I just finished a book that I'm going to be thinking about for a very long time; Alice Oseman's wonderful, devastating, beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant novel Radio Silence.
What has kept my mind coming back to the story over and over since closing the last page is not the pair of main characters, Frances Janvier and Aled Last, as well-drawn and engaging as they are; it's a minor character -- at least judging by the number of scenes in which she actually appears -- Aled's mother, Carol Last, whose influence pervades the entire story like some kind of awful miasma.
She's not what I would call "big evil." Mrs. Last is no Sauron, no Darth Vader, no Jadis the White Witch. She has no desire to rule the world and mow down thousands. Her evil is so small as to be almost banal. She "redecorates" Aled's room while he's away at school, destroying all of his posters and adornments, even painting over the mural of a galaxy he'd created on his ceiling, replacing it with a blank white surface. She has his old dog put down without his knowledge, without even a chance to say goodbye. She sends him a saccharine text every single time he makes a new episode of his beloved podcast, about spending his time in more productive pursuits instead of his "silly little show." She takes her daughter's "inappropriate" clothing and burns it in the back yard, right in front of her.
And each and every time, she has an unshakable justification for why she does what she does. There's always a reason, and any objections have about as much effect on her as an ocean wave striking a cliff face. In the most chilling scene in the whole book, Mrs. Last proudly shows Frances what she's done to Aled's room while he's away, saying with a tight little smile, "It's just a few little rearrangements here and there. I'm sure he'll appreciate a change... Feels very fresh, don't you think? A cleaner, emptier space makes a cleaner, sharper mind."
She doesn't even listen for Frances's response; of course the answer is yes.
For the Mrs. Lasts of the world, the answer is always yes.
It's a tribute to Alice Oseman's skill as a novelist that my response to Mrs. Last was as strong as it was. But why we all feel revulsion at such a character is telling. It's like an analysis I read a while back of why the most hated character in the Harry Potter universe isn't Lord Voldemort -- far and away, it's Dolores Umbridge.
Very few of us, fortunately, ever meet a Lord Voldemort.
But all of us know a Dolores Umbridge. A teacher, a boss, a family member, a significant other, an acquaintance who, given a little power, uses it to tear down the souls of the vulnerable or dependent, and remodel them to suit. A person who couches it all with a sweet smile that never reaches the eyes and a declaration of, "You know it's all for your own good, dear."
But to me, what's most baffling and most tragic about this is that it misses the whole point of being human. It's like we want to imagine that our minds are these perfectly transparent windows and we just gaze out of them and describe the world as it unfolds. And we want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing. That is not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring. The miracle of your mind isn't that you can see the world as it is. It's that you can see the world as it isn't. We can remember the past, and we can think about the future, and we can imagine what it's like to be some other person in some other place. And the most beautiful part is that we all do this a little differently.