Overly-Sensitive Reader, Know Thyself

I’m reading Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?  Goldman is a novelist, but this isn’t a novel, it’s about the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala in 1998.  This is absolutely not a book I should ever read.

When I read Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse I noticed a curious effect the books had on me.  Aside from the anger, frustration and pain the stories in those books made me feel, I found myself walking around in fear, nervous as I turned corners on the street or walking out of a building.  I didn’t know what was wrong with me, what had me so freaked out.  Then I recognized it: I was identifying too intensely with the people in the books.  I was walking in the street, expecting the US Cavalry or an FBI agent to come round a corner and shoot me, expecting to be ambushed as I stepped out of my apartment building.

I mentioned this to a woman I worked with at the time, and she was certain it meant I had been a Native American in a past life and that I was reliving my past experience of being persecuted by the American government.  Yeah, well, maybe, but I don’t think so.  I actually think there are other reasons for my fear, but the fact is I know that I have this reaction to stories of violence, true stories of violence.  And not just in books.  I have this response to watching Goodfellas (which hasn’t kept me from watching it several times, but the feeling is definitely there), to watching Wonderland.

I mostly spare myself from taking in stories that will trigger this intense fear.  For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until I started turning the pages that this would be a story I shouldn’t read.  Goldman starts us off with facing-page maps of the neighborhood in which Gerardi’s murder takes place and the house in which the murder takes place.  Boxy line drawings like I might make using MSWord, no real images.  Those maps were the flashing red “DANGER!” light for me, the signal that I should close the book.

But the book is this month’s selection for the reading group I’m in, and I’ve been such a slacker in the group lately, showing up the last two months without having finished the chosen book (two months ago I hadn’t even finished reading the foreward!), and I had decided that wasn’t going to be true this month.

I am a quarter of the way through the book now.  And feeling gutted.  Last night I came home terrified, as if I was going to walk into my house and find a thug waiting to beat me to death, as if I would turn on the light in my living room and find Bishop Gerardi’s body.  This kind of irrational fear isn’t very ‘calmable’ for me: leaving the lights on makes me a target, turning them off means I can’t see when the killers come for me.

Right.  Don’t try to make it make sense.  It doesn’t.  I’m not a high-profile investigator of human rights violations.  I haven’t just published a report that names names and documents my country’s horrifically violent recent history.  Oh, and I’m not in Guatemala, and it isn’t 1998.  Right.  It’s really just unlikely that I will meet Gerardi’s fate.  Of course.  Explain that to my fear response.

I passed a miserable night, getting maybe two hours of fitful sleep (with lights out but the classical music station keeping me company).  And by this morning I was fine.  Not sure how tonight will be, but probably a bit better.

How on earth could I have enthusiastically voted for this book as our January selection without realizing what I’d be getting myself into?  In this way, I know myself extremely well, but where was all that self-awareness when I needed it? I’ve let myself get mired in a painful, ugly story that’s keeping me up nights, and somehow I didn’t see it coming.

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14 thoughts on “Overly-Sensitive Reader, Know Thyself

  1. I remember having the same reaction to THe Family about Charles Manson. I had to stop reading it because I was reading at night and then having nightmare that I was the one being killed by his group. I shudder to remember.
    Deliverance, the movie also left me very fearful. I don’t have that reaction often. Oh yes, there’s a new movie about the Iraq war. I had to walk out half way through…
    Just too much for me.
    I’m remembering…
    Bonnie

    1. Oh, Bonnie. Sorry to have brought up unpleasant memories for you! When I watched Helter Skelter (and heaven only knows why I watched it), I was a wreck. The only thing that finally enabled me to calm myself a little was — and I know this is terrible, but … — the knowledge that, as a poor black person, I wouldn’t have been on Manson’s hit list.

      Deliverance was really disturbing, but didn’t trigger my ‘hunted’ response.

  2. Oh, Stacie. That sounds exhausting. I hope tonight goes better and you get some restful rest.

    I wonder if the book discussion will give you an opportunity to exercise some of those demons, and help give you some additional detachment.

    1. Thanks, Alejna. Someone asked me yesterday why I don’t just stop reading if it’s upsetting me so much. Sounds easy enough … but, because this is about something real, I need to know what happens. I want to know if the guilty (those who ordered the murder and those who carried out the order) were identified and held responsible in some way. I need to see the story through to the end. Once I’ve done that, I’m usually fine.

      Last night was better. Still had the radio on, but slept better and longer.

  3. One of the things about you that I love most is your capacity for empathy. It totally sucks when it backfires on you like this! (P.S. Try reading only in daylight, with other people around.)

    1. I’m still surprised by just how much this book freaked me out. I’m just in the last day or so starting to get back to normal. It’s been a troubling couple of weeks!

  4. molly

    In addition to your strong empathy, this may also be the flip side of the person you are who hitch hikes and talks to strangers in foreign lands. This may be the other side, the part who feels your vulnerability as an African American woman who takes public transportation and walks by herself in the evening. We are all potential victims of violence. We have no bodyguards.

    1. It’s funny that you say this, Molly. I said something similar to myself on my way home one of those first ‘scared’ nights. I was working so hard to talk myself out of being afraid, convincing myself that I wasn’t Bishop Gerardi, that nothing was going to happen to me … and the voice in the back of my head reminded me that I don’t need to be anyone in particular, that the world is full of random violence and I could easily be a victim of it.

      That realization wasn’t at all a comfort to me in that moment! I hadn’t thought of it as a kind of flipside to my uber-trusting behavior. Hmm … I’ll have to think on that one some more.

  5. Molly

    Blendtec, I just don’t get the comedy of this situation. Perhaps it’s because I’m a very fearful person.
    Stacie, I am not communicating very well. I don’t think a fearful person is in any more or less danger than a fearless person. I think that any person who is extremely fearless or fearful might find themselves looking at another point of view sometimes. It’s all a part, as you say, of knowing yourself.

    1. Molly, don’t pay my brother any mind. This is funny … in my family’s wacky sense of humor!

      I think the thing that has driven me the most crazy about this reading experience is the fact that I do know myself so well, that I knew this book would upset me, and yet I went ahead and subjected myself to it all the same. Clearly, in addition to knowing myself, I also have to agree to be kind to myself!

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