Jeanne Estridge: The Fault In Our Stars

Hi Ya’ll, Kat here! I’m at a day job conference in Tennessee this week (getting in the southern swing for the Texas conference next week). Jeanne E is subbing for me today (thanks Jeanne) and since this isn’t her first rodeo here at 8L I’ll just say, take it away Jeanne! 

“‘The Fault in Our Stars’ was brutal,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook recently. “I saw the movie and have no desire to now read the book–couldn’t go through it twice.”

Last year I read that book straight through, cried for two hours and immediately picked it up again. I loved it and couldn’t wait to see the movie.

Why is it that some of us revel in the emotional pain we experience through fiction (and drama and cinema) and some of us find it nearly intolerable?

Studies using functional MRI’s show that the brains of people experiencing vicarious pain light up in the same areas as people experiencing first-hand emotional pain. This suggests that, to our bodies, the grief we experience when a beloved character dies on-screen or in a book feels similar to what we feel when we lose a real loved one.

So if that’s the case, why would anyone sign up for that? It’s not like we don’t each have plenty of opportunities for loss in our daily lives without going in search of more misery.

This question brought to mind the movie Life is Beautiful. (SPOILER ALERT: This is a movie about Jews in Nazi Germany. It does not end happily.)

In Life is Beautiful, to spare his young son from trauma, a father pretends that Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is some kind of quirky holiday camp. He overshares his meager rations with the boy and reacts to every brutality as though it’s a joke. At the end, he trots off with the Nazi guards, still clowning around as he heads for his own execution. Watching, I felt like someone had punched me in the chest. At the same time, the sheer beauty of his sacrifice, setting aside his own fear of death in order to minimize the pain for his son, filled me with awe. That human beings are capable of such courage and unselfishness gives me hope for humanity.

Similarly, Gus and Hazel’s star-crossed love affair reminds me that true love can withstand all that life has to throw at it–even death.

What about you? How’s your appetite for vicarious pain?

9 thoughts on “Jeanne Estridge: The Fault In Our Stars

  1. I have much less ability to withstand (“enjoy,” if you will) vicarious pain than I used to. When I was young, I was riveted by multi-hour Holocaust documentaries and difficult fictional films and books of all kinds. Now I mostly need comedy, although I have (what seems to me) weird branching out into violent stories: I love 24 and the Sopranos, for example, and enjoy Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, and Person of Interest. I guess those aren’t sufficiently realistic for me to feel vicarious pain.

    • I’m a bit like you, Kay. Used to love the scary/dramatic/sad stuff…I think now that I have kids and I see how precious and tenuous life is, I’m more inclined to fill myself with “happy” rather than “real.”

      This probably explains why I will never tire of reading HEAs, because you can’t get enough of those!

    • I think I’m just the opposite–I seem to have a higher tolerance than I did when I was younger. Maybe because it helps me to make sense of stuff I’ve seen, that I didn’t know existed when I was younger.

  2. I read The Fault in Our Stars when you recommended it during one of our class discussions. It’s beautiful, and really fine writing, and not quite as painful as I was afraid it might be — but I shy away from reading it again. And I don’t think I want to see the movie, either.

    Maybe this urge to read books like that is a reminder that bad things happen, but yet life carries on.

    There are a lot of books like this that are absolutely beautiful but full of tragedy — The Lovely Bones was another one of those “never going to read that again.”

    As writers, I think we do need to consider the part tragedy plays in our books. Even the funniest books can be underlaid by fundamental tragedy and pain. A book without tragedy can be extremely fluffy, and leave the reader feeling hungry for something of substance after reading it.

    P.G. Wodehouse comes to mind — he wrote the fluffiest, lightest confections, but underneath a lot of that humor is a boy who feels his underachievement, poor family relations with terrifying aunts, and dysfunctional girlfriends.

  3. I’m with your friend, Jeanne – I have no tolerance for painful stories, and books are worst of all, because there’s no safe distance between the reader and the characters. I do agree with Michaeline that pain adds richness to even the lightest stories, but I prefer mine to be offstage and preferably deep backstory.

    Oddly enough, I make an exception for ballet and opera. My favorite ballets are narrative works with storylines featuring damaged families, prostitution, sexual assault, murder, suicide and other cheery episodes – the emotional intensity seems to provide a perfect counterbalance to the beautiful dancing and singing.

  4. I met a woman at a mental health facility once who was there for cutting herself. When someone asked why, she said “It lets the pain out.” I sometimes think music can be the same way–it allows the pain to flow away from us. So even as you’re taking in this anguished narrative, the perfection of the music carries the pain away again.

    • Oh, that’s an interesting analogy. I’ve heard that some cutters say that feeling the pain makes them feel real and grounds them in a way that life doesn’t provide. I wonder if there’s a different connection there.

      They say that fiction can be important catharsis, too. I think I’ve experienced that a time or two and it helped me deal with some real-life experiences.

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