Thursday, March 29, 2018

When False is Sort of True

Zestful Blog Post #257

I’ve always had a morbid curiosity about unusual crimes, from the JFK assassination to the Manson murders to the two Teds (Bundy and Kaczynski) to OJ, on and on. This fits into my obsession with “Why do people do what they do?” Which fits into my obsession with writing with as much truth and authenticity as possible. One crime that’s gotten revived lately is the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan affair from 1994, due to the award-winning biopic “I, Tonya.” The picture came out last fall, in time to be discussed in the run-up to this year’s winter Olympics. Having been fascinated by the crime as it unfolded in real life, I made a point to see the movie, which I found fascinating as well.

I mean, what a story! Redneck skating champion wearing too many sequins and acting too athletic, dissed by the girls-gotta-be-pretty skating establishment, prompts an attack on her rival, the dazzling dream girl in the white lace dress. We have the sleazy boyfriend, the thug with the police baton, the semiliterate bodyguard, and the giant stage of the top athletic competition in the world. We have the bar owner who checks her dumpster for unauthorized trash and finds incriminating notes in redneck skater’s handwriting. I mean, my God. I was riveted to every report, having long been a fan of Olympic figure skating (ref. Zestful posts 158 and 252). It was especially thrilling to me that the attack occurred in my home zone of Detroit, in Cobo Arena. I still remember that Shane Stant was reported to have stayed in the Super 8 motel on Middlebelt Road next to Detroit Metro Airport, mere yards away from the impact point of Northwest Airlines flight 255, which crashed in 1987, killing all aboard but one little girl. Another compelling story, albeit not a criminal one.

The other day I read an amazingly sensitive profile on Tonya written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the January 10, 2018 New York Times.

[Bronze sculpture by Abestenia Saint Leger Eberle (American, Webster City, Iowa 1878–1942 New York), 1906. It’s a public-domain image; what can I say?]

The writer sat down with Tonya and took her seriously, and got a whole lot of the inner Tonya that no one had gotten before. So many lessons here:

A caricature is not a person.
All you have to do is listen with some measure of respect and yes, compassion.
People want to tell their story, but only if they feel they’re not being judged.
My truth may not mesh with your truth.

Here is a quote from near the end of the article:
“A lot of what she said wasn’t true. She contradicted herself endlessly. But she reminded me of other people I’ve known who have survived trauma and abuse, and who tell their stories again and again to explain what happened to them but also to process it themselves. The things she said that were false—they were spiritually true, meaning they made her point, and she seemed to believe them.”

Isn’t spiritual truth a great term? This is something we as writers need to keep handy. We create characters, and they need to seem real. Nobody acts logically all the time; nobody thinks every single thing through before they do it. Nobody can see the big picture all the time. The big picture for Tonya was, she was surrounded by goons, and goons can’t do anything right, and they can’t keep their mouths shut. All this is apart from right vs. wrong. Everybody has their spiritual truth. And pretty much everybody, from the three-year-old who steals a cookie to the investment banker who builds a Ponzi scheme to the serial killer who stalks and slaughters as often as possible, feels their behavior is justified, at least at first. Self-justification is a big deal to us humans. We do things, and we want those things to be right. We want to be seen by others as being, always, somehow, in the right. Sometimes we are.

It’s easy and fun to paint somebody with one simple stupid color. But it’s not the best we can do. I’m not saying perps ought to get a free pass if they’ve had a shitty life. But letting them talk helps us understand them. So, keep letting your characters talk to you. Make them sit down over a beer or coffee and talk to you. Remember the idea of spiritual truth. Good guys, bad guys. Make them tell you their stories, from the beginning. Don’t judge them. That’s the job of your readers. When we understand, we can create something authentic, nuanced, compelling—and zestful.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks, Beej. I keep especially thinking about the 'processing it' part.

  2. Interesting post. You're absolutely right about needing to be aware of our characters' complexity ... none of us are irredeemably black or white and neither should our characters be.

