Ruthie and me, on our parents' front porch, 2011

Ruthie and me, on our parents’ front porch, 2011

The Hollywood Reporter says television executives are starting to wonder if they’re telling the right stories. Excerpts:

In the days following Donald Trump’s stunning presidential win, ABC Studios chief Patrick Moran called Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. The men had a project at ABC about a pair of politically divided pundits who fall in love. Suddenly it felt more relevant.

But now Moran wanted to be sure both sides of the spectrum were being presented with equal credibility. “In years past, it would be very easy to let one side feel like the cartoon and have the show assume that the audience is siding with the other,” Moran says of the liberal slant that often permeates Hollywood output. Barris agreed and has begun courting right-wing voices for his writers room: “There was no way I wanted to do something that was going to further the divide in this country.” On Dec. 6, the project was ordered to pilot.

That exchange came on the heels of what Moran describes as a “wake-up call.” Over at ABC, entertainment chief Channing Dungey acknowledges that the rise of Trump and his blue-collar support forced her to question whether her programming was too focused on upper-income brackets. Similar check-ins have taken place across the TV industry as executives try to better understand and appeal to a demographic to which many hadn’t paid enough attention. “[The election] made the ground shake underneath media,” TLC president Nancy Daniels tells THR, “and now everybody is taking a hard look: Are we telling the right stories? Are we reaching the right people?”

One of you readers sent me the link to this story. The first thing it made me think of was the bit I posted the other day (“Same Bar, Different Worlds”) about sitting in a blue-collar bar here in Baton Rouge, and being more tuned in to what was happening within my network of websites and correspondents and Twitter friends on the laptop in front of me than with anything the man sitting next to me had to say, or any of the other white working-class people talking in the bar. It was as if I were a foreigner on my own country.

I don’t say that in a self-deprecating way. As one of you commenters pointed out, the blue-collar man sitting next to me likely knew as little of my world as I did of his, even though we’re both two middle-aged white guys from the same area. Again, this is nothing really new. It’s not like class and cultural differences only became a thing recently. So what’s different now?

At least two things, I’d say, both related to social and cultural fragmentation. Our two counterparts back in the 1960s, the era when Blue Collar Guy and I were born, would have shared a lot more in common than he and I do today. They read the same newspaper, watched the same news on TV, rooted for the same teams, had the same cultural references, and so forth. If we had lived in the same school district, then we would have gone to the same public school, unless one of us had been Catholic and our parents had decided to put us in parochial school.

Very little of that is true today. This is in large part a function of mass media and technology. This is good in some ways, bad in others, but the truth of it can’t be denied.

Second, the prospects Blue Collar Guy and I would have had for our children would be significantly different today than it would have been for men of the 1960s sitting at that bar in our places. We would have expected our kids to go to college or into the trades, or into work at one of the petrochemical plants around south Louisiana. The college they would have gone to would have been LSU, most likely. Our 1960s doppelgangers would have been confident that their kids were going to do better economically than they had done. And they would not have worried about divorce destroying families, much less the eventual normalization of out-of-wedlock births. The future was more predictable to them, and gave them a greater sense of security.

We don’t have that anymore.

As most of you readers know, I have been heavily invested, emotionally and otherwise, in trying to understand the story of my own family, which has been carried along by these same cultural currents. I left my hometown after college, and didn’t plan to return. The liberty I had in my imagination to leave home and make a way for myself wherever I wanted to be — this was something that my generation experienced as more normal than any previous one. There was this new thing called MTV that came us via a big satellite dish my dad installed in the backyard. I watched it constantly, and dreamed of London. My sister Ruthie didn’t watch it, because she liked country music, and that wasn’t the kind of music they played on MTV. I made it to London at 17, because my mom won a trip in a church drawing. I’ve been to Europe maybe twenty times since then. Ruthie died at 42, and never went abroad. Never wanted to go. Though it was stupid to want things like that.

Well, I wanted those things, and worked for them. After I launched myself into a journalism career in Washington in my mid-twenties, Ruthie gave birth to her first child, a daughter she and her husband named Hannah. The birth of that child drew me strongly South towards home. But I discovered shortly after I got there that there was no coming home for me, not unless I was willing to do exactly as my father demanded that I do. After three months, I left home a second time, returning to Washington, with no guilt.

I worked as a journalist in DC, in South Florida, in New York, Dallas, then Philadelphia. The older I got, the more interested I became in rootlessness, and its cost. The thing is, the worldview I had taken in from my heavy consumption of media — entertainment and news — had pretty much ruined me for putting down roots anywhere. I was doing the right thing according to the ideology of American success in the late 20th and early 21st century. But the anxiety that came with that rootlessness was hard to live with.

This was not an anxiety that my sister lived with. And it’s not just because of the place she lived in, but the mindset she had.

As you know if you read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, or have read this blog for the past few years, you know that the dying and death of my sister forced me to resolve the question of exile in my life. I saw the love and goodness of the people of my hometown as they cared for her and her family throughout her cancer fight. After she died, I moved with my wife and kids back to Louisiana. Thought that was the end of the story.

It wasn’t. I had nearly finished the manuscript for the book, and had used some of the advance to take Hannah, now 19, to Paris, as I had promised to do years earlier, if I ever had the money. On our last night there, walking up the Boulevard Saint-Germain, she told me this:

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So there it was: I could never come home, not really, because leaving had been the unforgivable sin. And not just leaving: being different. Wanting things other than they wanted. The strength of the family had been in its uncompromising sense of loyalty. I had been disloyal. If you read J.D. Vance’s great Hillbilly Elegy, you know that a certain kind of Southern white person — those of Scots-Irish descent — are intensely loyal, even to their own destruction. My family aren’t hillbillies, but for my dad, loyalty was the supreme virtue, the standard by which a man proved his honor. My father inculcated that uncompromising standard into my sister, thinking somehow that it would make our family invincible.

