When I was growing up, my parents often had to tell me, “You can’t say that!” I suppose most parents tell their children this as young minds and young mouths test the limits of discretion. But at the same time what I also heard my parents saying was, “You can’t think that.” Meaning certain thoughts and ideas were so dangerous, evil, or just plain wrong that they simply could not be entertained.
In reaction to this, I resolved at a young age that no thought coming into my head from my own perceptions or imagination was unthinkable, no idea inconceivable. Many things should not be said, of course. And most things certainly should not be done. But thinking about them, examining them, trying to understand their basic premises, their true natures, and their consequences—that has to be acceptable. For me, this resolution was an act of personal bravery: I would trust the sturdiness and stability of my own mind against any bad or corrosive thoughts. I would dip in the pool of evil or error, mentally, and still retain my fundamental self.
I was determined to look my enemies in the face and understand their thoughts and ideas. This is why I studied Russian in high school.1 During this time, also, I read several books about Communism and the Russian Revolution. For those of us growing up in the Cold War, this was the face and imagination of our enemies, and I wished to understand them. If I had been in school just before or during World War II, I probably would have studied German or Japanese—if those courses were even available.
It is a premise of mine that you cannot find the truth unless you are willing to entertain falsehood. You cannot understand the good unless you explore evil. You cannot know what works if you won’t dissect and examine the ideas, systems, and mechanisms that fail. And again, you have to trust the stability of your own mind and imagination to come out sane on the other side. You also have to trust your innate sense of truth and your preference for goodness to guide you in these explorations and examinations.
I recently published a blog about the politically divided nature of this country.2 As I worked to articulate each side in the debate—left and right, progressive and conservative—I was conscious of trying to represent the issues fairly from each point of view. I did not want my progressive friends to feel they were being misinterpreted, nor my conservative friends to think they were being dismissed. Fairness is a primary virtue with me, and I can understand and find some truth and utility in both points of view. But please don’t think, just because I have thought deeply about a viewpoint and come to understand it, that I must therefore approve of it and believe it to be right. I have studied the Marxists, understand their utopian dreams, and still think they are utterly foolish—if not downright wicked.
What I never expected, at the time of my decision to entertain unthinkable thoughts, was how useful this attitude would be in teaching myself to write novels. The essence of storytelling is to put characters into emotionally wrenching but instructive situations, which always involve conflicts, risks, and losses. Sometimes the possibilities of risk and loss can be represented by natural events—a tsunami struck, a fire broke out—and the characters can remain good, sunny people—just like the author him- or herself—who are only struggling to survive. But the best stories involve conflict between opposing minds and goals: ambition and vulnerability, freedom and security, greed and altruism, good and bad intentions. Unless the author wants to restrict the story’s viewpoint to the sunny minds and pleasant thoughts of its heroes and heroines, who are more done to than doing, the author must occasionally enter the minds, entertain the thoughts, and explain the motives of assassins, warlords, megalomaniacs, thieves, rapists, psychopaths, damaged children, cold-blooded aliens, and soulless artificial intelligences. Being able to think the unthinkable just comes with the job of storyteller and novelist.
It must also be the job of an actor or actress. In order to play the villain—a role that occurs in almost every story and must be portrayed on stage or screen by someone—the performer must enter and examine the mind of a deranged, damaged, or purely evil person. Certainly Shakespeare, who was both actor and playwright, had this experience when he created a villain like Richard III or a beast like Caliban.
Sometimes, also, the reader and the audience may get confused. Henry James wrote a short story, “The Author of Beltraffio,” in which the wife of a writer of morbid tales determines that his son would be better off dying than growing up under the man’s baleful influence. In the minds of others, the author or the actor can sometimes become confused with the fantasy that he or she is portraying, often with instructive or cautionary intent.
I had a similar experience with one of my novels, Crygender, from 1992. The title character starts out as a ruthless assassin, who then takes refuge in an altered physique and identity and runs an internationally famous bordello, located on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay of the future. Given the story’s setting and its main character of questionable ethics and sexual orientation, some explicit scenes of both murder and debauchery were mandatory in the telling.3 To this day, the book remains the favorite of some of my readers and the point at which others—my wife included—simply gave up on my writing.
But still, I stand by my decision. Nothing is unthinkable. This is the only way to dive deep into murky waters and, occasionally, come up with a pearl.
1. I give credit for this opportunity to a really excellent school board and high school administration in Warren, Pennsylvania, where I happened to be in those years. They offered Latin, French, German, Russian, and Spanish as language electives. We had a pair of wonderful teachers: John Stachowiak, who taught Latin and Russian, and John Greene, who taught French and German and also offered early-morning enrichment courses in Swahili and Portuguese. Both men were graduates of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which is the training ground for many in America’s diplomatic and intelligence services.
2. See The Insurrection of 2017 from January 29, 2017.
3. In my defense, the novel originally started as an outline from one of my potential collaborators, but the senior author dropped out of the project when shown the completed manuscript. The book was subsequently published under my own name as a solo effort. To quote from Cardinal Richelieu in The Four Musketeers: “One should be careful what one writes … and to whom one gives it. I must bear those rules in mind.”