Believability isn’t just about fiction, or Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother
Over the years people have reacted with everything from amusement to confusion to disbelief to my references to my Evil Grandmother. I had two grandmothers, a Nice Grandma and an Evil Grandma. Sometimes when I would comment about something going on with one of my grandmothers, a friend who had heard me use the phrase “Evil Grandma” would ask if this grandmother who had done this annoying thing was her, and I would say, “Oh, no! This is my Nice Grandma!” And they would freak out, “What do you mean, this is the Nice Grandma? That doesn’t sound nice at all!” To which I would reply, “Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother…”
Here is a mild example. My Evil Grandmother (who was my paternal grandma, i.e., my dad’s mother) believed that all mental illness was just the person selfishly vying for attention. There are a surprising number of people out there with a belief very close to this. Any person who responds to someone else struggling with depression or recovering from trauma by telling them to get over it, for instance. They don’t see it as a real illness that requires treatment or recovery, right? But my Evil Grandmother was even worse than that. My Evil Grandmother believed that epilepsy was the same. So when one of my sisters started having seizures, my Evil Grandmother was constantly undermining the doctors. She would scold my sister for having a seizure after the fact, for example.
Oddly enough, she also believed that mental illness was hereditary and a sign of poor moral character. Which she also believed was hereditary. When my parents finally were getting a divorce, after my Evil Grandmother found out I had told the judge that I definitely did not want my (alcoholic, physically abusive) father to have custody, she sat me down and gave me a long litany of all of the mental health issues that plagued many of my mom’s distant relatives. One example was a great-uncle who we would now say was suffering from severe PTSD because of his experiences during World War II.
Now, if I wrote a novel in which a woman who had a college degree and worked as the City Treasurer for many years and was a respected member of her community, who punished her nine-year-old grandchild for having a seizure on a day where said grandmother had prevented the grandchild from taking her prescribed medication, I would get irrate messages from people telling me that this was completely unbelievable.
But I would also get comments from people who would tell even more horrific stories from their own childhood.
This is just one example of why having a bunch of editors tell you a story is too far-fetched is not indicative that the story is, in fact, too far fetched.
The editors or critics may have a valid point that you, as an author, hadn’t done a proper job of laying the groundwork to help the reader suspend their disbelief, but it doesn’t mean the notion is objectively and universally unbelievable. Even if they focus on the groundwork aspect, they still may be letting their personal perspective override things.
For example, there’s the tale of the male writing professor who once gave a woman in his class the advice that merely showing that one character had raped a young woman was not enough to justify the young woman killing him later in the story. “You haven’t convinced me he’s truly evil. Show him being cruel to a dog or something to make this evil real.”
Being cruel to a dog is worse than raping a woman? Irrational disconnect much?
Preception isn’t just a matter of taking in the information offered. It is heavily influenced by our prejudices, past experiences, expectations, fears, and hope. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as objective reality, it just means that it takes a lot of work to sort through all that subjectivity…
And it means that there will always be some things no one will agree on. Likewise, there will always be some people who will refuse to see something, no matter how much evidence we provide.
This doesn’t mean they are hopeless, it just may mean that we have to walk away and expend our energy elsewhere.
I have two codas to the saga of my Evil Grandmother. First, 20 years after my parents’ divorce and the subseqeunt exodus of myself, Mom, and one sister to the west coast, Mom, Nice Grandma, and my step-grandpa took a road trip back to the town where my parents met to attend the christening of my oldest sister’s first child. At one point in the visit, Mom found herself alone with my paternal grandparents, her ex-in-laws. Mom told them that she was sorry that my parents’ marriage had ended the way it had. Grandpa admitted that saying goodbye to Mom, myself, and my sister when we left was the hardest and most painful thing he had ever done.
Evil Grandmother muttered something, and she had tears in her eyes. She cleared her throat a couple of times and eventually said something about the time for blame being past. Now, I should mention that long before my parents divorced, Evil Grandma, on two occassions, set up appointments for Dad with a divorce attorney without consulting him first, and tricked Dad into meeting her at the law office on pretexts to do with her business. When I say that Evil Grandma had wanted my parents to split, that’s an understatement. So, Mom took this “time for blame” as a way to change the topic and avoid taking any blame.
But then some more extended family members arrived, and as people were picking places to sit and talk, my Evil Grandma moved from the seat next to Grandpa, to sit next to Mom. And she grabbed Mom’s hand and in Mom’s words, “squeezed it like she was afraid to let go.” She didn’t say anything, and didn’t really join in with the rest of the conversation for the next couple of hours, but she refused to let go of Mom’s hand. And later, when Mom needed to leave, Evil Grandma gave her a hug. Her eyes were full of tears again, and she murmured, “I’ve missed you all.”
Mom said that she decided that that was the closest Evil Grandma could come to saying she was sorry.
Second coda: About ten years after that I was out with friends at a bowling party when my phone rang. It was a call from one of my aunts. She was at a hospital with Evil Grandma. Evil Grandma had had both a stroke and some sort of heart issue. She’d been revived and was on a resporator, but she was alert and had demanded the my aunt call me. I need to add here that when I came out of the closet in 1991, other than one handwritten note that said, “I hope you’re happy now,” Evil Grandmother had stopped talking to me (and I would later learn she had forbidden other family members from mentioning my name in her presence). My aunt handed the phone over Evil Grandma. Because of the resporator, she had to speak in short bursts. She could speak on the exhale then wait for the machine to push in the next breath. She said my name. I replied, “Yes, Grandma it’s me.” She repeated my name on the next two exhales, and each time I told her it was me and I could hear her.
I, meanwhile, was moving to try to find a quiet place thinking the noise of the bowling alley was confusing her.
Finally she said, “I love you.” And I replied that I loved her. She repeated it a couple more times, and each time I replied. I was sobbing at this point. How could I not be? No matter what had happened between us, here she was, possibly on her death bed, using perhaps her dying breaths to reach out?
After about the fourth ‘I love you’ exchange, she said. “I know you…. I know you do… but do you know…. do you know… I love you?”
I said, “Yes.” She repeated my name and said “I love you” again, and then my aunt was back on the phone.
That turned out not to be her deathbed, but she had at least one more stroke before being released from the hospital, and her ability to talk was severely impaired for her remaining years.
But, Christmas cards started arriving every year. The outside of the envelopes were clearly addressed by the aunt who was caring for Grandma by then, but the inside always had very jittery writing that was clearly Grandma’s. Some years Christmas presents (usually ornaments) would also arrive, sometimes with Grandma’s writing on the tag. There would sometimes be a note from my aunt saying that Grandma had seen it in the store and wanted to get it for me because it reminded her of something I had once talked to her about as a child.
One is left wondering, which her was the real her? Is it simply that years of regret and an acute awareness of her mortality caused a change of heart? Is such a deathbed conversion, as it were, believable? Or as much a product of our hopes and wishes?
I know she had always been extremely concerned with keeping up appearances and not doing things that would make the right sort of people look down on you. So had she been suppressing inconvenient feelings for years–feelings that went counter to her hopes and aspirations–and only later in life as neurological changes occurred she started letting them out?
Wrestling with these questions have not led me to stop referring to her as my Evil Grandmother. She just did too much too many times to hurt people–often people she should have been protecting. But I am reminded of an observation which I once put into the mouth of one of the characters in one of my fantasy novels: “Evil isn’t something you are, it’s something you do.”