The Shadow in the Mirror: Guest Post by Lauren B. Davis

Book Cover Our Daily Bread

At a dinner party recently, someone brought up the topic of Israel and Palestine. Within moments, an educated and well-traveled individual I’ll call Joe stated Israel is a much-maligned island of moral purity in a sea of barbaric, immoral hatred. Israel, he said, has committed no atrocities, done nothing illegal or unethical, whereas the enemies of Israel have slaughtered children in untold numbers and desire only to drive Jews into the sea.

“And what,” I asked, “would Israelis like to do to Palestinians?”

“They have to go,” Joe said, eyebrows bristling in my direction.

I asked if it wasn’t possible both sides had more in common than not. After all, they are descendants of Abraham, they believe in the One God, they consider Jerusalem a holy city, and they would perhaps even like to live in peace, to tend their olive trees, to laugh with their children.

“No,” Joe insisted, “they are not like us. It’s a fallacy that if people get to know each other they like each other better. Often they like each other less.”

“Familiarity breeds ferklempt?” I asked.

There was some laughter at that but Joe still believed his side was right, the other side was wrong, whereas I tend to agree with Robert Benchley, who said, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who believe in two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

Concentrating on our differences is a dangerous activity. Unless we see ourselves as having within us the same potential for all the good and all the not-so-good as our neighbors, we cannot sufficiently strengthen the moral muscles necessary to stop ourselves becoming part of the mob at a moment of moral weakness.

We are all, in one way attached to our heritages, our tribes, our groups. They root us. In my case, it was interesting to discover I’m not the first writer in the family, but on the Irish side apparently that talent popped up in previous generations. It was also important to note I come from a Dynasty of Depressed Drunks. I’ve heard stories of poverty, cruelty and neglect, as well as stories of enormous compassion and kindness. I take it all in, see how it’s filtered down -- both good and bad -- into who I am, and I accept myself more fully, warts and all.

Accepting myself, in fact, was key to dealing with some of those warts—like addiction and depression. I accepted these little pain-producing nodules as a part of who I am, and I learned not to be afraid of them, or deny them, but to de-fang them by not letting them hide in the dark corners from which they tended to pop out at most inconvenient moments.

What is true for individuals is also true for groups, for tribes and for nations. I can’t help but feel uncomfortable when someone insists on denying any possibility whatsoever that his or her group might, in some situation, behave with self-serving cruelty.

My new novel, Our Daily Bread, examines what happens when we view our neighbors as “The Other.” I lived in Nova Scotia for a brief time in 1972-1973. While there, I heard stories about a community up on a nearby mountain. They were terrible stories, involving incest, aborted and deformed babies, prostitution, bootlegging and so forth. I told myself these dreadful tales couldn’t be true. I believed, naively, that if they were true, surely someone would have done something about it. Then, in the early 1980s one of the children of the Goler clan told her story of generational abuse to a teacher. This teacher came from another province and hadn’t been in Nova Scotia very long. She in turn called an RCMP officer, who also hadn’t been in the community for very long. They insisted an investigation begin and eventually many of the clan adults were in jail and the children in foster care.

I was horrified, but also mystified. If all those rumors were true, why had it taken so long for someone to intervene? Well, the answer seemed to be that the people who lived on the mountain had, for generations, been considered “Those People” as in “What do you expect from those people?” The people who lived in the relatively prosperous town nearby, founded hundreds of years earlier on Puritanical religious principles, believed their neighbors were so “Other” as to be beyond the pale.

The extreme marginalization of the community and the terrible repercussions of ostracism haunted me and it seemed the perfect framework to explore how such ordinary people could do such dreadful things, or permit such dreadful things to continue.

Part of what allows this sort of marginalization, of course, is our desire to turn away from such horrors. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. This is much easier to do when we maintain our innocence, our psychological distance from the people involved. We like to think of ourselves as noble, gentle, wise, compassionate, and if anything, we often choose to see ourselves as the oppressed, rather than the oppressor. The reason we refuse to identify with “The Other” is obvious: if we accept we are capable of committing the same atrocities as those committed against us we also have to accept that—given the right mix of power, fear and self-righteousness—we are no different than those who oppressed us. Impossible to fathom. Entirely too agonizing.

We are the good people. We are not capable of those sorts of things. The people who do such things are not like us—not at all—they are completely Other. Demons. Monsters. And yet, as the famous Stanford Prison Experiment so clearly showed, even “good” people are likely, under certain circumstances, to commit acts of horrific sadism.

We lose a great deal by insisting we are solely victims, solely noble folks with pure intentions, rather than just like everyone else—regardless of skin color or religion or nationality—partly noble, pure and good, but also capable of the most heinous, most appalling acts. We are the lynch mob, the boot at the door, the club on the back of the head, the sad little woman in Abu Ghraib with a cigarette in her mouth, laughing at a group of naked, hooded men.

What we lose by such insistence is the necessary, indeed crucial, understanding of what Carl Jung called our shadow-side, and unless and until we say the oppressor and the oppressed, the torturer and the tortured are of the same marrow, we will always, I fear, turn a blind eye to the horrors around us, because we refuse to believe we, OUR good selves, are capable of such things. Unprepared for the possibility of cruelty in ourselves, we are unprepared to defend against it. We can’t stop or defend ourselves against what we don’t acknowledge. And really, we can’t afford to do that. I urge you to consider that by denying our own shadow-filled psychic caverns we run a greater risk of being consumed by them. In short, we run the risk of becoming the very thing we most loathe and fear.

Lauren B. Davis

As Pogo (that sage cartoon character) once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

LAUREN B. DAVIS is the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed novels The Stubborn Season and The Radiant City, as well as two collections of short stories, An Unrehearsed Desire and Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives. Born in Montreal, Davis lived in France for ten years. She now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Visit her at laurenbdavis.com, follow her on Twitter @laurenbdavis or become a fan on Facebook.

April 12, 2012
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