Published on January 25th, 2014 | by Amy Jane Helmericks

(Life & Fiction) Holding the Fear

I used to wonder why so many villains are as popular (or even more popular!) than the heroes who are supposed to defeat them.

What I’ve been told is that the issue often comes down to self-determination.

The will to act.

When a character is constantly responding to rather than creating action, this makes him look less-powerful, which can also become less-interesting. Look how the bad guys keep the good guys hopping!

But that’s not me. I am very interested in those characters who are “stuck” with responding, because that’s where I live much of the time: I am faced with circumstances that are bigger than me, and the best I can hope for is that I find and climb on a sort of surfboard and ride the waves as they come. Preferably without wiping out.

When we’re in crisis mode, simply responding is pretty much the order of the day. Strategizing our way around a problem requires energy or clarity of thought that often is out of reach, and it turns out that’s the case for my favorite characters.

All my favorite characters are very much caught up in something bigger than them. Every one is much weaker than the forces arrayed against them, and barely keeping their heads above water, but I love them because they prove a match for those impossible odds—and that’s why I read!

One example: Kate Sutton.

In the young adult novel The Perilous Gard, Kate is sent by the Queen of England to the middle of nowhere. Kate is utterly alone, has no friends, and ends up trapped probably a mile underground.

My throat closes up in the cloying tightness of the memory.

Kate didn’t know if she’d ever see the light of day again. She was a slave, and the only moment of independent choice she had came at the opening of each day. She had a choice to receive or reject “the Cup,” which contained a drug that would bring an artificial delight and mute her senses to the suffering and isolation she endured. She chose to reject it.

In this story, the eyes and the mind represent autonomy and freedom. The worst things that can happen (Kate believes) are to be blind or witless, and that may be what draws me into the story and closes it with a sense of hope.

It is painful to see things you cannot mend, to understand things you cannot affect, yet it is better to be aware and hurt, than to surrender and cease to care.


Really, why?

I asked myself this when I was depressed. Why did I keep fighting?

This corresponding imbalance of power is what makes Kate and her simple stubbornness interesting and attractive to me. It is a soul-crushing place to feel smaller and “less” than what is hurting you, and it is very tempting to give in.

The circumstances say to quit or to do whatever it takes (illegal drugs, appeasing behaviors, neglecting responsibilities) to feel even temporarily better.

When I was enduring my depression, it was like shoveling mud out of a hole, even as it continued to slide back in. It was futile and disheartening, but to stop would be to accept being buried.

Fighting was better than surrendering.

Once you cease to fight, your story is both over and never ending.

If Kate had chosen the Cup, it would have been surrendering to the reality of the present, agreeing life will never be better than now, and so whatever helped her get through now is what she needed. What she should do.

It would mean removing her last choice. Her last opportunity to even imagine a “better” or how she might make it come about. The evil of the now would never end.

But if you refuse to let the story be over, if you cling instead to the reminder that “evil always triumphs in the middle,” and persist through its imagined victory, anticipating a better end—there is a species of hope in that.

There is an expectation that this (whatever this is) cannot last forever. That this is a pathway toward the beautiful.

In the novel, Kate occasionally experienced “attacks of the weight.” From the description, we would probably call them panic attacks.

She never knew when the attacks would come.

“The horror would suddenly descend without warning and batter her to pieces. It was as if her misery and revulsion against the land piled up in some inaccessible region of her mind until the accumulated pressure became too great for it to bear any longer.”

One of her captors tells Kate that the weight comes “from knowing the nature of this land,” with the folds and tons of rock overhead, pressing down on her, separating her from the air and the light of the sun. And Kate is reminded again that the Cup could spare her this torment.

But Kate has watched the other women who drink from the Cup, their slavish, almost animal transformation within their debased servitude. They have given up their independent thought and free minds for the peace of the Cup, and Kate is unwilling to accept that as the whole of her future.

And because she retains the use of her wits, she is ready when a possible change opens before her.

I wish for the freedom to despise Kate’s “passivity,” her inability to provoke a racial rebellion and free the women enslaved and mocked. But that’s not the type of story this is. The Perilous Gard is an intensely focused story that affects a few individuals in a deeply personal manner, even beyond life-and-death.

Kate, like so many people who suffer from depression or anxiety, sees far and deeply.

She sees that there are real things to fear and even reasons to stop hoping. The trait that makes her admirable and independent, an acting (rather than just REacting) character despite her helplessness, is that she refuses to believe this darkness is the all and the end. Refuses to believe that she is as helpless as the circumstances and people around her show her she is.

She made a daily decision to keep her awareness of pain and fear, in order that she also remain open to learning, and as a result she became a life-sharing influence on another soul trapped in despair.

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