Suffering, it seems, has transformed into a form of social currency. For women, primarily, but a few men have started to see the appeal of admitting to a certain level of misery to gain likability. Is it me? Or do we all seem more likely to trot out our sad stories not only for catharsis but, increasingly, for profit?
Perhaps this isn’t really a *new* trend. Certainly suffering has been a bit more of an asset since the advent of the best-selling memoir and the ad-revenue-generating reality television show (or blog). Pretty much everyone knows – intuitively, by now – that to win anyone’s vote or garner a lot of publicity, one has to open up about life’s trials and tribulations.
I could list examples here, but they are too many and too obvious. You all know what I mean. In reading this post, I’m sure you’ve already had a few examples spring to mind. You might even have a few “real-life” examples of people you know using their troubled childhoods to explain or excuse some present-day behavior. Don’t we all, on some level, engage in a pornography of suffering?
Listen, I am no stranger to this myself. But relating tales from my childhood is a relatively new phenomenon for me. For years, all I wanted was to seem normal (whatever that is), like I had a “normal” life. As Oliver Sacks once wrote about his patients, I spent a lot of time “acting being normal.” In the past decade, however, we have – as a culture – started to be more “open” about our abnormalities, our uniqueness, our peccadilloes. That’s probably a good thing, or at least has good effects (feeling closer to others, a relief that we are not alone in suffering or troubles, etc.). However, I also feel like the memoir/reality TV craze has upped the ante. It’s not enough to share the past, we have to dramatize and enact it in order to gain legitimacy as “sufferers.”
Sometimes I feel like we’re all engaged in a contest to prove Who Has Suffered the Most. Like there is an award for this, outside of life experience and insight. (Well, maybe there is. I know quite a few people – myself included – who got literary agents due to an interest in their abnormally sad tales.)
I remember when I first realized that my painful childhood could be an asset. It was while reading Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Tale of Staggering Genius. He had taken this awful thing in his life and turned it into a best-selling narrative. “Hey,” I thought, “I can do this. I’ve got a heartbreaking tale.” Clearly, I was not alone. In many way, Eggers’ and Frank McCourt opened the floodgates to a deluge of sadness, struggling, and sickness. We read about cancer, about being widowed, about alcoholic parents, about abuse, about homelessness, about depression, about divorce, about losing a child, about attempted suicide, about anger, about self-starving, about pain of so many varieties that I have lost interest in taken a full inventory of them.
Not to sound like a curmudgeon who doesn’t care about people suffering, but lately I’ve started to ask myself: So what?
Writing a memoir was the catalyst for the question. In unearthing and examining my own suffering, I started to wonder what purpose it all served. Sure, it was – in some ways – therapeutic for me, but why did I feel the need to share my pain with others? To what purpose? To what end? Then, as I struggled to find a narrative arc to the story of my childhood, I began to feel uneasy about my participation in the genre. Was I just dragging these stories to light so that I could gain readership? And if so, what the hell did that mean about me? About my potential readers? About all of us together?
Medical anthropologists are no strangers to thinking about the pornography of suffering (in fact, I stole this term). Why do pictures and narratives of people suffering move us? How do they move us? What work are they really doing? Does all this visible suffering make us numb to the real thing? (For an academic take on this, see Carolyn Dean’s article here.)
I participated in a “beauty” contest recently, and I noticed that in many of the women’s narratives of why they felt beautiful after 35 (which accounted for 50% of the judging), they often made recourse to their suffering. I am not saying I am innocent of this, since I, too, wanted to “win” the contest. I intuited, like almost everyone else, that to “win” people’s vote, I needed to relate a story that people could empathize with. Some of the contest entries are thus blatantly all about suffering and “survival.” It almost seems as if some of the women were trying to “out suffer” each other. Which is rendonkulous.
Needless to say, and especially after my literary agent quit the business last spring, my own memoir of suffering has stalled. Until recently, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue writing it. I wasn’t certain that I knew the reasons WHY I wanted to write about my life in the first place. I didn’t want to use tragedy as social currency. And I definitely didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the idea that I might profit off my brother, my mother, and my father’s untimely deaths.
In the end, I did decide to take up the project again, but in a different form. It’s becoming less about a pornography of my suffering now than an exploration of how we all deal with fear (of death, of flying, of losing our car keys, of cancer, of spiders, of *fill in the whatever you are afraid of here*). I reorganized the story so that now I’m telling the history of viruses (what I study professionally), and why in the world a former journalist would ever want to spend the rest of her life writing about disease. Why? Because I want to understand fear. I’m interested in how we all get on with our lives despite the fact that we all know horrible things will eventually happen to us or to people we know. Maybe that’s why people can’t get enough of suffering; we want to know that we are not alone. I just think we need to be more introspective about our own interest in watching or hearing about other people’s suffering. Like regular porn, more isn’t necessarily better.