To Be Seen, But Not Loved

Last year, I did a number of posts that revolved around seeing: being seen (human and divine editions), and a couple about invisibility. All of these have the theme of being seen and being loved = a very good thing. I feel like I’ve experienced what it’s like to be seen without being loved, thanks to a novel I recently read: J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy (ACV).

I should note here that I am crazy in love with her Harry Potter series. I’ve read each book multiple times, and even took a class called “Harry Potter for Writers.” They’re not perfect books, but I love them.

I did not love her adult outing. It was masterfully written and observed; that I cannot deny. But it was written in a style that I have a hard time connecting with: omniscient, or if not omniscient, then distant third with a crazy amount of headhopping (using multiple POV characters in the midst of almost every scene). But the thing that really got me, was that the characters are seen with brutal precision and completeness, but little to no affection.

Which is odd, given that there is so much palpable affection for her characters in her writing for young people, even the villains.

In ACV, I could understand the characters and their motivations and their histories and their relationships, but I didn’t enjoy them. And I’m shallow enough to want to enjoy spending that much time in people’s heads. Let it also be said that I don’t really want to know what teenage boys think about sex and how they talk with each other about sex: in this case, I will be happy with general knowledge, not specific.

Many characters had wonderful arcs. All my favorites were in a place of better understanding about themselves and their relationships at the end, and I appreciated that. The main antagonists got a certain level of comeuppance, which was somewhat satisfying — but not entirely, because their circumstances altered, but their assumptions and morals did not. They did not achieve any self-understanding; if anything, they were more entrenched in their views than before. That’s pretty standard for villains, though, I guess.

Back to being seen but not loved

There is some horrible bullying between teenage characters in ACV, and and it’s heartbreaking how the victim buys into everything the bully says about her. From her point of view, the bully is the one who sees her clearly. It’s brutal clarity, but she  looks at herself and sees the truth of what he says about her, and compounds it with her own hateful self-talk (fuel also added by her mother). If there weren’t a grain of truth to what the bully said (according to her), it wouldn’t carry as much weight.

Who does JKR have problems with?

I had a brief discussion with someone on Facebook about whether this novel reveals that JKR has problems with fat people. The other person thought so, but I didn’t.

The character whose obesity is most discussed has serious moral failings, to be sure. And there is a scene wherein another character delivers a blistering speech that likens the cost to the taxpayer for the treatment of his obesity to the cost to the taxpayer for the treatment of drug addiction — treatment he spent the novel decrying while he worked to shut down an addiction treatment facility in his village. His failure here is not his size, per se, but his hypocrisy; his size is the occasion to reveal it.

If I take the evidence of her story, the problem I think she has is with attractive people. There are two people who are widely considered to be beautiful in the novel and they are stock characters with little of their interior life shared. We are briefly permitted into the mind of the sexy teenage girl, but her feelings and reactions are stereotypical and understandable for someone in her position: from the big city, forced to move to a small town by her mother who was following a boyfriend the daughter saw with far more clarity than the mother, disdainful of the lameness of the people who think they’re cool in this backwater, knows how her looks affect people, winds up champion of the underdog and pro diversity. She does one mildly stupid thing while blindly drunk, but repairs the damage.

The movie-star-gorgeous Sikh cardiologist barely gets more than 10 lines, all of which are kind or funny and show his ease with and care for the people around him. We never get a glimpse inside him, but other characters frequently mention his looks.

So my question is, why are the beautiful people noble yet essentially uninteresting, outside of the pleasure of looking at them? Why are they not given real problems? Why are they allowed to skate through the story as foils for all the other, far more interesting, characters?

Give the beautiful people real and interesting problems, too! Let them be seen, and not just looked at.

(You see how I tied that in to the theme at the end, there?)


Are You Testing Your Invisibility?

I’ve been avoiding writing about this book (Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray), but there’s too much in there that hits too close to home. Clover is a fiftysomething mother of two (1 college student, 1 recent college graduate), married to a crazy-busy pediatrician, a dog owner, and writer of a gardening column for the local newspaper. She has one little brief blip of invisibility before becoming completely invisible: voice still there, body still there, but she cannot be seen. Her family doesn’t notice. For several weeks. As long as she does all her regular tasks (including sex with her husband), they don’t know anything is seriously amiss.

I picked up the novel in the library because of the cover and title, read the blurb and put it back. “No,” I thought, “that’s way too depressing to be as funny as the blurb implies.” I walked two steps away, pivoted, and picked it up again. Read the first line: “I first noticed I was missing on a Thursday.” Loved the off-hand tone of it, so I gritted my teeth and got it. I was going to read it like it was medicine.

