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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM JOANNE SOPER-COOK
I was seventeen years old and away from home for the first time. ‘Home’ was a tiny village located about a hundred miles from the nearest city, a lambent space of green hills sloping gently down to a murmuring ocean, a place about as far as you could get from where I was just then. Our plane had landed some time before seven in the morning, but I’d been up all night, subsisting on a potent brew of coffee and adrenaline, my nerves stretched taut by the endless waiting that seems to be the province of the military – any military. I was an army cadet, and I was going to spend six weeks of my summer training at an army base in New Brunswick. That I had my best friend by my side hardly mattered; I was terrified. I’d heard horror stories about the kind of training we were about to endure, tales of how young cadets like me were singled out for violent punishment by sadistic superior officers, and how one kid, unable to stand it anymore, had committed suicide.
It was all rubbish of course, as I was to soon find out, but when you are seventeen and you are far away from home, the horror stories loom awfully large, and reality becomes a small and narrow figment of your own imagination. I had left behind the gentle green hills with their summer sounds of sheep and cattle for what, exactly? I didn’t know, but a line of nearby tanks, their metal hulls bristling with weapons, didn’t reassure me. Left to my own devices, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have crumpled to the floor and sobbed my guts out, except I was afraid to get my uniform dirty. What the hell was I doing here? What had I gotten myself into?
Looking back on it now, I can smile to myself. I was seventeen; nowadays I am forty-two. Older, of course, perhaps a tiny bit wiser, but often just as apt to scare myself silly with my imagination, which is forever fomenting violent ideas. Just recently I missed the postman, and a note saying that I had a registered letter sent me into an absolute tizzy. What was it? Was I being sued? (For what, I’ve no idea, but try telling that to my delusions.) Would I go to jail? Was it a cease-and-desist letter from some huge corporate entity, advising me that I’d better stop writing about hot men having hot sex because it violated some copyright or other?
As it turns out, the thing wasn’t a letter but a parcel containing author copies of my new book. Hubby rolled his eyes and stroked the spot where his moustache used to be, but didn’t say anything. After twenty-four years, he knows me far too well. But my reaction in this case seemed to parallel so much of my authorial experience, to wit: I am afraid; I push through that fear; I am no longer afraid. Usually, pushing through my fear takes me to new and interesting places; sometimes it just takes me to the other side of my fear. The only way out, as they say, is through. About a year ago the idea for a very particular sort of book began to gnaw at me, and the notion kept returning and returning no matter how much I tried to push it away. I wanted to write a book about a serial killer, a paedophile, a murderer of children, a man who seeks to alleviate some terrible psychic tension by killing. He would have been convicted once already, tried and condemned to a lifetime of chemical castration which would check his physical impulses but not his psychological malaise; added to this was the fact that he himself was a survivor of the most heinous child abuse by his sadistic grandmother. His name, I knew, was Hans; the grandson of a Nazi war criminal, he was the sort of perfect monster our violent society creates:
Sometimes the voices rush through you, floating and distorted, like voices unter Wasser: “He doesn’t know. Gerda, why trouble the boy? He’s asleep.” You swim up from under layers of it like melted glass and your throat feels clogged, your nostrils full of glue, still unter Wasser. “He doesn’t remember, Gerda. The boy is too little to remember. Not like me, growing up so poor, hardly a crust of bread to put into our mouths. He’s got nothing to be afraid of.”
The rain, streaming down the window glass: lace curtains and a vision of the harbour in the distance, the sound of a foghorn, somewhere out beyond Prosser’s Rock. You would go out to walk today—it drives you out to wander the streets: the fire, the voices, the torment. It’s me, walking, accompanied by myself; it’s you, pursuing me. It will onlybe soothed by air and water. Except it’s raining and you despise the feeling of wet wool; I despise the feeling of wet wool. Walking for aimless hours and it feels to me like being at the edge of a groaning abyss. I read that once: you read a lot when they give you the drugs, first. You feel like crawling out of your own skin, shed it leave it behind, and so—und so Weiter.
Take your stockings off. Take it all off, my boy.
You read a lot: Paolo and Francesca, whirling in the abyss. It rises like faces on the surface of the water. Shakespeare’s plays, which are always peopled in your head by Waterhouse paintings: The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing. You read old poems, too, Keats and Byron, and Tennyson, stories about the vagaries of fate. The Lady of Shallot, drifting forever in her open casket, decorated and serene under the empty sky.
I walk on the concrete pier. I walk often near the water. I see myself reflected: a stout young man in hat and coat, a figure from another era. Round baby face, slightly protruding eyes, the greedy mouth that must be fed, that moves about on the front of this round face, that feeds itself, that hums and whistles: Monster. Untier.
