We were out with a friend the other day and the subject of depression came up. Many of my closest friends are depressed and on meds. Hell, the water is full of antidepressants these days, which is something that terrifies me (as it should anyone hoping to hold onto their slim edge of pharma-free sanity and anyone with small children). And what we came up with is that it’s almost impossible not to be depressed in these days of overwork and social isolation. I know, I know: it’s not the gold old days, it’s the bad new ones. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t grow up in a friendly, tight-knit community, a fact which I attribute to my parents’ social retardation (and which is directly traceable to each of them growing up motherless or alternatively mothered in the fifties), but seriously: our accountability to each other as a community is the only thing that keeps us from going off the deep end, and that’s why almost any community is better than none, and it seems that the cars and commutes and Internets that occupy our time, plus the heavily psycho/paranoid media that seems to imply that every one of us will be the victim of a violent crime at the hands of a stranger, a fear that makes us cringe from each other and hide in our McMansions (or, in my case, diminutive duplexes). The people I see surviving are the ones who actually have circles of friends, the ones who realize that other people are more than just a source of fear or a pile-up on the side of the highway, the ones who have interactions that involve more than just “Ketchup or salt with that?” or nervous smiles and quickly bolted doors. And there are some pretty serious consequences of our isolation, our suspicion, and our increasing inability to trust each other…

…none of which I’m going to enumerate here. Instead, what’s been bugging me is one of the by-products of this kind of social disjunction: the impulse to share lurid and gory details of our lives and others’, and the inability to understand that this acts as a sort of placebo for any kind of real community or intimacy. We have gotten so used to looking at others’ lives as if through a screen (or actually on a screen) that we fail to realize, sometimes, that these lives are anything but an entertaining sideshow, and our reportage treats them likewise. Meanwhile, we blunder about sharing the tragedies and traumas of other people’s lives as though they were made-for-tv movies. And the danger here is that at some point, we have objectified everyone else’s pain — and even our own — to the point where we no longer relate on any human level.

The first incident of this that’s been nagging at my mind came through a colleague. This person, a nice if nervous woman, sent out a mass email to everyone urging us, if we are planning to people our gardens with flowers this spring, to buy plants from a benefit sale she’s part of. Proceeds go toward the medical expenses of a woman she knows. All very well and good, you say, and it is. It’s actually indicative of the kind of community whose demise I’m currently lamenting. Except that the way she introduces it is by giving the woman’s name and describing her status as a grandmother and foster parent and then describing in precise detail the car accident that left this person a double amputee.

Reading her prose, I could almost hear the police report: “Subject was loading the trunk of her car in the northbound parking lane of _____ St., etc.” It’s gruesome. And it’s not only gruesome, but it’s a total cheap shot, the kind of appeal to emotion that I teach my writing students to avoid. Reason number one: your case should sink or swim on its own merits. The reader should have a chance to evaluate, not be manipulated into sympathy. Reason number two: the forcing of graphic details of dismemberment on an unsuspecting public (especially a colleague — is nothing sacred!?) is both gratuitous and insensitive, not to mention socially disingenous. It’s as though you invited people over for a cocktail party and they showed up to find an orgy in progress. Some will be delighted, but the majority will wonder how to get the hell out of there so they can sip booze in some tidy bar with their personal space intact.

Don’t get me wrong; what happened to this poor woman is terrible. It would be terrible even if she weren’t a grandparent and foster mother. I may even buy some plants. But the fact that my colleague feels entitled to brandish CSI-style gore in my face to induce me to is a potent dissuasion.

Another example of this same kind of voyeuristic violation: student papers. I have students writing research papers, and they sometimes pick topics that involve crime and/or violence. I can’t count the number of writers I’ve had to gently remind that the exact details of how the chihuahua’s tail was skinned and then burned off have nothing to do with their paper on how we, as a society, enforce laws that protect animal rights or that photos of domestic abuse victims’ wounds have no place in a research paper on gender roles in marriage. The most egregious recent example: a student writing a paper on DNA evidence and its effect on the exoneration process. Somehow this student felt that it was appropriate to spend pages of an analytical research paper giving blow-by-blow accounts of brutal rapes. Reading them, I felt 1)nauseated, 2)incredulous, and possessed of a strong desire to reach through my computer screen and shake this person, demanding, “Have you no critical thinking skills? Or decency? At long last, have you no ability to differentiate between analysis and porn?”

Of course we haven’t gotten the technology to that point yet. But seriously. The thing that worries me is that this kind of tell-all, see-all revelation of violence and gore, violation of privacy and shame, is not an addition to our other ways of thinking about violence or victims or how to help people in our communities; it is a replacement for it. Which brings me back to the CSI metaphor: all of this seems to say ‘it’s okay that the victim died a terrible, violent death as long as we can reconstruct her screams.’ And the danger in that is that the suffering becomes important — more important than the person in question, not least because it’s more entertaining.

Advertisements