When you’re a writer whose works have a political bent, there comes a time when you second-guess what you’ve written. Now, don’t say, “Well, don’t write about politics!”
That’s naive, and there’s this thing called paradigm of self: I write about politics because it’s part of who I am and to ignore that would be inauthentic. My writing would suffer as a result.
Staying the Same
My series, A Perfect Hatred, which started in April this year, deals with right-wing extremism; granted, 1990s right-wing extremism, but the sad thing is little has changed. The names and terms may have altered, but the hate remains the same.
In book one, End Times, one of my protagonists confronts a skinhead–today he’d be called a “Proud Boy”–who had tried to car-jack her. He responds with racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It’s a scene essential to how the story unfolds. Did I like writing it? No, but I felt it was necessary, that it was a triggering moment for the story.
In book two, Bad Company, which comes out in a few weeks, one of the antagonists is a “self-ordained” minister in a racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic religion called Christian Identity or Identity Christianity. It’s real; Google it. He gives a sermon to explain to his “Aryan warriors” (Yes, that’s a term still used.) whom they’re at war with: the U.S. government, blacks, feminists, and Jews. It was a harrowing scene to write, and eventually I cut the length and split it into two chapters separated by other action in the story. Even as a writer in love with her own words, I recognized the reader would need a break from the darkness.
Why did I need the scene at all?
When I first wrote it, I wanted to show how fringe beliefs we’d always attributed to “nut jobs” had moved close to the mainstream. Today, they’ve made it all the way into the mainstream, but that’s another story; I promise. Sometimes a failing of political thrillers is that the bad guys are one- or two-dimensional. They’re the bad guy. What more do you need to know? Well, to make the characters believable, they have to have dimension, a motivation for evil even as protagonists are motivated to be good. I couldn’t have this character urge his misguided followers to go out and fight a perceived enemy without his giving them a raison de guerre.
This character is fictional; his church is fictional even if his religion is not. The hate speech is, unfortunately, authentic, gleaned from my research. The scene, however, serves its purpose: It furthers the story. Otherwise, I’d have cut it long before now.
Second-Guessing the Second-Guessing
I second-guessed that scene after I first wrote it. It took me years to look at it again and edit it. Even after, or perhaps especially after, the time that had passed I knew that scene, as distasteful as it was, was necessary. But…
After what happened yesterday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, those two, as-yet unpublished scenes in Bad Company came to mind. Lest you think that self-centered and more than trivial, read on.
I’m a big critic of a certain politician in high office, whom I shall not name but whose rhetoric is always short-sighted and frequently dangerous. I abhor the fact there were three events of domestic terrorism in my country this week, none of which have been labeled terrorism, but I believe in calling a shovel a shovel. All three can be connected, directly or peripherally, to that vitriolic rhetoric.
What if those two scenes I wrote 20 years ago provide fodder for someone to do something violent?
What if people think that hate-filled sermon by the antagonist represents what I believe?
Should I delete those two scenes?
I thought long and hard about that last question overnight. This morning, I even opened the files for those scenes with the intent to delete them. In so doing, I saw the gaping hole that would leave in the story. The story, after all, is to show hate for what it is, for what it has done and can do; to show why we should fight hate in all its forms.
I would not be true to myself as a writer, as a progressive, if I didn’t show hate for what it is, what it can and has done; what it did yesterday to eleven people who had gathered to worship in a country where they had the right to do so, freely.
The scenes remain.
Changes for the Better
What I did do was beef up Bad Company‘s author’s note, to wit:
Certain troubling events included herein I’ve derived from my research. In light of recent, real occurrences in October of this year, you may wonder why I included them at all. These fictional events are, unfortunately, authentic, the attitudes real, but we need to accept they continue to exist. They in no way represent my personal beliefs. I present them to show the danger facing our country. Again. Still.
And I changed the Dedication, which had acknowledged the public service of government employees, to this:
This book is dedicated to the memory of people who gathered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, on Shabbat, October 27, 2018, as they had always done, but who were murdered by hate:
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54
Mrs. Bernice and Mr. Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69
Never. Again. Say those words again and again until they drown out hate.