Writing Horrible Things, Part III

Posted by on Apr 25, 2012 | 3 comments

Hang on. This is a long one, the final of three posts about my book, The Devil’s Child.  Or, it’s really about writing about horrible, terrible, evil things, things so awful that there’s no way to write about them, but if we turn away, split away from even part of what’s true, we’re lost. I’ve thought about this a lot.

If you are the character Barbara in these poems, who’s split away into multiple personalities to save herself—and then when you actually do split away by having a child,  you have to inoculate the child. A terrifying moment for me is when Barbara’s father comes to her house after the birth of Angel, her daughter, obviously intending to begin doing the same awful things to Angel he had done to Barbara.  In this way, the way she saw it, he would “own” Angel, her child. This scene where Barbara abuses her own child calls on her self-knowledge and courage far more than some of the more graphic scenes of violence.  Earlier, she has no choices.  I think this later episode is an amazing act of love—awesome, actually. People do things like this. I heard recently of an Afghani woman who regularly burns herself and her children with cigarettes, to toughen them all up for the inevitable torture if they are captured.

People do things like this. I do indeed believe Barbara’s story—I saw her face.  I put no details into her poems that she did not relate to me.  In one way, of course, it doesn’t matter to the poems. Is Frost’s “Hill Wife” a real person?  Is Silas in “The Death of the Hired Man”?  Who cares?  But the reader must believe that their stories did happen, somewhere, that their words were indeed spoken, if not in the place and the way Frost invented them.  Metaphor must rise out of concrete truth.  So, I think we must believe Barbara’s story.  It is as true as the Holocaust, as true as Iraq, Palestine, and Afganistan, and to call it a literal fiction but a psychological truth would be one more abuse, one more willful choice to stay unconscious.  Sure, some people imagine abuses that didn’t happen to them.  Sometimes they’re coerced by their therapists to do that.  Politicians stretch the truth to a lie sometimes. The truth is not invalidated because some people lie.

Neither is the truth invalidated because the setting is fictionalized. The conversation between Suzanna and Barbara takes place in a Catholic Church in a snowstorm. I did have some thought of having Suzanna be a therapist, and locating the telling of the story in a therapist’s office, but I quickly abandoned it.  Therapy has elements of poetry in it, I think—the non-linear exploration of image, of simultaneous images, the dissolving of narratives into their component parts—but as we all know, therapy is not poetry.  Poetry is brutally interested in art, at the expense of a certain other kind of truth.  Suzanna and Father Andrew each have an art form available—poetry and liturgy—to shape Barbara’s story. Art is free to tell a truth that cuts through explanations, a truth that, at the point of composition, ignores its audience.

In a therapy group, a person is exploring, finding out about herself, using the therapist as a mirror.  But in the everyday world, she has to “explain,” to justify herself to the world, and to warn.  That alters the tone, gives it an edge.  Frankly, no one cares about the details of how trauma is resolved in therapy.  What we are passionately interested in—at least I am—is how Barbara tries to fit her knowledge of her alternate world into the world we all know.  We all have alternate worlds—our darker selves, our secret selves—and we’re all trying to figure out how the two worlds need to speak to each other. So-called confessional poetry is stuck in the 50-minute therapy session; the poetry we hope for mediates between worlds.

I put them in the church, with the snowstorm.  Cold and entrapment. I guess Hell is supposed to be hot—all that compression in the center of the earth—but it seems more cold to me.  Suzanna wonders in one poem—”I don’t know if evil is absence or presence.”  I vote with Charles Williams, who wrote that amazing novel, Descent into Hell, in the 1940’s.  He depicts Hell as absence—cold, streets bare as a snow-swept plain.  I would describe Hell as lack of awareness, of mindfulness.  If you aren’t aware of the other person as a real person like you, warm and breathing, with a body and feelings like you, you can do unspeakable things to her.  And you’re alone.

How does a person confront such such pain—indeed, such evil—and write it? How do our journalists in Iraq do it?  I can think of only two ways to deal with negative material:  you can turn away from it or turn toward it.  If you tense up and turn away, you remain trapped in reaction.  But if you turn toward it, skillfully, without embracing it, if you study your body’s and mind’s responses as if you were their photographer or journalist, then eventually, what has appeared to be a solid mass of fear, horror, sadness, or whatever, turns out to be atoms of separate sensations.  The pain loses its potency. Good is still good, evil is still evil, but deep on the inside, they’re both teeming simple energies, with no negative or positive charge.  I think this is the way of all art—it looks so closely and obsessively that its subjects no longer register with us as positive or negative.  They just are. All energy.

