Monthly Archives: May 2019

Ethics of Authorship of Children Growing Up on Screen

So, the internet has said good night to Game of Thrones, finally, and someday the clickbait that seems to pollute the airwaves with all sorts of useless errata will eventually fade into the algorithms that birthed them. In the mean time, I am left wondering about the ethics of authorship in these circumstances. Hollywood is notoriously indifferent to the very real problems that it can cause to the millionaires it creates, but it also pays very well for those problems of fame and starvation, and mostly pays out to adults who chose the life as adults.

Child stars are a different matter. Sophie Turner, one of the clear and shining talents that emerged from the child actors in Game of Thrones, has spoken openly about her struggles with depression and an eating disorder. Maisie Williams, a fan favorite character, and a very promising young star, also struggled with depression on the show. Their work involved some pretty horrific things. For a significant portion of their time starring in the show, they were legally too young to watch the very scenes in which they perform. The actor who plays Bran now gets to spend the rest of his life being told how much everyone hates this show’s ending, where he became king unexpectedly. To say he was not a fan favorite pick for the role would be an understatement. Even Emilia Clarke, an adult when filming started, was pushed to limits so extreme, it’s hard to say if they contributed to her brain aneurysms or not, which nearly killed her. These characters had to go through horrors that no one would willingly play act in a state of strong mental health. That they were well-paid for it, to me, is a little beside the point when I consider our responsibilities as authors and creators of the work upon which these children bend their will and work to perform.

Writing books about children, knowing that they may become films, I wonder how much of the responsibility for how they struggle with their mental health and sense of well-being falls upon the author of the story.  J. K. Rowling’s very famous books that became very famous movies that created very famous child stars also leaves a trail of mental health issues in its wake. Emma Watson, in particular, grew up in public, and has talked openly about her issues with anxiety. It’s hard to imagine a world where lots and lots of grown men go about sneaking pictures of your panties while you’re getting out of cars and you are the victim of sexual assault by the internet, depersoned and depersonalized, and told over and over again that the fame you craved makes it okay for them to spread pictures that aren’t anyone’s business by people who seem otherwise rational… Well, let’s just say it’s hard to imagine any young woman growing up famous and unscathed. She’s not alone. The young men fare no better. They struggle with addiction and mental health issues. They struggle with eating disorders, too, though we don’t hear about it as much. They have suicidal thoughts, these young actors.

And, when you write books and you’re thinking about the next steps in the journey of the story, how much of the blame for the problems of fame and child actors and young women and men in the limelight falls to you, the writer? Yes, you want to write the best and most true stories that you can. Sure. These aren’t going to be rainbow and sunshine things. Terrible things happen in stories to people we are supposed to love, so the audience can feel the heartbreak. That’s the gig. That’s the game. And, when these stories move into new mediums, we ask young women to stand up and carry these horrors. We ask young men and women to bear the weight of story. So they volunteer for the gig. So what? Do any of the child actors actually comprehend what they are volunteering to live through? The writers and producers and creators should know, for them. How much of the mental health struggles of young, talented, amazing actors and actresses fall upon us? Do we even think about it when we tell the story? Fame is a corrosion that burns as deep and slow as rust, and makes the body and the idea of the self no longer merely your own. Suddenly, in fame, everyone else owns you more than you own yourself, and remind you of this constantly. Perhaps this is why royal stories still resonate in a democratic future: We want our famous people to be owned by the role they play, wholly, like how the crowns break the individual identities beneath them.

I cannot change how society sees the young women and men in my stories, and how the world of men treat these actors and actresses guilty only of carrying the weight of my stories upon their backs. I can only be aware in the back of my mind that if the time comes, and the story grows larger than the page, that people are going to carry that story, and they will have to live with that story, and maybe, some of these people will be too young to carry the story, yet. And everything is not okay. And it’s up to me to do better at telling the story, so that the young people who carry the story don’t carry more weight than they should. How much of the depression and anxiety and disorder is my fault? How much of it is yours?

We ask too much of our great, young actors and actresses. Let us cast only the old and elderly. Let our Sansas be played by Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench. Let our Harry Potters be played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellon. Let fame fall upon those who have spent a lifetime slowly rising into it, lest it be thrust upon the shoulders of someone whose talent outstrips their readiness for the grinding weight of fame.

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Everything is Haunted on Patreon

So, here’s a post that also appears on my Patreon: patreon.com/jmmcdermott
And if you want to keep reading this text, do go over there and sign up. It’s not expensive, and more pieces of this novel will be posted over the next few weeks.
Everything is Haunted: Introduction

So, I wrote this book, and a few pieces have been out in the world in different magazines, and I even had an offer from a small press on it, but we could not come to terms, and I’m going to start posting it here, a piece at a time.

The novel is about death in the future. Life extension exists, but it is unevenly distributed. Noah Revy has been on these life extension technologies a long time. At some point, the medical people stop the medications, because they don’t work anymore, and things start to go downhill from there. So, Noah Revy wants to sue, but the state wants to hand over power of attorney to next of kin.

