Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

On Not Participating In A Collective Mourning

It’s an odd business to not be participating in a collective mourning. By ‘collective,’ of course, I mean ‘seemingly widespread and ubiquitous within my social space.’ In this case, I’m referring to the mourning following the death of Prince last week. There are: musical tributes, personal testimonials, remembrances, markers in public spaces–all the manifestations of a collective outpouring of grief at the death of a man reckoned one of the music world’s most interesting and accomplished artists, a reconfigurer of musical tastes and sexual identities alike. But I have nothing to contribute to this celebration of his life; Prince’s death didn’t touch me the same way. For the simplest and best of reasons: his music didn’t.

I heard ‘When Doves Cry‘ and ‘Purple Rain‘ back in my high-school days; they were an interesting departure from the other offerings of the music world. A few years later, I heard ‘Sign o’ the Times‘ and quite liked it. (A lot; for I still remember where I was when I first heard the track play.) But that was about it. I never bought a Prince album, never played a Prince song on a jukebox in a pool hall or a bar, never bought tickets for, or attended a Prince concert. He simply did not feature on my musical radar. Indeed, from the sidelines, over the years, I watched with some bemusement as his star ascended in both the critical and commercial dimensions. A fan of Prince might say that I don’t get it. And that would be entirely right. I didn’t. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone did.

Still, as this mourning continues, on my social media pages, in the various conversations I overhear, in the many tributes, I feel distinctly isolated. All around me, there is a ritual underway; an invitation to participate has been extended; and yet, I stand on the sidelines, unwilling and unable to acquiesce. I have not been ostracized; I have exiled myself. For my older indifference to the music is still present. I watch and listen to his supposedly memorable guitar solo on a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and do not find it as compelling as the guitar work I have admired in the past; ’tis true, my receiver for Prince signals is not working and has been turned off for a while. I am beyond redemption. Perhaps the future will see me change my ways and join the fold of the faithful. Stranger conversions have been known to happen.

Of course, there is an irony present in my writing of this post. I began it by noting that I had not participated in the collective mourning for Prince’s death. But by putting these thoughts down here, by making note of my distance from his music, I have finally been compelled to step forward and throw my hat in the ring, even if only by way of explaining why I did not do so. Well played, Prince. RIP.

A Fond Remembrance Of A Canine Friend

My brother’s family lost their pet dog yesterday. ‘G’ was a dachshund, brought home a little over twelve years ago. I have never owned a pet and probably never will; I simply do not have the emotional wherewithal for the caretaking required. I have thus never developed a particularly close relationship with domestic animals; my interactions with most pets is always a fairly tentative, bounded one. Not so with ‘G’. This was because on those occasions when I was visiting my brother and his family, I spent extended time in his company. In the course of that period, I was able to experience at least one moment that gave me some insight into the kinds of relationships pets are able to develop with the families who take care of them.

During the winter of 2006/7, while on vacation, I came down with a mysterious stomach bug–a fever, the chills, the shakes, a spectacularly upset stomach, the works. The bug advanced during an evening as a fever took hold of my body, and then it struck hard at night. On waking up in the morning, I informed everyone–my brother and his family, and my wife–I would not be joining them for the New Year’s Eve partying later that night. Then, I staggered back to bed and collapsed. I sought warmth and comfort in my blanket and my supine pose. A short while later, ‘G’ pushed open the door to my room–with his nose, I think–walked over to my bed, found himself a spot next to my feet, burrowed in, partially covering himself with my blanket, and settled down.

And there he stayed. For the entire day, well into the evening, in that darkened room. I drifted in and out of sleep, my body exhausted after the frequent interruptions–the trips to the toilet bowl–during the previous night. My head spun, my stomach churned, shivers ran up and down the length of my frame. And down by my feet, ‘G”s presence provided unexpected comfort and reassurance. His body was warm, solid, furry; I could feel him pressing against my legs through the blanket. It was a desperately needed anchoring in a bodily and mental state that felt desperately adrift.

I did not lack for human company that day. My family stopped in at intervals to bring me water and the little food I could keep down. As evening approached and as the night came on, I slowly regained some strength, enough to try to consume a bowl of watery soup. On seeing me sit up in bed, ‘G’, sensing the worst was over, roused himself, shook himself once or twice, and then left the room. He had done his bit.

From that time on, whenever I hear a pet owner speak about their pets in a language rich with intentionality and affect, I know exactly what they are talking about. I too, sensed an animal draw near and take care.

Thanks ‘G’, rest in peace; we all loved you.

Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.

