virginia Ironside. She was full of wise advice and sympathy. I was not going mad; I was grieving!
A little secret tribute
On 27th July 2012, I opened my rarely used laptop. I would write a story, a family history. It would be a secret tribute to my father. I would show nobody. Three hours later, I looked at the work. It was a dusty, half-remembered family legend, passed on to me, probably accidentally, while he re-told and embellished it for his own friends. The piece was finished. It was whole and complete. I did not think, or pause for breath. I submitted it everywhere, I didn’t know any better, didn’t know that you shouldn’t submit your first story, didn’t know it’s supposed to be rubbish and live in a drawer forever.
It was published in January 2013, by The Chatahoochee Review in Georgia, USA.
Then I couldn’t stop
The writing continues. I sit down alone. Two hours later I read my new story. It spills out, fizzing, on to the screen, while I type, five or six disorganised fingers flailing, struggling to keep up with the words. Fiction, scripts, memoir, family tales.
A precious child-free hour, snatched here and there, equals a thousand words vomited into the open maw of a blank screen. During the other 160 hours per week the stories jostle and fight for position, shrieking to be released next from their incarceration. “Write me!” they plead. “Tell me.”
I edit in the kitchen, lunch-boxing a thousand ham sandwiches or stirring bolognese. Insomnia is my constant companion. I lie unquiet in the small hours; stories flash and streak across my mind until I long to clamp my hands over my brain’s ears, and scream “Enough! Let me be!”
My stories and memoirs whirl across the internet; a prize here, a shortlist there, hundreds of rejections. A short story which has arrived in a blur of busy fingers, unprovoked, uninvited, lurks in my hard drive. Each time I log on, that story- a young woman deceived by an American GI during the war- screams its rage and its indignation. “I am not a story!” it yells; “I am a PROLOGUE, get me out of here!”
And the tears have come too. I cry constantly. I cry, listening to the news. I sob at adverts for cheese, and at Tom and Jerry. I weep when my children laugh. Thank God for Virginia Ironside!
How long can this exquisite torture last? If the beehive of buzzing words sinks back into hibernation, leaving me sane again, I will be ever grateful that I, briefly, wrote. My hope is that I have been permanently blessed; my father’s parting gift.
Deep breath, everyone
Wow! I really wrote that. The extravagance of the words and the melodrama makes me cringe. Reviewing that piece makes me realise how far I’ve come, in a fairly short space of time. Endless, hypercritical revision has cut thousands of adjectives, adverbs and exclamations out of The Accidental Wife.
If I wrote that essay today it would be half as long, and a lot less hysterical. But the American GI has sneaked into The Accidental Wife, and the world can breathe more easily, because the long-form memoir is safely where it belongs, on a hard-drive, never to see the light of day.
Marie Parson's Book, The Devil's Back, is having a Birthday today! Celebrate by reading it. The link to the review is posted below.
This picture is of me driving to the high school for the second time before 8:30 AM with a piece of bread and butter on the hood of my car. I'm not sure how breakfast became attached to the car. In our defense, it is Monday.
It was cloudy and sad. The road was gray and the sky was gray and the air was gray. Both girls had forgotten something they needed. I had five hours sleep the night before. Five hours of sleep and two cups of coffee does not equal eight hours of sleep with one cup of coffee. (Can someone solve the equation 5hrs sleep + x = 8 hrs sleep where x is not equal to 3 hours of sleep?)
Before I found a place to stop the bread and butter had flung itself into the wide world to seek its fortune; it was probably eaten by a crow. There’s a reason no one writes stories from the point of view of a slice of bread and butter. It’s too horrible and sad…but my lack of sleep combined with excessive amounts of coffee has caused me to digress…
I came to the stoplight and sat there contemplating the possibility of escape down the road before me…a nice drive to someplace warm…you know…the way you do some days when you live with teenagers. Wondering if I needed to go home for a suitcase…wondering if anyone would remember to feed the dog.
And then I thought about the possibility of being someplace else, that fantasy place where all the houses look like cottages and there’s a beach, and cozy bars and no Walmart or strips malls. That place you think about on a cloudy Monday morning when you’re planning to run away.
And then the sun came out and lit everything up the way it does. A monster truck rammed its way through the yellow light and a fountain of dirty water sprayed up and the sun hit it and that Dodge Truck was trailing a rainbow. And I thought….alright. I’ll wait until tomorrow. Maybe I’ll take the dog.
Links to all three of the Whistlestop stories in one post. Get caught up - more to follow!
The Laughing Pink Elephant
The Giraffe Story
Nothing captures the essence of summer like a drop of rain hanging from the end of a blackberry after a storm. This is my favorite time for the blood sport of berry picking.
The weather is right for long sleeves and boots. I get the blue and white strainer, one rose glove - for shoving the thorny canes aside- and my clippers. Those are mostly for the locusts that have insinuated themselves among the berries. Locusts like to hide out amongst the other vicious plants but I have no reason to spare them since their violence serves no practical purpose for me.
I put on long pants and a long sleeve shirt and enter the fray. The last of the thunder rumbles behind the hill while I softly curse myself for once again neglecting to clean out the berry patch in the winter. The nest of thorns is daunting.
Before picking anything, I call to the snake to let it know what I am doing. We are on friendly enough terms, but I try not to startle it. The best berries are always the furthest in, hanging just past where you can reach them, tempting you further until the wicked curved thorns start to slice through your jeans and into your legs. Just half an inch further than you can reach is the best berry you ever saw, a perfect little beehive of purple globes. That berry is the one you want. Reach for it...it's too perfectly ripe. It falls into sea of canes and then...I pick thorns out of the back of my ungloved hand with my teeth.
