Friday, April 08, 2005

Fragments of Jenna's Story, Part 1

I promised my wife that I'd write a novel. She has been pushing me for years, and I'd like to make her happy. So I've decided to expand and complete the story of a little girl named Jenna. The story is about child abuse, personified in part by the Closet Monster. It's a fairly horrible story and, while I'm fairly sure that it will end well, it is a dark journey. So, just be aware of that. Also, do be aware that there is the use of harsh language in these tales. EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that children could be directed to this blog. As a result, I will be publishing material of this sort in a companion blog entitled "Inside the Locked Box". You can find the original content of this post here.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Adiel said...

Seth,
I remember the original short story you wrote about Jenna. You write so well that I want to reach through my computer screen and hold Jenna close and tell her everything will be okay. I know that real life isn't always G rated, but is it really necessary to use such harsh language? That's a real question and I'm not trying to condemn you or anything. I'm glad you started this blog. Thanks for sharing a bit of yourself with us.

4/08/2005 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

Hi, Adiel!

I will readily agree that not all stories require or benefit from overt depictions of evil. However, I have a return question for you. Why single out the language? Is the overt depiction of violence against a child necessary? Should such a story be told at all? If your answer is "no", then why should language issues be singled out?

4/08/2005 03:15:00 PM  
Blogger | agreene | said...

first, you didn't answer adiel's question. the answer is, no it is not necessary.

secondly, i don't think your argument is valid, seth. the word "f***" is not merely "harsh language." it's obscene and vulgar language. it's unnecessary to use obscene and vulgar language as you attempt to depict violence against a child, or against anyone, for that matter. think of biblical accounts of violence, for instance. did the writers and/or translators find it necessary to include vulgar and obscene euphemisms as they recorded the accounts?

i'd like to encourage you to be more creative in your vocabulary choices.

4/08/2005 08:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a very impressive story, and I must disagree with the comments made about the language. The language is real life. It's what abused children, physically or emotionally hear every day. It's not limited to children either. This is real life language that victims, big and small, of emotional or physical abuse hear on a daily basis.

I know that my comments will create a debate, debate is good. Staying true to your thoughts as a writer is key... if you want to use harsh language, in my opinion, as long as it's used in the correct context then you have kept it real. That is what you did.

I'm very interested in hearing part two and i am very impressed with your blog.

4/09/2005 12:03:00 AM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

Hi, Aaron! Thanks for commenting. First, I’d like to note that Adiel is my sister and, as a result, I responded to her differently than I might to someone that I don’t know. Just so that is clear.

Now, to your argument. You assert that the use of vulgar language is always, of necessity, wrong. I disagree. Here is an example from the Bible: "Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses. (Ezekiel 23:19-20)" In other words, Ezekiel is saying, "She remembered being back in Egypt with her lovers, with their large penises and copious ejaculation." That's fairly graphic. Or how about this? "At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring. (Ezekiel 16:25)" The phrase "offering yourself" is not actually what the original says. The KJV renders this "...hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by". We could render this "You spread your legs for anyone who happened by." Now remember that Ezekiel isn't being literal. The actual actions in question are the worship of idols. However, he is using fairly graphic language, even vulgar language, to describe this act.

Why?

I’m going to suggest this answer. Ezekiel (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) wants his listeners to be revolted by their sin. Apparently, his audience doesn’t see how a little incense burned to Baal is a big deal. So he describes their sin in sexual terms. “You’re a slut! A brazen hussy! You know, the whores usually expect to get paid, but you actually pay strangers to sleep with you!” What is his goal? Horror. The audience is supposed to be horrified. This language isn’t vulgar for the sake of being vulgar. It is revelatory. It is saying, “Look at you! Look at how awful your sin really is.”

I am quite capable of writing stories without vulgar language. Actually, you will find that I rarely use such language when I write. I really don’t like such language, and I don’t think that, generally speaking, my stories are improved by its use. “Realism” isn’t a good enough reason; stories always hide as much as they show. The important artistic decision is what should be hidden and what should be revealed.

