[Writing] is an awareness that demands cynical optimism, uncompromising integrity, allegiance to only the work… and most of all, courage to explore the darkest places of oneself.
—“Mortal Dreads” Harlan Ellison
—Old Journalism Saw
I recently experienced two starkly different media treatments of the dark side of human nature.
The first was painful to the point of nausea. I was at the gym watching the bank of televisions hanging in front of the workout stations. At one point, four of the nine screens were showing horrific footage of an angry father repeatedly striking his teenage daughter with a belt, the young girl screaming and cowering as he beat her. An eight-second loop of a particularly gruesome blow across the girl’s back and her subsequent bloodcurdling scream were played over and over again. It was, in the parlance, the money shot, and I must have seen it twenty times in ten minutes.
What amazed me, in part, was that so many different programs were showing the footage at the same time regardless of its relevance to their “mission statement”: a celebrity gossip show, a cable news politics talk show, local news programs and a financial news network. There was nothing at all celebrity, political, local or financial about the footage. The tape was simply infinitely repeatable titillation and shock, shown without context or any particular relevance to the audience.
The talking heads were having a field day, practically salivating over the savagery of the images. The most oft-repeated line of the broadcasts was a request for viewers to watch the footage one more time. Reporters chasing down the “story” caught the angry father in his car. He issued a blanket denial, and apologized for the inconvenience that the tape’s release might have caused his community. The young girl was shown on a morning talk show tearfully recalling her ordeal.
But the tape’s real reason for existence was ignored entirely. The daughter covertly filmed the abuse seven years ago and released it because she felt her father, a Texas family-law judge, had serious emotional problems and needed help. At no time, in any of the broadcasts I saw, or looked up later, did I hear mention of the root causes, lifelong impacts or frequency of childhood abuse. (Not that those explanations don’t exist in broadcasts somewhere, just that it struck me as noticeably absent in my exposure to the footage as I watched it.)
Overall, it was a sickening and context-less exposure to one of the darkest places- family abuse–of human behavior. I felt worse about the human race after seeing it. There was no redemption, no justification, no value whatsoever in watching a young girl being beaten. It was violence and darkness for the sake of entertainment.
The other example of the dark side I recently encountered was a naked, cancer-stricken man trying to commit suicide by freezing himself to death in the woods in the middle of winter; but instead of killing himself, he inadvertently causes a mentally challenged young man to fall through the ice of a frozen pond, putting both of them in mortal danger.
I was stunned by the severity and suddenness of their predicaments. I watched, in microscopic detail, as both characters teetered on the edge of death; I ran the length and breadth of their lives in an instant, and was heartbroken at the sadness and horror of their situations. Both characters approach their deaths with a mixture of confusion and disbelief (I won’t give away who, if anyone, dies).
That incident is George Saunders’s short story, “Tenth of December”, published in the October 31st, New Yorker. But this incident, the graphic and shocking suicide attempt and the tragedy facing the young man and his family, didn’t cause me to recoil in horror. Rather, it gave me pause, a chance to meditate on the frail and arbitrary grip we all have on life, survival and death. I felt compassion. I gained an understanding of what was happening to each character and how their journeys related to my own. I grew as a person and gained a new perspective on the “mortal dreads” we all face. It was an edifying experience.
So why did those two human tragedies, unfortunately common enough to be recognizable in my own life, affect me in such different ways: one filled me with revulsion and disgust; the other enlightened and enriched me. They both struck a sensitive chord. Both were gruesome and exposed the dark side of life. Each was terrible, graphic and abhorrent and widely distributed through the media. They both examined themes of family abuse and survival in the face of tragedy.
It’s an important question as I contemplate my professional past and future. I’ve covered a lot of human depravity and darkness in my career as a true-crime and corruption reporter. I have written about, filmed and aired some of the darkest, most sinister and godawful examples of humanity. I’ve made a living off of the dark side, exploiting the “human dreads” and showing the evil that men can do.
