My cousin is a local news anchor, and many family meals have been spent in the thrall of his stories. A few years ago in a neighboring town, booming as a safe alternative to my relatively safe city, a man with no criminal record or history drove into the parking lot of a gas station and tried to steal a little girl. The girl’s grandmother intervened and was shot and killed in the process. The man fled the murder into the quiet suburban town and kidnapped another girl from her front yard. As a police chase ensued, the girl leapt from the car, sustaining only minor injuries, and the police killed the man in a shootout. Apparently, he had missed a few days of his behavior medication. His family issued a public apology. They were as shocked as anybody and were grieving the loss of their father and husband and baffled at the latent evil that had resided in the person they loved. My news anchor cousin stopped by the house a few days after the story had blown over, and we talked about the giant questions looming over the whole thing. Why does this happen? How does this family wake up tomorrow? I’ll say this: be glad the news doesn’t tell you everything that happens. We don’t let our kids play in the front yard anymore.
After that, my wife also refuses to watch movies that portray kidnappings. Most of those movies end well enough, but the dark fact heightening the tension in those stories is that in real life there are a lot of headlines about children lost, but very few headlines about children found. That fact has taught me the creaks of my house at night and how quietly my boys sleep. Those movies that end with the happy restoration of a family, with the perpetrator dead, with the community in balance again, and no ripples of threat or counseling or rent illusions of security—those movies provide saccharine comfort. A comfort that probably tastes much like our ignorance at the end of a news broadcast.
In the midst of this, I still have the lingering belief—no, belief implies something I’ve conjured—I still have the lingering orientation, yes like metal shavings around a magnet, that stories can provide real comfort; as real as can be offered in this world, anyhow. So why do stories so often fail?
That may be a larger moral question than I’m capable of tackling here, but perhaps I have room for categories that provide some help in that direction. When I was in college, Sean Penn directed a movie called The Pledge. On the eve of a detective’s retirement, a little girl is murdered, the murder seems to be the work of a serial killer, a suspect is brought in and commits suicide in the police station. The detective, however, doesn’t buy that the suspect was the real killer, and pledges to the girl’s family that he will find the murderer. Over the next few years, as he alienates his former colleagues with dead-end leads, he becomes desperate to make good on his pledge and prove that his work was meaningful. Finally, and horrifically for the audience, he befriends a woman and her daughter and uses the girl as bait to draw the serial killer out. The movie ends tragically with the old detective, completely ostracized, having become the kind of monster he was trying to stop. One of my professors praised it for its unflinching appraisal of real crime. I’m not so sure.
Penn’s intention was tragedy, for sure, and I think he executed it. Tragedy after all is meant to be cathartic, to provide a purging or purification. When I was a boy, my dad was hunting doves. Late in the day, he observed the birds along a fenceline eating the berries from a plant and thought, “The birds surely know what is poisonous and what isn’t.” So he tried the berries. Within a half-hour, he was vomiting and hallucinating. His brothers put him in the back of a pickup and raced him to the hospital where they gave him charcoal tablets and crossed their fingers. He pulled through, thankfully, and after some research, a game warden said that Dad had eaten something called snow-on-the-mountain. It’s deadly for humans, but apparently it doesn’t affect doves.
Catharsis—purging by story—is historically a noble aim for storytellers with roots at least as deep as Ancient Greece. A culture, primed emotionally by real life conflicts, might gaze into a tragic story and “enter the maws of hell and be spat back out, purified and reborn—or if art fails in this medicinal role, simply shocked and repulsed“. But I have to say, the entire cultural project of the Greeks, the direction in which all of those stories aimed, seemed to be tragic. Even the heroes become shades longing for any sort of life—the plight of a farmer’s hired-hand for example—over the anhedonian wandering of the underworld. The purging their stories offered was only a mild nihilism in preparation for the ultimate nil of death. Anyhow, I’d like to think I have the stomach of a dove, but most days I’d suffer the indigestion of a cloying comedy over the wretching of a bitter tragedy. My orientation still suggests these are not my only options.
An editor once accused me of being like William Blake. I say accused because I didn’t know what he meant when he said it, so I took it as accusation. I can’t say that I’ve since discerned that editor’s meaning, but I think Blake offers something helpful along our lines. In his Songs of Innocence we find a set of zygotic poems: Little Boy Lost and Little Boy Found. The narrator of all the Innocence songs, of course, is a child, and so in these poems we hear a boy calling after his father who has either left or lost him in the dark. The implication is that the boy dies, but since the narrator is a child, this is not explicitly stated or even understood. Death for a child, although real, doesn’t carry with it the weight of memory and stewardship. Flip the page to Little Boy Found, and in eight lines the child is found by a new father, God, being “ever nigh”, and led to his mother who preceded him in death. A new and holy family. This is comic, but it isn’t cloying because the restoration has consequence.
These poems have their twin, or perhaps their future self, in Songs of Experience, beginning with Little Girl Lost about a 7-year-old girl named Lyca who has gone missing. The narrator here is decidedly more adult, sympathizing with Lyca’s parents’ loss, voicing the community’s disbelief at the death of a child:
How can Lyca sleep
If her mother weep?
Death has gravity now, for those survivors who must continue suffering in the grief that must only grow and pull and slow the passage of time, delaying our escape to relief. Why doesn’t the exertion of our grief restore she whom we lost?
The title of the second poem, Little Girl Found, might suggest Lyca’s miraculous restoration; that she simply fell asleep beneath a tree, awaking no worse than groggy, but found, at least, and in a lot of trouble. But instead the poem opens like this, and this is important because this is what stories are capable of:
That the earth from sleep…
Shall arise, and seek
For her Maker meek.
In futurity I prophesy. Lyca’s parents suffered the real loss of their daughter. The poem recounts how the parents spent the remainder of their days searching for their daughter in deserts and valleys and are eventually slain themselves, in their search, by a lion in the road. This is tragic, but for the prophecy: the parents are awoken from death by another lion, a king, presumably God who leads them to their daughter. A restored family, no doubt bearing the ripples of their suffering, but the poem ends with the family
not fearing the wolf’s howl
nor the lion’s growl.
Prophecy has looked different in various cultures. The Old Testament prophets will never be called saccharine, but I don’t think they can be called tragic either, even if as many of them were: called to tragic vocations; ignored or misunderstood by their audiences; slaughtered by the people they served. On that level, they were like their counterparts in the Greek prophets, Cassandra and Tiresias. But the Tiresias we met warning Oedipus, we ultimately find lapping goat’s blood in Hades alongside Achilles. Hell didn’t spit him back out. It consumed him leaving smoke and a nostalgia for the blind man’s heat. The stories of the Old Testament prophets aimed at something different, stoking imaginations against the nil-fates of the ancients, finding their cultural fulfillment ultimately in a man who charged through death, clamping the jaws of hell, brandishing a light that sent darkness cowering. Stories can be after that.
These are the stories in which I keep imagining myself, anyhow. After all, I am a husband and a father, foolish enough maybe to bring children into this gaping world. And more hauntingly, against the tragic potential latent in my own desires, I am a father with no criminal record or history.