What would you do?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Having spent most of the weekend with a sick toddler with stomach flu (thankfully it afflicted only one of the twins – so far at least!) I was reminded once again of how motherhood has changed me. I absolutely hate any kind of stomach ailment but as I comforted my distressed son I found myself wishing that it was me, not him, who was going through it all. As a mum all I want is to take away my children’s pain. I feel a ferocious sense of protectiveness that has never extended to anyone else. I certainly empathize when my husband is sick, but do I wish it was me instead? Not on your life. When it comes to children though – there is no limit to what I would do.

I haven’t ever explored this in my writing but as a reader I have found a renewed appreciation for books such as Sophie’s Choice. When I first read this I was horrified and saddened but I had no real point of reference. The decision, unimaginably awful as it was, remained an abstraction. Now I’m not sure I could re-read the book, I would feel so such a visceral reaction to the decision that Shopie had to make. How could a mother decide which of her children would be saved?

The power of fiction for me is how character’s decisions – their guilt and torment – resonate with readers. I have found that since becoming a mum there are certain things that resonate now that never fully resonated before. It may sound obvious but I think this fact alone has made me realize how as a reader my experiences have changed the reading experience as well as the craft of writing. I don’t think now I could face writing about crimes against children – for the horror of such things now affects me in a way it never did before. I could, however, imagine a parent (and I’m not just limiting myself here to women) doing almost unimaginable things to protect their children. The question for me is not what would a parent resort to in such-and-such a circumstance but what would they not do.

If a visceral response to a character’s choice and actions is so dependent on a reader’s own life experiences, I wonder how, as a writer my work will change and grow. Will there ever come a time when I can dispassionately write about things that, as a mother, I now find impossible to even contemplate? I certainly would have no problem writing about a mother who would totally kick-ass to protect her children. Sarah Connor would have nothing on what I could imagine doing.

What books have resonated with you based on your own experiences? What issues provoke such a visceral response that you too feel like you would take up the Sarah Connor mantle?

10 thoughts on “What would you do?

  1. Clare, before my daughter was borne (twenty years ago), I remember a friend of mine saying, “You’re going to start reading every newspaper article about children. If you read about an alligator attacking a child, you’ll worry about alligators, even if you’re on the west coast.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. By now, I’m completely phobic about any news, movies or books that involve bad things happening to children. I can’t bear to see or think about them. And I believe Sarah Connor (of the original movie–I’ve never seen the TV version) is an iconic heroine–the ultimate mother goddess! I think that’s why that movie was so great. Women, especially mothers, can identify with her. It’s probably the only action film I can say that about!

  2. “The power of fiction for me is how character’s decisions – their guilt and torment – resonate with readers”

    This should be rule number one taught to every new writer: It’s about the characters, stupid!

  3. Kathryn
    I admit to loving the new series of Sarah Connor and totally identify with her – though anyone who knows me knows I couldn’t kick ass if I tried! Joe – I wish every writer could have that drilled into them – rather than worrying endlessly over plot, themes or issues…if readers don’t care about the characters they don’t care about any of the rest either!

  4. Ripley in Alien 2. She’s another one.

    I’m a parent, and I absolutely feel that way about both my kids, even though they’re (mostly) grown. They’ll never be completely grown up for me, y’know?

    But they’re of an age now where I don’t immediately identify them with whatever’s happening in what I’m reading.

    Still, the Sarah Connor or Ripley in me is always lurking, just in case.

  5. Depending on one’s definition of “kid,” all of my books have featured one or more kids in jeopardy. I think it was Stephen King who said in an interview that the secret to writing good suspense is to write about what terrifies you the most. Well, putting your kid in harm’s way certainly qualifies.

    That said, I confess that I’m also fascinated by the limitless cruelty that children are capable of committing. Beyond Columbine and the DC sniper incident of a few years ago, there’s the average day in high school or even junior high. A State Department acquaintance of mine tells me that in countries where kidnapping is a profit center, the average age of the AK47-toting guard is around 12 years old. It’s the age, he says, when killing means nothing. They need make no decisions, and compromise is out of the question. If the victim does the wrong thing, the single sanction is to shoot him. No big deal. Actually, when you factor in the average adult’s hesitancy to shoot back at a child, it’s a pretty sensible choice.

    I’m also fascinated by the obsessive way in which our Western culture twists itself into a pretzel to defend and justify juvenile cruelty. It wasn’t enough that Dylan and Klebold (the Columbine bad guys) were sociopaths; they were instead painted as victims in their own right. Had they not been teased, they would not have opened up with firearms and homemade bombs. I find it ludicrous.

    I don’t think it’s coincidental that school violence was unheard of outside the venues of THE BLACKOARD JUNGLE back in the days when one of the primary jobs of school administrators was to ensure that teachers–and adults in general, I suppose–were shown respect. To allow malleable minds to have anything near an equal vote among adults is a recipe for disaster.

    Kids: Love them for who they are, but never underestimate what they can become as they search for belonging.

  6. Fran – I think it’s reassuring to know there will still be a Ripley and Sarah Connor lurking in me even when my boys are grown up! John – now you’ve terrified me. I’m going to be thinking of those 12 year old guards all day but your absolutely right about a child’s capacity for cruelty. It’s chilling. I know in my writing I should be able to confront what I fear most but I’m not ready…not sure I’ll ever be but the point is well taken.

  7. John (G.) wrote:
    To allow malleable minds to have anything near an equal vote among adults is a recipe for disaster.–

    John, you must have met my step-grandchildren!

    Not being a mother, I have a hard time understanding the way suburban kids seem to be born into equal status these days, if not outright royalty.

    I understand loving them; I don’t understand making them little kings and queens.

  8. Ah, Camille, watch “Willy Wonka” again, the Gene Wilder version. Look at the parents, and then walk the halls of your average elementary school or middle school. They’re all there. Not as many Charlies as we’d like, sadly, but the others are there to a frightening degree.

  9. I hear you Camille. I think one of the worst mistakes a parent can make is to be a friend rather than a parent to their kids. Kids need boundaries and guidance as well as love – not permission to do whatever the hell they want!

  10. Thanks Fran and Clare, for not calling me a monster!

    I keep thinking there’s some middle ground between my upbringing — punctuated with fine Italian curses and the end of a strap — and this buddy system we have now.

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