We Live or Die By Our Stories

I suspect most of you will remember the first news story I’m going to tell, but I wonder if you have even heard of the second. I didn’t until I stumbled on the story this week in a new book. All of this leads me to wonder why we tend to focus on some tales while ignoring others. What might we be doing to ourselves by looking only to a narrow subset of narratives to tell, retell, celebrate and memorialize in movies and TV?

Here’s the first story: In 2001,  25-year-old Chante Mallard drove home after a night of partying in Fort Worth, Texas, and hit a pedestrian. The man crashed head first through her windshield. His upper body slammed into her passenger-side floorboard, while his legs were trapped in the glass. Bleeding and still conscious, Gregory Biggs, 37, begged Mallard to help him as she drove home, parked her car in the garage and shut the door. She walked into her house and left Biggs to bleed to death.

The next night two friends helped Mallard dump the body in a park. A witness claimed Mallard later joked about what had happened. The medical examiner determined that Biggs would have lived if he had been taken to a hospital. She was eventually arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Utterly, completely  horrifying.

Human indifference at its worst.

Nearly a decade later, I still remember all the publicity this story received. I remember talking about it with friends and wondering what was wrong with the human race.

Here’s the second story: At Mallard’s sentencing hearing, the victim’s son Brandon spoke. He didn’t plead for a long sentence. He didn’t talk about revenge. Instead, he told the court and Mallard’s family, “There’s no winners in a case like this. Just as we all lost Greg, you all will be losing your daughter.” He later said, “I still want to extend my forgiveness to Chante Mallard.”

The narrative of Mallard’s crime was turned into episodes of CSI and Law and Order and mentioned on Comedy Central’s animated Drawn Together series. The tale has been turned into at least two movies (Stuck and Accident on Hill Road), according to Wikipedia.

On the other hand, Brandon Biggs’ journey to forgiveness only rated a few media mentions, including a newspaper story and a Christian Broadcasting Network interview where Brandon may have been highlighted because he was a conservative Christian. Prisoners on death row got together and raised $10,000 for a scholarship for him.

I haven’t found any references to TV shows or movies being made about the son’s compassionate act. I only discovered it when I stumbled on Michael McCullough’s essay “The Forgiveness Instinct” in the 2010 book The Compassionate Instinct, a collection of works from Greater Good magazine.

The fact that one story was immortalized and the other sank into obscurity worries me. We figure out who we are by the stories we tell ourselves. Narrative teaches us about what’s right and what’s wrong, how we should and should not live, and even about what is and isn’t possible. What happens to a culture that feeds itself a constant stream of revenge and violence, while either forgetting or downplaying stories of forgiveness? Today 15 movies are playing in Lawrence, Kan., where I live. Eight of those feature violence. From what I can tell from plot summaries, most of those movies turn on an individual or a group seeking revenge.

The climax of action movies is most often the successful completion of an act of retribution. That’s the catharsis, the cleansing, that resolves all. I’ve sat in those movies. I’ve cheered the Mad Maxes as they’ve stabbed, shot, blown up, roasted, or — if it’s a more intellectual “nice” movie — arrested the bad guy, and then of course, been forced to kill this evil individual as the villain suddenly frees himself and provides an excuse to have his guts splattered across the screen.

Researchers like McCullough, a University of Miami psychology professor, theorize that evolution has given us two instincts: One for revenge and one for forgiveness. Why do we celebrate the worst in ourselves and ignore the best? What happens to us if we don’t claim our stories of forgiveness, our tales of compassion? How will we even know how to travel through our understandable feelings of hate and fury, if we never talk about others who have completed this hero’s journey? Where’s the good in that?

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6 Responses to We Live or Die By Our Stories

  1. This is an excellent point. It seems to me that when someone is executed, there are always interviews with relatives of the victim, saying that the death brings them “closure.” It always seems like the stories about relatives who forgive a murderer are rarer. Now you’ve got me wondering if they really are.

    And stories are so powerful: If we think revenge is supposed to be the proper response, perhaps we adopt it even if it doesn’t reflect our real feelings.

  2. I actually had never heard that story, and kind of wish I still hadn’t…though at least I’m getting the story of forgiveness highlighted along with it.

    Thanks for reminding me yet again why I’ve shunned the mass media–both news and entertainment–for decades now, for the most part. It helps me do better at keeping my thoughts on the good side of things–to focus on forgiveness, letting go of stuff, not being paranoid–though can’t say I’m very good at it yet. But I’m sure I’d be crazy or dead if I wasn’t working so hard on that.

    Thanks for so many excellent posts.

    There is a flip side, of course. Unless one’s life is livid mainly within a cozy circle of like-minded, non-media-driven, positive-thinking people, then one feels like and is often treated like a total foreigner “out in the real world”. Unfortunately, most other folks who don’t live media-centered lives are also way too straight and narrow to accept me as I am. It can be pretty lonely, not knowing the stories/plot lines folks are talking about, not getting the “jokes”, not understanding the catch-phrases and media references.

  3. Darrell Icenogle says:

    People seem to have a forgiveness instinct or a retribution instinct, and that determines where they come down on the death penalty. Both tend to cite scriptural support for their beliefs. For me, forgiveness is ennobling, and retribution is degrading to the human spirit, and in the end it is the impact on the living that matters the most.

    If Ms. Mallard had been executed, that too would have been a headline.

  4. Steve says:

    The mass media has definitely played a major role in creating this critical, cynical, cheap, negative, and minutia driven culture that we’ve seen manifest over this past 15 years. It’s unethical, dangerous, and irresponsible. No doubt we’ve recently slipped into a cycle of darkness I don’t see going away anytime soon but ultimately good triumphs over evil. For those who choose paths seldom traveled, as in Brandons case usually there is no turning back once one has “seen the light”.

  5. Pingback: My Christianity Problem ctd. | In Search of Goodness

  6. dianesilver says:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments!

    Natalya – So sorry you bumped into that story on this blog. I also hear your pain over the problems of being unplugged. Although I love media-free vacations, my personal path is to stay connected. Since I’m trying to understand the world, I feel like I’ve got to stay plugged in and aware of what the world is seeing/hearing/experiencing.

    Nancy and Darrell – Well said!

    Steve – I agree that the media has made a mess of things, but the media wouldn’t be peddling this stuff if we humans weren’t buying it. Ultimately, we’re the ones who tune in or tune out. What it is about us that leads us to flock to movies full of violence and ignore movies about love and forgiveness? Why don’t we consume what we claim we want to see?

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