I have heard the phrase “the elephant in the room” before but somehow I have always focused on the thought of what the elephant represents (different in every instance) rather than think about the fear that keeps the people from acknowledging it. Two books have left me thinking about that fear more, and how we worry about how others will judge us.
One is a story called What Elephant? and it is written and illustrated by Geneviève Côté. Similar to the story of the Emperor’s New Gown, there is something everyone can see but no one wants to acknowledge. In some ways the story is like There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, where there is active denial of something people can see. There is an elephant in the room: a literal, flesh and blood elephant. When George tells his friends they think he must be crazy. He can’t really explain it so eventually he starts to think he must be crazy too. He becomes more and more withdrawn until his friends come visit him. It would be the perfect opportunity for them to all acknowledge the elephant and assure George he’s not crazy, but each of them is afraid to do so for fear people will think he or she is crazy too.
“I… uh… I didn’t want anyone to think… uh…” stumbled Maggie.
When I read that line of Maggie’s I realized how relevant the book is to my own life. There are so many times when I don’t want others to think I’m too bossy, judgmental, and (depending on who I’m around) too much a social justice purist or too focused on my own life and not serious enough about social justice. It isn’t because of what the elephant is that I am scared to talk about it, but because of how I am scared it will reflect on me.
The fear of what others will think of a person features very strongly in the book The House on Parchment Street by Patricia A. McKillip. The middle-school chapter book tells about Carol, an American girl spending her holidays in Britain. The historic house her uncle and aunt rent is haunted by ghosts that only children can see. Carol discovers her cousin Bruce has also seen the ghosts, and together with another friend they set about to discover the ghosts’ secret. I read the book to my kids because I remembered reading it as a kid, and because it tells bits of historical detail about war between the royalists and the Puritans during the British civil war. What I had forgotten about the book is how strongly the topic of fearing to speak because of worry about what others would think of one comes into play in the story.
At the beginning of the story Bruce is very disconnected from his parents. He’s trying to keep a secret from them about why he disappears for long periods of time and why he ends up in fights (don’t worry, the reason is a good one). Bit by bit he starts to trust more people and eventually he shares his secret with the father he’s been worried about disappointing.
Adding to Bruce’s secret is the issue of the ghosts. They can’t exactly tell people they saw ghosts. Near the end Bruce challenges his father on the issue of whether his father believes them.
Uncle Harold was silent a moment. “Does it matter what I think?”
“Then I can only say that I haven’t enough evidence to form a conclusion one way or another. You’ll have to be satisfied with that, Bruce.”
“You don’t believe us.”
“I didn’t say – ”
“We aren’t lying.”
Bruce moved impatiently under the bedclothes, his brows drawn. “Well, you must think something. I just don’t want you to think we’re lying or we’re crazy, and if you don’t believe us, what else can you think?”
Uncle Harold sighed. “I don’t think the matter is so important that I must form a conclusion from it on either your sanity or your principles.” He reached behind Alexander to drop the ashes in the wastebasket. “People inevitably see things differently. The important thing is that we don’t have to quarrel about who is right or-“
People want others to believe in them, to see the good in them, to know they are telling the truth and trying.
There are a lot of other ways questions of who a person is or what people think of a person play into the story. The house is owned by Mrs. Brewster, and while the kids don’t care if she believes in ghosts or not, they need her to believe that they had not been the ones riding over her flowers on bikes. Carol sticks out because she goes around barefoot in patched jeans.
“He’s nice. I didn’t think priests were nice.”
“What did you think they were like?”
“I don’t know. Gloomy. They wear black and talk about what happens after you’re dead.”
“People’s clothes don’t matter.”
“Yes, they do. You try going into a little town with bare feet and patched jeans and then say they don’t matter.”
He set the flowers precisely into the center of the circle. “That’s different. Priests have always worn black. It’s traditional. That’s why you can’t tell what a priest is like from his clothes. But if a priest wore jeans and went barefoot, then his clothes would matter to people. Why don’t you wear dresses and comb your hair?”
“I do comb it!”
“Well, it never looks combed. I’m not trying to start an argument; I’m just saying that you look the way you do most likely because you don’t want to look the way somebody that you don’t like looks.”
“Or because the people I like dress this way.”
“Well, then, you aren’t going to like anybody in this town.”
The book does a great job of pulling similar situations together. The question of whether clothes matters is mirrored by the ghosts and the struggle they were caught in between the Royalists, who dressed with lace and curls, and the Puritans, who insisted upon simpler clothing. After a quick discussion of Puritans vs. Royalists the book will move quickly into a discussion of whether a local church is accepting of a children’s band, thus pointing out that even now people are hesitant to have changes in the rituals they are comfortable with. While somewhat downplaying the political struggle the book emphasis the individual tension between people who believe the other must be wrong for being different, or that the other will judge them wrong for being different. In a strange way it is a story of diversity within a very homogenous set of characters – a diversity more imagined than real – a diversity based upon each person’s fear that the other people would judge if they knew that some random detail of who he or she is.