‘The Child Screams And Looks Back At You’ by Russell Banks

The Child Screams And Looks Back At You by Russell Banks, 1981

The magic trick:

Making a protagonist pay for a mistake it isn’t clear she ever really made

Warning: very dark story today. Not an uplifting tale.

The story highlights the dangers of parents placing their own selfish adult desires ahead of the needs of their children.

We’ve got a father who abuses his wife and is shown the door. He’s the villain. He leaves the story early before we even get to know him, but always remember: he’s the villain.

The problem is it’s the mother who remains, raises the three boys, and is left to navigate the tricky balance between her life as a woman and her role as a mother.

The story never shows her making an outright mistake or behaving in a selfish way. She’s certainly not portrayed as a villain.

And yet she certainly pays the price in the end. Horribly. Tragically.

The cause-and-effect is never clear though, confusing any direct blame or moral.

And that’s quite a trick on Banks’s part.

The selection:

When your child lives, he carries with him all his earlier selves, so that you cannot separate your individual memories of him from your view of him now, at this moment. When you recall a particular event in your and your child’s shared past – a day at the beach, a Christmas morning, a sad, weary night of flight from the child’s shouting father, a sweet, pathetic supper prepared by the child for your birthday – when you recall these events singly, you cannot see the child as a camera would have photographed him then. You see him simultaneously all the way from infancy to adolescence to adulthood and on, as if he has been moving through your life too rapidly for any camera to catch and still, so that the image is blurred, grayed out, a swatch of your own past pasted across the foreground of a studio photographer’s carefully arranged backdrop.

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