Last semester I raised my hand and class and said, “The thing about journalism is that even when you put it down, it’s still real. With fiction, if it becomes unpleasant or difficult, you can shut the book, put it down, and put it out of your mind. You can’t do that with journalism, it’s real. Even if you put it down, you still now that it’s happening out there, somewhere.”
Or something similar.
I just finished Gene Weingarten’s Fatal Distraction. He won the Pulitzer Prize for it. He made me go the bathroom of the Starbucks that I’m sitting in, and sit on the floor and cry.
The piece is about what happens when parents forget their kids in the car. Is it a mistake? Or is it a crime?
This past weekend I went to the 39th 24 Hour Boston Science Fiction Film Marathon. The second to last movie they played was Alfonso Cuarón’s The Children of Men. In an apocalyptic world, the movie imagines what happens when, 20 years after the human race has been rendered infertile, a woman becomes pregnant. I missed the beginning. But I walked into a world tinged with an acrid desperation, a world that has forgotten what innocence tastes like. In the climactic scene of the film, the cries of the infant create a ceasefire in a refugee camp that has descended into militarized chaos. The two protagonists carry the crying infant past awed refugees, who stop and stare, and get shot for a chance to see the child. People reach out, as if this miracle can bless them simply by witnessing it, soldiers put down their guns, fall to their knees, invoke the Lord, and cross themselves. The second they are past them, the fighting begins anew.
When I was in high school, I suffered from undiagnosed anxiety, that manifested depressive episodes. I remember moving through one long stretch that felt like a haze of meaninglessness. I went to bed, dreamt and woke up terrified of the inevitable apocalypse; the coming plague, the hurricanes and tidal waves that would raze all signs of civilization and crush me. Meanwhile, family friends had a child.
One morning we congregated at the local coffee shop and another family friend passed around her cellphone with pictures of the infant, who had moved with his parents to England. I remember looking at pictures of this tiny human and thinking that any world that would allow us to bring new life into the world like that could not be the nightmare that I saw every day. For the first time in months, I felt some measure of peace.
Though my memory has erased the timing and sequence, the memory recalls immediately another of the same child. I was pressed into staying with the child for an evening, to look after him while his parents went out. I had previously avoided being made responsible of any child that was not of an age at which they would be able to express their desires, fears, and frustrations to me, verbally.
The majority of the night is lost to my feeble recollection. But I remember how heavy and warm the child was in my arms as I sat in the rocking chair in the front room of the apartment. This tiny bundled up person weighed more than seemed reasonable for one so small. And he radiated such heat. Even now, I remember that feeling and wonder how parents ever put their children down. The feeling of him in my arms eclipses even my recollection of his features.
Lately the subject of children has been everywhere. In class we have read interviews with child molesters, in the news discussions of Woody Allen’s possible child abuse have flamed anew following An Open Letter from Dylan Farrow in the New York Times, I have grappled with my feelings regarding the identification of minors accused of crimes or undergoing trial (pick any school shooting or assault), in the media. And on all of these subjects my usual willingness to listen to the other side has made its absent noticeably apparent.
The willingness of the world to expose children to things that will hurt them, harm them, disturb and destroy them, often in the name of our own, adult, satisfaction has become an inexcusable crime. The wounds of childhood never fully heal.
It seems simplistic to express the desire for a world where every single child is protected and loved. We all want such things for whomever comprises the concept of “the children”.
Meanwhile, we are willfully blind to the ways in which we will not take action the manifestation of such a reality. We will not put in caveats for child safety into bills in Congress for fear of auto manufacture lobbyists. We can’t find ways to sell a device that will work to prevent children from being forgotten in cars by parents who wish them no harm.
The adult world is one of ego. When we exit the trappings of childhood (at whatever age that may strike) we learn that no one else can be fully trusted. The protective layers we carry with us to make it bearable to wake up every day in that world are what make up our pride, our will, and our sense of self-respect. That is what makes the world of Cuarón’s Children of Men so hostile.
And that is what we need to put aside, in the name of protecting those tiny beings who give us the hope, the drive, and the ability to be better than adulthood makes us.