A Small Remembrance

Over the weekend, I lost a friend to cancer. It was a rare, aggressive varietal, one that claimed her life all too soon. She was diagnosed in November last year, underwent surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy, but the onward march of the malignant tumors within her could not be halted, and so finally, this past Sunday, in the company of her loved ones, she breathed her last.  A few days before, I had understood that she had, to use the language which is so dreaded in cancer treatment, ‘gone terminal’ but I still expected her to be around for a few months at least. But on that fateful morning, when I awoke from a disturbed sleep, made some coffee and sat down at my computer to check my mail, I read the dreaded news: matters had taken a fatal turn, and she was no more.

I had come to know about her illness in January, and after spending a few weeks trying to set up a Skype meeting–the fifteen hour time difference with Australia considerably complicated matters–we finally spoke in March.  She looked well; there was no hair loss, even though she had lost some weight. Her spirits were high; though her cancer was a deadly one, certain features of her particular case had given her doctor and her hope. My wife tried to join the conversation but our toddler daughter was insistent and demanding and distracting, so she dropped in, said ‘hi’ and promised to write an email to say more. (She did.) We bade each other farewell, with a promise that we’d try to talk again sometime soon.  That never came to be.

My friend was an academic, an accomplished psychologist, who wrote acutely and sensitively on–among other things–emotions, narcissism, and psychoanalytic theory; she was a polymath who could talk comfortably about art, literature, and poetry; she practiced yoga well enough to be a teacher; she made ceramic pieces which bore the imprint of her distinctive style; she was a connoisseur of good food and wine; she was a loving partner and mother.  She lived far away from me, but when we met it always was as if the years would roll away. She gave good hugs, she was interested in what I had to say, and she was unfailingly kind and encouraging. She was, to drag out that dreaded cliché, one of those that prove the bitter truth that only the good die young. There was nothing she could have done to prevent the cancer; it is rare, not hereditary, and has no known causes or indications in physical predispositions. She was, in a word that expresses our ignorance of this terrible world’s secret workings the most acutely, unlucky. As were all of those who loved her and cared for her.

All the verbal consolations I send to her partner and her daughter are of scant comfort; their grief is immense, their loss irreplaceable, and I can only offer bromides from a distance. Her death makes this world into a colder and crueller place. But she lived a good life, and she made those she met and worked with and made a home with happier. Those are not insignificant blessings. May her spirit live on.

A Stranger’s Death, Made Familiar

On Monday, as I walked to campus to begin a full day of teaching, I came across–outside a high school that abuts our campus–one of those dreaded memorials to the too-young-dead: black and white and color photographs, flickering candles, bouquets of flowers, notes of affection and remembrance and disbelief, some printed, some handwritten, and lastly, most poignantly, sobbing,disconsolate girls, resting their heads on the shoulders of their equally grief-stricken friends. I stopped and read some of the notes; I looked at the photographs. There she was, a young teen-aged girl, gleefully, artlessly, posing with friends and family, sometimes in a bus, sometimes in a park, sometimes hugging girlfriends, sometimes mugging for the camera, sometimes caught off-guard, sometimes preening, sometimes shy, sometimes dressed to the gills, sometimes lazily casual. It was all there, the bare reminders of a life now over. Around me, some students stopped and stared and read; some  stayed, some moved on quickly. There were uneasy glances cast backward at this reminder of the mortality of one of their cohort.

I read her name; the first name was common enough, but she was still a stranger.  But not utterly so. She had a name, she had a face; her presence in this world was visible through the reactions of her friends, through this public memorial that had confronted me and made my weekday extraordinary. I felt a prickliness in my eyes; some irritation had manifested itself and forced, in response, from my ever sensitive optical apparatus, a secretion of moisture to provide instant relief.

This morning, as I walked to campus again, a block or so away from the high school crossing, my pace slowed. I wondered if I would see the same memorial again. I remembered the girl’s name–incompletely, the spelling half-forgotten. I searched for it on the internet. My first try was unsuccessful; on the second, I added ‘Brooklyn’ and tried again. I found her: she had been fifteen years old, killed in an accident on a New Jersey highway while traveling with her parents. The family car had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Her parents and her sibling were grievously injured; she had been ‘pronounced dead on the scene.’ The picture of devastation was now complete. A family ruined, left to grieve, to mourn the premature ending of their nearest and dearest.

The news article that had come up on my search was utterly nondescript; the kind I see on a daily basis, listing the dead somewhere, killed somehow. Perhaps by murder, perhaps by war, perhaps by natural disaster. But that memorial, those pictures, those notes, those sobbing students, those candles, those flowers, they had made this death–of a complete stranger–that much more familiar.

I walked on. There it was again, the altar of remembrance, now moved to the entrance of the school, next to a legend that spoke of how she would never be forgotten. I stopped again, looked at more pictures, read some more notes. Then, I felt that same irritation in my eyes and I moved on.