And it was. The book is truly funny and the tone is comic throughout, yet I was on the verge of tears, if not actually crying, almost the entire time. Luckily, it’s a fairly short book (246 pages), and a fast read, so it wasn’t a terribly long time. But still.

The best parts of the book were when we meet the other invisible women and go along as they discover how to use their invisibility like a superpower. An ex-teacher goes to school on the bus (naked, so nobody can tell there’s a person there), whispering in the ears of bullies as their conscience, making sure shunned kids have a place to sit in the lunch room, interrupting cheaters, and generally making life at school better, fairer. Another slips off her clothes in the middle of a bank robbery and foils it. They hold naked meetings so they don’t have to pay for the hotel conference room. They learn how this happened to them (there is a physical reason, it isn’t magic), band together, confront the problem, and achieve a pretty good level of victory.

But Clover’s interactions with her family and the world at large made me so sad. Even a little panicky. I’ve got tears pressuring behind my eyes right now just thinking about it. As long as she’s wearing clothes, the vast majority of people don’t notice that the clothes are floating in midair. Even her doctor responds to her statement, “I am invisible,” with a bland, “We get a lot of that in here,” not even looking up at her from her chart as he talks. The only one who notices and didn’t know other invisible women first, was her best friend.

This is a nightmare that is too easy for me to imagine being real. The first time it happens, Clover panics and wakes up her son to ask whether he sees her. There’s some silly back and forth, including this nugget, “If you feel like I don’t appreciate you, well…it’s because I don’t. I will again, but not until at least ten, okay?” She’s visible by the end of the conversation. Next time, it’s permanent. She didn’t plan on testing her family, but the first time, when she stood in front of her husband as just a nightgown floating in air, and he didn’t notice, but kept up an ordinary conversation, she dismissed it as her own mental illness. And then it becomes a test, a dare.

Aren’t there tons of ways you test the people who love you? If I don’t change the toilet paper roll, how long will it take for someone else to do it? Will anyone notice that I cut/dyed/changed my hair? If I do job X that person Y usually does, will they thank me for it if I don’t mention it? If I don’t plan a night out with the husband, how long before he suggests it? If I don’t hand the camera to someone else and ask to have my picture taken, will anyone notice that there’s little evidence that I’m part of the family? Or that I’m sometimes part of the fun? Maybe it’s just me, but I bet I’m not alone.

What does it mean when they fail the test? It might mean that they don’t love you, but not necessarily. It might mean that they’re wrapped up in their own dramas and anxieties, with some tendency to take you for granted on the side. No matter what, it sucks for you. You feel crappy when they fail. After the first interaction with her husband, Clover cries out, “‘He didn’t notice!’ A pure grief washed through me. It was bigger than the problem at hand” (p.27).

But you also feel kind of crappy when they pass, because you’ve expended time and energy scheming and imagining both scenarios and every one of your interactions is fraught with suspense and expectation. And all the negotiating with yourself to explain every nuance. Clover does this, too: “The next morning when he leaned in and kissed my shoulder, my neck, I started to think about it all another way. Maybe Arthur didn’t see me because he knew me so well and his vision automatically filled in all the things I was, based on the slightest hint of shape or scent. Maybe when you’ve been with someone so long you don’t so much see them as you project them onto things. Arthur could have been making love to my twenty-year-old self, my forty-year-old self…Anyway, this morning, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt” (p.48).

But it’s also kind of irresistible. Another character asks Clover why she doesn’t just tell her family. She admits that it would be better if they knew, “But after awhile it just becomes a point of pride. You start to wonder just how far it can go” (p.151).

Yet it isn’t only pride, it’s also fear. Fear of being unloved. Fear of being unlovable. And hurt. Hurt from all the times your loved ones have failed you in the past. Not to mention humiliation. It’s humiliating to feel like you’re begging for attention. Clover puts this messy soup together this way: “Maybe because we were timid and hurt, having already spend so many years feeling invisible before the truth of the matter kicked in. If we didn’t have the starch to tell our own families that no one could see us, then how could we be ready to tell the world?” (p.157).

Not to mention the mingled guilt and anger in those who’ve been tested. Anger at the person for putting them in that position, but also guilt at being neglectful and clueless. Hurt that the tester didn’t trust them.

