Alex wrote a post this past weekend about the vampiric
nature of writers.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that for
writers, life can sometimes seem like a series of vignettes, a compilation of
observations that we distill into experiences and memories that propel our
work. I’d even postulate that crime fiction writers get a wealth of inspiration
from the everyday life going on around us – let’s face it, there is no desert
when it comes to crime as inspiration. Just look at your evening news, the
majority of lead stories are crime related. If it bleeds, it leads.
I know this is true for me. And over Christmas, I had an
experience that shaped my view, sparked an idea, and gave me creative
sustenance. I just wasn’t happy about it.
Hubby and I were heading to my parents, and their house is
on an island. There are two bridges over to beachside, and we were heading
toward the South Causeway, a relatively new structure that allows for large-mast
ships to pass through on their journey along the Indialantic waterway. The
North Causeway is still a charming drawbridge, the South is mammoth by
As we reached the base of the bridge, there were cop cars
littering the road, and they were directing people to turn away. There have
been some terrible accidents on the bridge – the speed limit is much too high,
so the first thought was bad smash-up. But I saw a few people walking around at
the top and realized, no. It was worse. It was a jumper.
Now, this bridge is big enough to do some serious damage if
you went over unwittingly. About four stories high. Not a guaranteed death, but
you’d get hurt. Badly.
I was horrified at my immediate reaction. We must pull over.
I need to see this. I can work this into a story. I need to assimilate the
scene, burn the images into my mental retinas. Before I knew it, I was
vocalizing my thoughts. I told hubby we needed to stop. I heard myself giving
him directions into the local library parking lot, which sits at the base of
the bridge. There was already a group of people doing the same thing. But things
got worse. I sickened myself when I realized I had my camera. In my bag, at my
feet. And as the car stopped moving, it was in my hand.
A familiar sense of detachment flooded me. I got out of the
car, and snapped a few shots, telling myself that if I were a photographer and
this were my daily job, I wouldn’t have two seconds of hesitation about taking
pictures. I’m simply documenting at this point, a purely dispassionate
observer. I am not rooting for this man to jump. I am not glorying in his pain.
I am not wondering what it would look like if he actually lets go of the
railing he seems to be clinging to as if he really doesn’t want to be doing
this. My mind can make all of those images and words for me. I am absorbing. I
am being a vampire.
I’ve seen some pretty nasty things. My research has taken me
into darkness. I’ve been at a stabbing scene, seen the results of teenage head
versus .44 magnum in a suicide, viewed autopsy photos and crime scene photos.
But nothing could have ever prepared me for a group of people, gathered at the
base of a very big bridge, all yelling one collective word. “JUMP!”
That’s right. While I’m mantra muttering Don’t Do It under
my breath, the redneck assholes who were partaking in an afternoon of someone
else’s misfortunes are wrapped in their superiority cloaks, screaming at this
poor soul to kill himself.
But what did I look like to them? I’m the one with my camera
in the air.
I felt a bit like a naturalist. On the Discovery Channel,
you wonder how the videographers and photographers and announcers do it.
There’s always the story of the lion pride, and the cub that’s gotten lost. We
usually see the happy ending, the cub is reunited with his pride. But the
tension I feel leading up to that moment is overwhelming. How many times did
the cub not make it? When does reality intrude on the entertainment value?
If the documentarians are true to their work, they know
there’s nothing they can do to put the cub back on the road to safety. They
can’t interfere; it’s nature’s way. But how do they watch, and record, and
voice-over while the hyenas strike?
I always tell myself, as I turn off the show before I find
out what happens, that it’s happening right now, all over the world. The weak
are being preyed upon by the strong. The naturalists know that if they weren’t
there to document the process, it would happen regardless. That’s how I
justified my actions at the bridge. If we hadn’t stopped for a soda and had
been five minutes earlier, we would have driven by and never known the
difference. But since we were there, I felt compelled to, at the very least,
give the man’s story some credence. I told hubby if he did jump, at least I
could find a way to mention it so he wasn’t lost in utter obscurity, didn’t
become just another statistic.
He came down. He lived. I didn’t know that until the next
day, when a brief mention in the newspaper handled the situation with
surprising delicacy. I’m paraphrasing… Police closed the north Causeway for
nearly an hour yesterday as they talked with a despondent man… Despondent.
What a perfect word to describe the situation.
You may be surprised by that last bit. Yes, we left. I
didn’t want to see what happened. I certainly didn’t want to see him go over. I
was testing fate by even stopping and taking pictures. I was lucky that he
didn’t let go while I was there.
This nameless, faceless stranger has been grafted into my
next book; I’ve got a scene with a jumper. I intend to mine it for every detail
I can, answer all the unanswered questions, glorify and inflate the situation
to fictional proportions. And I have my memories and pictures to thank for
guiding me. All’s well that ends well, right?
