Getting Older, Knowing Less

As a novelist, I consider it my job to portray people accurately on the page. I allow myself to fabricate any number of alternative realities, but I must always populate them with recognizable people whose behavior is guided by the impulses, aspirations, fears, etc. that we know motivate most human beings.

I have generally felt well-equipped to understand human behavior. From a young age I made it a practice to observe people closel; in college one of my majors was psychology; and decades of my own life experiences have provided additional fodder for my understanding. Whatever value my writing may have, I attribute it in part to knowing human beings pretty well. It is said that as we get older, we come to understand all we do not know, and in general I have found that to be true, but about human beings I’ve felt otherwise.

Recently, however, my hubris has been challenged. This came to my attention while I was watching the Netflix series Broadchurch. (What a lifeline these Netflix series have been during the pandemic!) Olivia Coleman and David Tenant play a detective team, Ellie and Alec, in this highly immersive series. At one point Ellie’s son has turned against her, favoring his father for reasons I cannot divulge lest you haven’t seen the series. She is understandably upset about the rift with her son and, for a while, she is solicitous with him, almost pandering, as she tries to win back his love. Then something catalyzes a shift in her approach and she yells at him, furious at him for his betrayal, reminding him of her love, but mainly coming across as irate. Then — and this is the moment that startled me — he comes around. Shocked by his mother’s outburst, perhaps ashamed of his own behavior, maybe understanding the depths of his mother’s love, he takes his mother’s side again.

That scene — or sequence of scenes — won’t leave my mind. It has prompted me to examine my own life experience. Have I ever seen someone change as a result of being yelled at? I used to have some colleagues in academia who frequently yelled at their students in class, leaving them shaken, angry, ashamed, stripped of confidence. I have never approved of this teaching strategy, particularly in a creative arena. I think this shaming, disapproving approach stymies the creative process. Nevertheless, it is true that a few students — a very few — felt that being taken down with anger and disapproval was formative for them.

Still thinking of that Broadchurch scene, I also reviewed my own experience of parenting. Yelling at my son never seemed to persuade him of anything — it only pushed him away.

So what was happening with the mother and son in Broadchurch? Had the writers gotten something wrong? Had they made a choice about human behavior that didn’t square with reality? I wasn’t ready to conclude that. The characters I’m speaking about had endured a terrible murder committed by someone they were close to — that is not something I have experienced up close, so how can I assume anything about what is a reasonable or normal human reaction to such extreme circumstances? I can make educated guesses about how such people would behave, but they would only be guesses, and we all know that human behavior is often surprising. Thinking about this, I gave those writers a pass, assuming they know things I don’t.

In trying to understand that one scene I realized my understanding of people may not be so encompassing after all. I harbor great gaps of ignorance. Yes, we are all part of the same human species, with certain basic needs in common, but beyond that our differences are legion. The ways we react to things are invariably affected to some degree by cultural norms. Who am I to say how a person from India or Senegal or Ireland might react in a given circumstance? For that matter, there are numerous cultural variabilities within the US that are unknown to me.

This thought process has humbled me. I should have realized the limits of my understanding of human behavior far earlier. For the past year I — along with many others — have been truly mystified by what I can only call the rampant evil in the Republican party. The prevailing spirit of meanness which has taken over the GOP is beyond my comprehension. The examples are legion, but a recent example that is on my mind is Mitch McConnell and his cronies refusing to raise the debt ceiling which will tank the economy and spark international chaos. What motivates a destructive action like this that will bring so many people grief?

I have always believed that human beings contain strains of selfishness and altruism in equal measure, good and bad often dueling and seesawing. Sometimes circumstances favor the appearance of one, sometimes the other. Occasionally a Mother Theresa appears, a person whose only apparent motivation is doing good, but she is a rare individual. Shouldn’t it be equally as rare to see people who embody what appears to be pure selfishness? How can there now be so many members of the GOP who have no sense of the common good, who seem to be motivated exclusively by the selfish motives of power and profit? Didn’t their mothers teach them anything?

I have noodled over this for at least four years now and I have no answers to my questions, no insight into what is behind the current upsurge in “bad behavior.” It frustrates me that my understanding has fallen so short. I clearly need to do more intensive investigation into human nature and human behavior, into why and how so many people can end up to be bad eggs. If I were charged with writing a character like Jim Jordan or Mitch McConnell, or maybe a virulent anti-vaxxer or mask-resister, I would have trouble penetrating the psyche of that person. I would probably end up writing a shallow character.

So yes, it’s true, the longer I live the less I know, even about people.

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.