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Monday, March 28, 2016

Room and Bad Stories

“This is a bad story.”
“Sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.”
“No, you should,” I say.
“But—”
“I don’t want there to be bad stories and me not know them.”
― Emma Donoghue, Room

There are a lot of bad stories out there. Sad, distressing, demoralizing stories. In Syria, in Nigeria, in our neighborhoods, in churches and schools, in children's bedrooms and professional offices. There are stories that will make you want to hide under your covers and eat ice cream but you're afraid that the sheets will get into your ice cream bowl so you try to make a tent with your head and then it gets all hot and stuffy in there. Stories that make you say, I quit.

Every day my Facebook feed is filled with these stories. Sometimes I think that I just need to disconnect from them. Unfollow all the news sites, block certain words, and just focus on my life. If my family is safe and I'm getting my work done, the rest of the world can take care of itself. Surely there are enough do-gooders out there to fix it, right? Somehow?

Or what? I could share the posts and make sure that other people are seeing how awful it is just outside of our little bubbles. And sometimes within our bubbles. But then I'm that guy. The one spreading all the stories I was just talking about trying to hide. I don't know where anyone is when they boot up Facebook or Instagram or whatever, maybe they don't want to hear about dead children that day. I never know, you guys.

The scariest part of learning about societal ills is when you begin to realize that statistically, someone you know is suffering. Someone you know is being abused by their spouse, or was molested as a kid, or is a victim of rape. Someone you know feels trapped and alone and terrified, yet puts on a smile, and maybe you think their world is perfect.

Someone you know is a perpetrator of a vicious crime.

That's rough, huh? I've quoted the statistics a lot by this point. If you want to see some sobering ones, here. Think about this a moment, though. For every one of those crimes, there is a perpetrator. Most of them are not reported. We know, as readers of this blog, that numbers don't tell the whole story, or any of the story. They give us a start, though. And with the numbers, and the stories we do know? Well, guys. Do the math.

"I've seen the world and I'm tired now."

I get it. It's exhausting. Here's another thought, though. This stuff isn't new. People have been hurting each other for as long as we've been people. When you log on to social media and see the bad stories, remind yourself that the fact that we're hearing them is a good thing. This year we watched Lady Gaga sing a song about sexual assault at the Oscars, Kendrick Lamar decrying racism at the Grammy's, and Beyonce protesting police violence at the dang Super Bowl.

These are bad stories. They are heartbreaking and infuriating. But my goodness I'm glad they're being told. What's the alternative, guys? That we just pretend everything's fine? How's that working for us so far? Violence happens in cycles. The abused are often abusers, or they seek out abusive relationships. Lead poisoning in bad water leads to aggression in poor cities and then disproportionate arrests. Drug addiction leaves kids without parents, or with parents who neglect. All that happens quietly unless someone says something, but also someone else has to listen.

We look back and we see a long chain of abuse and violence and if we look forward and see that chain unbroken then we're doing something wrong. That chain only gets broken when people look straight into the eyes of someone telling a bad story, really listen, process, and then say, "this ends here." I meet them all of the time. Social workers, police officers, nurses, teachers. You want to talk to someone who has seen darkness? Ask the therapist who spends her time just out of college in a mental institute for violent sex criminals. Then ask yourself why.

I used to say that I read tough stories because it made me appreciate how good my life is. Yeah. Pretty selfish. Hopefully I'm past that. Now I read tough stories because I want to take some of that burden off of someone else.

Give me a minute to talk about rivers.



An unhealthy river system has been manipulated in some way. Straightened in order to allow for easier irrigation. Hardened on its edges to stop it from flooding houses and cities. These might look calm and healthy to your average person, but they have no ability to manage major changes. Part of my job is to help fix these rivers. A healthy river system is windy and complex. It widens, it creates new pathways, it shifts.



When massive rainstorms and snowmelt come, the manipulated river can't handle the power. Banks get blown out and entire chunks are washed away and hauled downstream. It's just too much for the stream to handle. In a healthy system, that water is redistributed. Tributaries take some of it, floodplains do, too. Plants along the bank hang on to the soil to stop it from being washed away. Rocks in the stream reduce and reroute the sheer force of rushing water.

I think a healthy society does the same thing. Some of us are damaged. And that damage makes it impossible to handle all the water that the storm sends our way. We need to spread it out sometimes. Many of us who manage to handle our own storms can take on a bit of someone else's when our lives are calm.

Boy, I hope that river metaphor was worth it.

Room is a bad story. I mean, it's a very, very good story, but in the context of what we're talking about, it's not good. Like, not for a long time is anything good for these two people. The two people are Jack, our narrator, and his mom, Ma. And they're in a bad spot.

Picking a 5-year old narrator is a tricky business. It can pay off big. Or it can be annoying and off-putting. In Room I think it's necessary. What is being portrayed is so horrifying that if it were told from an adult perspective, it might not be bearable. By writing from a child's perspective Donoghue is able to protect us from the details by filtering it through a wholly innocent young boy. We know what's going on, and we're forced to consider it on our own, and those implications are harrowing, but we're spared the hyper-detailed grittiness contemporary fiction seems to require these days.

Often, very often in fact, it's a sweet and lovely story. At its heart is a little boy who loves his mom and a mom who depends on her little boy as completely as he does her. It's about survival in circumstances that seem impossible, and creating a life for yourself when you thought maybe there was none.
In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don't have jobs, so I don't know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there's only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.

Also everywhere I'm looking at kids, adults mostly don't seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don't want to actually play with them, they'd rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there's a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn't even hear.
It also made me cry a whole lot. I think Kristin took this picture mid sob. Look at that body language.


Yes, Room is fiction, but its premise is not. If anything, the story that inspired it is so much worse. Like Jack, "I don't want there to be bad stories and me not know them." Because to feel it, even just a little bit, even through a fiction novel, means that I'll be better able to take on some of that pain myself if I need to and mourn with those who mourn.

And the most beautiful stories are the ones that start out bad, and end up pretty good. Like my blogs.