My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Remaining Human

Some years ago my husband and I went to Great Britain. Being museum buffs in a big way, we ended up in a lot of museums. In one of them, there was a then new exhibit of the Lindow Man. The Lindow Man, in case you’ve forgotten, was first unearthed in May, 1984 by two peat cutters working in the County of Cheshire.

As it happened, just before our trip I’d read Anne Ross’s and Don Robins’s, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, which discussed the Lindow find in detail, and postulated that the remains belonged to a man ritually sacrificed three times, in accordance with possible Celtic and Druid rituals.

What I found most upsetting in the book was the mention that the human remains were soon to go on exhibit in a museum. It never occurred to me that I would see those remains, but one morning I walked around a corner and there he was.

My stomach did a double-turn and I am not, by nature, a queasy person. I’ve worked in a trauma emergency room and did a surgical rotation in nursing school, so I’ve seen a great many components that make up the inside of human bodies. What I found disturbing was that what I was looking at had, 2,000 years ago, been a living human being. Even after two millennia, that person-who-had-been deserved more respect than being put on display.

I came away from the museum feeling dirty, a voyeur of something it would have been better not to see. Would it have been more dignified to simulate the Lindow Man’s remains? To have a Hollywood model-maker duplicate, using latex and other wonder materials, exactly duplicate his appearance and put that simulacrum on display instead?

Recently I was exposed to an over-the-top rerun of a TV forensic show, and two books, both police procedurals, both featuring graphic descriptions of bodies that had been, in the delicate language of British TV shows, “interfered with.” I realize I had my answer to those questions that bothered me a couple of decades ago. A simulation of human degradation, whether done with moulded latex and paint, or computer-generated imaged or graphic, detailed paragraphs is still human degradation.

As writers, I think we have a responsibility not to go for the cheap thrill. Yes, writers can titillate and arouse their readers with graphic descriptions of torture. Yes, it is harder to raise the stakes, arouse sympathy, and convey the horror of a crime when full-frontal graphic details are withheld, but I truly believe as writers that we have to attempt to do this. In a world where actors vie for playing the corpse on forensic shows, so that their bodies can appear to be dissected for the television screen, it is time to take another look at values such as common, human decency. A fascination with human remains is not a good way for all of us to remain human.


He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher


Hope to see you again on Tuesday, April 15 for Write the Novel – Character Introduction, Part 2 – Introducing the Wounded Hero.