The will and the way of being free
Nowadays, when the soundtrack of our lives thunders “do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be,” the concept of free will sounds so 16th century. It does not prompt reflection but conjures images of grumpy old Puritans preaching about predestination.
But as I read Nicholas Fearn’s new book, The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions (Grove Press), its summation of the issue gave me pause.
“As so often with philosophy, there is no answer,” critic Mitchell Goodman reports, “just a current state of thinking, in this case, that we are free when our actions are subject to our control and not to someone else’s.”
In another time I might have read right past that. But two books—both finalists for the National Book Critics Award—remind me that our actions are often beyond our control. We may no longer be hostage to the whims of capricious gods or brutal totalitarian states, but what about the power of our own inscrutable minds?
In The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press), Anne Fessler tells the wrenching stories of unwed young women who were forced by family, custom and shame to surrender their children for adoption in the years after World War II and before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. Strange Piece of Paradise (FSG) recounts Terri Jentz’s courageous efforts to track down the psychopath who tried to murder her and a friend in a random act of violence.
Both books are full of haunted women, unable to get past the past. “I am shocked at how much it has impacted my life,” one of Fessler’s subjects explains about giving up her baby for adoption. “I really tried to move on and forget, I tried to do what they said, but it didn’t work. I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. There must be something wrong with me. It was supposed to work; everybody said so. But it didn’t. No matter how many degrees I got, how many credits I had, how many years I worked, I was empty.”
Early in her memoir, Jentz confides, “I entered young adulthood with a story that cast a spell on me. ... It took fifteen years before I realized that a long-ago incident had transformed me, divided my life into a before and after.”
Six days into a bike trip across the United States in 1977, Jentz and a college friend were sleeping in a tent when a pickup truck ran over them. As they awoke screaming, an axe-wielding man delivered blows that should have killed them before disappearing into the night. In the years that followed, Jentz says she split into two distinctly separate selves.
“There was the official self: the bright and independent woman right out of Yale, an aspiring artist in New York City ... trying to develop social poise, personal charm and style,” she writes. There was also “a scarecrow self—an unacknowledged, angry, aggrieved shadow” who feared crossing streets and followed murder cases, which prompted her to scrawl discomfiting facts in her calendar and journal: “The entire body is covered with a thin film of black dirt.” “The smell of my blood-encrusted body.”
For Jentz and for Fessler’s subjects, extreme trauma spawned a subversive fifth column within themselves. Their conscious minds worked tirelessly to heal the emotional scars, to seize control of their lives. But their subconscious minds denied their will. They confined them, thwarting their best intentions.
Their plight, of course, is no news flash. The notion that we are “haunted” by the past has been a staple of literature since the Garden of Eden. Freud theorized that an inhibiting Superego prevents us from fulfilling our wishes. And, given half the chance, half the population will gladly tell you how their parents messed them up.
Indeed, how many people do you know—without looking in the mirror—who can pinpoint the causes and effects of their “problems” but cannot alter their behavior? Understanding is easy; change is hard.
All of which makes the “current state of thinking” about free will so puzzling. Being told what to do surely signifies an absence of freedom—just ask my daughters. Being unable to do what we’d like, to master ourselves, can be even worse. If we believe that only outside sources can limit our freedom, then we have few mechanisms—except for shame and self-loathing—for explaining the inner forces that shape us.
Experience and common sense tell us that “free will” is not simply a question of you and me against the world. Today, more than ever, it revolves around the battles we wage against ourselves. It’s empowering and comforting to believe we can be what we want to be. But as Fessler and Jentz remind us, the great philosopher on this question may not be some tweedy don of the dialectic but the comic strip sage Pogo, who observed: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Editor’s note: The paperback edition of The Girls Who Went Away is being published in the U.S. in June 2007, while the paperback of Strange Piece of Paradise is coming out March 15th.
ABOUT THE WRITER
J. Peder Zane is the book review editor for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at pzane at newsobserver.com.