Why My Favorite Characters to Write Are Often Unsympathetic and Unforgivable
My mother, a refugee who arrived in the United States in 1950 at the age of 27, after five years in a refugee camp in Germany, was a remarkably open soul. She was shocked by the racial prejudices afflicting her new neighbors. She often spoke of the dirty looks she’d get when she sat next to Black people on the bus. But, half a century after becoming an American citizen, Genghis Khan remained at the top of her shit list.
In particular, she had never forgiven him for unleashing the Golden Horde whose armies took down Kyiv early in the 13th century. Ever since the kingdom of Kyivan Rus, once one of the largest empires in Europe, fell before the Mongol invasion, up until about 30 years ago, when Ukraine reclaimed its independence, the country remained subject to various colonial powers.
The matter came up because of my interest in Tibetan Buddhism. It was the 16th-century Mongolian warlord Altan Khan who, needing the soft power of religion to help tame his subjects, gave Tibet’s spiritual leader the title of “Dalai Lama,” meaning, roughly, “Ocean of Wisdom.” She simply could not fathom what in Buddhism I found appealing.
“Let it go,” I’d say.
“How can I?” she’d reply. “That was the end for us.”
Because of my family’s history, I remain highly attuned to the long-term effects of violence and abuse. This includes both the suffering experienced in abusive families, as well as the unsettlingly anonymous violence inflicted on entire populations in a war. My imagination hovers over all the figures involved in such dramas.
After the US invaded Iraq, I became fascinated by the image of a female American soldier photographed humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners of war in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. The paraphernalia of sadistic practices sanctioned by the leaders of the most powerful military force on the planet—black hoods, chains, guns—were haunting and invaded my dreams. I knew I had to write about it. But what was there to say about something so self-evidently awful and grotesque?
Newspaper editors, especially those who’d initially supported our invasion of Iraq, spilled endless ink exposing and promoting the story, and my attempts at fictionalizing the matter quickly ran up against my sense that I was belaboring the obvious. The photograph itself was an editorial judgment. What was the point of piling on?
Over the years, both friends and strangers have asked me why I so often write, with apparent sympathy, about deeply troubled and not especially relatable figures. The question never ceases to surprise, for several reasons. First, the notion of “relatability” as a criterion for evaluating work puzzles me. I’ve experienced the delight of melding with fictional characters whose life experiences had nothing to do with mine countless times. I’ve worried with Mrs. Dalloway about her party, fretted alongside Zoe over Franny’s breakdown, raged at the racists with Baldwin, and stalked the hungry streets of Oslo with Hamsun’s raving scribbler. I’ve wakened with a hangover alongside Cheever’s lost souls, killed with Raskolnikov, wept with boredom alongside Emma Bovary, preened with Bellow’s Charlie Citrine, fulminated companionably with Beckett’s and Bernhard’s misanthropes, suffered in sympathetic silence with Jelinek’s women, and rooted for Jay Gatsby as though he were a neighbor. I’ve lived in Marquez’ Macondo and Joyce’s Dublin and Morrison’s Harlem and Stroud’s Maine.
None of the people I encountered in these novels were saints. More than a few were downright unpleasant. Relatability was never a criterion: sometimes I empathized, but as often I was appalled. At the same time, because nothing human (more or less), is alien to me, I’ve felt my understanding enlarged by fiction whose charge isn’t to soothe readers by providing exemplary characters as “models for emulation” but rather to quicken them to a heightened awareness of the imagination’s, and by extension life’s, vast range, and so bring us closer to reality. Fiction should use its singular devices to disillusion us, lest we be deceived by placebos and lies. The best fiction tells lies that lie deeper than truth. Indeed, disillusionment is one hugely positive side effect that arises from reading the very best fiction.The uncritical repetition of half-truths by the press only reinforced my faith in the medium of fiction as the most honest investigative tool available to us.
But there’s more to my impulse to probe the hearts and minds of some pretty difficult characters. In part, they are my subjects because I believe one of fiction’s great resources is the way it allows writers to prospect theories of causality, another word for which is karma.
My interest in the way humans are affected by extreme stressors is rooted in family history. But where psychologists hunt patterns of behavior that induce, or are or induced by, trauma, fiction must skirt generalizations; therein lies its genius. Fiction’s close studies of individual cases can’t be squeezed for dogmas or rules because the guild of fiction writers recognizes that another character experiencing the same thing might react entirely differently. It’s this recognition that has led some fiction writers I know to doubt the whole idea of causality—after all, we are besieged by influences at all levels and at every moment. You might say all of human history accompanies our every move. Even the most ambitious fictions narrow the scope of their investigations for the sake of narrative coherence.
