Saturday, September 18, 2010

the invisible gorilla in the room: murder most foul

An interview on the radio yesterday triggered a memory that keeps popping up and that I keep shoving back down. Do you remember how a jack-in-the-box works? What triggers them is how tightly wound they are, how much pressure they're under. And you wind it and wind it until it can't stand it any more, and then that hideous face bursts forth. And you know it's going to happen, and it's startling every time.

It's not like I don't remember the murder. I've told it to my daughter as a precautionary tale, though not the kind of lesson you might think.

The book is called The Invisible Gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us. The interview was with co-author, Dan Simons. And it's about just that: how we don't see what we don't expect to see even when it's staring us in the face. Like a gorilla in the room — and we miss it. Every time.

Unless someone shoves it in our face, saying, "See, SEE. Gorilla. Right there." And then we can't look away and all we see is gorilla.

And that's what happened when I was a junior in high school. And it was murder.

Not like the murders at my old high school today, which seem to have become so routinized and normative as to have faded into the fabric of the place. Another kind of gorillaficaton.

No, this was a time and place before schools knew what to do with murder. And so they gorilla'd it (if you don't mind the verbification here). On the one hand, the school pretended not to see it. Tried to keep classes running, school open, minimal (if any) counseling. S, who found the bodies of her mother and older sister, simply disappeared from school. Which was reasonable. But in her absence, rumors flew. The fact that all of us, and perhaps the entire larger community were also traumatized by this event, seemed to pass unattended to by whatever powers there might have been to deal with such things. Instead, there were only whispers. Rumors. Fear.

All those details in the papers that we all read. Rape. Bondage in such a way that the more you struggle, the more you strangle yourself. Positions. Diagrams. The press thrives on invisible gorillas. And they splashed this case across the front page and many other pages, for weeks, for months. Until at long last it faded away to be replaced by another gorilla no one wanted to see, and that was called Vietnam.

I remember that everyone at school had seemed to envy S. She had been way up there at the top of the high school food chain. Rumor circulated among us lesser, younger souls, examples of her perfection. Strangely, I find that I can't write any of the details of this tale — even about the seeming goodness of her life. I'm editing. Then writing. Then hitting the delete button. I thought that if I could write this thing, that I could somehow get it out of my mind. But then, it would be in yours — and it would still take root somewhere and grow.

Another invisible gorilla in the room.

The point here is, no one ever envied her again.

Evil eye theory teaches us that envy is a very dangerous thing. Not to the poor, groveling have-nots, but to the recipients of that covetous eye. Which is not to say —and I will not say— that it was envy that brought the horror. But even the police speculated that it may well have been jealousy that led to S's sister's horrific demise.

Trauma theories teach us that things like this sink into our bones no matter how (seemingly) successfully we suppress the memory. Our bodies remember. Our bodies react. And we are left with somaticized pathologies that cannot be uncovered or cured by the practice of medicine alone.

If we want to be rid of it, we have to be willing not only to see that gorilla, but to do something about it.

But what can we do? Become obsessed and solve the thing ourselves? Apparently, in this case, there is something that could be done. In 1964 there was no such thing as DNA evidence. And now there is. Would finally solving 'the case' bring peace to anyone haunted by what happened then?

And over forty unsolved years later, the events of that January rush back in with a fierce tide, triggered so easily by Dan Simons talking 'bout invisible gorillas on the radio.

Over the years, the horror became a story that would sometimes pop back up forcing itself to be remembered. By now, apocryphal. Mythical. But still for the most part, untold. But there came a time, when my own daughter was the age we were back then. There came a time when she needed to hear at least what that event meant to me. The lesson I learned from it, instantly.

It's the lesson about envy.

The moral of the story, I tell my daughter, is not about murder, not about the 'bad people' out there. But about the pervasiveness of misfortune.

Envy is a specific kind of ignorance. We ignore the suffering of others: we imagine their lives as inhabiting our own notions of what Foster calls 'the limited good.' If they've got good fortune, there's no good fortune left for us. We stare at it from afar. We covet.

It's called the 'evil eye.'

When we were kids and saw murder most foul afflict those we thought were the embodiment of good fortune, we had to let the envy go. Forever. The lesson, at least for me, was a simple one. All beings suffer and all endure pain. And with that knowledge, we can live more nuanced lives. Filled with less expectation and more observation of what really is. It's a tough practice. Sometimes it works.

And if we manage a moment or two without prejudgement or expectation, we get a little better at identifying invisible gorillas who come to dance in the middle of that room.

Well, that's the idea anyway. In reality, it's not quite so elegant or easy to achieve.

And so, for now, I'll shove that jack right back into the box, and know that it sits there, coiled under pressure, all wound up, exactly like my guts. Waiting for the next accidental trigger and then ... pop ... it rears its ugly head and starts all over again.

Suppression, to paraphrase Freud, really sucks.

1 comment:

  1. "Envy is a specific kind of ignorance." Yes.

    There was a guy in my junior high band whose popularity I envied. It wasn't fair; I was a Wunderkind on horn, but this mediocre snare-drummer held everybody's attention.

    He was from Cambodia. In a creative writing class a few years later, he mentioned something cryptic about how his dad had used pistols instead of spankings when they were toddlers. His father had been involved in the Khmer Rouge, and when the tide turned, they fled. The family escaped on a boat and they wound up in North Dakota. Both his parents did demeaning work by day, and by night his father rehearsed tyranny.

    My mom taught "English as a Second Language" classes that included his parents. Mom and her teaching partner began a tradition of holding potluck dinners after class several times a year, encouraging their students to share dishes from their homelands with them and each other. It was after those dinners started up that her stories about ESL stopped being about how weird English is as a language and started being about the people and their astonishing stories.

    Over the years, Mom saw that guy's dad evolve from a short-tempered, abusive husband to a humble man who admired his wife's much faster progress in English. Once she brought home from the potluck his mom's recipe for the best spring rolls I've ever had (and plenty of delicious leftovers) and the story of how his dad had cried as he struggled to find the English to explain to my mom that he'd been a very bad man; that he'd done many evil things to strangers out of fear in Cambodia, and when he came to the US he did many evil things to his own family, out of fear and frustration.

    "Envy is a specific kind of ignorance." Yes.