When I was in the UK during the summer of 2016, Jo Cox, a British Labour party MP, was attacked and murdered in West Yorkshire. Days later, a friend and I sat below the Edinburgh Castle as my children danced around the playground at the far end of Princes Street Gardens. Doesn’t seem right that he’ll just go to jail, he said. If it were up to me, he’d go the same way as she did.
At first I disagreed — I’m a pacifist. I practice ahimsa, the principle of non-violence toward all living things in thoughts, words and actions. No, I said, getting even never solves anything. But then he asked me about my kids: what if someone did that to them? I felt a burning in my belly and my heart in my throat. I don’t know, I said. But, of course, I did know. I’m a mom, after all.
This conversation became the origin of the world I would build for the next three years while writing my novel The Butcher. What if there was such a thing as an eye for an eye? What if a victim or a victim’s family could decide the punishment for a crime? I imagined a society in which people, with all their heartbreak and grief and rage really did get to name an assailant’s sentence.
As is painfully obvious, there are stark, shocking injustices in the world: the senseless murders at the hands of those we are supposed to trust, the way the privileged walk on the backs of those whose existence they try to erase. We fight for justice, for repercussions and consequences. But somehow society plods along, and though a token concession of accountability happens every now and then, it’s not enough to quell such inequalities.
I often feel so discouraged, so afraid of the world we live in. I suppose I explore the darkness that lives in me, in all of us, in order to have some kind of control amidst the chaos. And as a white person with privilege, it’s imperative I use my voice to make heard those who are silenced.
I have been the writer-in residence at the Hemingway Birthplace on Oak Park Avenue for a year now. My office is in the attic, but I prefer to write near the front parlor window where I can hear the low hum of traffic from the street. But even with this constant reminder of humanity, there does seem to be heaviness in the home; my imagination, which has always been borderline terrifying, goes wild.
It’s fitting, though, for my fiction is dark. It’s also fitting that I work in a place whose walls hold in them generations of mental illness. My nonfiction focuses on my own struggles with clinical depression and post-partum psychosis. There’s a kindred spirit element in the house, and though sometimes a tiny creak from above makes me jump out of my seat, I feel, in a way, that my own newfound mental strength diminishes the ancestral suffering in the air. Plus, I burned sage in every corner of every room. Because, you know, ghosts and all.
I’ve since started my third novel while The Butcher is out on submission with publishers. Currently untitled, it’s a work of fiction about the illegalization of grief; sad people cost the government too much. Other peoples’ discomfort is disquieting — as a species we try to avoid it. But grief is as inescapable and beautiful as it is harrowing and bleak. It is something powerful enough to create change as vast as the universe. If it doesn’t break us first, that is.
People who know me in real life are typically shocked: how can I, a bubbly, personable woman and mother and educator write such things? I think of Stephen King, and how he once said something to the effect that he writes what he does because if he doesn’t he’d go crazy. It’s the same for me — those thoughts need to go somewhere. I can make my characters do anything I want; nothing is left to chance. And though the endings might not always be happy, I can ensure that they are true to the characters. This fidelity is what I wish for my own life: not one of ease or bliss or endless happiness, but one that is true, no matter what I have to do to make it so.
Besides writing, Laura Young teaches English at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She is an Oak Park resident and is the Ernest Hemingway Foundation writer-in-residence at the Birthplace Home for 2019-2021.