Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More on turning enemies into friends

Mostly, I enjoyed the Back to the Future movies...except for the last one. That's the "Wild West" adventure, where our stalwart hero journeys back in time and encounters the ancestor of his nemesis, Biff. We know that Biff has been raised by a viciously critical grandmother, and said ancestor is obviously the reason for her nastiness. He's not only physically disgusting, but a bully and a coward, apparently devoid of any redeeming virtues. In this family, each generation perpetuates the abuse heaped upon it by the one before.

The movie takes the easy way out, resolving the inevitable confrontation between Biff's ancestor and Marty by humiliating proto-Biff. This guarantees that Biff, present day Biff, will end up an insecure, uncaring bully whose only way of relating to others is through manipulation and intimidation. No one cares about him, not even the caustic old woman who was his only family. A far more creative and satisfying solution would have been to find a way through all that bluster, to treat the bully-ancestor in a way that gave him dignity and opened up the possibility of friendship. And then to see how this change has played out in the present time. What kind of person might Biff have become if his own upbringing had been loving and supportive?

Our culture inundates us with images of violent retribution, of destroyed our enemies...but very few tales of the power of understanding and compassion. Consider the story of Cantor Michael Weisser and Larry Trapp,. (And follow the link to the Time interview, which gives even more of the story in their own words). Trapp was a vitriolic neo-Nazi who spewed forth hatred on his radio show and threatened the cantor and his family when they moved into the neighborhood. Gently but persistently, Weisser engaged Trapp in a respectful dialog. As Trapp's diabetes worsened, the Weisser family cared for him in their own home. Trapp converted to Judaism in the very same synagogue he had once threatened to bomb.

In time, Larry was asked to speak at an interfaith Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. His words, humbly spoken, revealed a new person. “I wasted the first 40 years of my life and caused harm to other people until I believe God stepped in to give me Cantor Weisser as a messenger, to show me that I could receive love and that I could give love. I have learned we are all the same, no matter whether we’re white people, or Oriental, or black people… we’re one race.”


  1. Anonymous me again -- going to an extreme, the novel I think of immediately is In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's attempt at creating new genre of "the nonfiction novel." What came across most strongly was why at least one of these men had become a callous participant in murder: just an horrendous childhood, devoid of a loving caring person he could long put trust in. What age group are you generally writing for? Joan

  2. To answer your question first, I've done some short work for middle school age (in two of Bruce Coville's anthologies--I may post the dinosaur story in my "Read A Story" here), but generally older. My own kids read my first two novels while they were still in high school.

    I want to address the point that people who are themselves abused as children often perpetuate what they have endured. I think that's only half the picture. The other half is that everyone has the ability to change; sometimes people just need a hand up. Not a "get out of jail free" card, not forgiveness in the sense of condoning unacceptable behavior. Sometimes it's another person, sometimes that inner light and the possibility of making amends. That's why the Weisser/Trapp story is so moving to me. We're all capable of that level of compassion, it's just that most of us don't realize it.