“There’s a fine line between turning human experiences into fiction,” author Philip Baruth writes,”and taking advantage of human suffering for art.” Baruth is a Vermont college professor, state senator, and author of The Boswell Brothers (Soho), an historical thriller. His novel is largely told in the voice of James Boswell’s younger brother John, who has recently been released from an asylum for the insane, and who carries a pair of tiny pistols that each fire a single golden bullet. John is stalking his brother, who in turn is “stalking” the great 18th-century author Samuel Johnson, in order to record his every word and deed.
In Boswell’s case, the somewhat solipsistic Johnson didn’t seem to mind being followed, any more than most of us object to being interviewed. Like that long ago ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem who is compelled to tell his tale of woe to anyone who will listen, we blurt out our tales of suffering and feel better for the telling–a sort of catharsis.
But does that make it all right for us, as writers, to use someone else’s traumatic story in our books? Only recently Vermont mystery writer Archer Mayor made his annual trip to our local bookstore with Three Can Keep a Secret, in which he describes the havoc that Tropical Storm Irene made in our fair state, and how its flooding waters opened up decades-old mysteries. In Mayor’s mystery, Waterbury State Hospital closes (as it did in real life) during the flooding, and a wrongly hospitalized mental patient escapes. Then a grave in a nearby cemetery washes out and a casket breaks open, revealing only a pile of rocks. Mayor wanted to “pay homage to the disaster that hit Rochester, Vt,” he said, where some fifty graves washed into the White River during the storm. Yet he changed his locale to avoid emotional trauma to any affected readers.
But when the book came out, a state Republican rep, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill, objected strongly to the premise that a person could have been wrongly hospitalized at the state hospital for decades. “Having no other symptoms that an independent psychiatrist wouldn’t recognize,” she maintained, “is playing to a kind of public assumption that just doesn’t exist anymore.”
Mayor’s response to the above was that he wasn’t indicting Vermont’s mental health system, he was merely using a “specialized circumstance. ..I’ll guarantee you in every single book I’ve ever written there have been people who objected to it,” he told a reporter. “It is not, as I see it, the job of the writer of fiction to be held responsible for every single individual’s advocacy. You simply can’t do it.”
Reading about this incident, I recalled with a measure of guilt my own middle grade mystery, The Pea Soup Poisonings, in which my two young sleuths steal into that same hospital to help an elderly aunt, wrongly admitted, and in a highly emotional state of mind–to escape. Fortunately for me, that Republican rep had not read my kids’ novel. But was I exploiting something here? What about the two fictional inmates in my book who shared a room with the kidnapped aunt and wanted to be freed as well? Was I using their angst for the sake of suspense and a touch of humor in my novel? The fact that my book won an Agatha only increased my sense of trespass.
For my mystery Stolen Honey I interviewed an Abenaki woman whose family had been caused enormous anguish during the horrid 1930’s Eugenic Project, in which gypsies, Abenaki Indians, poor French-Canadians and other so-called “degenerate” persons, many of them simply semi-illiterate folks, were rounded up and sterilized. I told that woman’s story–though I told it slant. Even so, was it an exploitation?
We writers deal with traumatic events every day in our personal lives, as well as in the lives of others. And like Coleridge’s ancient mariner and Samuel Johnson’s shadow Boswell, we feel compelled to record them. “Society as a whole does what individual artists do,” Baruth says: “they use (my italics) stories. They use fiction.”
Does that really make it all right?
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