The blogging world’s sweetheart, Grad, was kind enough to pass onto me the Honest Scrap Award, which you will all know comes with a meme attached. I have to write ten things about myself, and frankly if you’ve been around the Reading Room for a while, I am an open book to you all. But I will tell you about an incident that happened here last night, and which could be filed under the heading of ‘multiple maternal dilemmas’.
1. What set it off was a classic dilemma for a mother of a 15-year-old boy. My son very much wanted to see the film Watchmen, from the graphic novel of the same name. It’s an 18 certificate and I was not at all sure about it. However, my son has never been one to have bad dreams or to find television programmes or films particularly frightening. He said he would watch it with his father and Mister Litlove was keen (I don’t think they’ve made the film he won’t watch). He said having read the book he even knew when to close his eyes. And then I saw a cheap DVD for sale and so…
2. Yesterday evening my son asked me if I thought his dad would like to see the video. I went off to ask my husband who was at that point cooking dinner. For some reason my son likes having me carry messages this way. He likes to tell me incidents from his day so that I can then recount them to his father in his hearing. It must be like having your own special envoy. Anyway, I conveyed the message, my husband was delighted to relinquish control of the cooking utensils and I united the two domestic superpowers on the sofa. They looked very sweet all cuddled up together. I refused point blank to watch anything so violent and retired to read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in peace over my dinner. I think that’s called irony.
3. A couple of hours later they emerged. ‘Was it really bad?’ I asked Mister Litlove. ‘It had its moments,’ he replied. But it transpired that my son was not upset over what he’d seen but over the ending of the movie. ‘It was a terrible ending,’ he grumbled. ‘It sort of tailed off. Nothing was resolved and there were no real conclusions. I hate endings like that. I like everything to be clear at the end and sorted out.’ ‘You want closure,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ said my son. ‘That’s what I like stories for because they have closure. The ending on this one was really disappointing.’
4. Meanwhile, Mister Litlove had been searching around on the internet for a review or a reading of the movie. Now I’m not about to recount the plot of a film I haven’t seen. But if I’ve understood the menfolk correctly, there’s a clash in the story over modes of retribution. One of the superheroes picks the baddies off individually and metes out justice personally and with great violence. The other superhero, and his enemy, doesn’t see things as black and white, but as shades of grey. Near the end of the film he arranges for New York to be destroyed, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, but saving in the process, apparently, the lives of billions who might have been drawn into the conflict. This probably makes no sense as it’s not at all clear to me, but I could tell the problem was over a sticky moral compromise, and my son is not keen on compromise at all. ‘No one innocent should have died,’ he complained. ‘They should have found a way around the problem so that there was a good ending.’
5. ‘I’ve found someone’s blog post about it,’ said Mister Litlove. ‘And they say that the whole point of the movie is that it is ambiguous and doesn’t deliver a clear moral message.’ ‘That’s what I want,’ said my son. ‘A clear moral message. I do think things are black and white, just like the superhero, Rorschach. And even if life doesn’t always end up the way it should, books and movies ought to. It’s so much more satisfying.’ I thought back to my own 15-year-old self. ‘I’m pretty sure I was just the same as you at your age,’ I said. ‘I liked books because they were clear about right and wrong and had the kind of really pleasing endings where bad people were punished. As you get older, you end up living through moral dilemmas and the experience makes any sort of clear cut judgement that bit harder.’ ‘Hmph,’ said my son. ‘We should talk about this again in 20 years,’ I joked.
6. Of course we kept on talking about right and wrong and black and white well past all our bedtimes. Eventually, Mister Litlove insisted the day was over and my son and I went to clean our teeth. He was by that point complaining that he didn’t have enough control over his life and couldn’t change the things he wanted to. ‘What would you change if you could?’ I asked. ‘People,’ he declared. Ahhhh. Then I began to see that the moral complexities of Watchmen had touched a sore nerve that had to do with school. That’s the thing about books and movies; it doesn’t matter if you’ve been transported to the Australian Outback or a distant planet in a different solar system, somehow or other you are so often being made to think about your own life.
7. My son is in a physics class with a teacher who can’t keep control. And rather than do something about it, the teacher seems to have given up, and simply keeps talking over the din of the boys talking to one another, ignoring him or worse. ‘Every time he turns his back there’s a hail of missiles,’ my son told me. This has somewhat ruined the class for my son, who is not an agitator or an instigator, but alas for him, one of life’s good boys, who only asks to be left quietly alone to get done what he must do. I was exactly the same. I never understood the jungle of the playground, or the wild, random aggression of the children. It left me bewildered and a little freaked. This is what they don’t tell you about parenthood: it is so hard to see your own flaws and weaknesses reproduced in your child in a way that you are unable to do anything about.
8. ‘You know you can’t change the disruptive children,’ I said. ‘You can only change your attitude towards them, and not let them get away with spoiling your day.’ Well, my son knows this, but of course it doesn’t feel that way. ‘I don’t know why people want to behave so badly,’ he said. ‘And it’s not fair that they can do whatever they like and get away with it.’ ‘They’ll get their comeuppance in time,’ I said. ‘You just have to believe in natural justice.’ ‘But I don’t believe in natural justice,’ he complained. ‘There isn’t any. There’s no reason why bad people can’t get through their entire lives with nothing awful happening to them, while good people have to put up with all sorts of tragedies and disasters. I don’t think there is any kind of retribution that you can rely on.’
9. Mister Litlove had been listening at the door and he said. ‘Oh I don’t know. There was a boy I knew in college and he was one of those types who seem to have it all. He was very confident and very clever, but he only did exactly what he wanted and often that wasn’t any work at all. But he got away with it all the time and no one did anything about it. Anyhow, he graduated with a good degree and went to work with Goldman-Sachs. And then we heard he’d been sacked for ‘practices that were not compatible with the culture of the organisation.’’ He grinned. ‘I enjoyed that.’
10. ‘And I think that people who behave badly have some sort of imbalance in their characters,’ I added. ‘I’ve seen a lot of miscreants in college, and whenever we really considered whether they were mad, bad or sad, we always ended up deciding they were basically sad. If that’s how you are, then I don’t think you enjoy life, not really.’ ‘They all seem cheerful enough to me,’ said my son, darkly. Ahh blogging friends it is so difficult trying to comfort children as they get older. Because on the face of it they have right on their side: life is fundamentally unfair, a percentage of the people you are obliged to deal with are fundamentally annoying, and there is no recourse to satisfactory judgement that would make things all right. And for precisely these problems we have stories, that pat life into a better shape and bring us the comfort of meaning and clarity. Unless, of course, their point is moral ambiguity. I wanted to find some argument that would comfort my son, whereas all he really wanted was to be confirmed that he was right. But how can any mother actually say, yes, my darling, this is the terrible world that I have brought you into, and for whose inadequacies I now feel obscurely guilty?
Still, it is clearly natural justice at work here, as I feel I have been taught a lesson about bringing violent films home: they clearly cause way too many difficult metaphysical discussions!