Faith Gong: Wrestling with monsters

Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein'

This morning, I collected our family’s weekly order of library books at the pickup spot in Ilsley Public Library’s back garden (an event that inspires a level of excitement in my children just a notch below Christmas these days.) Included in our bag of books was my book group’s pick for the month: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So today, a cloudy grey day when the temperature has dipped into the 50s and it feels more like the last days of autumn than the first days of summer, I am thinking about monsters.

More accurately, I am thinking about evil. Monsters are the embodiment of evil; beings that give form to our fears. 

The past few weeks have been dark ones for our country. It may be June across the nation, but it feels more like November, with heavy grey clouds swirling over our collective mood as we reckon with our evil history of slavery, racism, and injustice. As part of this process, Confederate war memorials have been singled out as objects that give form to our fears: Robert E. Lee is the monster to be toppled.

This school year, I have been teaching my two oldest daughters American history from the Constitution to the Civil War. In a moment of synchronicity, we were studying Robert E. Lee on the very day that the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, was marked for removal. 

The foundational text we’ve used for our American history curriculum is Joy Hakim’s 11-volume A History of Us. More than any other history text I’ve encountered, it goes to great lengths to provide a balanced look at history, highlighting viewpoints on multiple sides of any given issue or event. Still, I was slightly surprised when I read Hakim’s portrayal of Robert E. Lee as a man of “integrity, intelligence, and decency.”

I was further surprised to learn that “[h]e didn’t like slavery, and he freed his slaves before the war ended. He didn’t think much of states’ rights, either. So it wasn’t easy for him to join the Confederate cause.”

It turns out that President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union army. According to Hakim: “It was hard to turn that job down. His wife said he stayed up all night walking back and forth trying to decide what to do…. Still, when he had to make a choice, he chose Virginia.”

Having read about Robert E. Lee the man, it was difficult for my daughters to understand the vitriol leveled at Robert E. Lee the statue.

“Robert E. Lee may have been a good man,” I explained, “but unfortunately he made a bad choice. And that put him on the wrong side of history. Now, when people look at his statue, what they see is his choice.”  

We’ve been reading some epic adventure series in our house lately, stories about the battle of good vs. evil and doing the right thing even when it’s hard. These stories provided me with quotable backup for just this scenario.

Here’s Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

And Helmer the warrior rabbit from The Green Ember: Ember Rising: “Symbols matter, more than you might imagine.”

Choices and symbols matter; I believe it’s appropriate to dismantle Confederate statues, loaded as they are with a harmful history of oppression and division.

That much may be clear; what’s less clear to me is what we do with the problem of monsters, of evil personified. Look beneath the surface of just about any monster, and you’re likely to find a person who inspires some sympathy. Very rarely are monsters born; rather, they tend to be the product of bad choices, misdirected ambition, and neglect. 

Robert E. Lee was a good man who made a bad choice.

Frankenstein’s monster was the result of one man’s selfish ambition and was driven by a desire for companionship and love.

Even Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s evil nemesis, has a tragic backstory: a dead mother, a rejecting father, and a childhood spent in a heartless orphanage. 

When I consider monsters, both real and fictitious, I am reminded of a beautiful quote by Bryan Stevenson, author of the excellent book Just Mercy: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Stevenson is referring to prisoners on death row, where systemic injustice leads to significant racial disparities in sentencing. But don’t we all want that to be true for ourselves: That we are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done? 

It’s just so much harder to apply that ideal to other people. And when the “worst thing” is a matter of deep injustice, of evil, it’s enough to tie your brain in knots. 

After wrestling with monsters, here’s where I land: I think it is possible — essential, even — to have sympathy for the person, while also demanding justice for the wrong.

We can acknowledge that Robert E. Lee may have been a lovely person, while also agreeing that removing his monument is a just consequence for his poor choice of loyalties.

We can sympathize with Voldemort’s past, while also realizing that his remorseless series of murderous acts necessitated his destruction. 

And we can mourn for Frankenstein’s monster, who knew that justice had to be served and set himself adrift to die on an ice raft in penance for his crimes.

Our biggest mistake may be when we assume that the monster (or the person) is the evil; when we forget that the evil is all around us and even within us. (I’m always a bit baffled when people quibble over whether racism is systemic. Of course it is, because evil is systemic. That’s why we feel the need for laws, and why we keep breaking them.)

It’s much simpler to destroy personifications than to deal with the source. We topple symbols of racist systems, we prosecute businessmen and politicians who’ve been corrupted by lust for wealth and power, we execute murderers. And then we call our work done.

But it’s not: The real, hard, and painful work is to examine our own capacity for racism, greed, corruption, violence, and hatred. There’s not one of us who doesn’t nurture these evils deep inside, or sit complacent when our society allows us to benefit from them. 

Before we either join — or judge — the mob with pitchforks, we should first make sure we’ve leveled a pitchfork at our own hearts. Then, as we wrestle with sympathy and justice, we may be more disposed to err on the side of mercy.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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