Scapegoat’s Cheese

I’ve got an idea for a movie. But it requires some background.

The idea combines the circumstances I currently find myself in (ie having a newborn and a toddler) and the concept of scapegoating, which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. It all started with a podcast on religion and violence (the second part of the equation, that is. If you don’t know how the first part of the equation starts then you need to go and ask your parents to supervise your use of the internet much more closely). The podcast looked, amongst other things, at the work of René Girard. Girard believes that, historically, it was the creation of the scapegoat that allowed humanity to move from a culture of violence that pitted each against all, to a culture of stability and co-operation. The projecting of communal violence onto a scapegoat – gypsies, witches, gays, jews – allowed communities to be more cohesive, to maintain a greater sense of peaceful unity by projecting their violence onto a symbolic victim or victim class. (listen to podcast or read tapescript here)

In Jewish culture (from which the word comes) the scapegoat was an actual goat. After God and Abraham had a potentially dangerous communication breakdown over Abraham’s son Isaac, Israel decided to leave human sacrifice well and truly alone. Animals, however, were not so lucky. The unfortunate goat had the sins of the whole community symbolically placed on it by the high priest, after which it was driven out of the the city of Jerusalem and into the wilderness.

This image of the scapegoat being driven into the wilderness returned to me later as I listened to another podcast (I’m an addict. What can I say?) in which Philip Adams (an ageing Australian media personality) and Julian Burnside (a lawyer and asylum seeker advocate) discussed the current asylum seeker policy in Australia (here). The need we have to drive boat people out into the wilderness (aka Nauru), and the depth of the injustice and irrational fear and hatred we direct at them must mean that they serve some powerful and unacknowledged role for us. The violence and deprivation we subject them to must be because, in some way, they carry our ‘sins’ and our violence with/on them. It seems we have chosen them as a kind of offshore dump site for our toxic, psychological waste.

I witnessed another compelling example of the scapegoating process in action the other night as I watched a Louis Theroux documentary on Coalinga State Hospital in California. Coalinga is a maximum security facility that houses hundreds of ‘sexually violent predators’, and does so indefinitely. These are men who have served their time for the crimes they were convicted of and should have been released, but the Californian Government has decided that they are too dangerous to return to the community. There is a program of therapy at the facility that is supposed to lead to the possibility of release, but so far only a handful (out of over 800) have qualified, and 70 percent of the inmates refuse to participate in the program, seeing it as a smokescreen. In other words, most of these men (whether they enter the therapeutic program or not) will live the rest of their lives in this facility, because government and society have decided that their crimes are of a fundamentally different order to any other type of crime. They are banished, in this case, into a comfortable and beautifully appointed wilderness, but a wilderness nonetheless, because our culture can’t work out how to reconcile its idealisation of children with the violence that it feels towards them. (See here for more info on Coalinga).

The most provocative part of the documentary, for me, was when Louis interviewed one of the few men who had qualified for release, who explained that he was still at Coalinga, because after well over a thousand applications for rental accommodation no landlord or neighbourhood had yet been found that would accept him. It is devastating to think that a man who has served his jail time, and has participated in a lengthy therapeutic process, has voluntary (as we discover at the end) had himself castrated, and has been deemed fit to return to the community by a highly qualified, highly experienced team of psychologists, can still be rejected at every turn in his attempts to come in from the cold. Which is all very easy for me to say given that he’s not moving in next door to me. Would I be happy to have him live next door to my girls? I really don’t know.

Which brings me to my idea for a film. All this rumination on demonisation and scapegoating got me thinking about a category of men who are much closer to home for me; men who abandon their partners just before, or just after, the birth of a child. Men like this are generally thought of as pretty despicable, and understandably so. To abandon someone you have created a child with, at the hardest point in the process, when you are needed most, does seem like a pretty contemptible way to act.

And yet, there have been moments in the last couple of months (just a couple, mind you) when I’ve been able to see how easy it would be to do it – to walk away from the mother of your children when she needs you most. Having a newborn is not only incredibly demanding, but the demands are unrelenting, and on top of this, it can make your relationship almost unrecognisable to you. Your lover and friend suddenly seems more like a sleep-deprived, hormone-addled colleague in a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, emotional emergency room, where your shift never ends. If you entered into this with even the least amount of doubt about your relationship, or without some serious personal resources to draw on, it would be so easy to walk away.