Several decades ago I took part in a panel, sponsored by PEN-New England and held at Radcliffe, alongside two other writers. Poet Peter Balakian spoke about the Armenian genocide and how its aftershocks continued to haunt the community; novelist Marcie Hershman addressed the lingering devastation of the Holocaust; and I raised the matter of the Ukrainian famine, known within the community as the Holodomor (which essentially means a “forced famine.”) As this was decades before Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Applebaum’s essential study of the matter, Red Famine, this was likely the first time most people in the audience had heard of a tragedy that led to the deaths of at least 3 million Ukrainians between 1931 and 1933. And that’s a conservative estimate. When it came time for the Q&A, a gentleman from the audience, his voice choking with emotion, asked me how I felt about the fact that “my people” were murdering “his people” during the Holocaust.
I was, in short, facing a hostile audience.
At the same time, I was aware of my own immediate family history. My grandfather, a Ukrainian high school teacher in Peremyshl, Poland, had chosen to risk the lives of the three children living with him in order to hide a Jewish couple who had once been his students and who had fled the ghetto by hiding on a wagonload of corpses and pretending to be dead. One uncle had already been arrested and exiled to Siberia. My aunt, now 85, was seven at the time. She still recalls being told she could never mention the Shefflers’ presence in their apartment. The couple lived there nine months, in a secret room in the pantry her older brother hastily built for them, before my aunt and her family were forced to flee for their lives. The Shefflers, meanwhile, remained behind in the apartment and eventually made it safely to Palestine. During those months at 7 Tarnawska, the child was reminded daily never to speak of the “guests” to her classmates at school. My aunt, who eventually became a librarian at Johns Hopkins University, attributes her taciturn personality to that early experience.
What happened at the PEN panel was repeated in countless other contexts over decades, teaching me how it felt to be pre-judged based on a generalization about the behavior of others with whom one might share a history. It was a valuable, indelible lesson in the meaning of prejudice.
Newspapers and media were particularly given to certain broad generalizations—some of which have modulated over the years. The uncritical repetition of half-truths by the press only reinforced my faith in the medium of fiction as the most honest investigative tool available to us because of all it does not claim for itself, as well as for the freedoms the genre grants. Fiction invites the writer to present an argument about causality. The only mysteries we’re left with after finishing a novel are ones the writer has deliberately chosen not to resolve. Madame Bovary’s suicide does not come as a shock; we know why Anna Karenina stepped in front of that train, no matter how much we hoped she would not.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote pointedly about the need for a total reset, a purging of the collective human memory. She was looking at the big picture—at the 20th century’s wars and feuds, the endless tribal struggles for dominance that pass for “history.” The sources of resentment and the hunger for revenge were easily understandable but had either ever proven effective? Had revenge on a national scale ever led to peace? What we needed, she proposed half-facetiously and half-longingly, was a pill that would allow us to forget and start fresh, to approach each other without the baggage we’ve gathered over millennia.
I remember sitting in Sontag’s Chelsea kitchen with my wife discussing the matter. Given such a magic pill was unlikely to appear, we were better off remembering but forgiving, I argued. Forgetting was both impossible and would anyway have been a mistake. Contrary to her fearsome reputation, I found Sontag remarkably open to other opinions.
For my generation James Wright was one of the essential American poets. The devastating final line of Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”—“I have wasted my life”—was quoted as often as Rilke’s “For there is no place that does not see you. / You must change your life,” which it clearly echoed. Wright’s gift for capturing moments of existential doubt were evident early on. The titular poem from his second book, Saint Judas, is surely one of the finest sonnets by any poet of his generation:
When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.
In the moment of self-forgetting and letting go—“I forgot / My name, my number, how my day began”—Judas experiences the liberation that comes with selflessness. He asks no questions of the beaten man, and for a second he loses the feeling of guilt which will subsequently drive him to hang himself. For a brief moment, the arch-villain of the Western world becomes a complicated human.
“The spirit of forgiveness must never outweigh the interests of power,” wrote Napoleon Bonaparte. And the remark certainly makes sense for someone aspiring to rule the world. These days, however, his motto appears to have near-universal acceptance even among those who elsewhere pay lip service to the importance of mercy, charity, and love.
Here’s the rub, as Napoleon himself discovered while languishing on the island of St. Helena: power is never a fixed entity. Dynamic by nature, it is mobile as a wave, forever fluid and mercurial. No one owns it—neither the billionaire with judges in his pocket nor the beggar with Jesus and the gospels at his back. The kingdom of God indeed lies within, but the kingdom of man is everywhere present without. When the victim of a pickpocket reports the crime to the police and the police apprehend the thief, the locus of power shifts to the former victim.
