Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Spectrum of Human Behavior

Sometimes I think being a writer is an excuse to engage in the in-depth study of – everything really. Over the last month or so I’ve unintentionally read two books and watched several movies that illustrated some of the most extreme human behavior imaginable. Both works of fiction are award winning novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world where many of the survivors engage in rape, murder and cannibalism. Jose Saramago’s Blindness is an allegorical tale that takes place in an unnamed city and country. It begins when a man goes blind and his site is replaced by a brilliant white (as opposed to darkness). The ailment appears to be contagious and the government quarantines the blind in empty institutions where they are left to fend for themselves. Tyranny, rape and degradation ensue.

Coincidentally, neither book was a choice I would have naturally gravitated to. I read The Road as a concession to the buzz after it won a Pulitzer. Blindness is the selection for a book discussion group I plan to attend this week. While reading both, I continued to wonder whether it’s realistic to believe that the conditions described in each novel could bring about such deplorable human behavior.

I was still reading Blindness when I watched the movie The Secret Life of Words this week. One of the main characters is severely damaged and eventually reveals having been one of fifteen women held hostage, starved, tortured and repeatedly raped at one point during the ten year period of the Yugoslav Wars. When the character recounted her story, I was suddenly awash in images of the Holocaust, the massacre in Rwanda and the genocide in Darfur. When I looked further into how many more incidents of genocide have occurred globally throughout the last several hundred years, I was reminded of more examples than there is room to list here. Sadly, I’ve concluded that art really does imitate life.

But not all is doom and gloom. Just at the point that it would appear the human race is capable of the most base, barbaric acts imaginable, a glimmer of hope appeared in one in a series of Amazon mailers that the UPS man leaves on my doorstep several times a week.

The movie Baraka was shot in 1992 and if you’ve never seen it, I recommend you borrow, rent, or buy it for an experience unlike any other. From’s Editorial Review:

The word Baraka means "blessing" in several languages; watching this film, the viewer is blessed with a dazzling barrage of images that transcend language. Filmed in 24 countries and set to an ever-changing global soundtrack, the movie draws some surprising connections between various peoples and the spaces they inhabit, whether that space is a lonely mountaintop or a crowded cigarette factory. Some of these attempts at connection are more successful than others: for instance, an early sequence segues between the daily devotions of Tibetan monks, Orthodox Jews, and whirling dervishes, finding more similarity among these rituals than one might expect. And there are other amazing moments, as when sped-up footage of a busy Hong Kong intersection reveals a beautiful symmetry to urban life that could only be appreciated from the perspective of film. The lack of context is occasionally frustrating--not knowing where a section was filmed, or the meaning of the ritual taking place--and some of the transitions are puzzling. However, the DVD includes a short behind-the-scenes featurette in which cinematographer Ron Fricke (Koyaanisqatsi) explains that the effect was intentional: "It's not where you are that's important, it's what's there." And what's here, in Baraka, is a whole world summed up in 104 minutes. --Larisa Lomacky Moore

I was able to watch this DVD shortly after finishing Blindness and the movie reminded me that we are all connected, despite the isolation we often feel. At our worst, people can become little more than animals, but at our best we’re capable of incredible beauty.

So where did I end up after all of this analysis of human behavior and of the human condition? I realized that as a human being, I can’t help but be affected by what I hear, see and read about other people, both the victims and the victimizers. It's painful and disturbing and it hits me on a deeply emotional level. I also realized that as a writer, I have to be a student and an observer of psychology, sociology, anthropology and any of the other “ologies” that can help me objectively study the human condition. To tell a compelling story, the ability to attempt understanding of all sides is imperative.

I began to think about the lengths many writers go to in order to immerse themselves in their chosen subjects. Authors have lived in war torn regions, visited prisons, mental hospitals, hospices, disaster areas and countless other locales to research a story to make it as true and as real as possible.

What lengths have you gone to in order to research a story? What methods of study have you employed? How important has research and actual immersion been to your writing?


Patti said...

thank you for such kind old lady fist shaking is diminishing, somewhat.

i love a blog that makes me think AND is fun to read. you have that blog. i will link you...if you don't mind.

Lisa said...


I would be delighted -- and I will do the same -- I love the old lady fist shaking!

Larramie said...

The human condition is amazing to study, truly a never-ending process and -- for the most part -- encouraging!

Shauna Roberts said...

After the federal flood walls broke in New Orleans and the federal government (with the exception of the Coast Guard) waited days to step in and help clean up the mess they caused, many people made their way to New Orleans, slipped past the National Guard and police, and risked their lives to rescue people starving on their roofs. Many New Orleanians who stayed for the storm saved their neighbors' lives. The only reason help was able to get into New Orleans by road is that one man who stayed during the hurricane immediately afterwards took his tree-removal truck and worked long hours for several days removing trees and tree limbs from major roads. (The city either did not have such equipment or did not think to place it strategically.) TV coverage after Katrina focused on looters, but there were many, many heroes.

Lisa said...


As you are a trained sociologist, it pleases me to know that you find the outlook to be good. I do too, despite the indications otherwise. Large groups of people seem to exhibit the most negative human traits only when there is chaos, or a lack of order. Barring those times, I think I believe in Anne Frank's famous quote "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart".


Scott and I watched Acts I&II of Spike Lee's documentary, When the Levees Broke last weekend (we didn't realize IV&V were on another DVD). It's hard to believe that all that devastation took place less than two years ago. I think the eyes of the world were on New Orleans and on the devastated Gulf Coast communities in Mississippi for the days and weeks that the press covered the event and then I'm ashamed to say, I think we let our attention wander to other things. The anger and sadness I re-experienced watching the story unfold again came back. I am amazed at the spirit and the resilience the people from that area, including you have and I was and am disgusted at the negligence of our government -- that children and the sick and elderly were left stranded and dying without food and water for days and that with the possible exception of the Coast Guard, our government watched it happen and did nothing. I can never think of New Orleans without recalling an experience I had on a business trip there in 2004 and I can't actually tell the story without crying. I was staying in the Mariott on Canal Street and I noticed every time I stayed there that everyone who worked in the hotel was genuinely friendly, as was everyone in town, from the cab drivers to the waiters and waitresses. I finally said something to a bellman in the elevator. I told him I traveled frequently on business and never found people nearly as friendly as they are in New Orleans. He told me that it was because they lived in a beautiful place and they all loved to have a good time, but they knew that it could all be gone anytime if a big enough hurricane came along so they wanted to enjoy life every day. I swear that happened and I'll never forget it.

Shauna Roberts said...

Spike Lee is planning another documentary following up what has happened since the first one. Everyone is pleased that such an important filmmaker has taken an interest in us and what happened. There are government levees in many places in the country, and some of these places are just as vulnerable as New Orleans to catastrophic levee failure and the resulting devastation. The more people know about New Orleans, not only does it help New Orleans, but also--one hopes--it encourages people to investigate the state of the levees in their own areas. And perhaps it will make the Army Corps of Engineers ashamed and encourage them to not do such slap-dash jobs.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf