I Know What You Did Last Summer and Other Ways to Provoke Guilt

This week I finished reading I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan. I also watched the pilot episode of Ozark on Netflix. Both stories had scenes which illustrate the psychological impact of guilt.

In Duncan’s novel, Julie receives a piece of mail. In the envelope is a letter which contains the title sentence: “I know what you did last summer.” In Ozark, Marty confronts his murderous drug boss’ accusations. Marty accuses him of “fishing” for information, which he later admits. Marty’s partner, Bruce, and his co-conspirators, however, start babbling, admitting to information only a guilty party would know.  Big mistake. But that’s guilt.

That one sentence – “I know what you did last summer – causes Julie and her friends to engage in behavior that confirms their guilt. In Ozark, the guilty parties confess their sins before their accuser even knows for certain there is anything to confess. In both situations, it was the “spotlight” that caused the discomfort and led to the mistakes in behavior.

What I am calling “the spotlight” is a metaphor for guilt. In normal, non-narcissistic, non-sociopathic people, something changes inside of us when we do something wrong. Because we have violated our own ethical standards, or done something that we know will hurt someone else, or engaged in activity that is illegal or immoral, an inner spotlight flips on and shines down on the activity. It continues to shine, even while we’re doing and thinking about other things. That continuous spotlight reminds us that our behavior is incompatible with what we know is right. That’s why, when someone questions us about the bad behavior, our bodies and minds betray us. Lie detectors are designed to pick up on this. The mismatch between our beliefs and our actions causes a physical reaction that can be detected electronically.

But the lie detector is not necessary.  The spotlight tricks us into believing that everyone can see what we’ve done. When someone comes too close to discovering the truth, we think the spotlight is growing bigger and brighter. That’s why people confess. The hot brightness of the spotlight is too uncomfortable, too relentless. The weight of the guilty conscience becomes so heavy that confessing the misdeed, and accepting the consequences, seems less painful.

And getting rid of the guilt is a good thing. We should never wallow in guilt. Guilt, by itself, is not helpful. Nevertheless, the ability to feel guilt separates normal human beings from narcissists and sociopaths. The fact that narcissists and sociopaths exist is one of the reasons why lie detectors cannot be totally trusted. Some people don’t have spotlights. Either they are born without one, or they’ve ignored them for so long that the light eventually goes out. In either case, if you can’t feel remorse, you also can’t bond with other humans.

Guilt is part of the survival package that allows us to live together peacefully in community. Guilt is not an end to itself. It’s just a normal human emotion. It is a signal that something is wrong. It is the pathway to remorse. It is an invitation to apologize, make restitution to the abused party, and eventually be forgiven and restored to the community. People who lack the ability to feel remorse can never be restored to the people they’ve harmed. They go from person to person wreaking havoc and leaving hurt, victimized people in their wake. Society needs to be protected from such people.

But if you have done something you know is wrong, remember that the spotlight is there to help you. It’s a signal that something is broken. It should inspire further action to rectify the situation.

However…if someone says “I already know what you did, you might as well confess,” they might be bluffing! Confess at your own risk!

 

Peace and love,

Raven

 

 

 

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The Importance of Journaling

Thursdays are normally my clean-up days. I wake up, straighten up for an hour or so, then go into meditation. This week, however, I stumbled across an old journal of mine. I’m generally not interested in the past at all, but I thought it would be fun to scan through what I had written.

I found an entry about an old boyfriend from years ago who wasn’t very nice to me. One of those things where you break up and the next thing you know he’s posting about introducing some woman to his parents. “Hi, I’m getting engaged!” “But, wait, didn’t we break up a couple of seconds ago?”

I care nothing about this now, but it was a bummer then. However, when I read what I had written about him, I realized that it wasn’t even a bummer then. In my mind, I had glossed over the negative because so much time had passed. When I actually went back and read my journal entries, it was obvious that we were in no way right for each other. If his new boo is the right one, I’m happy for him. Truly. Time heals all wounds (if you let it).

