The best stories often have a main character with a shameful secret to hide, or let’s just say, a ghost that haunts her from her past. I have a son who recently crossed the threshold into teenage-hood. One thing I dread about this developmental stage is how his questions force me to either lie about my own ghosts, or to admit to them and face the shame. In literary terms, my son is my “revenant.” He is the character who goads me into facing “ghosts” from my past that I’d rather keep hidden. (For a full discussion of this subject see “The Art of Character” by David Corbett.)
“Have you ever been arrested, Dad?” This was one of his attempts to play the revenant. He and buddies at school had been comparing lurid stories. He knew that I did once spend a night in jail, and he knew why, and he knew that I felt myself to have been the valorous victim of police overreach. I retold that story. That’s it, I said. There was no shame attached. There’s another story I did not tell my revenant.
When I was his age (middle-school), I worked summers caddying at the Broadmoor, an exclusive club attached to what was in those days the luxury hotel in Colorado Springs. The U. S. Amateur Open, for both men and women, was held there one summer during my caddying stints. I did not grow up in a family that belonged to country clubs. We did not stay in motels. When we drove to Iowa to visit relatives because we couldn’t afford the train, our family of seven slept through the night in our Vista Cruiser station-wagon. The littlest ones got planks on the floor.
The summer after my junior year in high school, I went out driving aimlessly with two friends, also former Broadmoor caddies. Both were a year older and had just graduated from high school and would soon leave town for college. They opened a bottle of “Boones Farm,” probably strawberry flavored to hide the syrupy, medicinal taste. When sufficiently bored and lubricated, we decided it was time to strike back at the “rich” bastards who’d stiffed us with tips that held our earnings at drowning depths. They parked near the fountain at the Broadmoor’s main entrance. We had a vague notion that we wanted revenge, but we had no better idea than to inflict property damage on the enemy.
I was in the back seat of my friend’s Karman Ghia convertible, top down. I drank the last swallow from the bottle. They were sitting up front and talking about growing their hair long and smuggling their girlfriends into their dorms to get high together and sample some of the sexual experiments the music of the times not so subliminally suggested was our due if we only joined the revolution. I felt agitated beyond all reasonable expectation. They were joining the revolution. I was staying home. I climbed out of the Karman Ghia and climbed to the top tier of the slippery fountain. Nervous that they’d get in trouble for drinking and driving under age and that such an outcome would threaten their beatific futures, they cajoled me to shut up and climb down. Nothing doing. This was my moment. Standing atop the fountain, I attempted to sing my favorite Grateful Dead song, the one about riding that train high on cocaine (which I knew nothing about; it just sounded like part of the revolution they’d set in motion in San Francisco). It didn’t take long before the white cars from the Broadmoor’s security force showed up. My friends took off. I was the noise maker. It was me they wanted. Two uniformed officers told me to come down. They were too fat and out of shape to do the climbing themselves. They waited for me. Resistance seemed futile so I meekly did as I was told. They crammed me into the back of one of the cars and took me to the security office behind the main lobby where they asked the obvious question: what did you think you were doing?
Who knows why—maybe cause I was white, looked sporty, and still had short hair—they threatened to hand me over to the police, but only reprimanded me instead and offered to call my parents. To my friends’ credit, they were only hiding. When they saw me come out, alone, they picked me up and drove me home and we never talked of the incident again. There was nothing to be proud of. We had only proven how inexperienced and out of the revolution we really were and that was a sore epiphany.
I have not talked about the incident with anyone in a very long time. Not so much for what I did, but for the shameful realization of why. The worst part of it for me was how left behind and invisible I felt. Should I have been arrested? How would I have explained that to my parents? Will this be my son in a few years? Would it help if I could talk about it? What understanding would he take away if I did face this ghost and tell him the story?
Your characters cannot be let off so easily. Their revenants cannot allow them to avoid their ghosts without paying consequences. Genre fiction is full of examples. In Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before The War, the hero, a private eye in Boston, pursues justice beyond the point where it makes sense, to the point of risking his own life as well as that of his partner, because one of the bad guys forces him to confront the ghost from his own childhood, the hero-father who beat him and left him badly scarred. mainstream literary fiction is not so different. In the stories of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Olive is repeatedly challenged by characters in her small town in Main to face her own plentiful ghosts, her son chief among the revenants. What’s both maddening, and interesting, about Olive is how she fights with such fierce resistance against facing those ghosts, despite that she keeps paying consequences.
Let there be revenants. Make your heroes face their ghosts.