Choosing Children: A Huge Investment in a Perilous World

Saoirse Ronan in "The Lovely Bones" (2009)

Kids. Are they bundles of joy? Or crippling burdens? A trip to the mall will remind anyone that it depends on the parent and depends on the kid. However, a headline like that is not going sell papers.

Despite the title of New York Magazine cover story “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life,” readers learn on page six of the six-page article that research reveals in the long run parents do not regret having kids. It’s the childless who have regrets.

Sure, kids will ruin your life. But so does everything, if you live long enough.

My colleague Sarah Wildman acknowledges the frustrations of raising a child in a country that barely provides sustenance, much less support, to parents and their children. However, she does not doubt her decision to make a creature that fills her with the “warmth of 1,000 suns.”

I wouldn’t know, since I’m childless, but I imagine that with all that joy comes a measure of terror. Loving a child means that if something goes wrong, you can never be made whole again.

Last weekend I finally got around to watching the cinematic flop based on the bestselling novel (10 million copies), “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. The time is 1973, and the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl who gets raped and murdered, and then takes up residence in the afterlife. It’s a carnival up there, except for the downer of watching her family cope with her tragic demise.

I’m late to the “Bones” party, I know. I’d been warned by my colleague Bonnie Goldstein when the film first came out some six months ago. But time passes, and you forget. You might even decide you’re lonesome for a story set in the days of yellow corduroy bell-bottom pants.

I’d learned from the years my husband reviewed horror movies how to “enjoy” them. You just focus on how fake the special effects look. And every now and then I need a dose of mainstream crap to wash the last arty, pretentious movie I saw out of my system.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I hoped “The Lovely Bones” would make me laugh. And, since I’m a fan of director Peter Jackson’s 1995 film, “Heavenly Creatures,” perhaps dazzle me as well.

Dazzle me “The Lovely Bones” did not, but it did make me laugh. I laughed at the one-dimensional characters. Even the talented Susan Sarandon couldn’t save the boozy, smoky, mink-coat-wearing grandma. I laughed at the sad piano chords, which caused the mawkish family scenes to border on parody. I laughed at the “in-between,” an anteroom where the newly dead work out their earthbound issues before making their grand entrance in heaven.

Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert complained the filmmakers had given “slight thought to the psychology of teenage girls, less to the possibility that there is no heaven, and none at all to the likelihood that if there is one, it will not resemble a happy gathering of new Facebook friends.”

I did wonder why all of the killer’s victims were hanging out together in the same heavenly meadow. Do their families live there too? Or does circumstances of death trump blood lines? Can other murder victims crash this party even if they were killed by a different guy?

So many questions, but not much time to ponder them, as the film shifts back to Earth and the restoration of the nuclear family unit, the solution of the murder, supernatural sex (think the Demi/Whoopi movie “Ghost,” if you dare) that, however meaningful, does not seem to progress beyond a kiss.

Penetrating this fog of absurdity is the luminous performance of Saoirse Ronan as the girl. Also slouching to the rescue is actor Stanley Tucci, who resists the urge to become evil incarnate and instead delivers an understated (and deeply unsettling) performance.

By the end of the film, the story had given me a little filament of philosophy, and I found myself wanting to know more. I had not read the 2002 novel on which the film was based, so I turned to the Internet.

Amazon customer reviews alone clocked in at over 3,000. I began with the one-stars. The critics did not hold back. Florid prose. Narrator’s voice not believable for a 14-year-old. A reincarnation sex scene that’s implausible for a girl who died violently at the hands of a rapist.

One customer headlined his review, “What They Read in Hell.” He wondered why detectives were stumped by the murder despite the fact the victim was killed less than 100 yards from school, less than 100 yards from home, and less than 100 yards from the murderer’s home.

And how did the killer remove almost all evidence from the underground bunker he’d built — and filled to the brim with child-magnet knickknacks — within the space of a few hours?

There were so many holes in the plot that I began to suspect the novel was not really a novel at all. It was a long poem.

Poets do all kinds of things that make no sense. They defy logic. They connect the unconnected. They make the impossible solid and the solid disappear. As for the dead speaking from the grave, well, on that poets never shut up. (Which may explain the sparse attendance at poetry readings.)

If the death in “The Lovely Bones” was meant to be figurative, perhaps the author suffered a trauma when she was 14. Maybe that trauma left her feeling dead, and she then had to fight her way back to the living.

I was not far off. A search revealed that when author Alice Sebold was a college freshman, she was raped in the same place where, she learned, another girl was raped, murdered and dismembered. The cops told Sebold she was lucky. And “Lucky” is the title of Sebold’s memoir, published in 1999.

Three years later, “The Lovely Bones” appeared on the scene, and a book review appeared in The Guardian. It begins:

“In her recent book of essays, Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood analyzes the unique power of the fictional terrain where voice is still heard beyond death. Using Alice Through the Looking Glass as one of her analogies, she says: “The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant… Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.”

It’s from this time-stopped place that Sebold’s heroine Susie Salmon says, “I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.”

That’s a skill familiar to cancer survivors, of which I am one. As I watched this story set in 1973, I found myself thinking of another frozen moment, another young girl, another loss.

In the Washington Post feature, “The Halloween of My Dreams,” writer Marjorie Williams helps her 11-year-old daughter Alice with her trick-or-treat costume of bell-bottoms, fringe, glitter and “awful silver platform shoes, like something I wore in 1973.”

“As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me a radiant smile. She had become my glimmering girl: She looked like a rock star. She looked like a teenager. She looked absolutely stunning. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes, and as the front door slammed behind her, it came to me — what fantasy I had finally, easily entered this Halloween. I’d just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I’d cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I’d played was the 52-year-old mother I will probably never be. It was effortless.”

Two months later, after a four-year battle with liver cancer, Marjorie Williams died. She was 47.

We live in a perilous world. Between birth and death, there’s an awful lot of letting go we have to do. I’m not very good at it, so I appreciated Sebold’s perspective, as expressed by Susie Salmon. By the end of the story, Susie has at last accepted her fate.

“I was here for a moment,” she says, “and then I was gone.”

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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