The issue of abuse has long been one Neil Douglas has been fighting against, so no wonder his book The Railroad covers the same topic, relevant as much as it is uncomfortable. Brutally honest, Neil discusses his characters, himself and the topic here today.
Can you love annoying characters? – by Neil D. Newton
Several years ago I wrote a book, “The Railroad” which is full of difficult characters. To my surprise, when I began to put the ideas together for this blog, I realized that I couldn’t think of one character from the book that I truly loved. Our host, Anita Kovacevic, suggested that being annoyed can be part of loving someone, a relevant part that can’t be avoided. To paraphrase some Billy Joel lyrics “You can love someone for the rest of your life but you won’t want them every day”. And that brought to mind the fact that my distaste for my characters is because they are all damaged and show it, liberally. Can you love and should you love people who are upsetting because they can’t help themselves?
There’s a thin line between damaged and self-indulgent and my characters seem to lean in the latter direction. But in fact, the effects of PTSD and exposure to extreme trauma are well documented. Before you can find your way to the light, you have to spend a lot of time stumbling around in the dark. How many real people who have taken this journey are called heroes? So should people who are in the midst of that noble process be considered purely annoying or heroes in the making?
Can we say that people that are damaged aren’t deserving of love? The story was inspired by 911 or my experience on 911. There is no way to say that without sounding dramatic but the true inspiration for the book was the fact that I spent half an hour in the subway in New York as the towers went down. The main character, Mike Dobbs, had this same experience. Unlike me, he ran away from his New York City life and became a reclusive alcoholic. Due to his experience he became self-absorbed, angry, sarcastic and very difficult. At the same time he grapples actively with his demons and tries to figure himself out. He also becomes willing to take on the lives of two other damaged people and offers them some measure of security. What he needs more than anything is love. And perhaps he deserves it.
One of the hard facts you learn in New York City is what I like to call the attractiveness paradox. Homeless people are everywhere, asking for money. Except, the ones who are so messed up that they can’t form the words. At some point it occurred to me that the people who were in the best shape and had a good patter down were much more likely to get money. And the people who are sleeping on the ground or are bloody from having fallen or gotten into a fight get nothing. I once met a beggar who, after being outed by a woman working in a restaurant, admitted that he had an apartment in Queens.
What is worse is that I wrote the Railroad with the intention of shedding light on the plight of people with PTSD and victims of various types of abuse. The reality of 911 loomed so large for all New Yorkers and the rest of the world that it couldn’t be ignored. And that gave rise, in my mind, to other characters that were absolutely devastated in the same way; victims of abuse, victims of fractured families. The feeling that nothing might ever be right again is not something that everyone has experienced but it is more common than many people would like to believe. I have found that a surprising number of people have berated me for bringing up and describing in some detail the aftermath of scourges like child abuse, the implication being that I was abusing them by bringing up the subject. I have taken issue with this several times. The fact is that there are millions of people who have experienced a sense of true helplessness and it has taken its toll.
So it is a bit humbling to realize that I am not fond of my poor characters; I have to wonder about my own morality. As a society, we are intolerant of people with difficult problems because it’s too annoying grappling with their problems. Most of us feel that going to work every day and supporting our families is more than enough and reaching out to people who are already tough to deal with is not their burden. So what happens to those who are broken through no fault of their own?
I carry a few scars from 911, some physical and some not. And I have, with great horror, read multiple stories of first responders who woke up one day and found they couldn’t leave the house or live effectively from day to day, the result of PTSD. And then there is the poster child for 911 PTSD: The Dust Lady. This woman was photographed wearing her business outfit, covered in a thick layer of the dust that was created by the fall of the towers. After that day her life imploded; she quit her job, rarely left the house and eventually became addicted to drugs. And, insult added to injury, shortly after she finished rehab, she was diagnosed with cancer. Marcie Borders died in 2015, fourteen years after 911.
And so, can I love my character Mike Dobbs? Can I love the mother and daughter he takes in, both running from an abusive father? Can I love Steve Moskowitz, a lawyer who lived through his sister’s anti-social behavior that ruined his family? The most awkward character in this scenario is me. Perhaps I see too much of myself in these creations of my mind for me to feel comfortable with them.
For me to resolve this question, I need to go back to see where all these characters came from and I suppose this applies to characters that people love as well as those that are annoying. Where do they come from? Mike Dobbs is, for the most part, me. He is an IT professional, he is from New York City; that’s enough. So, do I love myself? Well if any of those of you who are reading this can figure that one out, I will pay you. In many ways, Mike Dobbs is a much bigger jerk than I am; he’s an inveterate Yuppie, he is a conspicuous consumer and he is not at all aware of anything beyond his success in business. But I have to ask myself how I would feel if I met him, post 911; would I be able to hold my hand out to him to try to help him? Or the other characters.
While I haven’t lived up to this high bar, I feel that the answer has to be yes. Our history is full of people who’ve gone past their comfort zone to help people who need help. Oddly, despite the fact that I’ve written this book, The Railroad, to make a point, that same point is something I also have to accept, as well as my readers. But beyond that, the high road, as it’s been portrayed in scripture and philosophy, demands leaving your comfort zone to extend a hand. I made the commitment to write the book for this very reason.
So I will try to make the full circle. I will return to 911 in my mind and forgive myself for my reaction to it, the fear it instilled in in me, my desire to run away and my anger. And I will try…and I have to emphasize the world “try”, to love my characters.
And now I have to ask who else I might extend my hand to. Physician, heal thyself.
Neil has started a project to help abuse victims, with an open invitation to all willing to share experiences and help, especially with music. It is called Abuse Nation.
He is currently working on a fictional novel based on the life of Nikola Tesla.