In theory we call that justice: a power greater than the perpetrator’s now puts him in his place. But when the judge, a human being as subjective as the rest of us, metes out a particularly harsh sentence, citing, say, a “three strikes” clause in the law, we might be tempted to call it “an abuse of power.”
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy to abuse power, which all too often controls those who think they’ve mastered it.
The word power comes into our language via the Old French word “poeir” which itself stems from the Latin “posse,” meaning “to be able.” One can trace it further back to its Proto-Indo-European root, “poti,” signifying “lord,” as in “lord and master.” The word “lord,” meanwhile, leads us via Old English to a word meaning “bread keeper,” a reference to a tribal leader’s responsibility for sustaining his charges. A lord unable to feed his people did not stay in power for very long.
Power, then, has from the start described a polyvalent and unstable set of relationships. The rich and mighty may claim a certain kind of power over the poor, but by shifting the arena of struggle through a redefinition of values, it is indeed possible for the last to be counted first. Most notions of transcendence, from Christian ideas of heaven to Buddhists’ belief in karma to philosophers’ vacillating views on what constitutes justice, all signal our attempts to reclaim a sense of agency. Thus, when a Tibetan monk tortured by a Chinese prison guard claims not to hold the torturer’s behavior against him, he strips the guard of his power, at least in the way the guard understands the term. Arguably, the ultimate power lies with those whose imagination is rich enough to enable them to love their enemies and tell their own story the way they see it, with themselves as the victors.
Spooky Action at a Distance is how Einstein described the behavior of electrons appearing to communicate with each other faster than the speed of light, which, theoretically, ought to be impossible. But the very idea of impossibility is merely the language we use to describe the limits of what we know today. As the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics suggests, the complex mathematical formulae used to describe the behavior of quanta are not themselves reality—ultimately, they can do no more than reflect the states of mind of the observers whose descriptive resources are bounded by their ignorance. Tomorrow we may know more. Anyway, the issue remains debatable—eminent physicist Sir Roger Penrose remains unhappy with the subjectivity of the Copenhagen formulation.
I bring this up to call attention to the hazards of facile judgments and easy conclusions to which I myself am easily prone.
On September 12, 2001, I was sitting in the Friends Meeting house in Cambridge listening to a Tibetan Buddhist monk say that we must now direct our prayers to the men who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, because they were the ones who needed our help. A thunderous silence filled the room. Geshe Tsulga spent the next two hours reminding us how radical a spiritually-oriented vision of life really is. I remember hoping the monk did not propound this view too loudly before his neighbors in Somerville.It’s imagination that allowed them to empathize with those who harmed them. To do this, they needed to imagine themselves as their torturers.
At the same time, I understood what he meant. Over the years, listening to Tibetans who’d been tortured by Chinese jailers speak about their experience, I’ve been struck by their tone. It persuaded me they held no grudge or anger against their torturers—even as they prayed that China would allow Tibetans to go their own way. It is not often one meets people who have not merely theorized but have actually turned the other cheek.
To me, their gentleness and calm underscored the power of the imagination. It’s imagination that allowed them to empathize with those who harmed them. To do this, they needed to imagine themselves as their torturers; not as they appeared in the moment of inflicting pain, but rather in their full human dimension as once-vulnerable infants nursed by loving mothers, children playing with other five-year olds, students and lovers, or even devoted parents whom circumstances had somehow placed in this extreme and terrible position of feeling they had no choice but to hurt another human being.
Over time, as my imagination played across the photograph of the young woman in military uniform standing over a naked man in a black hood with a leash around his neck, the reality receded. Gradually I began letting go of what I knew, which freed me to feel my way into what I still wanted to know. And what I wanted to know was how this young woman—now I’m thinking of my character, and not the person in the photograph—how she might yet be redeemed for us.
As I imagined her family and home life, I tried consciously to avoid the clichés and stereotypes that surfaced. What if her mother had been a good and loving person who nevertheless had, like all of us, misjudged something about herself? What might she have misunderstood? And so, slowly, the story evolved.
After reading Zola’s J’accuse, Chekhov responded to the Dreyfus affair somewhat differently. While siding with Dreyfus against the anti-Semites, Chekhov said that in any case it didn’t matter whether Dreyfus was guilty or innocent because “It is not the business of writers to accuse or prosecute, but to take the part of guilty men once they have been condemned and are undergoing punishment.”
The Man Who Would Not Bow by Askold Melnyczuk is available now from Grand Iota Books.