  3. If you would, PLEASE read 'I, Nauseated' published in The Oregonian on January 27, 2018. It's a review of 'I, Tonya' written by J. E. Vader, a sports reporter who knew Ms. Harding well. Vader began covering Harding's career from the start and now presents evidence that Harding was disappointed when Kerrigan wasn't hurt worse than she was. The movie apparently doesn't offer an "amazingly sensitive profile" on Nancy Kerrigan, the true victim in this scenario.
    But, hey, ending on a positive note: I bought 'You've Got a Book in You' and am so glad I did. The title alone makes my heart expand. Thanks for providing writers with such a wonderful resource.

    1. Absolutely Nancy was the victim in the story. I've often wondered if she suffered PTSD from the attack. Weirdly to me, she too has been mocked in pop culture (the clip of her crying "Why, why?" has become a meme, just like the clip of Tonya crying to the judges over her propped-up skate). I just read Vader's piece; THANK YOU for telling us about it!! It's a well-written, refreshing gust against Tonya's current popularity. I have no trouble believing Tonya was dismayed that Nancy wasn't hurt enough to take her out of the Olympics, and no trouble believing that Tonya was way more in on the plot than the film showed. After all, she phoned the arena in Massachusetts to find out exactly when Nancy practiced, which doesn't square at all with the claim that they were just going to send 'threatening letters.' The film slip-slid around all that. And right, the character of Nancy was barely in the movie, let alone shown in any depth. My post here about the article by Brodesser-Akner was no celebration of or excuse-fest for Tonya. What I discovered reading it was that even a person who has been widely considered to be scum, and even seems not in touch with reality, has a story that can be compelling, and there's a lesson in there for authors. In a sense, Tonya's real story is the way she feels she must explain 'her side' of things over and over, and the article reminded me that people like her are trying to explain things to themselves as much as to anyone else who will listen. Maybe even moreso to themselves. I have a theory that there's some kind of atavistic belief that if they explain it properly, and enough times, the facts will somehow change to fit. These things fascinate the hell out of me. Thank you for joining the discussion! I'm glad you're finding YGABIY worthwhile, and I hope you'll keep us posted on your work, OK?

    2. Wow, I didn't realize that was such a mega-graph until I hit 'publish.'

  4. Thanks for the reply! I'm so glad I found this blog. The tone of YGABIY is so generous. Every paragraph makes me put the book down to write - it gives me that much courage!
    The Tonya/Nancy story has always disturbed me because it seems to vindicate a "blame the victim" mentality and my activism is just as important as writing to me; I advocate for survivors of abuse. I ditched a relative years ago after telling him the childhood abuse I experienced has made it very challenging figuring out what kind of person I want to be. He told me to 'stop playing the victim' and if I wanted success in life, I should put it all behind me. I said these things happened to me, I'm not 'playing' and I'm going to write about our family whether he likes it or not. I'm comfortably housed now but I experienced a spate of homelessness due to PTSD. I took a poll at the shelter I was in, asking who if anyone experienced childhood sex abuse. I knew there'd be some but it turned out most of the 60 women in the shelter had been sexually abused growing up. That's something I want to explore in the memoir I'm working on, because it's not just my story. There's a direct correlation between childhood sex abuse and homelessness - then we blame the survivors for their destitution. In Portland we have a huge housing crisis, yet I have repeatedly seen/heard people laughing at the poor folks pushing carts and mocking them mercilessly. So, it shouldn't surprise me that movie-goers would find it funny that a champion skater got clubbed in the leg.

  5. Oops, guess your mega-graph opened the door to my mega-graph!

    1. I admire your persistence in dealing with your past and helping others deal with their trauma and abuse. Yeah, in my own research I've learned that most people who are homeless are survivors of abuse and/or just plain shitty/neglectful parenting, which of course often leads to addiction (self-medicating) and also mental illness in way too many cases. It's not an easily soluble problem, and I applaud everyone who works in that area. In some local journalism I've done, I've found that private nonprofits, including churches, provide services and resources more efficiently and compassionately than government bureaucracy, which is often so inept and wasteful, not to mention politicized. Not to say we should give up on government's role.


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