It didn’t save his daughter. She did everything right by her own and our father’s code — and still, she died. But I lived, and prospered. In truth, there was never any reason to believe that people who stayed behind would live, and those who left would die, but that’s how they saw things. The legacy of that belief has been deeply tragic, in more ways than I care to say.

And yet, had I been the one to develop terminal cancer, the story would have been a conventional one. I would have come home to die, and they would have welcomed me and cared for me until my very last breath. The tragedy might have been seen that I spent my life searching for what was always there at home, had I obeyed the family code and stayed home. I might have written it that way myself — but it would not have been true. If you read Little Way, you know that near the book’s end, my father made an uncharacteristic confession, one that put the decision he made to sacrifice his future for the sake of serving the family code in a different light.

That said, even though I came to the decision to return home on false pretenses, it was the right decision, for hard reasons I wrote about in How Dante Can Save Your Life. I happen to be reading a Jungian interpretation of the Divine Comedy, written by Helen M. Luke, who offers an insightful interpretation of the first lines of the poem. Those lines in Italian are:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

che la diritta via era smarrita

The standard English translation is:

In the middle of the journey of our life

I came to myself in a dark wood

for I had lost the straight path

 

Helen Luke writes that this translation doesn’t convey the full complexity of Dante’s meaning, and in truth, it probably cannot be done in English without many more lines. She says:

For Dante does not say, “mi retrovai in una selva oscura” — he says, “per una selva oscura” — and although it is perfectly correct to translate per by “in,” the more usual and basic meaning of the word per is nevertheless “through” and not simply “in.” The image is of a man stumbling about without direction in a dark wood, but the poet is surely also telling us in those few words that it is precisely through the terrifying experience of the dark wood that we find the way of return to innocence; that indeed it is because of his lost state that a man is able consciously to refind himself.

Luke’s words have been front to mind for the past two or three days. There’s no doubt that the profound inner healing that I found after I returned home came only because I entered against my will a very dark wood. Now, I’m about to publish a book in which I propose a way for Christians to stay on the straight path through the dark wood we’re now in, and will be in for the foreseeable future. I’m talking, of course, about the fragmentation of our culture, of our society, and indeed of world order. And I’m talking about the fragmentation happening in our communities, in our families, and in ourselves. I believe that I have learned some things through my own travels that can help people who stayed home. And I know that the people who stayed home have learned things that can help me. They already have.

If Ruthie had lived, and I had moved back, I wonder what our lives would have been like. How we would have fought, with our clash of worldviews. If we ever would have made up, or if, after our father died, I would have left again, unable to withstand her unyielding judgment. We’ll never know. I know for sure we would have argued about Trump. She would have been all for him, and I would (mostly) not have been.

But here’s something you didn’t know: her daughter Hannah left for northern California the summer after graduating college. She wanted adventure, and she wanted to run away from the pain of her mother’s death, and all the unresolved feelings she had over the way she handled her mother’s illness (by running away as best she could from it all, and denying that it was really happening). She’s been working at wineries, and enjoying her life. Hannah, who is now 23, returned to St. Francisville this past October to be in a friend’s wedding, and felt gripped by a desire to come home. I know this feeling; I had it myself when I was 26, and she was born. She went back to Napa, gave notice at her job, and two weeks later, drove back across the country. South toward home.

Now she’s wondering if she made the right decision, and if she should go back. I haven’t seen her since her return, so I don’t know what’s going on, but we’ll be seeing each other on Christmas Eve. Maybe I can help. Maybe not. We’ll see. It’s so familiar, though, this story. She believes, as I did when I was her age, that there’s a geographical cure for this restlessness. The heart is a dark wood.

It might well have been a stroke of good fortune that the reader sent me the Hollywood Reporter story when he did. The hour I spent at the bar, eating my shrimp poboy and reading websites on my laptop while ignoring the man sitting next to me (except to eavesdrop on his conversation with the others) has been on my mind. My sister never would have missed the opportunity to make a human connection. I’m the guy who sits there theorizing about the loss of community. She was the gal who talked to the friendly workman sitting next to her having lunch at a bar.

But she was far from perfect. Ruthie deliberately ignored things going on in the wider world, the currents of culture and history, because she wanted so badly to hold on to her vision of innocence, which held our country town as a simple place where the bad things of the world never intrude. When she learned she had cancer, she refused to believe that it was going to kill her. She thought that she could defeat it by the grace of God and her own iron will. Because of that, she did not prepare her family for the world as it was, and was going to be. This exacted a serious cost.

Over and over in this space I return to the line spoken by the character Tancredi in The Leopard“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” How do we today, we 21st century Americans, know what has to change so things can stay as they are? By “stay as they are,” I mean keep vitality within stability in our families and communities in a period of rapid, even revolutionary, change. It is an enormous challenge. And interesting aspect to my own story is that Ruthie and I were both conservatives, though of very different temperaments and outlooks. A simple conservative vs. liberal, Archie-vs-Meathead conflict would not have been so interesting. She was a conservative of the heart, and I am one of the head. Neither of us was complete. I am fairly confident that I will be trying to figure Ruthie, and our relationship, out until the day I die.

I think in some ways, the conflict between my good and great sister and me, and how it is playing out across generations, is the story of our time. I don’t know how this works, but I’m going to find out how to write a proposal for a dramatic TV series, and do one based on Little Way and its themes. I’ve written four books in five years, and would like to try a different kind of writing. My favorite television series of all time is Friday Night Lights, not because I care about football (I don’t, not really), but because of the way that terrific show portrayed small town life in all its humanity and complexity. The whole world was there, in Dillon, Texas. Also in Starhill, I think. We’ll see.

 

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