Monday, November 24, 2014

Horror as Consolation

Last week in my weekly, in-person classes, the prompt was about reading. I got so many amazing responses, as I recall was the case the last time I used this prompt, two years ago. In fact, I am going to ask students to share their writings and put together a small book of them - Writers on Reading.

However, one response in particular really hit all of my personal bells.
I wanted to share the part(s) that struck me most here.
The first spot to really shock me awake was her insight about compulsive reading. I often find (and many others wrote about this) that I read mindlessly, intensely, and that's even reading "good literature."

Here's Kara's insight on this that struck home for me:
I grew up as one of those quiet shy girls with my nose in a book. I actually resisted reading at first. I remember in first grade being behind. Then something happened. I know my sister gave me The Little House on the Prairie books in second grade, and the next thing I know, I began tearing through books. I kept reading, and did it a lot. Compulsively. These were my video games.
It's that last set of lines that hit me. That would have been enough. So articulate. But then she went on to describe something I have NEVER heard anyone else describe: assuaging grief with horror. When my father died, I read all of Stephen King, a fair amount of Peter Straub and the like.

Here we go with Kara's passage that blew me out of my seat:

Then, in the middle of fourth grade, my father died. Reading was my escape. My head hit the clouds even more often than normal. My tastes turned to horror. I remember picking up Cujo by Stephen King that spring. I was hooked as I was transferred to that stalled car where the mom and boy were trapped for days because the crazed Cujo would eat them if they tried to get out. I feel hot and sweaty just thinking about it like they were in the book. And the fear and desperation.

But horror? I can't say any of it really horrified me. I think that the profound loss made me feel so different, so apart from my peers. And I took in as many books as possible as both my escape from my life but also to see if I would find anything so shocking or hurtful to my system as my father dying.
Holy shit. I thought.  
That's why I was doing that. I never knew why.

My mother got into reading mysteries when my dad died - trashy, easy ones, though she'd previously only been into Literature (note the capital L).
When I asked her why, she said it was because at least she had a reason for why someone died at the end.

Here's the thing:
My mother and I went in opposite directions. She tried to escape, to explain. I tried to threaten, like Kara says - daring the world of horror to show me something worse than my father's death.

In fact, I got into the Holocaust (my dad died when I was in 7th grade, versus her 4th grade, and we were just being introduced to WWII). I think what I was doing with the Holocaust - being obsessed with it, looking for images to freak myself out and never finding any that really pierced my pain - is the same as what she (and I) was trying to do with horror. Just daring it to make me feel as awful as I did about my dad's death.

And it never did, even though reading endlessly about real-life genocide and fake-ass horror both freaked me out. Still couldn't touch the confusion and personal pain of my father's death.

A German friend called me out on this in my 20's - noted that my strong obsession with the Holocaust really had nothing to do with the Holocaust, though neither of us could have known why or exactly how at the time. I am still reeling from not just what Kara said but how she said it. So clearly known and articulated.

I often encourage students to appreciate instead of envying.

In this case, I am so appreciative to Kara for writing what she wrote and sharing it that I am glad she wrote it, so well, so clearly. I don't wish I had figured it out myself, or I had written it. I am just glad that someone else was able to articulate it, even if, as Kara expressed to me in sending me her writing, neither of us are glad another person had to go through what we both went through.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I knew that what I wrote hit you in a deep way when I read it, but I didn't realize how much that was until I read this. I am still stunned that you think what I wrote was so good, especially since I think of you as someone who has some weight to make that judgment.

    ****Qualifying alert! I can do this because I am not in class! And you can’t stop me!!!*****

    (I think of you as an "expert", because reading and writing is what you do, because of the amount of responses to writing prompts you have heard, and because this frankly isn’t your first rodeo. I don't mean "expert" in the sense that I am diminishing my writing or others over yours, or in any way being comparative. Nor do you give off that impression, or act as if you know better than anyone else, or in any way condescending or negative. But just that I know you see and read a lot, and you have a lot of experience.)

    Just saying.

    Anyway, I wanted to add a couple of things:

    I want it to be known that I am in no way as articulate and self-aware as what I wrote and how you have responded to what I wrote make it seem. You said it exactly right; we were assuaging our grief through reading horror. This was something that had been forming in bits and pieces in my head over the last several months or so, and I had not actually pulled it all together into a cognizant whole until I wrote it for this class. (For whatever reason, I have always been way better at writing out the way I understand things and process things than voicing them out loud. I have no idea why. Maybe someday they will discover it's a kind of reverse learning disorder. Ha! The advice to teachers would be to 'let her write all of her answers instead of verbally answering questions in class'. That would be funny.)

    I find it eerily familiar that I, too, later became obsessed with the Holocaust (and afterwards, genocides and human rights abuses). I don’t think this is something about ourselves that we have ever shared with each other in the past. Until I read your post, I had not figured out why I had been so compelled to find out everything on the Holocaust I could. Thank you for making that connection.

    And I just want to say that I have always felt that we are a lot alike in some ways. (Not in the way we communicate and interact with others. Oh hell no. I will own my social awkwardness! You can’t have it!) But in the ways that we have responded to the big things that have happened in our lives that don’t usually happen in most people’s lives. Yes. That is similar. And it feels good to relate to someone else that has been there, even though I would not wish what we have gone through on anyone.

    So, I am feeling exposed in how you have responded to what I wrote, and all the things shared here. I recognize I am not able to write anything sentimental or mushy right now, no matter what I really feel, without it coming out snarky. I will just say I will see you in class. Cheers.