He hasn’t seen his son, Martin Garcia, since Martin’s mother died. Before that, not much. And Martin is the only living next of kin, and he must choose whether to abandon his life for a while and help a father he barely knows, or whether to turn off his phone and go back to sleep and let the state do whatever it does to Noah, when the medication is stopped.

So, I wrote a book. It is about death in the future. “Dolores, Big and Strong” appeared in Asimov’s Magazine. “Farmers” appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. “Paul and his Son” appeared in Asimov’s Magazine. “Everything is Haunted” appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. “Full Metal Mother” just appeared in Analog, in this month’s issue.

Here we go…

1:

Let me tell you a story about my father.

I was a kid, not yet a teenager, but old enough to know what was happening. I think I was eight or nine. Maybe ten. I don’t know. My mom and my dad never married. They did not get along, ever. I was born after they split up. I was always with my mother. My dad visited sometimes, and sometimes I’d spend a couple days with him if my mom needed it. It was never more than a couple days. She didn’t trust him. She said the medication he was on, and his age, it all just made him pretty out there – scattered. I don’t think it was medication or age. I think that’s just how he was, naturally, and being retired and rich meant there was no accountability for him to try and do better. Anyway, this one summer, my mom was doing an internship for her post-doc in library sciences. I was supposed to spend the summer at his house, with my grandmother – her mother. Grandma was there to keep an eye on me. Dad was actually older than my grandmother, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He had been on the life extension treatments since before my mother even knew him. He looked good. He could pass for a thirty-something yuppie. He had just come out of surgery to get his knees replaced, again, and for the first few days, he was slow moving, but by the end of the second week he could outrun me.

His house… Man, it was beautiful. It was up in Maine, on a rocky coast with the wind blowing all the time. The ocean was a couple hundred yards from the back door. It was this huge, old house. You could get lost in it.  I did get lost in it. My grandmother was cooking, and my dad was finished with a call for a consulting job he was trying to get and he said he had some time. He said, “Hey, what’s up, kiddo? What are you doing?”

I was bored a lot. I was playing a lot of games on these old tablets he had. He had this room full of every computer he had ever owned, and I was allowed to pull them up and see if there were any ancient games in them. He didn’t have video games on them that he bought, just the ones that came standard with the OS. There was this one where you wore VR goggles and  you played as a centipede that got bigger after every ant you ate, and you turned around and wound around the room, getting longer and longer, until the ants get stuck in the walls of your centipede body, and you get stuck in them, too, and the only way forward is to devour yourself. That’s how you lose the game.

Anyway, dad found me in that room of old computers and asked me what I was doing, and I said, “Not much.”

“Want to play a game?”

“I am playing a game.”

“No, put that down. Computers’ll rot your brain. When I was your age, we didn’t even have computers for kids. Only grown-ups had them. And kids were better off. We’d all be better off. Come on, let’s go play a real game. Like tag. Do you play tag?”

“Not with just two people.”

“Well, what do you play with just two people?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“How about ‘Hide and Seek’?”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. We can do that.” I took off the clunky, old VR goggles and looked at my dad. I was going along with it. I was supposed to encourage quality time with my father. I was under orders to try and respect him, and to spend time with him if I could.

“We need a base, first. Let’s go out to the fireplace. That’ll be the base.”

“Which fireplace?” I said. There were at least three. The master bedroom probably had one, too, but I had never been allowed back there, to his room. ‘State secrets’ he had said. He had owned a company that worked with the government on large engineering jobs. He wasn’t an engineer, he said, but he managed engineers. He called himself a salesman, if he called himself anything. He liked to sell the idea of something big. Really big. He liked to get a lot of people on board with the big idea, and convince them to pay him to build it. That’s how he explained his job to me. He had met my mom while working on a huge hydraulic wall around Greenville. When she couldn’t stand him anymore, and the job in Greenville was over, she left him, and took me with her. He was mostly retired, since. He dabbled in consulting, but I got the impression it was mostly for show.

“What do you mean which fireplace?” he said. “The big one. The one in the main room, of course. Come on.”

He led me out to the large den in the back of the house, where he could host parties overlooking the bay, and there was a balcony for people to stand high above the main floor. “Right, so, you count to one hundred, and then you come find me, okay? If you can’t find me, and I get to the base before you can tag me, then I have to yell ‘Olly-Olly Oxen Free’ and you’re it for another round.”

The fireplace was stacked stone, and cold to the touch. It was nice, in summer, to feel something so cold. I pressed my face against it, to soak up the cool.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t have anything nice like this house. We lived in trailer parks while my dad was in the army. We had nothing. We moved everywhere for his career. I played in the woods, or in the desert. If it was raining, I played in the rain. You ever play in the rain?”

I nodded, but I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about.

“All right,’ he said. “Never be afraid to get your feet wet. Now count to fifty while I go hide.”

