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Dysfuntional Narratives

Charles Baxter, 1994

I am often powerfully sad. 

I have never fully understood where this sadness comes from, but I do know where a part of it lies. Because I know this, I know that this sadness cannot be killed, not by any reckoning with a parental figure, any one political election, or any combination of drugs. This sadness exists because I am, like most people, victimized by forces that I cannot control, see, or stop. I participate in these forces, of course, I am a part of them, and I am not innocent and blameless, but I can recognize and see these forces for what they are—evil. 

Charles Baxter’s essay "Dysfunctional Narratives: Or: 'Mistakes were made'" is an incredible piece of writing, and is as close as I’ve come in an essay to seeing someone provide a definition of the evil of our time.  He starts by quoting a Richard Nixon memoir, and illustrating some of the crimes of Reagan/Bush 1 administrations (this essay was published in 1994). The response to these crimes, which echoes in our current moment, is the statement from politicians and other folks in positions of power to the tune of “mistakes were made.” The passive construction of that sentence carries that assumption that we have no idea who made the mistakes. It is reflective of our time, in which political rhetoric is based on how something is said, rather than what is being said. It is a tap into a root problem we all face--how we hear something is far more important thant the content of what is is said.

He terms it the cultural and political practice of deniability:

“Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. A made-up word, it reeks of the landfill-scented landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school.” (2)

Deniability has two functions, in my interpretation. First, it allows for those with the power to make our reality to mask themselves as the actors in doing so. Second, it helps cultivate and builds the stories we tell ourselves about the relationships we have with one another. Trust matters, and when someone gives the appearance of being trustworthy, we are more inclined to believe they are acting in good faith. I do not think it's a particular stretch of the imagination to see how this is functioning in our current moment.

Baxter writes about it this way:

“...this model of storytelling has arisen because sizable population groups in our time feel confused and powerless, as they often do in mass societies when the mechanism of power are carefully masked.” (7)
But my essay about Baxter’s essay is not about this. It’s about me being sad and attempting to work through and find ways to ameliorate that sadness. For me, it’s like that Leonard Cohen song, “Everybody Knows.” The truth is, we know exactly what is going on. We know that our interests have been sold by other humans in the interests of acquiring power and money. We know that our elected officials and the people who pull the purse strings have power of life and death over us. We have been victimized. And our only recourse is to become like the people who have attacked us, and repeat their crimes. Something that matters in conversation with the people in our lives, trust, the idea that someone is speaking to us in good faith, has been obliterated, and this is incredibly damaging to our collective mental health.

I know this is true. My environment has made me and has supported me in cruel and unkind decisions I have made, known and unknown, throughout my life. But I have told myself a dysfunctional narrative as an excuse. Baxter again:
“Dysfunctional narratives tend to begin in solitude and they tend to resist their own forms of communication. They don’t have communities so much as audiences of fellow victims.” (19)
And earlier:
“Possibly we have never gotten over our American romance with innocence. We would rather be innocent than worldly and unshockable. Innocence is continually shocked and disarmed.” (17)
But a huge part of my sadness for much of my life is that I have been a coward. I have used others and their behavior as an excuse for my own, and deep down, I know that this is deeply wrong. I have choices, and sometimes those choices are constrained and compartmentalized by forces that I simply have no control over, but I have choices nonetheless. How we talk to each other matters, and to act in good faith is the only power that I have.

I may be victimized, but I refuse to become like those who’ve harmed me. I can take responsibility for myself, in spite of the paradox of being acted upon without being an actor myself. I’m at fault for evil that I have done. And I can accept the consequences—because, saying that I’m sorry is what I’ve got. 

It doesn’t matter that it’s not all my fault. Baxter’s and my point is that in our day and age, by design, nobody can be held accountable for what they say. Well, I’m going to dig in my heels and say that I’m sorry to everyone, for all the times I’ve fucked up, been cruel or callous, been short or unkind. I can apologize for that, and I’ll take responsibility for myself, because that’s the only thing that’s going to help me beat back the big sad.

Where can I read it?

This essay is collected in a collection by Baxter called Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. It was originally published in Ploughshares, and you can access the essay with a free JSTOR account.
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