, it gets really hard. Notice how Warner never lets on how she herself understands the 9/11 attack, and the Bombay attack, and the Black Friday trampling of the employee at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart on Long Island,
but treats these events as though they hovered in some shapeless, menacing fog that she must simply avoid. Which is not a surprise, since (1) liberals deny the existence of human evil, and (2) they deny that particular groups (e.g., Muslims and blacks) are particularly prone to particular forms of badness (e.g., terrorism against non-Muslims and mindless mob mayhem) that are particularly threatening to society. If Warner can’t explain these things to herself, how could she possibly explain them to her inquisitive eight-year-old daughter?
Bad Time Stories
My daughter Emilie, who is 8, cannot get out of her head the story of the Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death by frenzied shoppers in the early hours of Black Friday.
The fate of that worker—Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old temp who’d been hired by the Valley Stream, N.Y., Wal-Mart for the holidays—is the first thing she asks about when she wakes in the morning. It is the last thing she talks about when she goes to bed at night.
It is the thing that runs through her mind as we drive in the car and she considers the landscape around her.
“What does Wal-Mart look like?” she asked me on Wednesday, searching for clues in the storefronts of Northwest Washington.
“A great big store, with groceries and clothing and auto supplies, and electronics,” I said.
“So it’s like Best Buy,” she said, as we drove past Best Buy.
“Not quite like Best Buy.”
“Is it near here?”
“There’s no Wal-Mart near here,” I said. “That store was on Long Island.”
“Oh!” she gave a great sigh of relief. “That’s really far away.”
I’m not sure how Emilie heard about Damour. It might have been at school—where she learns, to my great regret, about events like 9/11 and the Holocaust. Or it might have been at the dinner table, where I fear I may have let my guard down the other night and vented my feelings after I read about his death.
“It’s the end of everything,” is the kind of thing that I just might have said.
I normally try very hard to shield my children from those kinds of feelings. I know I’m given to negativity—some might say, to hyperbole—and I’m aware that such expressions, however annoying to adults, can be toxic for young minds. But these are hyperbolic times. The glow of the election is fading. The economy is tanking. It really feels like the wolves are at the door. And so when a temp worker—the economy’s weakest link—is crushed under the weight of it all, it feels, well, like the epitome of everything. Or did to me.
I should have expressed myself better. But then, I would never have expected the Wal-Mart incident to lodge itself so deeply in Emilie’s mind. It made a certain sense, I guess.
She’d never been to the World Trade Center. World War II happened two generations ago.
But everyone goes shopping.
The Wall Street Journal not too long ago ran a piece on how to talk to children about the economy. The bottom line was: don’t keep them in the dark. Ignorance in the face of ambient anxiety just breeds more anxiety. Stanley Greenspan, the George Washington University professor of pediatrics and psychiatry who is the author of “The Secure Child,” told The Journal that, to reassure children in anxious times, you should “confirm for your child what he thinks he’s already observing.”
But what if you have a child who always observes the worst? About you, about everyone, about every situation? Not in a distorted way, not in an unhappy way. Just in a non-sugar-coated, selectively negative way that’s exactly like your own.
When she was younger, Emilie used to constantly ask me for stories.
“Tell me the story of Hitler.”
“Tell me about the airplanes going into the buildings.”
She used to ask for these stories with avidity, with a kind of delectation. I used to think I knew what she was doing when she became fixated upon scary things. She was mastering them. Taming them through narrative.
I told her about Hitler, hidden in his bunker, the Russians bearing down on his city, a coward’s bullet in his head.
I told her about the airplanes. Once. I refused to tell the story again.
We had an argument at the Scholastic book fair last month because I wouldn’t buy her the book she most wanted—a novel narrated by a Hitler Youth.
“Why not?” she said.
“Because bad things happen.”
“I don’t know. I just know that they will.”
“You do know. You looked. You looked, but you won’t tell me!”
I’d looked. I’d sort of half-glanced. And then, whatever I’d seen, I’d immediately put out of my mind.
When I was 8, or maybe 7 or 9, a girl in my class brought in a comic book she’d been given at Hebrew school. It told the story of a girl who’d been in a concentration camp with her mother. The girl’s mother was made to stand naked all night out in the snow. The girl had watched her mother standing there. Then she’d looked away, and when she’d looked back, her mother had fallen down, dead.
If I allow such stories to enter Emilie’s head, I fear that they will never leave.
This is why I fought getting cable TV for eight years. This is why I leave the newspapers folded up, photos down. But you really can’t blinker a child who has the eyes to see.
“Why are there only shoes and blood and no bodies?” she asked me after the attacks in Mumbai, when The Times ran a gruesome photo.
“The bodies were taken away,” I said.
She didn’t say anything, but she looked relieved. She thought, I guess, that the bodies had been vaporized right out of their shoes.
“Tell me the story of the atom bomb.”
“How can Wal-Mart sell things so cheaply? Why do people want stuff so badly? Why do they call it Black Friday?” She can’t get the questions out of her mind.
“You’re not going to like this,” she began another conversation at bedtime. I thought she was going to tell me she’d hidden candy in her pillowcase. “But I bet if you went on YouTube you could see what happened at Wal-Mart.”
“Oh no,” I said. “I’m sure you can’t. I’m sure the surveillance videos have been taken by the police and are being studied carefully and are going to be entered as evidence.” I thought this sounded good.
“I don’t mean the surveillance videos,” she said, speaking delicately, as though in deference to my more tender sensibilities. “I mean if someone had had a video camera, they’d be able to show what happened.”
I found the video the next morning. Someone recorded it with a cellphone. You can see E.M.T.s pumping on Damour’s chest. You can see that it is hopeless. You realize—before you click off—that you are either watching a man die, or watching men trying to raise the dead. And you hear people laughing.
“There’s nothing on YouTube,” I told Emilie, plagued by a memory of the long legs outstretched. Damour was a big man—6-foot-5, 270 pounds—news reports said. How could he have been knocked down? How could he not have managed to get up?
“Do you think people just walked over him? Do you think they saw him? Did they run away when the police came?”
“I’m not sure that they knew that they’d done it,” I said.
That sounded, even to me, like a lie. Perhaps it was. But it felt like good parenting.
[end of article]
Ben W. writes:
Karl D. writes: