On writing about evil

One of my early, arm’s-length mentors at Virginia Tech, the exceedingly kind Ed Weisband, took me out to lunch and got on my case, a little bit and deservedly, about being too timid in my early writing about justice. I remember him saying, with genuine anguish in his voice, “I don’t like writing about evil, Lisa. It breaks my heart writing about evil. But I have to.” At the time, Ed was writing about genocide, and while it took me a really long time to buck up the courage to write explicitly about justice, I have finally started doing so.

Ed is right; it’s hard to write about evil. I blew things up with my book about a month ago. I did so for several reasons; one was simply that this spring has been one hit to my scholarly confidence after another. After one particular incident sent me into a pretty bad tailspin, I got to questioning the basic premise of the project: Whom was I actually writing this book for? For me? That seems like a narcissistic answer. To get promoted? Like most people, I’d love to attain status and prestige, but not enough to do work I don’t believe in. I did that when I was a consultant, and it broke me a little each time.

The other contributing factor was the extreme difficulty of the data collection, management, and analysis of some of the empirical parts of the book. There are some ambitious analyses in the book, and they have required copious amounts of programming in Python, a language I do not know well.

Yes, I could have produced a book in a year if I’d been less ambitious. If there isn’t any risk of failure, it’s not any fun, not really.

And then there is one chapter that I have been writing about Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. This chapter has subjected me to what Ed Weisband told me years ago about the emotional pain of writing about evil. It’s breaking my heart. When I walked away from the book, my biggest feeling of relief–one I didn’t disclose to anybody asking me questions about why I’d leave the book after I had invested so heavily in it–was the possibility that I wasn’t going to have to read one more racist comment about Martin or his parents and that I wouldn’t have to read and sort through stories such as this newest, about Zimmerman selling the gun he killed Martin with for $100,000+.

I still hate touching that analysis every time I touch it. I hate that my neighbors have to worry about their children the way black parents have to worry about their children. I hate that my black students might get hurt or killed because of the hate I am reading in the tea leaves. This is looking straight into American evil. And it hurts me every time I do.

It felt good thinking I wouldn’t have to do it anymore.

But not doing it didn’t feel right either. So I am back, working away on that chapter, and hurting every time. But if it hurts me to look at it, living it is a million times worse. There comes a point where your realize that your feelings don’t matter, and that if you have information that might wake people up, you have to use it.