The Lovely Bones

Recently watched the film then read the book. The film was excessively harrowing, but the book was very good.  One thing that came out of it for me was a bit of a puzzle.

Spoiler alert for anyone not wanting to hear crucial parts of the plot! To summarise, a bad man does nasty things to a lot of women and children. Right at the end of the book, he ‘gets his comeuppance’, being killed in a freak accident that closely resembles the ‘perfect murder’ that the murdered Susie Salmon’s sister concocts at one point in the book. This seems to suggest that either Susie somehow intervenes from her heaven, or god has a sense of humour, or maybe it is all just coincidence. Now, here’s my puzzle.

Why do so many people – almost all of them – watching the film or reading the story feel that the bad guy ‘getting his comeuppance’ is almost cathartic, practically cheering his demise? I mean, it’s a good thing that he won’t go on to kill again, but his death does not bring the dead girls back. It doesn’t even bring any real succour to them or their living relatives as it happens pretty anonymously to all of them. It seems to me that it was a plot device aimed pretty squarely at the reader/observer, to bring some sort of relief. But what kind of relief actually makes sense?

Taking another approach, the entire book is based around the murdered Susie Salmon watching events unfold after her death, and how it affected her friends and family.  Towards the end, mention is made of the eponymous ‘Lovely Bones’ that grew up around her death, the events and relations that ensued. In no sense is it meant to say that what happened to Susie was a ‘good’ thing, but I get the feeling that the whole book places great importance on the process of acceptance and forgiveness. There comes a point where the good and the bad are so intertwined that acceptance seems the only recourse. Indeed, Susie is granted a semi-omniscient vantage point in her heaven, and through this she sees all the consequences and motivations of the characters.  This strikes me as echoing the concepts in the fabulous Donnie Darko, where – under one interpretation – Donnie sees the future resulting from his narrow escape from death. He sees the good and the bad, but when it culminates in several tragedies he is looped back through time to the moment of his near death.  Laughing at the cosmic joke, he chooses to accept his death in order to spare the others. Again, the idea of this acceptance through awareness is important.

Now, what would have happened if the murderer in The Lovely Bones had not been summarily dispatched at the end? If in fact it was alluded to that he went on to rape and murder many more innocents until he died of natural causes at a ripe old age?  I fear that such an ending may actually have been far too controversial for the public, although it would actually have served to underwrite the themes of acceptance and forgiveness much more succinctly. Preposterous accusations that the author was somehow validating or encouraging rape and murder would have likely resulted. Sadly, on many levels, such an ending actually seems far more realistic, rather than the Deus Ex Machina of the murderer dying randomly at the end.

The actual murderer, in a sense, becomes secondary to the greater theme of acceptance and forgiveness.  He inflicts pain and death, with or without reason, but there can be no way of setting things to rights.  No resurrection of the victims is currently possible.  All that is left is damage limitation so he cannot repeat offfend, and vindication.  But vindication is a very peculiar concept.  It is the idea that a punishment make things ‘fair’. It is the catharsis felt by most people at the murderer’s death.  Retribution of an ‘eye for an eye’ variety seeks fairness by inflicting the crime on the criminal in some way. But the murderer dying cannot possibly be just retribution for his countless murders.  The numbers just don’t balance.  So where is the vindication here?

The murderer dies pretty swiftly and painlessly in both the book and slightly less so in the film. I think this emphasises the actual lack of vindication as no attempt was made to make him ‘suffer for his crimes’. As the audience cheers, I feel a finger of accusation pointing straight back at them – that they are actually behaving like children. The playground mentality that a wrong can be righted by a swift kick or a punch.  Rather than enduring a sense of powerlessless, humiliation and pain, they strike back at the oppressor to hurt them in turn.  This is supposedly ‘fairness’ and it is one frequently perpetuated by a lot of film and literature.  Hollywood scripts and happy endings abound, pandering to the desires of the consumers.  But as we grow up, I hope that we actually start to appreciate that this ‘fairness’ is a comforting illusion.  If only all wrongs could be so easily righted.  Currently, murder is not one which can be, and multiple murders completely unbalance lady Justice’s scales.

So, the murderer gets away. He rapes and kills again and again. Perhaps he even dances around in private, gloating and laughing at his cleverness, revelling at the pain and suffering he causes. Even here we see children, taunting and jibing others when they have ‘got away with it’. Standing behind daddy as he scolds the victim by mistake, making faces and giggling at how clever they have been to be naughty and evade the consequences. In a lot of cases the motivations for causing such pain are distinctly human, and attributable in part to tragic upbringings, mental disorders or whatever.  More often than not, the oppressor is also a victim of some sort, seeking to perpetuate a childish cycle of neverending and unsatisfying retribution to achieve this mythical sense of vindication.

So what is left? If we want to step out of the playground, and grow up a little, we need to stop looking for vindication.  As far as I can tell it is a shockingly widespread conceit in society that we perpetuate it. To be blunt, the world is often unfair. People get away with murder. ‘Immoral bankers’ get rich and the rest of us pay for it.  Stories may seek to wrap us in warm fuzzy comforting lies, making us feel good when the world seems bleak.  Why not?  But at some point, do we not usually wean the child off sucking their thumb? Take away the comfort blanket?  I think my underlying concern is that more effort seems to be spent on pretending that vindication is valid than actually learning that sometimes we have to accept the pain and suffering beyond our ability to prevent. Without belabouring the point, this seems to key into Christian ideas of Forgiveness.

So when I receive the phonecall that my family or the love of my life has been hideously tortured and murdered but the perpetrator is never found, the only way to carry on with the pain is to forgive, forget or end my own suffering permanently. The pain is the struggle to accept.  Acceptance is not about saying that the crime is ok, or even that some good came out of it, though that approach may help some people.  Instead, it moves beyond ideas of ‘fairness’, and works with what is. Looking squarely at the pain and weeping at the injustice that would otherwise be overlooked. Let the injustice fuel our resolution to do what we can to limit it. Share the grief of all those harmed, and through mourning strengthen the ties between us – Susie’s Lovely Bones. Learn to see the perp as a human being with a past and help them to see others as humans too. One of the nastiest and fundamental crimes perpetrated by man is within the mind, where we can transform another person or creature into a thing.  Perpetuating the idea of vindication is unhelpful.  By believing that the world, people, and the solutions are always going to be simple, we risk institutionalising a crude and superficial justice system pandering to the baying crowd. We also fail to accord the victims the degree of respect they deserve by believing that we can actually even the scales for certain crimes.

Once we are able to look at the world as it is, we can start to change it for the better. Otherwise, we will continue to ignore the suffering right in front of us.