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Learning From a Story About Profound Motherhood

A conversation with novelist Jacqueline Mitchard. Part Two.

Key points

  • Motherhood is a deeply profound experience that forces us to cope with complex and difficult emotions.
  • Fiction is a mental “flight simulator” that confers the emotions of the experience without the experience. 
  • The physical compression of the message on the social media screen recapitulates the psychological compression of it.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one.

Jacquelyn Mitchard was inspired to write her new novel after a chance encounter with a woman in a hotel coffee line years ago. The woman shared with her that she stayed in that hotel every weekend when she came to visit her son who was serving 27 years in prison for killing his girlfriend. And here the seeds for The Good Son were planted.

Lynne: What role do traditional media and social media play in your story? What commentary are you making about our inability to have empathy for someone who stands outside of their children’s bad decision-making?

Jacqueline: Without the scrutiny of news media and the campaign on social media by Belinda’s activist mother, Jill, Stefan might have had a chance to quietly resume a life. But that chance is subsumed in the glare of a story freighted with accusations of white privilege, the sordid death of a beautiful young woman, the grief and rage of parents. The story is tabloid gold. In the headlights of all this, Thea’s feelings for her son Stefan are not without conflict: Her own grief and shame, and the fact that she never allowed herself to fully mourn Belinda, are a constant. She is sometimes enraged that Stefan brought this calamity down on her when she did nothing to deserve it nor did her husband, Jep. Further, it is Thea who is most often plagued by reporters and the constant incursion of messages on her mobile phone, offering her everything from thousands of dollars for her story to eternal salvation. It’s through that same channel that Stefan’s life is threatened after he comes out of prison. The family is in a bind: Stefan can’t travel more than 50 miles away from his home, and his home is squarely in the community where the crime happened, and where Belinda’s mother, now an activist against dating violence, still lives. The physical compression of the message on the screen recapitulates the psychological compression: It’s the reason that social media models are so potent and potentially so dangerous—a small cluster of sometimes anonymous words that are seen by so many and interpreted as true.

Lynne: From The Deep End of the Ocean to The Good Son, there is a through-line in your work about motherhood and the profoundly difficult experiences we fear most. What drives you toward these compelling topics? Why is fiction the perfect medium to explore them?

Jacqueline: I would be the last person to say that fiction should be a moral force, but, for thousands of years, in every culture and for every reason, stories are the medium used to teach a moral code—a way of being. It’s no accident that the great teachers, like Jesus, if you will, used parables about one person to represent the trials and temptations of all people. Fortunately, or unfortunately, not every incident befalls every person. Not many people win a lottery; not many people survive a wilderness plane crash. In fiction, a reader can experience issues of race, class, culture, addiction, identity, and family crisis that they have not experienced in their life. In that sense, as the psychologist Keith Oatley has said, fiction is a mental “flight simulator,” that confers the emotions of the experience without the experience.

Although there is a special boon of inclusion in discovering stories about people struggling with the same pain you have endured, often the importance of fiction is that it is true to life but not true. It’s not really happening to you, but it can change your perceptions and even your behavior without actually ruining your life. When you wake up from the dream, like Ebenezer Scrooge, you have another chance to live your life mindful of what might be, not what actually is. People say human beings don’t learn from the mistakes or troubles of others, but I don’t believe that. This is the gift of fiction, its power. You can leave the story behind, but it never leaves you.