I came to Barbara’s story in the wake of my own therapy.  As D. H. Lawrence said, “We shed our sicknesses in books.”  In a way, I had to get through her much-magnified pain, too.  I had all these massive notes assembled.  I wrote the first draft of a fair number of her poems pretty much one a day for fourteen or fifteen days.  Sometimes I cried.  Sometimes I got scared and had to call a friend—I felt that I needed help against the sheer evil. All the time, mercifully, the third eye (the journalist, the photographer, the poet) was watching and organizing.

 I did say “sheer evil.” We throw the word around. George W. Bush uses it a lot. Regan used it. The minute we differentiate good, there is its opposite, evil.  That’s what Father Andrew says in his first poem: “There’s some snare/ in this bringing forth, a backside/ to worry about.” Suzanna says in one poem, “I have not believed in evil. This happened, that// resulted.”  Our sense of control over our world comes from believing that things have logical results.  Beat a kid, the kid will grow up to be mean.  But as I got way down into Barbara’s story, I was really feeling it, and I thought, there’s more to it than this.  This meanness has gotten out of hand. It’s a whirlwind—no longer just cause-effect.  It’s a terrorist attack—at some point, people get lost in the mass impulse.   They lose their minds.  They’re functioning at the level of the reptile brain.  You can’t reason with a lizard.

Many people have written about evil, From Augustine to M. Scott Peck.  Peck is strongly influenced by Buddhism, which sees evil as unconsciousness. You only harm people you aren’t quite aware of as being as real as you are.  If you stereotype them, if you blind yourself to their humanity, you can be brutal.  In my own life, I’ve seen the worst harm done by people who blunder along unconsciously like bulls in a china closet, hurting people right and left.  Then they look up and grin like Alfred E. Newman and say “Who, me?”  They really don’t know.  In the case of the cult, they did know, but they didn’t care, because their victims weren’t real to them.

But Barbara must have been real, to some extent, to her own father.  What could have motivated him to do the things he did to her? I see him as a psychopath, like Jeffrey Dahmer.  A psychopath has fallen over the edge of human feeling into the realm of no return. He has no feeling for others.  He’s driven by a desire for power, for control, but not because he needs other people’s approbation or love.  He has no real connection with others at all.  Her mother, too—this is what Barbara says about her mother after she watches her almost drown her sister:

The only word I know to tell you
what my mother’s face looked like
is lust, like all the power in the world
wouldn’t be enough to make her sure
she was alive. She took up the whole
living room, and I had to stand
inside her like a couch, or chair.

The others in the cult?  Who knows?  Weak, sick people can be led by a psychopath.  One can be an unbelievably strong leader if one has no remorse.  There’s no indecision.

Yet, against tremendous odds, Barbara clearly moved toward redemption and healing. How is it that a life—or a country, a people—can begin to be filled with good instead of evil?  Or is redemption as inexplicable as damnation? Since I can only list a few of Barbara’s possible advantages (the nuns, her own personal strength, etc) I would like to concentrate on the “how”—the progress—of her redemption, as a way to think about redemption in general.

Cause is a plot-issue, by definition.  In Suzanna’s words, “This happens, that resulted.”  But poems don’t want to think that way. Even if they roil around with great energy, they tend to want to stay in one place and look around.  And they don’t like exposition.  They sigh and shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh, all right, if I have to.” Narrative poem sequences, like people’s lives, move forward against great odds.

There are Browning’s dramatic monologues to look to, especially “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea Del Sarto,” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb,” each for the particular way it advances the action within the narrative. One of the books I pored over when I was thinking how to do The Devil’s Child was Robert Penn Warren’s Brother to Dragons.  In that series, Thomas Jefferson is speaking to R.P.W. There is a plot—we’re finding out about the past—and its consequences, but Penn Warren calls the setting of the series “no place” and the time “any time.”  I liked the way the words of the characters stand alone, outside an immediate plot, yet the old plot unfolds in the telling, very excitingly, in bits and pieces.

We act essentially alone. I don’t think we can really “save” each other. I imagined my three characters on a dark, empty stage.  The spotlight shines on each one as she (or he) speaks. They do soliloquies.  It is as if they respond to each other at the subconscious level.  You know Barbara’s telling her story, separately, to Suzanna the writer and Father Andrew, but the drama of that isn’t in the poems.  I wanted to surround the spoken details of suffering with the silence of—what shall I call it?  Respect, maybe.