So my film would be an exploration of this. Every scene, except the last, would be at night. It would be a portrait of the surreal, torturous nights of those first months – the exhaustion, the desperation, the ferocious, whispered arguments. And the relationship would be one that wasn’t really working, even before the Newborn Bomb went off within it.

This process brings to mind, for me, the magnificent opening sequence in Ian McEwen’s ‘Enduring Love’. A couple are having a picnic on a idyllic summer day, when all of a sudden they notice a hot air balloon drifting very close to the ground; the occupant, a ten-year-old boy screaming in terror; his grandfather, being dragged behind the balloon as he holds on desperately to a trailing rope. The man, and a number of others, run to help. They all grab onto ropes hanging from the balloon to try to hold it down, but the wind starts to lift the balloon and all the would-be rescuers off the ground. One by one, they let go. The first to do so, falls to the ground unharmed. The second and third sustain minor injuries; the next a broken leg. In the end, only one man (not the grandfather) is left, and he is hundreds of metres off the ground by the time he lets go, unable to hold on any longer, and falls to his death.

For all sorts of physiological, psychological and evolutionary reasons, a father is almost always going to let go of the rope that connects him to his family before his partner does. And so it is in this case (in this film). One night, a few hours before dawn, the father tenderly changes his baby’s nappy, kisses her (let’s make it a girl to keep it as close to home as possible), settles her back next to the sleeping body of her mother, watches them both for a moment, and then walks out.

I’m not sure how the movie would end. I thought perhaps that we might see him heading straight for an all night bar, having a few drinks in quick succession, and then (sticking with the Hollywood playbook) flirting with the surprisingly beautiful and sophisticated (given the hour and the place) woman who is drinking alone just down the bar from him. Then we cut to the next morning; a close-up of him in a hotel room bed. But as the camera pulls back, the woman we expect to see beside him in bed is not there. He is alone, after all. He gets up, goes to the window, throws open the curtains and sees the sun. The first sunlight we have seen in the whole movie. He starts to cry. His phone, lying on the bedside table, starts to ring. Roll credits.

This would satisfy my desire for an ambiguous ending, but the more I think about it, the more I find this ending unsatisfactory, because it occurs to me that the real question with a man in this situation is not whether or not it is understandable or permissible for him to leave his wife. The real question is whether or not, in the process, he is also abandoning his child. Some relationships reach the point where they are beyond redemption, whether anyone likes it or not, but your relationship with your children is a creature of a completely different order. This is the real test for me. Can I forgive him if he abandons his child as well? Can I imagine any circumstances under which I could do this?

Okay, so there’s obviously more work for me to do on this idea, but the goal, ultimately, would be to try to do for the father who deserts his family what the movie ‘Happiness’ did for the paedophile: call him back in from the wilderness and restore to him his humanity. Not to make what he has done okay, but to protect us from making the mistake of thinking that we are nothing like him. We are all much better people, and much worse, than we imagine.

Which brings us (kind of) back to Rene Girard again. He sees the challenge for all cultures, is how to move beyond the culture of the scapegoat without returning to a culture of rampant violence; how to recognise, accept, and learn to manage our own darkness and violence instead of projecting it onto a scapegoat that we then banish or destroy. I don’t see how that should be so hard.

It is now Christmas Eve, and so, having ‘wrapped up’ such an unwieldy post so neatly, all that is left for me to do is wish you a Merry Christmas, and to remind you not to forget that the little baby Jesus didn’t stay little. He grew into the big and rather unsettling man. I’ve even heard he ended up being made a scapegoat by the religious authorities (John 11:47-50). I guess that is why his followers are so big on making scapegoats of any group that they don’t find a bit unsettling. After all, there is no better way to show your love for a man than to live your life just like the men who had him killed.

Oh dear, and here was me trying to end on a ‘nice’ note, so that Santa would bring me some plastic shit I don’t need made by children who have nothing.



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