During a university course on the roots and manifestations of anti-Semitism, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel. Peculiarly, it’s less the book itself I remember, than something startling that happened while I was reading it. Being blind, I get my reading material in audio. At that time, the most efficient way for me to have access to the book was to have it recorded by a small, local volunteer organization. It’s a difficult book to read. It’s an account of the author’s experience as a Jewish child in Nazi occupied Europe.
What sticks in my memory is a part in the book when the author describes a forced march in winter, to what was likely to be certain death. His father is ailing, flagging, and devastated by grief. Unable to keep up, he is beaten by the Nazi guard. The child is so overwhelmed with terror that all he can feel is anger toward his father for attracting attention.
Audio book readers are smooth, and the production is edited to produce a polished result. During this passage however, the reader was overcome, and her voice broke with grief, pain and the beginning of sobs. The producers of the recording had clearly chosen not to edit out this ineffably human reaction. Instead, they stopped the recording, there was a pause, and then the story was resumed in the reader’s usual neutral tone. Maybe a larger, slicker organization would have made a different editorial choice, but I’ve never forgotten the grief and pain in her voice: such a deeply personal reaction in a context where I was used to consistent impersonality. I think it would be like reading a painful passage in a book, and seeing the page blotched with the marks of tears; it’s an incongruous and unlikely thing that you just don’t expect, and never encounter.
The editorial choice was a tacit acknowledgment of the depth of cruelty and suffering being described by the author. “We must all share and recognize this knowledge,” it seemed to say, “And it would be wrong to hide its effects, no matter the context.” This, I suppose, is why we tell painful and difficult stories. I didn’t like reading that book, and except that it was required for a course, I probably wouldn’t have.
Recently, a friend told me she had watched the film Twelve Years a Slave. She talked about how difficult it had been to watch so much cruelty, and we wondered together about it. Is there some way in which we’re obligated not to turn fastidiously away from the most brutal face of our species? Is it disrespectful to those who have suffered, for us to say, “That’s too intense for me, I won’t watch it, I won’t read about it,”?
I’ve always thought that Amistad must be an incredible story, but I know I’ll never watch the film; it would be too disturbing. I tried to sit through The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile with friends who wanted to watch them, but thankfully we weren’t in a theatre, and I was free to leave the room periodically, which I did: and the less said about by one experience of reading a Steven King novel the better.
Am I a coward? Maybe. I’d very much like someone to answer that question who has endured the sorts of things that terrify me. Fortunately, I don’t know anyone who has suffered such cruelty, at least I don’t think I do. Is it a moral obligation to tour a concentration camp or read about Pol Pot and Idi Amin? As a citizen of a relatively peaceful and safe country, I have the luxury of averting my attention from such things. I’m thin-skinned; I know it. Others can take in those sorts of things without being decimated by them. I can’t, and that’s just how it is. If I am a coward, I own it.
During the trials of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, it was extremely difficult, nearly impossible to remain ignorant of horrific facts. I clearly remember standing in a drug store, fingers in my ears to block out the radio news, determined that the media, and people’s baser instincts would not force me to know things about dead young women that no one should know. People wanted to tell me, they somehow needed to share these terrifying things, but I refused to hear. If that makes me seem childish or squeamish, I’m ok with that.
I often raise questions in this blog because I know I don’t have answers to them. In this case, I do have an answer: a highly subjective one that applies only to me. I think that, as a mature person who’s read enough, I know in theory the depths of cruelty to which it’s possible for humans to sink. I count my blessings every day for my safe and simple little life, and I’ve decided not to feel morally obligated to take in things that will give me nightmares.