Here are a couple of examples of this principle from movies. The first example is Saving Private Ryan, which I watched for the second time recently. This movie does not shy away from depicting the harsh violence of war. There is the raw violence, such as the man staggering about, looking for the rest of his arm which was blown off. There is also the cruelty on both sides of the war. For example, American soldiers are shown shooting surrendering German soldiers. There is a lot that is shown that could have been suggested. However, the showing of this horror was necessary to tell the story. Spielberg did not want to idealize war. Rather, he wanted to demonstrate the horror of war, and this was how he chose to do it.

Another example, though, is A Time to Kill. Towards the beginning of this movie, a child is captured and raped by two men. The details are not filmed. However, the sequence is shot as a series of images, flashing across the screen. The men are laughing or threatening her, while the image twists and spins. It’s defiling and horrifying without actually showing the actions. In this case, the director decided that it was better to conceal the details in order to increase the horror of the scene.

In the case of the Jenna stories, I have decided that the horrible language needs to be revealed. Why? Horror. Child abuse is much more than the physical violence. It includes the language that is used against the children. And, for these stories, I believe that the child abuse needs to be revealed. I want the reader to suffer with Jenna, and that means that I need to reveal more than I would in other stories.

You see, I don’t believe that Christians often understand the horror that occurs outside their walls. I know that I didn’t. Then I met my wife, and I experienced her world. I heard her stories and the stories that she had of her friends. I heard about the time that my wife was being forced down on her bed, being choked by her enraged father, nearly to the point of death. I heard about Josh, whose stepmother hated him and padlocked all the cupboards to make sure that he couldn’t eat. I heard about LaVerne, who was raped by her uncle while her nieces lay nearby, watching but unable to act.

And, one night, I stayed the night at my in-laws’ house. I was staying there to protect my mother-in-law from my father-in-law, who had left the house in a murderous rage, because he believed that she was having an affair. We tried to convince her to leave, but she refused. So I stayed that night. My father-in-law had left his house key, so I believed that I was safe.

I was wrong.

He returned that night and began pounding on the door, demanding to be let in. I was scared, so I hid in the bathroom. Then I saw Jason, my brother-in-law, coming down the stairs to let him in. I tried to talk Jason out of it, but he didn’t want to get in the middle of the fight. He opened the door, and my father-in-law stormed in.

He didn’t do anything except yell. But now he knew that I was there. He yelled at my mother-in-law, and he yelled at me, and then he left, taking his keys with him. Now he could enter the house if he wished.

That night, I experienced fear. I lay in the recliner, clutching my afghan. I was tired, oh so tired, but each time that I grew drowsy, I saw an image of my father-in-law, standing over me, reaching down to choke me. So I tried to stay awake, so scared, so scared to close my eyes.

And when I told all this to Crystal, she said, “That was my life. For eighteen years, that was my life.”

There is no Jenna. She is just a figment of my imagination. A poor girl left without a mother, abandoned and abused by her father, neglected and failed by “the system”. But I know far too many people who are like her. I want to speak for them. I want to show their pain to a world that does not see, who do not know. Maybe this way, some person might reach out to the lost and helpless, accepting the cost of ministering to someone so very deeply hurt. Maybe this way, more of the Jennas of the world will find homes to love them, to show them that the love of Christ overcomes their heartache and their anger and their bitterness and their agony.

And that is why I have written what I have written. I do not use such language myself, as it is indeed vulgar and harsh, and I do not wish to be one who speaks in such a manner. However, I believe that the judicious use of vulgar language is acceptable by Biblical standards and is appropriate to meet my goals for writing.

Let me assure you that this is not a decision that I have reached lightly. I have wrestled with the issue of graphic depictions of evil (including violence and language) for some time now, and this is where my convictions currently lie. However, I am open to continuing a dialogue. Because, you know, I've been wrong before.... ;-)

4/09/2005 02:35:00 AM  
Blogger prairie girl said...

