In his new novel Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks wants to disturb us, and with a disturbing subject: sex offenders. No attempt is made to exculpate these men, but Russell does want his readers to do what many in society today refuse to do. He wants us to see these offenders as men—failed, sinful, even criminal human beings—but nevertheless men, not monsters.
At the end of the novel, its protagonist, a young man simply called the Kid returns to a causeway connecting a Florida barrier island with the coast. It’s where the Kid lives, in a small tent city underneath a causeway overpass, because he can’t legally dwell within five hundred feet of any children. Banks writes:
He will make his home here among the other men. He is after all like them: a convicted sex offender. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. He has nine years to wait in darkness out of sight deep beneath the city before he is no longer on parole. No longer guilty. Nine years before he can remove the electronic shackle from his ankle and can emerge from under the Causeway and mingle freely again with people he believes to be mostly normal people with mostly normal sex lives; nine years before he can live among others in a building aboveground that’s less than 2,500 feet from a school or playground and circulate inside the city walls without fear of being rearrested, buy a one-way ticket on a bus bound for a distant city and live there if he want to and not be breaking the law; nine years before he can stroll into a public library and legally use the computer to go online and check out the job listings and apartments for rent on craigslist.org — a website that may not even exist by then (416).
The Kid didn’t actually have sex with anyone. In his early twenties, he almost had sex with a girl, whom he thought was eighteen, but that’s not the point. Many of the other men living underneath the causeway did commit heinous crimes, and yet their expulsion from our communities isn’t completely explained by a desire to keep our children safe. When we banish humans from our society, we set them beyond the pale of our own humanity. We refuse to acknowledge the human nature that we still share with these men.
The problem with turning men like Osama bin Laden, Hitler, or Stalin into monsters is that it absolves the rest of us from trying to understand them, from trying to comprehend the humanity that we encounter in them. The monster doesn’t have to be understood. He’s the outsider, the outcast, the mutant incarnation of evil.
But no man is the incarnation of evil, and the problem with making monsters is that it allows us to turn away from our own humanity, to turn away from a part of ourselves. We don’t have to comprehend what we’ve declared to be inhuman.
Making monsters doesn’t confront evil. It excuses us from comprehending it, and sadly, sometimes we make monsters of ourselves. We take parts of our own lives, our own histories, and surreptitiously, even to ourselves, declare them to be monstrous. We refuse to speak of them, think of them, pray over them. We consign them to darkness, thinking that we thus rob those parts of us of power, but that only gives them an ever larger domain within our lives, the dark side.
Advent is a wonderful time to reclaim ourselves. The Letter of St. James tells us, not to banish, but to cultivate our wayward selves, to be patient, “until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:7-8)
Confronting evil doesn’t mean running from monsters. It means accepting and confessing our own weaknesses, our shortcomings, our sins. Calling them our own, recognizing them for what they are, rather than banishing them into darkness, is the first movement of grace. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (5:16)
Society likes to make monsters, because monsters stand beyond comprehension or compassion. But, on the cross of Christ, nothing stands beyond compassion; God chooses to touch and to heal the uttermost depth of human depravity. Oh Advent Bethlehem, in your dark poverty, the great humbling of our God is foreshadowed. In thy dark streets shineth, an everlasting light.
Terrance W. Klein