George Saunders on justice issues


Your story “The Mom of Bold Action” is about a mother who writes (but maybe doesn’t publish) inspiring children’s books and whose young son is abused by a homeless man. What came first to you, the mother and her ambitions or the idea of ​​the assault and its aftermath?

Photograph by Rahav Segev / ZUMA / Alamy

I found the opening mum section in old files and found it funny. I liked the way she tries (as I sometimes do) to save herself the trouble of writing a story by making up a perfect one in advance in her mind.

How did this part of the story lead to the rest?

Well, the mother seemed to be waiting for her son to come home and worried about him. So the question of whether she overreacted hung on history. It seemed more interesting if she wasn’t – if the kid was really in trouble. Then, as someone who has written more than their fair share of “youth at risk” stories, I thought I could shake things up a bit by putting him in danger. . . not so bad. I imagined an old man pushing him roughly, like, “Out of my way, kid.” So the situation is not terrible, but could have been worse. Unless, you know, if you were the parent, that would really piss you off.

The story revolves around the question of justice: What punishment is right when an elderly man with a mental disorder pushes a child? A push for a push? A blow to the kneecap to dissuade pushing further? Let him go, out of sympathy for the challenges he has encountered in life?

Okay, these are the questions I was trying to get the story to ask. I think it might be a short story‘s job to do just that – ask certain questions and refuse to answer them, reinforcing both sides so that the questions become more complex. The reader is put in the position of being pushed back when she tries to come to a neat moral conclusion. I think there is value in there. When I read a story that works this way, it makes me see how quickly, in real life, I close my mind and decide too soon.

I think in this case the parents do the right thing first: they go to the police. But then the situation is complicated and their desire for justice does not work. And the fun begins.

When someone like his father, Keith, with a mistaken sense of justice, unwittingly hurts an innocent man, is he wrong?

Oh yes. I think so. But my job as the author of this story was to make sure that what Keith didn’t seem entirely irrational or indefensible. I mean, it’s pretty easy, from a distance, to condemn this kind of vigilante instinct (and civilization depends on how we do just that), but I think it’s also important to remember that all the excesses come from somewhere. Whatever irrational or evil act we observe, it would likely seem reasonable, even righteous, to the person who committed it. (Keith is on a roll, until he isn’t.) I think any of us could become such a person on the right (wrong) terms. Otherwise, history is just a bunch of inexcusable things done by morons who were nothing like us. And there’s nowhere to go with it.

Keith is excited reading his wife’s essay. Is this some sort of an object lesson about the dangers of essay writing?

No! Well maybe on Wrong write an essay. I just reread the story and must have laughed – his very serious sin is for failing to revise. When she reads her essay after Keith’s little mission, she sees right away that it’s bad. With enough time, she might have revised it to the point where it wouldn’t have been dangerous. (Or maybe his sin was just to leave a job unfinished, where other people could read it before it was finished. That’s what records are for, buddy!)

Mum has a habit of anthropomorphizing everything around her, from a can opener to a peanut butter dog treat. And yet, at first, she can’t really see the two homeless as humans she can empathize with, even though she may have sympathized with her cousin, Ricky, who has done much worse things to a lot more people. . Why does she fail that impulse that she is normally good enough for?

Well I think it’s pretty easy for all of us to be friendly in general on a good day. But when the shit hits the fan, it’s harder. So her normal storytelling – a sort of optimistic ethic, all is well if only we love – fails her at the critical moment. It turns out to be a bit easy.

When Jesus, being crucified, could say, “Father, forgive them,” that was high level stuff. This mom’s kindness / compassion / openness mode only works at low altitudes. I sympathize with her, speaking like someone who has barked a lot about cuteness in public and yet still pissed off, furious and vindictive when, say, I grab a mop and a broom falls and hits me in the head, to which case point I drop the spray bottle on the cat. Suddenly, all bets are off on kindness, given the outrageous outrage I suffered from my sworn enemy, that broom, and I go angry in the world.

But it surprised me, and I found it interesting, when this kind and presumably liberal woman suddenly swung into, I guess, some sort of suburban fascism. In the end, she pulls out, but we could imagine other people who couldn’t, either because of their disposition or the extremity of what they felt were victims of. What turns a person into an extremist? It often seems to come from a little thing that has happened to him personally, which then projects into the culture.

The story culminates in a sort of thought-passing fantasy (although, even with these flashes of empathy, the mother can’t quite forgive and forget what happened). When did those beams of light become part of the story for you?

I can tell you exactly: October 9, 2020. The October 7 draft took the mom to where she had this conversation with the cop and agreed to drop the charges. So, I felt like the next beat had to answer the question “Are there any consequences of the baseball bat attack?” (Otherwise, the story is over: Keith did a bad thing, but, luckily for him, there were no consequences.) On October 8, I showed him the two guys, by the river. , and I noticed that one was limping (i.e. there was a consequence). I found myself looking at her, like, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” How are you going to live with what you did? And, again, if she shrugged, the story would be over, but I would think less of her. The hero of my story would have become less interesting. So I made her do what I would do: try to shirk responsibility, so that she can continue to see herself as a good person. Who has the power to absolve him? The guy Keith hit. So, she invokes him in her mind, as she always invokes beings in her mind, and begs him for forgiveness, in this kind of New Agey ceremony (which, because she is basically an honest person, doesn’t work).


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