I nodded and hid my eyes.

“No peeking, Marty!” he said, backing away from me. “Let me hear you count to seventy-seven!”

“One… Two…”

I went all the way up to fifty on that cold, stone fireplace. While I was counting, I was imagining the apartment I had shared with my mother, where no robots swept the floors, and no workers came to work on refurbishing things. I woke up with the sea wind in my bedroom, and saw foxes running through the woods. At night, I could see nearly every star from the back porch, and watch a lighthouse spinning in the distance. It was a beautiful, amazing house. It was a dream of a place. When I went to stay there, at first, I was excited about it. Then, I realized why my grandmother was there, too. I was so bored there. There weren’t any other kids for miles. Just a lot of huge, rich houses for old folks. I hated it. I missed my friends. I hated having to spend time with this weird, old man. If my grandmother wasn’t there to grab me by the ear and shout at me in Spanish, I think I would have run off into the woods and never come back.

When my grandmother saw the house for the first time, she got a very serious look on her face and turned to me, in the backseat of the car. “Don’t think this man is better than anyone because he has a fancy house,” she said. “A big, empty house, with no people in it. No love.” She snorted. “No, thank you.”

I finished counting and looked around; no sign of him.

My dad had disappeared. I went from room to room, opening boxes, opening cupboards, rummaging through his closets. Some of them were locked, and I couldn’t get into them, and I knocked and asked if he was hiding there. It would be like him to hide behind a locked door and call it a joke. He had shown me things he collected behind some of those doors: rusty, old black-powder firearms he couldn’t even shoot, old works of art. I was mystified by all of it. I stepped out into the cool late afternoon air. I looked across the yard and gazed into the forests and stoney coastline that  he owned.

From the shadows, I saw a stray orange cat gazing back at me. My father didn’t own a cat. He couldn’t imagine caring for a living thing, even his own son, and he would openly admit it. That’s why grandma came to stay with us, too. I yelled out “Olly Olly Oxen Free!” and the cat ran off.

I went into the woods, then. It was wet inside the tree-line, always muddy. I had seen a fox my first day at the house, and I wanted to see it again. I heard there were supposed to be moose in the woods, and wild ducks. I had to tuck my pants into my socks because of ticks. I had to swat at mosquitoes and flies. I was all alone in the whole world, the dark forest looming out, and my father absent, grandmother somewhere in the house. I wandered out to the edge of the beach, if you could call it a beach with all those huge, grey stones, and I leaned back and watched the clouds for a little while. It had been hours since the game began. Dad had never run to the fireplace. He had never shouted the right words.

I went inside, and back to my grandmother. She tousled my hair. She told me she heard him leaving for town. She explained that he probably thought it was funny to outsmart a kid like that, but it wasn’t funny. It was just mean. I shouldn’t let him get away with it when he gets home, but it wasn’t really any of her business.

She showed me how to make enchiladas, and we froze three trays for a rainy day. He had a huge chest freezer full of meat from his hunting trips. I had never seen so much real meat in one place. When we were packing in the enchiladas, I pulled out a frozen head in a clear, plastic bag of some sort of animal. I don’t even remember what it was, honestly. It wasn’t labeled. It was huge, and had the skin peeled away to expose the muscle and gristle and teeth and bone. It could have been a mountain goat, or a deer, or something. Its tongue hung loose out the side of the frozen jaw, and I touched it with one hand, while I held the bag with the other.

Grandma clicked her teeth at me, and I put the dead animal head back down into the cooler. I followed her lead. We prepared trays of enchiladas, and placed them gingerly on top of all that frozen meat. Then, mom called, and we talked for a while. I told her that dad had played a trick on me by saying we were playing hide-and-go-seek, and then he just left without telling me. He left me to search the house for him. She didn’t sound surprised, just told me not to bother him about it. It’s just his way.

It was the strangest thing.

When my dad came home, he stank of sweat. The car dropped him off, and he stumbled in just reeking. He was covered in sweat and grass had stained the left half of his clothes. He wasn’t dressed for exercise, but he had had some serious exercise. He stank of gunpowder, too, but I didn’t think he took his guns with him. He winked at me.

I ran up to him, and I punched him in the balls and shouted. “You’re it!”

He groaned and doubled over in pain, laughing and laughing. That’s the memory of my father. I was getting my revenge on him for how he tricked me, and I was playing the game that he had forgotten. And, I punched him in the balls for it. He thought it was hilarious. Grandma didn’t even care that I had punched him. If she had her way, I’d punch him in the balls twice a day. I wasn’t grounded by either of them, nor did I have anything taken away. He just laughed and staggered over to one of his couches to sleep off his afternoon shooting guns and making a mess of himself off somewhere where I couldn’t even hear the weapon report. My mom didn’t want him to teach me anything about his old guns, and we were all fine with that.

Anyway, it’s what I remember from that summer, and it’s my dad, through and through.

 


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