Father Andrew can’t save Barbara.  Suzanna can’t save her.  But they can listen and protect each other’s tendency toward the light.  As Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, “love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”  When she’s finally able to speak, Barbara only needs to be heard, really heard, by these two people.  Oh yes, she needs lots of therapy, too, but that’s outside the poems.  You know she’s strong.  She’s a determined, oldest child.  She’s been strong enough to hide her soul in her wrist.

So I thought, what would it mean, to show Barbara’s—or anyone’s—”salvation”?  How would that be dramatized?  Barbara had her own way of dramatizing it—highly visual—a place under her ribs turning like a compass, God speaking to her through a Pat Benetar song on her car radio.  I used her own signs for the inexplicable. So do we all.

Many wonderful poets have written poems of darkness, sex and/or violence.  There are Olds, Sexton, Plath, Snodgrass, to start with.  There’s Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares; there’s Dante’s Inferno, for that matter.  And so on.  In my poems, the POINT of Barbara’s story is its explicitness.  There isn’t a lot of mediation.  Barbara’s voice is relatively naive; all she knows to do is describe.  There’s not much except the structure of the poem to hold the reader back from those dark places. And yet, in the entire book, there’s not one “bad” word. When Barbara herself described the events, she did so with modesty and restraint, almost as if she didn’t want to shock anyone.  She doesn’t curse.  I suspect she connects cursing with all that she feared and hated.  I told the story the way she gave it to me. Crude language, oddly, diminishes the power of such a story—it removes it from us—”Oh, people who talk like that can do horrible things, but not here, where the nice people live!”

Barbara’s narrative voice is spare, forward moving. But sometimes the language is slowed and heightened.  There were some occasions—here, for instance, when she becomes a kind of spokesperson for the Malevolent.  The other Barbara is eclipsed.  And actually, there were times —when her narrative became most intense—that I felt her own language become “poetic,” slow and rise above itself. We think of a voice that has the leisure to make metaphor as more “poetic” than the voice that drives a narrative forward

What’s up and what’s down? Does the human spirit live in the cerebral cortex?  In the amygdala?  Are the images we see in front of our eyes more “real” than the ones on TV, in movies, in our dreams?  We tend to write the narratives of our lives following the lines of the stories we’ve been given—Biblical or otherwise. To write a new story requires intense attention to what’s right in front of us. It requires non-attachment (which is not the same as detachment). To write a new story requires that we see exactly what’s there, as much as possible without our prejudices and politics.

The stories Suzanna’s been given, hence, her language, is that of movies, science, books she’s read. She tries to fit Barbara’s story into that context.  Father Andrew tries to fit Barbara’s story into the Biblical story he lives by.  Neither fully succeeds.  And Barbara’s personality divides until she herself doesn’t know who the “real” Barbara is.  When she begins to integrate it again, it’s impossible to forget the separate atoms it’s made of, so we can never again think of the word “Barbara” as a solid mass.  Reality is like this, I think.  The closer we look, the more we see that reality—in the way we used to think of it—isn’t there.

Then we put it back together again. We close the book and know it as a whole and identifiable object, a book of poems or a movie, or a documentary. We pass judgment. Some books and some people are bad. We decide what to do about that. We take action. But in our action, if we’re wise, we know the still, non-attached and non-narrative point where good and bad sleep together, one on each side of the same bed, stuck in a marriage neither could live without.














  1. Well, Fleda, I did read it. The Devil’s Child and your posts about writing the book. I’ve been thinking about the wrist, the narrow fulcrum of that space in us, so close to our hands, which are themselves the source of so much good or evil…A perfect place to store a soul…There’s something about your having been able to hold still with this subject long enough to craft it into art that lifts Barbara’s story up from simple telling into the current that’s moving toward healing. Witnessing does participate in healing, don’t you think?
    Anyway, it’s a stunning book. Hard to read, you were right about that, but it walks forward so carefully. *Thank you* doesn’t sound like quite the right thing to say, but, thank you.

    • I wrote this for people like you, I think. You need some artistic distance. Or not. Not sure. But thanks, Catherine.

  2. Fleda,
    I commend you on your courage in lifting this taboo subject, denied and disbelieved by so many, into the light. Barbara’s experiences are not unique. There are such cults everywhere, and more survivors, both aware and unaware, than one would care to know. Blessings on your continuing journey of gifting us with your wit, wisdom, perspective, and brilliant poetry.

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