It ends pretty well for the characters in the book, and Clover does apologize for testing them, but reading this has convinced me of the stupidity of testing. I’m going to stop it. In fact, I already have stopped it. I changed a door in our kitchen yesterday, and instead of waiting to see who’d notice, I told everyone that I did something big in the kitchen. My daughter wanted to know so she could anticipate it. My son didn’t want me to tell him what, so he could see whether he noticed right away — he did. And I tagged my husband in the Facebook post that had the picture of what I did. When I see that the toilet paper roll needs changing, I’m going to change it. I’m going to open curtains (while teasing my family about really being vampires). When we’re having people over for brunch and I’m busy cooking, I’m going to ask my husband to make the bed instead of wishing that he’d notice that the bed needed making and being hurt when he doesn’t. There’s more, some silly, some deeper, but you get the picture.

And there are more convictions to come because of this book, but I’ll save that for a future post.


Being Seen: Divine Edition

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Allowing Yourself to be Seen, and before that it was The Moment of Being Seen. Those posts were about “seeing” between people, but this week I remembered a great story in the Bible about being seen.

I am amazed at how little the stories in the Old Testament are whitewashed. The people are people, with all their petty and not so petty cruelties and insecurities and fears. It must’ve been tempting to make the heroes of the faith purely heroic, but most (if not all) of them are complex and real. Whatever other issues we may (or may not) have with what the writers/editors chose to include in the Scriptures, I’m grateful they kept the people pretty real.

Hagar was a servant of Sarai while she and Abram were nomads. Most people who’ve grown up Jewish or Christian know about God’s promise that Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, yet, year after year, Sarai didn’t bear him any children. Well past menopause, Sarai gave up hope, and jump started the whole thing by forcing Hagar to have sex with Abram.

So when Hagar became pregnant, is anyone surprised that she didn’t bow with humble gratitude to Sarai for putting her in that situation? The Bible says she treated her mistress with contempt. I can imagine it:

“I’m sorry, since I got pregnant, the smell of your morning leban [mixture of yoghurt and wheat] makes me throw up. I wouldn’t want to put you through that. You’ll have to get your own breakfast.”

“Of course it’s easy for you to walk half the day without a break, you’re not pregnant.”

And is anyone surprised that Sarai doesn’t just accept this constant snarking as her just desserts for ordering her servant to submit to unwanted sex? Abram won’t intervene, so the Bible says Sarai treated Hagar harshly — given that their lives were already harsh, we can guess that she beat Hagar and withheld food and water.

Hagar ran away to the wilderness and an angel approached her at a spring with a crazy mixed message. It’s one of the few stories involving an angel in which the angel doesn’t first tell the person not to be afraid, so it makes me wonder how he appeared. I bet not in a blaze of glory, shining wings unfurled. I bet he appeared as another weary traveler and slumped beside her on a flat rock near the spring. And Hagar wasn’t afraid of him because she’d already been raped and beaten. What could he do to her that was worse than that?

The angel knows her name, knows that she’s pregnant, tells her that she’ll have a son who’ll be “as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives” (Gen 16:12). He gives her the name of the boy: “You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress” (Gen 16:11).

And he tells her she has to go back and submit to Sarai’s authority.

I don’t know that I would’ve seen this as good news, yet she changes the name she called God to El-roi, which means “the God who sees me.” This is a personal name, more intimate than a general title. She says, I imagine with wonder in her voice, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” (Gen 16:13).

Nobody else saw her for her. Sarai saw her as the means to an end, as an insurance policy/just in case/last-ditch effort to fulfill God’s promise. Abram probably barely acknowledged her outside the deed itself, and he certainly didn’t care to do anything about her situation once she’d gotten pregnant. She was a servant. Servants aren’t seen.

So despite the mixed message of blessing and struggle, because God saw her for her, and heard her cries and sent someone to her to clue her into the bigger picture, she goes back to Sarai and has Ishmael.

Amazing, the power of being seen.



Allowing Yourself to Be Seen

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about loving those moments in a novel when a character is seen, truly seen for who they really are, by an unlikely character — those moments when there is evidence of deep and abiding love and understanding.

There’s a flipside to being seen, and that’s allowing yourself to be seen.

A TED talk by Brene Brown has been floating around a lot this weekend, shared on FB by multiple and unrelated friends. It’s about what a researcher was dragged, kicking and screaming by her research, to discovering was the bedrock of human connection: vulnerability.

She talks about how we are our own worst enemy when it comes to connection. We deny uncomfortable truths or emotions. We try to numb those things that make us feel vulnerable and wind up numbing all emotions. We work to perfect the imperfectible. We turn a mere vulnerability into an occasion for shame, which spirals us tighter and tighter into ourselves and farther and farther away from God and others. (This last one isn’t entirely from the talk, but from a book I read in college: Shame: The Power of Caring, by Gershen Kaufman.) We do not believe we are worthy of love and belonging.

