Tuesday, July 23, 2019

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Two anecdotes in the face of moral hysteria over the kid in Cornwall who wrote a story about blo

1.

When I was still a high school kid a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had a bomb scare in our school. Someone stuck a piece of paper through the mailbox of the local paper. It was covered with pasted-together words cut from the Eaton’s catalogue, and it claimed that there was a bomb in the high school building. I know this was what it said because by the time we’d filed out of the school into the parking lot and given the morning off, at least a dozen of us knew who’d put the note in the mailbox.

Ernie was an odd kid from a moderately dysfunctional family, not a very good student, and not very large or handsome or even noticeable except that at the age of 17, he was going bald. Naturally my friends and I teased him without mercy about the hair loss problem, but whatever resentments he was harbouring against us didn’t prevent him from cheerfully telling us that he was the one who’d constructed the note. We didn’t have to ask if he’d actually planted a bomb. It got us the morning off, and we didn’t rush down to the principal’s office to rat Ernie out. Within a few days I’d bet that half the school knew who’d planted the note, but the culprit was never brought to justice. The whole incident blew over. Within a few weeks, even the most die-hard commie-hating authoritarians had forgotten about it, and life went on.

Ernie also went on to lead a moderate and successful life. He didn’t quite graduate from high school with the rest of us maybe because the bomb scare didn’t change his life enough improve his academic focus, and it didn’t effect his grades at all, which weren’t very good. But he came close enough to graduating that he attended the parties with us. No one seemed to think he was a danger, even when he was roaring drunk and driving his father’s pickup truck on the wrong side of the road. Those were different days, you see.

Within a few years of leaving school, Ernie stopped doing unsafe and goofy things, and started his own business. Eventually he made a more-than-decent living from it, one that allowed him to marry and have kids, to coach baseball and hockey on the side, and raise his family with a large enough degree of attentiveness that people commented on what a good family man he was. He did all this despite being a bald-before-his-mid-20s crazy bomb threat launcher. The last time I saw him he’d just coached one of his baseball teams to a Provincial championship, actually.

What else can I tell you? As a teenager, Ernie was a lot of laughs, but I’d bet money that all our teachers thought he was disruptive and possible disturbed. I guess, then as now, being entertaining to your friends isn’t the sort of personality trait an anxious adult will recognize, or find valuable. One of the things I can say for sure is that Ernie planted the note in the newspaper’s mailbox without consulting anyone. I never did figure out why he’d done it, but I got the impression it was one of those "what the hell" kind of impulses. I don’t recall any tests scheduled for that day or the succeeding one, so he didn’t do it to get out of anything, and he wasn’t in an altered state of consciousness at the time, nor was he sick or depressed. Ernie himself didn’t seem to think it required an explanation. It was something that got us a morning off school, and it was pretty damned funny to see the teachers running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

And in the current climate of hysteria, no, I’m not going to tell you Ernie’s last name.

2.

I used to teach creative writing to murderers and bank robbers. I spent two or three thousand hours in Maximum Security jails, working in makeshift classrooms without a safety net of any kind but the inherent civility of people and my own wits. I never felt threatened by the murderers and bank robbers I taught. They were mostly strange-read "cognitively disabled or underprivileged" – guys living carefully inside a moral system simple enough that an outsider with a little common sense could easily navigate. They very much liked the fact that I called them—and clearly thought of them as—"students" rather than as "convicts." I told them I didn’t care what they’d done to get into jail, that I was interested in their minds, and what sort of future those minds might have. Maybe because I believed what I said, many of them bought in and became true students.

The only time I ever felt threatened during the time I spent inside was by a man who was in jail for a relatively short sentence, and under conviction for a charge – aggravated assault – that was among the least serious of the felony convictions that can land you in Maximum Security. I felt threatened by this man because he was crazy and psychopathic. Most of the students in that class quietly let me know they felt the same way about him, and while I don’t think they felt physically threatened as I did, I noticed they didn’t turn their backs on him. His constant attempts to manipulate us to his private—and to us, largely obscure—advantage was recurrent low-grade threat to the small island of civil behavior that I had to create in my classroom in order to teach. I wanted them all to be able to think better and write better. He knew it, and his only translation of it was that I was a mark of some new sort he would soon figure out. It was clear from the beginning that he saw my studied classroom democracy as something to manipulate, and I suspect he thought creative writing might be of use for some down-the-line scam.

One day, he brought in a story he’d written, and demanded to be allowed to present it to the class.

"Sure", I answered. That’s your right in a creative writing course. Go ahead and circulate it."

He was cagey. "I don’t want to do that," he said, staring at me in a way that let the others know that as far as he was concerned, they didn’t exist. "I’ll read it aloud, and you can tell me what you think."

There were groans from the other students, but we nestled into our chairs anyway, secure that the Fictional Agreement would somehow see us through whatever he was about to subject us to. His story—he read with surprising confidence—began with a character who bore a striking resemblance to the author entering a bar, which he begins to case for a mark he can beat up and rob.