And I have to ask myself: what for? Was there anything good that came out of my work, or was it just for titillation’s sake? And how can I find a way to make all of that misery mean something in the future? How do I, as an aspiring storyteller–and as a decent human being–take the rich vein of human darkness and turn it into a worthy, thoughtful, useful work?
The first answer I’ve come up with concerns the limits and abilities of each medium. My exposure to the Texas abuse case was limited to television. I only saw the images of what was happening. My interaction with the material started and ended on the surface; I was not able to see beyond the two-dimensional images streaming before me.
Setting aside my cynicism about the content decisions of broadcasters, the medium is incapable of doing anything other than showing me images. That restricted not only the context that the broadcasters choose to give me about what was happening on screen but it constrained the information they could give me.
The only information I have is that which I can see. There is no way that a television broadcast, even with the best intentions, can provide expositive information on the thoughts, emotions, history or consequences of what was happening between father and daughter. It is simply not possible to do so with only audio and visual tracks. I have no way of physically going any further.
Television, and visual media in general, freezes and isolates time. I will never know how this moment is informed by their past interactions, how their personalities and emotional proclivities determine their actions and it is impossible to see, in this instant, how this will affect their futures. It is an image without the possibility of change or deeper comprehension. It floats by, stimulates my brain and disappears. All that I am left with are the images and the emotions they have invoked.
Whereas literature, in this case, a masterfully written short story, can give me the information I need to see the context, history, impact and consequence of this dark moment. Saunders, in a phrase about a long-dead stepfather, lets me into the motivations behind the character’s suicide attempt. The young boy daydreams of a chivalrous exchange with a classmate, and instantly, I see him as a damaged, isolated child with a history of family failure and disappointment.
Words, and the mental act of processing them, provide a depth and richness that extends beyond the moment; rather than freezing time, literature frees time from the constraints of literal meaning. Without the stern, verbatim prompting of the image, I am free to imagine and extrapolate meaning outside of the material in front of me.
Intent on the part of the content producer also plays a significant role in my understanding of these two experiences. It is clear from the visual and audio prompts–slow-motion blows and highly dramatic music–that the television producer wants me to react to the visceral and the violent in the act I am witnessing.
The producer is providing cues that focus on the physical and that’s exactly what I do. It is a trick I know well from my true-crime days: slow the music down when the victim’s family is on television, speed it up when we see the killer; push the camera into the crime scene, pull it out on the surroundings. It is not a cynical ploy to intentionally manipulate the audience (most of the time) but rather, the craft of the form. That’s what works best in eliciting a reaction from the audience.
But the writer doesn’t want that. The writer wants me to consider the larger picture, if you will, of the drama he is creating. He wants me to understand not just what is happening now, in the snow and ice, but what lead to this moment and where this moment will lead.
The writer intends for me to take in this incident totally, and extrapolate a meaning that goes beyond what is happening to the characters but also addresses the fears, concerns and hopes of my existence. So the writer uses the necessary tools, back story, metaphor, symbolism, language, to evoke the response he wants me to have.
Unfortunately, this magical transformation of words into a repository of universal meaning is not something I have the experience or ability to do.
So where does that leave my career aspirations, then: create meaningless and manipulative imagery or try to establish the literary craft? (Or go into organic beekeeping?) I don’t know. I make good money working in television, and writing fiction is emotionally hard on me, mostly thankless and probably not very financially rewarding.
But I think the answer lies in something I heard George Saunders himself say at a New Yorker Festival panel in early October. (The panel was TC Boyle, George Saunders, and Joyce Carol Oates talking about writing the Dark Side. It was as mind-blowing, ohmygod I’ve died and gone to literary heaven as it sounds.)
Saunders said–I am paraphrasing here–that writing about the dark side takes emotional fortitude. He said that there are lots of talented people working in media, simply too afraid of the challenges that writing meaningful fiction presents. In order to break through to the “truth” takes courage, imagination and persistence and a lot of creative types don’t do it.
He hits the mark, but then I would have to explore my own dark side to find a way through that fear. And I don’t know if I have the fortitude for it.