This sort of temptation is how I ended up with a blackberry cane stuck to the top of my ponytail while my would be rescuers, my friends Kathy and Paul, were incapacitated with laughter. Another temptation is to set down the container with the berries so I can reach further without spilling any. This usually results in an invasion of ants, much worse than the usual stowaway - the stink bug. (Also once my boxer ate all the berries I had picked while my back was turned. Another good reason not to set them on the ground.)
When I was young, I ate more berries than I put in the bucket. My cousin Larry, even had a rhythmic method of making sure we ate more berries than we took back. "One for the bucket, one for me. One for the bucket, two for me. One for the bucket, three for me." Obviously, the odds for the bucket did not improve as the singsong game continued. But now I am responsible for the pie like the grownups before me. I have to be the one to bring something back, although there's nothing more tempting than a fat, wet blackberry that falls right into your hand. The effort takes more time because I cannot act like an adult. I eat as many as I put in the strainer and I have to reach further into the canes to get enough for the pie.
When I'm done, I have to pluck thorns out of my hands and legs and my thumb is bleeding. The blackberry bites have made me drop a number of berries back into the bush but the sacrifice of blood and fruit has worked. I have been given a strainer full of thick, sweet, purple summer. There is no perfection without blood. The thornless varieties are not as sweet. I will do it again tomorrow.
In honor of both gardening season and David Letterman, actual questions that I think about while gardening.
10. What nefarious creature dug these ankle biting holes? If I fall in one and get injured, how long will it take my family to notice that I'm missing and come looking for me?
9. Why do snakes have no natural fear of me? They seem to have a certain fondness for being wherever I'm at.
8. In light of question 9, would I have ended up in Slytherin at Hogwarts? I find this disturbing and wonder if the snakes know something I don't.
7. In light of question 8, should a grown woman spend this kind of time pondering things like whether or not she would have been sorted into Slytherin or how snakes feel about her?
6. Is that tree full of buzzards waiting for me to fall into one of the holes from question 10? Are they in cahoots with the creatures that dug the holes in the first place?
5. How do hummingbirds get all the calories they need, or any at all, when they spend all their time fighting over the food instead of eating?
4. How do the cats eat around the intestines and brains of small woodland creatures and even leave them connected somehow? This is a level of detail that both disgusts and impresses me.
3. In light of question four, do the cats think I want the still connected brains and intestines for some reason? Do they think I'm going to eat them?? Use them for potions? Wear them as talismans?
2. What kind of nutcase plants English ivy on purpose? Why do I always buy a house from one?
1. After all my work and sweat and long workdays in the garden, why am I not about twenty pounds thinner?
Sometimes, when I’m walking up the drive in the sun, I find a large flat rock where the gravel has washed away and I stand there. I like to feel it under my feet pushing the heat back from the sun, solid, smooth, being a rock, holding me up.
Sometimes, I wonder if things would have been better left as thoughts, vaporous free form. All matter might have been left in some sort of eternal flux of choice, not this or that, not one thing or another. Fog and air or shape shifting mist. Pale existence fluttering into almostness forever.
But then…I like the feel of that rock. I like the heat that it pushes back at me. I like the opposition. I like to push it with my foot and feel the relentless solidity of it. I am me and the rock is the rock.
I feel a strange camaraderie with the rock or at least an admiration for its resistance and boundaries. It feels like a friend. And then I realize I’m standing on a rock in the middle of the driveway in the sun, murmuring to it, and I feel like a lunatic. I look around nonchalantly to make sure no one saw me and head back up to the porch to talk to the cats instead.
We have ants in our kitchen. Or we did have ants in our kitchen. I wiped down their supply routes and marching trails with vinegar and put out some ant bait traps.
I inspect the damage after a day. I’m down to about three confused and wandering ants. I look down and see one lunatic ant drunkenly circling a tiny piece of dried onion skin and the irritation of yesterday transforms into melancholy. I have destroyed this ant’s village and all of its kin. I look at the sad little wanderer and I contemplate the tragedy. This war began without intent on either side. We are at war because we both want to eat, nothing more, nothing less. But my sympathy is useless. Not only have I murdered this creature’s fellows in my pique, even my pity is dangerous. Even to touch him might undo his tiny fragile body.
However, I suspect that this sadness is short lived. It is pity I can afford because I have won this battle for now. I do not pride myself that his entire civilization has been exterminated and I still shudder if I think about the teeming masses that may still live behind my wall. I am kind only in victory, only when I can afford to be kind.
Soon the ant’s compatriots will take note that they have lost this battle. Fearless, they will again find their way through some miniscule tunnel and renew their assault on the pantry. Faced with the ruination of my stockpiles of food, I will once again go to war, pity forgotten, wiping up scores of them on one vinegar soaked rag and reveling in the destruction. But for now…watching the lone ant move aimlessly along the wall, deprived of all it knew, directionless…I allow myself this moment of pity.
Endora, Kikimora, and Yu Baba, strange little black game hens that came to live with me a few years ago. They had a propensity to wander, thus their short but adventurous lives.
Yu Baba, the last of them, is no more. Or at least she is nowhere I can find her.
Yu Baba was ugly, mean and irritating. So, of course, I was inordinately fond of her. She only had two tail feathers and looked a bit like a dodo bird. She was so mean that even though she was little she could give a rooster quite a flogging. She didn't share food and she didn't want to go where the other hens went. She didn't like to be picked up. She hated the dog with more passion than any of the other chickens. In short, she was quite a little witch. I sincerely hope and believe that anything that ate her is suffering from a massive case of heartburn even now.
Goodbye you strange little spitfire! May the gods of the chickens usher you into the halls of the warrior birds where you belong.