Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Terrible Stories

"I heard a terrible story today," I told hubby when he got home from work yesterday.

He gave me a look. "Don’t tell me your terrible story," he warned.

I bit my lip. It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to unburden oneself by dumping terrible stories on other people. When I’m haunted by a newspaper article I wish I had never read, or an awful anecdote I wish I hadn’t heard, the urge to relay the tale to hubby is very strong.

Terrible stories have certain features in common. They involve pain and injury (not always death, mind you, though often the victim is in critical condition). They involve animals or children – or animals beloved by small children. They involve casual, sadistic cruelty – or heartbreakingly preventable accidents.

I can only assume that my reaction to terrible stories is an evolutionary response to human distress, one that has been rendered impotent and nearly obsolete by the information age. It is essential to the terrible story that it be (a) true, and (b) recent: those two factors help fuel that adrenaline surge, that frustrated desire to protect the innocent.

Terrible stories, as I’m classifying them here, are shockingly isolated events – they occur unexpectedly, disrupting the tenor of ordinary life. Certainly there are heartbreaking stories to be found in the deeply rooted social problems of our age: AIDS orphans, child prostitutes, genocidal wars. But these stories provoke a subtly different response: there are feelings of guilt and helplessness alongside the anger. One can send money; one can raise awareness; one can never feel satisfied that these responses are enough. Terrible stories, on the other hand, are paralyzing in their effects – they deal, fundamentally, with private family tragedies that are somehow quirky and sensational enough to attract gossip and/or media attention. A hundred years ago, we would have heard those stories only of our neighbours, and we would have responded by baking a casserole, attending the funeral – gathering as a community to mourn. Now, we set aside the newspaper and attempt to resume our day, haunted by the malicious grin of brutality, dismayed by our brief glimpse of that heartless jokester, Accident.

I can recall, right now, some of the terrible stories I’ve heard in the past: a cowering raccoon, a grieving older brother, a smiling toddler. I won’t tell you these stories, as much as I want to. They’ve lost their ability to haunt me, now – they’re too long ago, they’ve lost their urgency. And I, perhaps, have learned how to confine them in that mental box labeled Do Not Touch. I can lift the lid off that box, peek briefly at what’s inside, but I know how to get the lid back on again.

But why, I wonder, do we feel so compelled to tell these stories? Where does that urge come from, to regale a heavily pregnant woman with stories of stillbirth? When I acknowledge that I have a deep phobia of bees, why do people invariably respond with an anecdote about that time they stepped on a wasps’ nest?

There’s nothing I can do to fix the tragedy I read about yesterday. But for now those stabbing, uncomfortable pangs of empathy are serving their purpose: I stroked my daughter’s silky hair yesterday, noticing the curve of her neck, the plump solidity of her tummy. She cuddled in beside me on the couch, commanding "Book!" so I read to her, sharply aware of the snug way her body fits beneath the curve of my arm, the warmth of her bossy wee legs beside mine – the appallingly trusting, mortal physicality of her little self.

28 comments:

Oh, The Joys said...

I know what you mean. K and I have a morning newspaper policy where the one who sees the horrible story hides the section from the other.

These stories make you want to pull your loved ones close.

Terri B. said...

News of tragedy sure does take a toll doesn't it? I, like you, am drawn closer to what/those I have and love them even more when I hear of terrible events.

Mimi said...

I think this is the definition of tragedy, non? Formally? That it must be the terrible story of a single human actor? You're right that larger terrible-stories have a different flavor to them, that they prod a different ouch-spot in the soul.

I have to share these stories too: we're all, I guess, like the Ancient Mariner, unable to keep it to ourselves, tormented by the story, but tormented just as much by the need to get it out. As thought there's some sort of absolution to be gained from auditors--maybe hubby will find a reason or a cause that you missed, thus sparing you and yours from a feeling of your vulnerability to random awfulness. Hm.

something blue said...

I think we need to share the shock and remorse that we are feeling to subside our fears and to honour the victim. Especially when the events seem to be so senseless.

I'm glad your little Pie offered you comfort. Our children keep our hearts grounded.

Christina said...

I generally feel the same way when hearing a terrible story. I want to tell someone about it, if for only to have that person share in the fear, the sadness, the confusion about the way of life. We're social creatures - perhaps relaying the story to someone else forces us to suffer together rather than alone, and in the end makes us feel better for doing so?

Beck said...

Whenever I think I've written something okay, you write something amazing. Cut that out.

And yes. I'm a big sharer-of-awful-tales myself and one of my brothers always is accusing me of a sort of gleeful morbidity. Stupid him, it's because by sharing it, we MAGICALLY MAKE IT NEVER HAPPEN TO US.

nomotherearth said...

I'm with Beck. Also, it makes me feel less along and less scared somehow. I do feel bad for the tell-ee, though.

Kristen said...

I think it's some attempt not to feel alone and vulnerable, as well as a way to let go of the initial feelings of horror - spreading them around, making them less potent.

Aliki2006 said...

Terrible stories haunt me, too and I can't shake them. I should unburden myself more, but sometimes I can't even bring myself to talk about the terrible stories I have heard.

ewe are here said...

I have the same reaction to terrible stories. Sometimes I'm surprised I still follow the news. Yet I do.

I'm glad they still upset me though; I'd be more worried if they didn't.

Momish said...

I just relayed a rather terrible story on my blog tonight, so obviously I feel the need to gather close and hash out all the feelings they evoke.

Yet, there are other times, when the story is so terrible and so mind numbing, I just can't utter the words to repeat it. I'd rather bury the frightening emotions that are too harmful to expose.

For example, I read the horrible story Jen posted about and have yet to tell another person (is this what you are referring to here?). I can't get the words to pass my lips. I don't want to talk about it or discuss it. I just want it to go away forever. Like you, I just hold my child close whenever it tries to sneak out of that locked box.

bubandpie said...