The idea of writing someone like Hans – especially in first-person singular – terrified me. I write the way Method actors act, by becoming the character as nearly as possible. I would have to think the way a child killer thinks, go where he would go and regard the world around me with a murderer’s eye. I would have to draw on my own elemental darkness, the capacity for evil which (I believe) we all have, every single one of us. What if, by ‘becoming’ Hans, I lost touch with my own reality? What if, once I got to where I needed to go with this character, I couldn’t find a way back? As an abuse survivor myself, wouldn’t writing such a book tend to stir up old memories? Was I willing to (as people nowadays are fond of saying) “go there?”
I remember reading a saying in a book once: Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain – which is all fine and good if your fear doesn’t take you over to the point where you no longer function as a human being, but are reduced to an endless, psychic screaming. I’ve been there. I don’t like it very much. Years after the events of my abuse I still sometimes snap awake in the middle of the night, eyes wide open and my heart slamming into my ribs with the violence of a trip hammer. Maybe because of my abuse – or in spite of it – I’ve tried to face the big and scary things of life head-on. I don’t always succeed, but if I make a conscious effort to do the things I fear by choice – rock climbing, canoeing, rappelling/abseiling, backpacking through the Scottish Highlands on unfamiliar trails. (I haven’t worked up the nerve yet to skydive but I very much want to; spelunking/caving you can keep because I’m claustrophobic.)
Doing physical things that scare me is one thing (I learned rappelling at the army base; my instructor, dissatisfied with my refusal to lean back into the ropes and let myself fall, pushed me off a 200-foot tower) but emotional fear is quite another. I didn’t know if I had the guts to become Hans, especially for the months and months that a book like this would require. I had to find a way “in” to the character, so I decided to do what everyone says is best and write what I knew. I wrote Hans first of all as an abuse survivor, someone for whom the urge to kill is the inevitable result of years and years of horrific and sustained abuse. I had no specific outline in mind and I didn’t plan the book beyond a vague idea of what it ought to be about. I imagined the entire process as a mostly one-sided conversation, where Hans would talk and I would listen very carefully and take down what I heard. I didn’t write it on computer as I usually do, but in longhand, in a series of hard-backed notebooks. Even the handwriting wasn’t mine, but Hans'; he insisted on writing with a fountain pen. Nothing else would do.
Hans took me to places that scared the living shit out of me, and to some other places that surprised and delighted me. He showed me that being human means being flawed and it means being afraid – but it also means picking oneself up after even the most prodigious of falls, to begin again. To fall is not to fail; it’s just a temporary stutter in one’s progress, a necessary pause.
The first time I ever stood in front of the climbing wall I was afraid. I’d suffered from a lifelong fear of heights that verged on terror. I couldn’t do this. I would fall. I would be humiliated in front of other people – that, I realised, was the root of my fear, the sum and totality of it, that people would see me fail, and they would think less of me because of it. I’d make a fool of myself – but making a fool of myself is what life is all about. (God knows, I’ve gotten even better at it in recent years.) This was something important that Hans was telling me, something he was teaching me: when you have done something so absolutely horrible that there can be no possible forgiveness, where do you go? When everyone in the world knows what you have done, the crimes you have committed, the violence you have displayed towards another…what then? What do you do?
You do the best you can. It’s the same no matter what we’re doing, and even though we think we have to get it right on the first attempt (and it has to be perfect, OR ELSE) it doesn’t matter if we fail. Try, the old saying goes, and fail. Try again; fail better. There will always be the fear, but sometimes fear is the thing that drives us where we need to go.
In nightmares I am forever fleeing through desolate urban canyons, looming buildings and empty spaces bound in cold concrete. I am pursued by someone whistling, a dark figure who is stalking me, who wants me, but who wants mostly to destroy me. There is no escape. There is nowhere I can go. I wake with a scream of horror and futility dying in my throat.
I put my foot on the wall. I reached up and found a handhold. I hugged the wall, keeping three points of contact. I smelled the stone-dust scent of chalk clinging to my fingertips.
I was still afraid, but I went up.
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
A copy of my novel “As You Despise Me” is available for one commenter.
Morocco, 1941: with World War Two raging in North Africa, the last thing American brothel owner Jake Plenty needs is trouble. When a young Nazi officer is murdered in Jake’s place, French prefet de police Nicolas Renard suspects Jake may be involved…but with an Allied invasion of North Africa mere days away, Jake and Renard must combine their wits, their cunning and their courage to defeat the Nazis for once and for all