One of the first books that ever rattled my very inner core was a simple chapter book about a boy being bullied. I’ve tried for years to remember the title and author, but can’t. I was in fifth grade or so when I read it, and don’t trust my memory about the details, only about the delayed impact. The impact came after I read the second book in the series (if it was a series, rather than one book with two distinct parts): the same story told from the bully’s perspective.
Until this point, I’d just fallen into fiction, happy to surrender to the enchantment of an imagined world, unable to stand outside and see them as “made” things, shaped by a living author. But reading this second book, it somehow became clear. The writer decided to tell the same story from the former antagonist’s point of view! What can I say? It hit me like a freight train. I read the book and understood why the bully was the way he was. The facts hadn’t changed; the perspective had. This seemed like an essential key to life. We call it empathy of course; I didn’t know that word at the time. I just knew that a book (or a series of books) was a fantastic way to achieve this effect, because it allowed you to step completely into the mind and life of another person–even the person you thought was the “bad guy.”
As adult readers and writers, we’d say, “Well, of course.” But there was no “of course” for me. It seemed like a miracle that changed books, and changed the way I perceived the real world outside of books. I actually encountered some brief bullying around this time, from a big, sullen girl from another class who liked to push around kids, and who caught me one day standing in the center of a jungle gym. She rallied all her gigantic (okay, probably four-and-a-half-feet) thugs around the metal contraption and they taunted and pulled at my hair. The principal found out and “Barbie” and I both got in trouble–go figure–though at least we managed to avoid the infamous principal’s discipline paddle. (A bit of a sadist, that one.)
The next time I saw her on the playground, I walked up to Barbie and said hi. We started talking. And strange but true: I left school that day with Barbie’s phone number scrawled in barely legible numbers (she wasn’t the brightest kid, I realized) on a damp little slip of paper. I never called, but she never bothered me again, either. I remember thinking that if I just tried to imagine what she was really like from the inside of her own skin then I didn’t need to be afraid of her. If the fear didn’t show on my face, I could walk up to her, and if I walked up to her and started talking, it was different from being hunted down, and something would change. And it did.
Bullying stories rarely turn out that easy. But as a reader and a writer-to-be, that little episode meant a lot to me. Through my reading, I could get to understand a lot of Barbies –and many other people as well, including people who lived in different places or even in different historical periods. (A year later, I’d start reading books by Jane Auel, about prehistoric people living in caves who were–and weren’t–like people I knew. Mind-blowing!)
Growing up, my mother often cautioned me not to “be a mind reader” or expect her to be one, either. But in truth, we’re all mind readers. In her book Why We Read Fiction, Lisa Zunshine merges cognitive science and literary theory to suggest that reading minds–practicing it, dealing with successively greater challenges of understanding–was important in our evolutionary history and one reason we still get such pleasure today in reading novels. Fiction helps us see inside others’ minds, often many of them in a single book, tracking people’s thoughts (and quite often, errors), and even what imagined people are thinking about other imagined people, on up through many layers of mind-reading and source-tracking complexity.
Regardless of what point-of-view a work uses, that viewpoint stretches our abilities to imagine, empathize, and practice those mind-reading skills that happen to be one of our brain’s favorite activities. It’s amazing to know what a bully is thinking–or a murderer, or a cavewoman, or a man from Mars. It’s instructive and entertaining to read a multi-generational saga told in alternating viewpoints (or recounted by an omniscient narrator), in which we get such contrasting views from siblings, parents and children, men and women. It’s inherently satisfying to view the world through even one intelligent but otherwise ordinary mind that is different from our own.