I used to be embarrassed by my tabloid habit. Why did I love reading schlocky sensationalist stories? A part of me absolutely cringes at the rabidity with which people follow some of the top tabloid stories. And think of how eager vast swaths of America is to watch reality shows about people with truly fucked up lives. We’ve entrenched the phrases “train wreck” and “can’t look away” into our language. The part of me that cringes thinks humans must be ghouls to want to read about children raised in dog kennels and young women locked up in dungeons and families that fall apart around their parents myriad indiscretions. Why do we want to misery and misfortune and suffering as entertainment?
The less cringe-inclined part of me has a ready answer: it’s all part of our story.
All the things that humans do to themselves and to each other in the pursuit of their lives, it’s all part of the human experience. Of course, we’re curious about it. There but for the grace of [insert cosmic intermediary of your choice here] go we. We could be the train wreck tomorrow. We could be the victim whose blood stains the sidewalk on the 10 o’clock news. We could be the confused person covering her head with a jacket as she runs from her lawyer’s car to the courthouse. It could be us, and so we want to prepare ourselves for it. We want to look at the train wreck and imagine how we would handle such things.
Some people are inclined to use their vantage point for judgment. Well, that’s what she gets for leaving her toddler alone! Well, that’s what he gets for marrying her. Well, that’s what happens when you live that kind of life.
For me, my interest in these tragedies are all about the question “And what then?” As with any trauma, people have to choose how they deal with the aftermath. That is a thing that never ceases to interest me. And so I find myself reading the Daily Mail, ferreting for details about the young man who was starved and imprisoned in his own home for years, before being put on a bus to California. What becomes of him now? What about the guy in a sham green card marriage who coerced his older, wealthy lover to enter into a sham marriage with his mother to get her a green card? Or the woman in Ohio who learned after her husband’s death that the man she was married to was actually her father, too. Once you get beyond the titillation, you have the opportunity to look right in the face of human experience and wonder, how does a person process this revelation, integrate this knowledge into her psyche, and go on with her life? These are important questions.
Not all traumas are as traumatic as that young man’s life. Not all secrets are as shocking as learning you married your father, but when you explore the fallout from that sort of secret, you’re exploring general ways in which people handle these things. (In this case, Ms. Spruill is choosing to go public, to seek out other siblings lost in the turmoil of her mother’s life.)
As a writer, I think that’s why I go on being obsessed with these stories. Possibly I’m just making excuses for my interest, but when I read these stories I believe I’m fueling my understanding of humanity. These things happen to real people and real people must deal with them. So while I have not yet written a story about a woman who marries her father, nor do I particularly plan to, I have definitely written stories about people who uncover secrets they wish they hadn’t.
I don’t think my urge to read tabloids is any different from a writer of murder mysteries researching ways to dispose of a body. It seems morbid and creepifying, but it serves the story. People do commit murder and hide the bodies. People who write about these things need to peer into that dark place. Those of us who write about more tame aspects of human experience, we still need to inquire into the extremity of life’s shocks and surprises.
So I’ll carry on with my tabloid habit, still a little ashamed but convinced it’s research. How about you?