Momish - Yep, that's the one - hence my particular focus on my own sweet not-quite-two-year-old girl.

Lawyer Mama said...

I love this post and you're right - we are drawn to them. I always feel the need to unburden myself as if sharing it makes it somehow less horrible. But it doesn't.

Jill said...

I think we tell these stories as a way of processing and maybe even preparing ourselves for the worst if it should happen to us.

When I was pregnant with my daughter there was a story in the news about a pregnant woman who suffered a stroke in her first trimester and was brain dead. Her husband kept her alive on life support for months in the hopes of getting their daughter far enough along to survive. In the end they both died. I was obsessed with this story and visited their website daily. If I could have donated a few weeks gestation I would have.

So maybe there is beauty in tragedy too. At least in the way the human spirit responds and wraps around the victims of tragedy in whatever way possible.

Blog Antagonist said...

So true, so true. I think the old adage "Misery loves company" is a lot more apropos than we think, in a much deeper and more complex way that just wallowing and commiseration.

There is one story that so deeply affected me I could not stop myself from sharing it, even though to do so, didn't really make me feel any better.

Thought provoking, as always!

Mad Hatter said...

I almost missed that story, being on vacation and all and a big bit behind on my reading. I hate terrible stories. I hate them on the news, in the paper, anywhere. I feel disgusting and voyeuristic when I come up against them. I always wish I had been given the chance to look away. And yet, I am a big proponent of talking about personal tragedy (as my next few posts will explain if'n I find the time to write them in the way I need to write them.)

I find it peculiar that as a culture we are drawn to and are desperate to convey the Terrible Story while at the same time we find it taboo to talk about the death, sickness or injury that touches the daily lives of those we know.

BTW and a complete aside, wha-hoo, what a thrill to meet you the other day. I'm glad the Terrible Story in question had nothing to do with the smell of my daughter's poo.

Mad Hatter said...

OH, and I need to say that I hate Terrible Stories b/c I am incapable of getting them out of my head. That particular story is still cutting apart my innards even though I refused to read the whole post for fear of what it would do to my innards.

bubandpie said...

Mad - You're a stronger woman than I - even though I'm so little able to cope with terrible stories, I can never look away once embarked upon one (and Jen's story was prefaced with appropriate cautions, which I unwisely disregarded!).

It was a thrill - but far too fleeting. Afterwards I just felt sad that you live so far away. Maybe you can become a more faithful visitor of certain conveniently located family members?

Veronica Mitchell said...

One of the reasons my sister is my best friend is that she and I are rigidly faithful to the "no dead baby stories" rule. I have other friends who will not stop telling such stories no matter how much I plead. If we need comfort after hearing one of these stories elsewhere, my sister and I say, "I'm upset over one of those stories we don't talk about." It is so helpful to have one relationship where we are completely safe from reliving such stories.

jen said...

i think there is something in the solidarity of the sharing - of joint acknowledgement that something so egregious has happened that it requires us to pay attention. to honor the suffering of others.

i was at the Holocast Museum in LA a while back - and they really focus on making sure the atrocities are front and center - because when people remember it makes it hard for us to do the same thing again.

i don't know how that relates to the personal horrors you speak of, the ones or twos of people falling, but somehow it goes back, at least for me, to honoring other's suffering. because when one suffers, so do us all.

jen said...

you know, i hadn't read all the other comments before blithely babbling on in mine - i had no idea that story rocked others in the same lingering way that it has for me, every time i look at a sippy cup, every single day.

maybe it was selfish - sharing as a way to get it out and through and onward...i don't really know - but it something worth examining.

bubandpie said...

Hey, Jen - I know it's not entirely fair to you, responding this way to your post. I do know that explosive feeling, where I simply have to share something before the internal corrosion just kills me. And as I mentioned above, it's not like you didn't warn us.

Jenifer said...

I know this feeling well. I deal with tragedy on an almost daily basis. I am a 911 dispatcher and rarely does a week go by that there isn't SOME call that sits heavily in my stomach, that I can't seem to get out of my mind, and the first thing I do when i get homw is tell my husband...to vent, release. He knows why I do it... he's been an EMT for 16 years and has seen his share of tragedy.

I also think that is why most people in my line of work end up married or with someone that is in a similar line of work. You need someone to understand, to not look at you like you have 3 heards when you use dark humor to deal with tragedy, someone to understand how you cope from day to day.

On the flip side, the thing that people ALWAYS ask me when they find out what I do for a living is one of a couple variations of the same thing: "What was the worst call you ever took? What was the grossest call you ever took? What was the scariest....etc" People have an innate morbid curiosity, and the funny thing is I feel compelled to tell them.....I feel compelled to tell you all now, but I will quell the urge... the post would be too long!

Sandra said...

I SO know what you mean. I am a compulsive "terrible story" unburdener. I recently heard a story about someone I worked with 10 years ago but didn't know well. She just gave birth to her second child to find out she is riddled with cancer so bad that it is not treatable and the doctors give her just weeks to live. I was so haunted by the story that I keep retelling it over and over.

PeanutButtersMum said...

i really think it's about seeing someone else's tragedy and then reflecting back on our own lives -- realizing that no matter how badly our day is going, someone else is having a much , much worse time. sad, but true?

kittenpie said...

I did quite enjoy the Terrible Stories caused by gravelings on Dead Like Me, though, they make for great and amusing television in that brief glimpse - knowing it's just fiction.

In real life, though, it's hard to process those stories. I think the telling helps that.

Haley-O said...

"appallingly trusting mortal physicality of herself"....magnificent.

nonlineargirl said...

I have that same instinct to tell my husband the terrible stories. I think it does help us let go of the terrible thing to talk about it.