Hi Seth,

I wholeheartedly agree with you that many Christians have had little experience in the horrors of life. However, I think that, as Aaron and Adiel said, the use of the language is unnecessary. The marks of a truly good writer include being able to bring someone else into what the character is experiencing. However, such language will only prevent those you want to reach from actually seeing past the language and they will not be exposed to the horrors of abuse, which is your primary intent.
That being said, my real issue is with your post defending your comments. I would encourage you to not expose personal family stories as you did. I believe it violates the command to "honor your father and your mother."
And beyond that, it is not setting a good example for your own children. Just some thoughts....

4/09/2005 09:04:00 AM  
Blogger | agreene | said...

Note: If you want to move this comment to your other blog, feel free. I wasn't sure where to post it?


Seth,

Are you arguing for me or against me?

I never said the use of vulgar language was wrong. I said it was not necessary.

I find it interesting that you have described the Bible’s use of “vulgar language” as one of necessity. Does God operate and act out of necessity? I feel you have limited God in saying the Biblical writers used “vulgar language” out of necessity.

Furthermore, do you consider yourself an inspired writer?

I stated that the writers of scripture did not find it necessary to use “vulgar and obscene euphemisms,” as you did in your story. Your Biblical example supports my case. Ezekiel was very descriptive in his language, but he did not use obscene euphemisms. The only vulgar language is found in your paraphrases, which is precisely my point. When necessary, awful things can be described in artistic ways which in turn utilize the human imagination. No doubt the human imagination can be a wicked thing.

Your movie example of A Time to Kill supports my thoughts as well. I have not seen the film, but as you have described, the horrible actions were communicated without actually showing the details. In fact, I believe that more descriptive language (rather than raw vulgarity) would be more powerful as you seek to describe a horrible situation.

I also think you need to consider your audience. If it is intended for your wife, and she enjoys it, then you have considered the audience and accomplished your goal. But if it is for others in your Christian community, your use of language will only distract your readers and weaken the communicative power of your story. Frankly, I would have to re-read your story to remember any of the descriptive details you have included. I think many of your readers are going to find themselves very distracted, and I don’t think that is your goal. Like it or not, Christian writers are held to a higher standard than other writers. We are all responsible for our words. You may call it artistic expression to use such language in your writing, but I don’t buy that. Language is sermonic. Also, when I am reading literature written by a secular author that uses such language I will most likely not question the choice of language. Why hold the lost to a Christian’s moral standard? But if the writer is a Christian I am surprised that he did not make more prudent choices. I am sure that I am not alone in this observation.

I also would like to warn against the dishonor of your in-laws. I don’t think you have the liberty to spread such accounts about your in-laws. I don’t believe it is in keeping with the fifth commandment or the golden rule. I would hope that my children and their spouses would not “pull my pants down” in the way that you have in your previous post.

I appreciate that your family has been wounded by abusive behavior. It is obvious that you and yours have been deeply hurt by such actions and I am sorry that your wife had to grow up in such an environment. However, and I don’t mean to be harsh, but the question at hand required a logical response. You responded with an emotional response. No one is arguing that child abuse is not a horrible thing. Most people would agree that child abuse is horrific. The argument is whether or not vulgar euphemisms (the word f*** more so than b****) are necessary when writing a description of an abusive situation. I have asserted that no, they are not necessary, and that using gratuitous language is bad writing.

Finally, I am not attacking your ability to write “stories without vulgar language.” I’m sure you are able. In fact, I think that you would benefit from such a creative exercise.

4/10/2005 09:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that Seth wrote this incredible tale and what everyone seems to be focusing on is 2 words!

I can tell you that i remember everything from the story that Seth wrote, and can vaguely remember the placement of those two words.

I understand that Chrisitian writers are held to a higher standard, but why? Writers are writers, just because they are Christian doesn't mean that they should not include real life vocabulary in their writing.

Some writers choose to keep their writing G rated and others do not. The use of these two words that Seth chose would make this tale a "PG13" rating, more than likely. Well, isn't child abuse more of an "R" rating than G or PG13?

4/10/2005 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

(Brief moderator note: this is the right place to post comments.)

Aaron,

Aha! I think that perhaps we have been talking past each other. Let me step back and clarify my position.

1) Is the use of vulgar language allowable in such a context? Yes.

