“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.” —Harold Goddard
The most dangerous thing that a person can say is- ‘don’t worry. It’s just a story’. The idea that a story can even be ‘just’ is risky. Take a moment and ask yourself- what stories have you told people today? Have you told someone you love the story of a past hurt, told a buddy a funny anecdote to make them laugh; told a child a bedtime story? How did you tell it? How did you describe the ‘characters’? Did you make your ex out to be an extreme villain? Did you claim that ‘no one was hurt’ by your past college prank? Did you tell your child that the hero wins in the end by enduring horrible suffering through to the bitter end?
Whether you recognize it or not, by telling those stories, you are creating reality. When you talk about someone in light of your anger, and subsequently gloss over what good qualities had drawn you to them in the first place, you are creating an ‘evil’ character for your listener that will stick with them for a long time. When you condone certain actions in light of nostalgia to a friend, and do not qualify for fear of ruining the humor, you plant the seed of condoning that action for life. When you tell a child a story, they believe it.
The reality that we create in stories can stick with us for the rest of our lives, too. Take, for example, a popular fairy-tale: Beauty and the Beast. We tell this to our children for a very good reason. We want them to be able to learn how to look past people’s appearances to see the goodness within them, and not judge a book by its cover. However, in many tellings of this story, a second lesson emerges: if your love is true, pure, and strong enough, you can change someone’s heart. While this may also seem like a noble message, consider this scenario: a woman in an abusive relationship is trying to deliberate whether or not to get out of the relationship, or endure further abuse at the hands of her lover. If she’s been told, time and time again, that a ‘pure’ love could change a lover’s heart, what conclusion might she come to? In my own personal experience of abuse, I was led to believe that the reason why I was being beaten was because I did not love my beloved enough. I would end up sticking it out for four years, remaining loyally by his side, because the stories that I had been told had told me that I was the one who wasn’t working hard enough.
Of course, this was not the kind of love that my particular assailant needed. He needed to have someone show him how to love in a healthy manner, whether that be through therapy or through the shock of judicial action. He was truly, and completely, sick- and I had been taught, through not just fairy tales, but the popular fiction of the day that championed brooding, mentally abusive romantic heroes (looking at you, Meyer), that my endurance would be rewarded by a kind of love that was somewhat better than other loves because it had been through such a drastic wringer.
That’s not what I got, however, and that’s not what many women like me get. What they get are bruises and scars that never go away. What they get are traumatic flashbacks whenever they see someone who looks like him, or smells like him or talks like him (or her, women are fully capable of being abusers as well). They get side-glances and judgmental comments from the people who read the same stories, and ask questions like, ‘Well, why didn’t you just leave?’, or, ‘Well, maybe if you had done x, or y’. Their society continues to read stories that perpetuate the glamorization of domestic abuse, they popularize it, and then act surprised when the battered women’s shelters are full to capacity.
We cannot operate on the assumption that stories are ‘just’. They have such power to destroy us- they get under our skin and enflame our imaginations in ways that cannot be done through rhetoric alone. But they also have the same power to raise up victims, to empower a new way of thinking, and to teach a healthy way to love. Think of stories such as Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult, or The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle, or even just the healthy relationships in popular fiction by J.K. Rowling or Terry Pratchett. Begin to have open, honest conversations about the unhealthy relationships that permeate most mainstream, popular fiction and refuse to settle for the messages they give the next generation. I was once told that the reason why you shouldn’t tell rape jokes isn’t just because the joke isn’t funny- it’s because you might be unwittingly telling the joke in front of someone who has, or who will in the future, rape someone, and they will look back on your laughter as assenting to their crime (much as racist jokes have and continued to excuse racist practices, and sexist jokes do for sexist practices). When you tell bad stories to victims who are going through pain you could not even imagine, you are helping to keep them in their situation. When you tell good stories for them to love and believe them, you are giving them the strength to reclaim their dignity and the sanctity of their being. Don’t ever ‘just’ tell a story- you never know who might believe you.
Elizabeth Rose is the author of Till the Last Petal Falls, a modern re-telling of Beauty and the Beast with a social justice slant. 10% of all author royalties from the book are donated to battered women shelters in Colorado. Find her and more of her work on the Once Upon a Reality series at www.thesingingroses.com