The other students were soon rolling their eyes, and with a few paragraphs, the groans had gotten louder and longer. Finding and rolling people in bars, it happens, were the author’s criminal MO. Before the story goes too far along, the narrator’s lookalike protagonist—locates his target, and when the target goes to the bar’s washroom, the protag follows him in, beats the crap out of him, steals his wallet and Rolex-and then, gratuitously even in the twisted logic of criminal assault, jabs a finger behind his eye and pulls it out of its socket.

At this point several of the other students broke from the constraints the purposeful suspension of disbelief on which the Fictional Agreement depends. "What did you do that for?" one man demanded of the author.. "That’s cruel and unnatural," said another. "Only a bug (prison term of great contempt) would do something like what you done," opines a third.

The author turned to me, his instructor, and made a smirking but technically reasonable request for intellectual protection. "That story is fiction," he sneered at the others. "It’s not life. I didn’t do anything, my character did. Get these bozos off my case."

My instincts were identical to those of my students –I want to know why he pulled his victim’s eye from his head. But this is Creative Writing Class, and it is also Western Civilization. In both, we’re obliged to recognize that a boundary exists between life and imagination. And my eye-yanking student had a right to my protection.

"Your protagonist can do whatever you make them do, "I tell him. "This is your story and the situation fictional. But we—I emphasized my solidarity with the others as best I could—" can’t see any motive coherence for this gratuitous and senseless act of violence. Fictionally speaking, it doesn’t add up. Even stupid violence has to obey the laws of causality within fiction. Maybe unprovoked violence "just happens" in the real world you live in. But in fiction, it has to have due provocation, and"—by this time I’m smirking right back at him—"motive coherence. Those are both absent from your telling of the tale.

After listening politely to my speech, my students return to their original premise: "What did you do that for? Why are you such a creep?"

When I didn’t rush to his aid in the face of these insults, the author/eye-gouger stamped out of the classroom. Given his unstable personality and clearly-identified penchant for yanking at unsuspecting and defenseless eye stalks, this was worrisome. But once my fears for my personal safety subsided, calmed by assurances from my other students, I felt another, more hopeful possibility tugging at my attention: maybe he might not come back.

He did. Five minutes into the next class he stormed in with twelve copies of a rewrite clutched in his fist. He slapped one in front of each of the assembled students, and walked to the front of the class. I gestured to him to begin.
.
This time, everybody in the bar loathed the intended victim, and several of them went out of their way to encourage the protag to break a few of his bones at the first opportunity. From there, things moved more familiarly: the plot sent the victim into the washroom for the inevitable beating and robbing. There was a slightly suspenseful moment as the washroom door closed behind the protag and he was standing behind his oblivious victim-to-be: Did his author revise the eye-ball yanking out of the story?

The victim was beaten to a pulp as before, his wallet unloaded and his Rolex removed. The protag turned to leave, and wait!!! No, he turned back and jammed his thumb behind the …etc. etc..

Next came some chilling literary craft, of a kind that I dearly hope this author learned not from me but from the endless deluge of hare-brained pyschological counselors trying to retrofit him for "normal society": As the protag left the washroom, he was met with a standing ovation. A beautiful prostitute called him over to offer a freebee, and the bartender slipped a mittful of twenty dollar bills into his hand as he left. In this version, he’s engaged in public service.

"See?" the author sneered at me, careful to avoid the eyes of the others. "How’s that for motive coherence?"

I hesitated, recognizing how completely I’ve been mouse-trapped. Thankfully, the other students weren’t fooled at all. "What did you have to do that for?" they wanted to know.

Now, I understand there’s a high school boy up in Cornwall, Ontario who’s written a story about blowing up his highschool. Because of the hysteria generated by the killings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in the United States, the reaction—publicly sanctioned—to this boy’s indiscretion has been similar to the sanctioned responses air-line employees have to drunks who pull guns inside airplanes. Because of the laws we have in Canada designed to protect the young, we can neither discover the precise details of the incident, and we can’t read the offending story he wrote to make any sort of common sense determination of whether he’s cracked or merely has a mischievous and wildly oblivious sense of humour.

What is clear is that a lot of people up in Cornwall have lost their minds, and will spend the next few months of their lives covering their asses. Equally clear to me is that the yong man who wrote the story is now thoroughly screwed up whether or not he was before he put pen to paper—or more likely, fingertips to keyboard.

As someone who writes fiction—and has taught the skills of fiction-making for money—I’d like to point out that one of the purposes of creative writing is to sort out more complex responses to questions like gratuitous violence than our society normally allows. I also characteristically try to teach writers to avoid evoking morally hysterical responses from their readers, because moral hysteria suppresses good writing and any other sort of intelligence.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out two more things: 1.) The crazy psychopath in my prison class was let out of jail years before any of the other members of that class, even though he was by far the most serious threat to public safety and sanity among them. 2.) None of the students in that class, in the end, turned out to be writers.

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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