Ferocious Words

December 7, 2011

I began this piece on November 14, came back to it a few times over the next few days, and then stopped work on it entirely, not returning to this space until Thanksgiving. It was hard to write then, harder still to address now as we move deeper into the season of sweet sentiments suffused in candle glow. I return to this subject because the rain is full of ghosts tonight, and because these ferocious words are important words.

I live in Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half from State College, the site of the main campus of The Pennsylvania State University. (Don’t forget the capital T.) I have a master’s degree from that institution, earned at a local campus, under the direction of professors so well-regarded that some students came down from The Big House once a week to learn American culture and the nuances of processing a box of 19th century memorabilia from them. I am assuming that most people reading this around the time that I will be publishing it know why Penn State is in the non-sporting news right now. If you don’t, Google “Jerry Sandusky/sexual assault/scandal” for a rundown of the allegations concerning how a Division I college football coach preyed on troubled boys, some of them as young as ten, who looked to him for care and guidance.

I began with an excerpt from my own unpublished fiction:

She’d had to explain this to the twins once. She and Andrew were taking them boating at a state park on a sunny Saturday when they were about eight. They . . . were passing an office building near their church. “Aunt Brenda!” Daniel called out from the back seat. “Are they killing a baby in there?”

“No, no,” she said quickly. She hadn’t even seen the sign, but she could imagine what had caught the little boy’s attention. Baby killer! Murderer! He probably imagined a toddler being dismembered. She hoped there wasn’t a picture. “A doctor who has his office there sometimes does abortions, but in a different place, and those people think that he shouldn’t.”

The boys were silent, but Brenda knew that they had both turned around and were craning their necks to look at the ten or twelve people waving signs and chanting. “Do you know what an abortion is?” she asked them, sensing that the moment called for some discussion but wondering if it were her place to undertake it. 

“Yes,” said Stephen. “It’s when a mother has a baby inside of her and she doesn’t want it to be there so she has an operation to have it kil . . . well, to make it not be there anymore.” 

“That’s right,” said Brenda. “But why did you change the word?”

“Well,” Stephen said. “Killed sounds so, um, so ferocious.”

Ferocious. Stephen would be the poet, she thought, the wordsmith.

“That’s right,” she said. “Those people think that we must use the ferocious words so that we know exactly what it is we are doing when we have an abortion.” Why had she said that?

 “Oh,” said Stephen. “That would be good. To know what it is you are doing.”
— from Perpetual Light, a work-in-progress

Fiction springs from real life. There is nothing that is wholly imagined. I might write a character who is the mother of sons, which I am not, or who keeps a bottle of whiskey in her lingerie drawer, which I do not, and in order to render the character, to bring her to life for a reader, I will draw on feelings I’ve had myself about children or about secrecy and shame, or on behaviors I have observed in others. Sometimes I draw on things that have really happened to me. In the passage quoted above, childless law librarian Brenda is forced to explain a very serious matter to her twin nephews, an explanation that should properly come from their parents. Complicating this is the fact that Brenda has had an abortion, a secret she has carried for fifteen years and has told to no one, not her brother, not her best friend, not even Andrew, the man who wants to marry her.

I have never had an abortion, but I did have the conversation rendered above. Lynn was about nine years old that day, and we were on our way from one errand to another. Mothers in my circle then had learned to avoid Front Street on Saturday mornings if we had our kids in the car, because there was usually a dedicated group outside a clinic, one that offered many gynecological services, including abortions performed in that building. I did not expect to encounter a group with a similar mission outside an office building, on a different street in the middle of a weekday.

The exchange that Brenda has with her nephews is pretty much verbatim the one I had with Lynn. I didn’t even know that Lynn knew the word “ferocious” then. Unlike Brenda, it was indeed my office to have this conversation with my child, to help her confront some of the difficult subjects that need our attention but which we don’t necessarily have to think about every day, especially when we’re ten. As our conversation continued that day, we talked about why the protesters felt the way they did, what alternatives there might be to the ferocious procedure, how a woman might come to a decision about it, all with age-appropriate examples and vocabulary, and ending it before she got bored or uncomfortable. It’s an experience I look back on with some satisfaction, congratulating myself on being so wise, so able to handle this difficult subject in a way that neither frightened nor confused Lynn (per her recollection years later).

I have been reminded of that conversation often in recent weeks, as the allegations against Jerry Sandusky continue to accumulate. Sometimes the word for what he is accused of is “abuse,” sometimes it’s “molestation.” When I hear one of the alleged victims described has having been “molested,” I think of the doorknob hanger you get in a hotel that says “Do Not Disturb” on one side, with the same message in Spanish on the other, No Molestar, as if what was done to these children was something merely bothersome. What was done to them was not an annoyance, nor was it horseplay.

It was rape.

We must use the ferocious words.

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