But time is also a liar. Had I not stumbled across that journal entry, I might have told myself a story about that situation which was patently untrue. The truth was written in black and white: Our break up had been inevitable. Only the clarity of hindsight made that crystal clear.

As a writer, the truth of any situation is what is most important to me. Memories are unreliable. How we remember something often has nothing to do with what actually occurred. Only by recording things as they happen, can we capture how we really feel in the moment – before time has a chance to come in with its airbrush and make it all pretty.

Our characters are the same way. What they remember in our stories will not be accurate. Show how that happens. And if you’re ever struggling with writer’s block, it can help to have your characters write a few journal entries. It helps us get inside their minds when we allow them to write about their problems freely, from their own perspective. Just open up a new Word doc and call it “So and so’s diary.” You may be amazed at what you come up with.

And if your characters are unhappy, that’s a great thing for drama! Have them write about it and get some juicy details flowing.

Happy writing!

Peace and love,

Raven

Twin Peaks and the Nature of Evil

The new screenplay I’m working on has characters that defy labels of “good” and “evil.” It has been interesting exploring their motivations and their desires. I have come to like all of my characters, the good ones and the bad ones.

I’m also re-watching the first iteration of Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and I’m on Season Two. As strange and unrealistic as the story is, the show really makes me think. As I watched LeLand, one of the hosts of evil spirit Bob, attack Maddy, I paid specific attention to Leland’s relationship with Bob.

As Leland is attacking Maddy, we go back and forth between seeing Bob or Leland as the attacker. Leland cries out “Laura,” and “my baby.” Bob, of course, just grunts and growls. But, if we are to believe that Leland is his true self for brief moments, and Bob at other moments, then Leland is not only bad when he is inhabited by Bob. He has seeds of Darkness within him even without Bob. Leland, the man, has an unhealthy (and unholy) attachment to his own daughter, whom Maddy reminds him of. So, is it really Bob who motivated Leland’s violence? Or, was it Leland all along – and Bob, the spirit, was just along for the ride because he had a willing host?

This made me think about real life. Are people evil because they’re just evil, or are they overcome by spiritual forces that compel them to do evil? If they are overcome by spiritual forces, then they will be horrified and remorseful once they come back to themselves. Leland is remorseful once the full weight of his deeds hits him. And I’ve seen criminals express genuine sorrow and remorse for their crimes (usually once they’re caught). They often are hazy on the details of their crimes. They remember just before it happened and right afterward. The doing of it is a blank.

Are they suppressing an unthinkable memory? Or, were they “possessed” by a murderous spirit that, in a sense, took them over?

I’m no David Lynch expert, so I have no idea what his intentions were with the show. But, my own take-away is that Leland is not some blameless vessel that was simply taken over by evil. He was a co-creator of evil who fell in and out of lucidity by choosing to ignore his conscience.

And that’s the point for me: evil is a co-creation. I do believe that evil exists as a spiritual force of sorts. It thrives where goodness is rejected. But, as humans, we have a choice. We can choose to embrace evil and negativity, or we can choose to embrace goodness and integrity. Evil is introduced when we choose to follow our selfish drives, and ignore what we know is right. That introduction becomes a way of life when we persistently ignore the nagging of conscience.

Evil, I believe, then gains a foothold in us through trauma, pain, and fear. These powerful negative emotions make us more vulnerable to outside malevolent influences as well as internal moral conflicts. What approaches us from the outside is eventually invited to the inside, as we submit to its influence. So, while we may hate that which is evil, we also must understand and have compassion for it, since the seeds of it exist within us all. We avoid Darkness by resisting it. But, the weak among us are unable to do so. Thus, criminals and “bad guys” are humans, above all.

This ability to view both the “good” and the “bad” guys with balance, compassion, and thoughtfulness is important for writers. One-dimensional characters are forgettable and false. There is some good in the worst and some bad in the best. Twin Peaks rises to the level of art because it recognizes the complexity of the human experience, and explores it in a novel and compelling way.

We, too, can infuse our writing with complexity if we approach both our beloved and our hated characters with the knowledge that Good and Bad are stereotypes. Real life humans are a mixed up combination of both.

Happy writing!

Peace and love,

Raven