If I just weren’t thinking about what drove him to that
bridge in the first place.
Wow. What a story. I’m glad he didn’t jump, sick that people were yelling that he should, and think it’s fascinating that you didn’t stay to see what happened…On the one hand, I would never have wanted to see him jump, but I think I would have had a hard time leaving before I knew what the outcome was.
JT, I love you. What a morally complex situation – thank you for posting about it so truthfully.
Of course I’ve been right there. And I have no doubt whatsoever that if you, or I, or any of us here had any chance or power in a situation like that to SAVE a person, there wouldn’t even be a hesitation – that would be the only objective.
If there is no chance of affecting the situation like that, it is our job as writers to observe and record and find and express the complex truth of it. But I think as human beings we have to constantly be monitoring ourselves (and maybe each other!) – to make sure that morality and compassion and Right Action comes first, and documentation a far second.
It’s the rednecks shouting “JUMP!” that haunts me.
For the most part, I hated being a newspaper reporter. But the part that I missed the most, and still do miss, is not feeling creepy about what you just talked about.
During my days on the paper I went to crime scenes and accidents and all sorts of horrible places and not only did I not feel bad intruding on those scenes, sometimes I felt like I was even helping. But now, I still stop at accident scenes and automatically grab for my camera and notebook anytime I hear sirens.
At least being a writer makes me feel like I’m doing this for some good use. Because even if I wasn’t a writer, I’d still be like this and that would make me just another gawker.
If you want to write, you have to look.
We see so much of this on our favorite TV crime shows, and yet because we know it’s all staged, we don’t seem to absorb or acknowledge the harsh tragedy of a situation like this when it happens in real life. And shame on the “rednecks” – I would’ve used a different term entirely – who had such little regard for human life that they would encourage someone to end it.
Wow, what an experience. Thank you for sharing it with us, and for being so transparent about what you were thinking and feeling during the ordeal. I know that your inclusion of it in your book will do that poor man justice.
“If I just weren’t thinking about what drove him to that bridge in the first place.”
I would argue that is exactly why we are writers.
While most are interested in the jump, we are interested in the why.
A jumper? So, what. Who cares? But a man so despondent… because he just found out the tiny nest egg they were clinging to is all gone due to his day-trading – an idea he thought was perfect to get them out of debt… or despondent because he knows he can longer be in the same room with his own children and still keep them safe from evil… or depondent because he simply is so fucking tired.
We write because we love the why.
And from the ‘why’ – we go to ‘what if’.
A truly chilling experience, J.T. At least it had a ‘happy’ ending. He didn’t jump.
Journalists and writers are a sordid bunch. My associate editor always said that we were basically making money from other people’s stories. And that we specialized in spreading gossip.
Although some of this was said in jest, there’s some truth to it. As a journalist, I had a job to do, but it was helpful to have consideration for the interviewee recovering from a tragic circumstance.
Immunity to tragedy dehumanizes us.
I’m the kind of person now who runs in the other direction when I see police cars gathered. On one level, I don’t want to know. On the other, I’m already making up my own story about the incident.
I can’t stand to see those cubs killed, the lion pride attacked and destroyed.
Writers retrieve the “whys” and “what ifs” and force those who read to think about the same questions, too.
A beautiful, profound post, J.T. Thank you.
Schadenfreude: noun, (SHOD-n-froy-duh)A malicious satisfaction obtained from the misfortune of others.
Empathy: noun, (EM’pa-the)Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.
One’s an asshole and the other an artist.
I don’t think one has to be an artist in order to feel empathy.
In fact, I’ve known many, many artists that fall into the asshole category.
“One’s an asshole and the other an artist.”
And that, Ladies and Gentleman, is the crux of the issue. Beautifully stated, Louise.
We write because we love the why. God, if there were ever a truer statement…
Thank you all for taking the time to share this with me. I feel my fangs retracting already.
Oh my, JT, I am so moved by this! I can only echo bits of what others responded; my appreciation of your willingness to write what you really felt, the immediacy of my “Why,” the astonishingly swift “What if” that came next, and then, even after someone’s “happy ending” I move on to, “happy for who? What if he was a child abuser?” and then, boom, there’s the character I want to write about, the one who’s sorry he got saved, who was maybe rooting for the rednecks. It’s amazing the stages that we go through as writers. Creepy, yes, I guess. But can we help it? Do other people do it and just don’t write it down?
Amazing post, JT.
I really have to agree with Guyot on this one. Asshole and artist are in no way mutually exclusive.
Asshole and artist are in no way mutually exclusive.
Not to be a pain, but that wasn’t the interpretation I took from Louise’s comment.