2) Is the use of vulgar language the only way to tell such a story? No.

3) Do I believe that this is the best way to tell this story? Yes.

From my reading of your comments, I think that our disagreement is on this last question. (I get that from "I never said the use of vulgar language was wrong. I said it was not necessary.") When Adiel said "necessary", I understood it as "legitimate and proper". In other words, I saw it as a debate about question #1, not question #3. (Like I said, "I will readily agree that not all stories require or benefit from overt depictions of evil.")

So, assuming that I'm understanding you properly, then I hear your points and I will, at this point, respectfully disagree. Rest assured that I am not blowing you off and, honestly, there is a long time between now and the completion of any novel. So I may change my mind between now and then. But, for now, I am sticking with my decisions.

4/10/2005 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger | agreene | said...

Seth,

I entered this conversation because I figured you had done a lot more thinking on this subject than I. Knowing you I was sure you hadn't made a quick decision to include the language you did in your story. I thought I would challenge some of the thinking and figured we would both grow in our knowledge and understanding through the discussion that followed. Honestly, I was interested to hear your thoughts.

Actually the debate is probably more about question one. The only reason I made a note of never saying it was wrong is because you had put those words in my mouth with your previous post. It was a note of clarification. You had turned my words into something they were not. My goal was not to tell you your decision was wrong either.

Your last post tells me you would rather end this conversation, so I will respect that. I do consider my arguments unanswered. “Rest assured that I am not blowing you off.” Well you are blowing me off when it comes down to it.

Hopefully we have both grown through this experience, and are better equipped for our respective futures. No hard feelings I trust.

Aaron

4/11/2005 08:26:00 AM  
Anonymous John D said...

"And what would happen to her father, if she left?"

are you really in love with that comma?

4/11/2005 08:32:00 AM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

No, I'm not in love with that comma. You're seeing the effect of insufficient editing. :-)

4/11/2005 09:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

really this is becoming a debate about intent and actual reaction from a reader...so here are some miscellaneous thoughts...
1. from my understanding the intent of the story is to horrify readers about the raw, inexplicable nature of child violence. I happen to believe that vulgar language, in this case, indeed depicts such nature. However, for the most part, as indicated by some lengthy posts I have read, readers seem to be hung up on a couple of vulgar words. So, the intent was to horrify readers about Jenna's situation, the actual reaction was relied heavily on the use of those words. So, whether or not it is "necessary" or "unnecessary" to use such words is frivolous, at best, to discuss. What you may consider discussing is how these words actually impacts readers. We all agree that this story can be told with or without vulgar and graphic language, right? Basically, it is a difference of opinion on what angle to tell the story from. For example, here is my take on the scence from "A Time to Kill"...the scene was shot to look like you are "in the girls shoes". The whole graphic incident was not shown because the girl probably did not see it all. She got knocked in the head, so she was probably going in and out of conciousness, which is what I think the shot made that look like, with all the swirling and shaking. In "Saving Private Ryan" the characters actually saw things like killing begging enemy soldiers, so it was depicted more graphically. So, in the case of Jenna, if the writer wants to depict the actions imposed to Jenna as Jenna experiences them, and Jenna's father yells obscenities at her, then that definitely needs to be depicted. The word "necessary" could also be seen as "the degree to which the writer wants to horrify and outrage readers about Jenna's situation". So the words could be necessary by that definition, because those words certainly did outrage readers. However, are they more outraged by the words or poor Jenna? This is where Seth Ben-Ezra needs to make a decision...to keep the words or not. To keep the words means to possibly defend posts endlessly about whether or not they should be used, but maybe that's what he wants to do. However, the more time spent discussing "the necessity of vulgar language in a story", which could go on forever, because it is in fact, a matter of opinion, not a "right" or a "wrong", the less time discussing Jenna and the less time ben-ezra has to develop Jenna because he spends so much time posting comments about an endless discussion. I would like to see Jenna's story written without vulgar words just to see if it comes across the same way as with the vulgar words, then you will know whether or not they are "necessary" to horrify readers.

4/23/2005 09:07:00 PM  

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