I think back to every small group I’ve been involved with — whether it’s Bible study, house church, or book club — and I can pinpoint the moment someone was vulnerable enough to tell the truth about his or her life. Those moments changed each of those groups forever. After that, there was no need to put the shiny face on. No need to mince around and almost say what was going on. We could be real, because someone had the courage to be real first. Someone admitted that things weren’t perfect and were vulnerable enough to show that this bothered them without trying to laugh it off or put it into humorous context. Someone admitted that they made an error of judgment and asked forgiveness for it.

I can pinpoint that moment in a number of friendships. Someone who was really irritating the living daylights out of me told me she was lonely. Flat out. I was lonely, too. And we became friends in that instant, because she was, for the first time, a person to me. I took it as a sign that I told things about myself to my now-husband after two weeks of dating that I’d been afraid to tell a boyfriend of a year: I had the courage and the trust in him to let him see me.

None of those groups or relationships would have been so deep and meaningful if someone hadn’t had the courage to allow him/herself to be seen, bruises and warts and tears and snot running down the face and all. Those moments let the group live wholeheartedly.

That’s Brown’s phrase for how people live who do not deny or run away from their vulnerability. The wholehearted. They experience human connection because they believe they are worth of love and belonging. They love with their whole hearts, with no guarantees. They are compassionate both to others and to themselves. That sounds good. Really good.

I needed to hear this, need to practice allowing myself to be seen more often. I’d rather live wholeheartedly than half-assedly. I need to pray for courage.



Wonderful: The Moment of Being Seen

I love it when a character who’s been presented as mean, tactless, heartless, or downright cruel reveals that he or she sees the main character with perfect and loving clarity.

This often happens in historical romance novels, particularly between noble sons and their cold, distant fathers. I’m a sucker for it every time. And it happened in the mystery I finished yesterday.

In Alan Bradley’s novel series, Flavia de Luce is an 11-year-old chemistry buff and poisons expert living in a big pile of a house in 1950s rural England with her father and two older sisters. In the second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, her father’s sister comes to visit. Aunt Felicity is a blowhard of the first order. Every word out of her mouth is an insult to someone, especially to her brother about his house, his finances, and how he’s raising his daughters. She’s bossy, controlling, and Always Right.

But one day, she makes Flavia carry her painting equipment to the island of the ornamental lake behind the house so she can paint the folly (fake Roman ruins). Once there, she tells Flavia tales of her own childhood at that house, playing with Flavia’s mother. Harriet had died the year after Flavia was born, and her older sisters had always told her that she had, through being so disappointing that she’d driven their mother to go all the way to Tibet to escape her, killed their mother. And her father is constantly present, yet too absent to correct this impression.

So Aunt Felicity’s words change Flavia’s beliefs about herself in a heartbeat. “Good heavens, child! If you want to see your mother, you have no more than to look in the glass. If you want to know her character, look inside yourself. You’re so much like her, it gives me the willies.”

Aunt Felicity goes into detail, particularly about their mutual love for chemistry. But then she, who is presented as aggressively conventional, talks to Flavia about her passion for ferreting out information, particularly about murders. Because, really, what good would it be to be an under-supervised 11-year-old poisons expert if you couldn’t run around the village solving murders.

“You must listen to your inspiration. You must let your inner vision be your Pole Star…. You must never be deflected by unpleasantness…. Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You much follow it, Flavia…. Even when it leads to murder.”

And then this, which is amazing advice to anyone: “If you remember nothing else, remember this: Inspiration from outside one’s self is like the heat in an oven. It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano: It changes the face of the world.”

Stuff like that gets me every time. It does in love songs, too. The chorus of Alanis Morisette’s “Everything” sums up why:

“You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I’m ashamed
There’s not anything to which you can’t relate
And you’re still here”

So it isn’t just the moment of being seen, it’s being seen and also loved, appreciated, embraced.

That changes a person, gives them courage to be who they always wanted to be, but were afraid of what others would think. So even though the moments are just that, momentary — Aunt Felicity goes back to being a bossy blowhard. Spouses drift around each other. Friends take each other for granted. We repeat lines in the liturgy unthinkingly — what we believe about ourselves has been changed. And hopefully our actions will follow.

That moment of being seen can be pretty momentous. And now I’m getting as sappy as if I’d just read one of those scenes.