You made me go back and look to see what I missed. Sorry, got it now.
I’m sort of tired.
We have a bridge that runs over the Don Valley Parkway which was known as “jumpers” bridge. It is so famous for suicide jumpers, Michael Ondaatje began his award winning novel, “The SKin of The Lion”, with a suicide jumper at that location. Since then the city has installed top to bottom mesh wiring on both sides of bridge, because the jumpers were also endangering the cars that passed underneath. It was a huge expense and huge effort to do it but well worth it. Regardless it must have been a trying time. I think I would have left and not stayed. The image of a person doing themself in, or even attempting it would be too painful for me, unless there was a way I could have helped.On another note, the headlines in many US cities I know are filled with what you describe. Too bad, fear and loathing eh?Our city seems quite tame in comparison
Here are todays headlines from The Toronto Star:
Up to communities to save small schools: MinisterPlummeting enrolment in parts of Ontario means communities are going to have to get creative if they want to keep their local school open.
O’Connor worries U.S. may transfer troopsCanada’s defence minister is hoping the United States won’t shift combat…
Tories must pay former candidate Joan Bryden The Conservative party has been ordered to pay at least $50,000 to a former…
France terrorist claim rejectedA Toronto judge has ruled there is not enough evidence to support France’s…
Hospital may force out patientsThe Kingston General Hospital, which is facing an acute intensive-care bed…
Alexandra, I’m with you. That just horrifies me. What in the world motivated them to shout “Jump!” Was it the group mentality thing? Were they so distanced from reality and so in their prankish mindset that they didn’t think this could be their father, their brother, their best friend … even themselves standing their in that same situation one day?
And Lousie, what a beautiful comment. Thank you.
Hey Keith, don’t apologize. Good grief, not here.Get some sleep!
Better to apologize and prove oneself an apologizer than remain silent, and, uh, remove… something.
Maybe this isn’t the best time for me to be doing rewrites.
Hmmm, actually, probably the perfect time for rewrites. Less culpability.
Hey, I agree with Paul and Keith. Asshole and artist are not mutually exclusive. We’re all a little of both and rarely want to admit it.
But you’ve got me thinking more about bridge jumpers now, JT. Do you know that of the 1218 jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge outside my window, only 111 of them jumped facing the ocean instead of the city?
Do you suppose they wanted a last look at the place or the people who hurt them? Or was it the simple fact that only bicyclists are allowed on the side facing the ocean and the horizon?
Hmmm … maybe there’s something to that story about good endorphins from exercise after all.
I don’t believe journalists or authors who incorporate these real life dramas into their fictional stories are insensitive or simply spreading gossip. (Some, maybe, but not all.) If we focus on the why, what if, how’d this guy get up here, etc, and write about it, letting the reader *see* this man’s pain, maybe those yelling “jump” will recognize themselves in the story and feel some overdue shame? Maybe they will even read YOUR story, (putting the jumper into your fiction) and learn something?
And, who knows, maybe someone thinking of using the same bridge as a jumping off place will give it a second thought? Write the story, J.T. I don’t see vampire fangs. I see a spotlight focused on life’s difficulties and letting your readers see the pain.
Authors in general are observers, but many of us are also in that top ten percent who react and do something when we can in dire or unusual situations wherein most stand and stare and remain silent or stupidly, ignorantly go along with the 90 percent crowd that do such things as shout, “Jump, jump!” to a despondent man. Ten percent of the population are leaders, the rest are sheep and followers; we see it everywhere we look if we care to take the blinders off, if we are observant as we wanna be. A good example are those people caught on tape saying nothing, mouths agape, while someone is doing extremely bad, in poor taste things to them as on many of today’s reality shows. I’m reminded of a setup in a mall where Christmas shoppers handed over their precious gifts to a gift-wrapper (free wrapping of course) and the huge fellow absolutely ruined the gifts he wrapped by pounding and jabbing and ripping and using duct tape to finally finish off the job. Standing by, the ‘owner’ of the item in every case simply stood and watched in shocked horror, mouths open…one or two got on her cell phone to call for help…but not one of them got angry or upset enough to hold the man accountable in no uncertain terms. Same thing happens nowadays when a lady cuts herself and sits beside the river preparing to leap in to finish the job. 90 percent of the people seeing her there will pass on by. None of my business. I have shopping to do. Got to get to that dental appointment. It’s rather late. Can’t get involved. Not my problem. Who am I to get involved? Some of it is habitually not being observant, yes, but most of it is sheep mentality. Sorry if I sound cynical, but after all, I am an old man and have seen a few things myself…even helped that woman at the river’s edge, and me a mere Sophmore in high school at the time in Chicago. Got her to street level, talked her into it, where eventually a police cruiser came by and helped me out.