In the right frontal lobe of the brain, there's a sugar-cube-size tangle of neurons devoted to storytelling. When master storytellers spin...
“The Beholder’s Eye: A Collection of America’s Finest Personal Journalism”
edited by Walt Harrington
Grove Press, 256 pp., $14
In the right frontal lobe of the brain, there’s a sugar-cube-size tangle of neurons devoted to storytelling. When master storytellers spin yarns while being scanned by an MRI machine, the inferior frontal gyrus glows.
We learn this while touring the brain (via magnetic resonance imaging) of Stephen S. Hall, one of a dozen talented writers featured in “The Beholder’s Eye,” a fascinating collection of personal narratives previously published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Harper’s and other literary venues.
“These stories were personal, but not self-indulgent,” writes editor Walt Harrington, who selected them. “The journalists writing them were brave souls willing to reveal themselves — often in a strange or sorry light — in order to bring readers insights that were deeper than supposedly objective third-person stories.”
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Harrington, a former Washington Post Magazine writer who teaches journalism at the University of Illinois, glommed onto the first-person point of view early in his career, when what he wrote about his milkman father and homemaker mother generated more response than anything he’d written before.
In “Beholder’s Eye,” we visit his dentist, where Harrington is trapped in the chair, mouth full of dental dough, listening to a racist joke. Harrington is white. His wife and children are African American. “I’ve crossed a line, and I know I have, and I know for an instant I’ve traveled to a place where white Americans don’t go. I feel revulsion and anger at this man. I feel fear and anguish for my children. I feel helpless. Am I, I wonder, feeling like a black man?”
Harrington explores that question as well as family history in a piece that’s insightful, honest and probably groundbreaking when published 15 years ago. Today, especially in Seattle, where interracial families are common, it feels a bit dated. So do a few of the other stories from decades ago.
No matter. In this era of half-baked blogs and sterile newspaper-ese, “Beholder’s Eye” is worth reading for its intimate voices and polished prose. My favorite pieces are Scott Anderson’s reflections on a lifetime covering war in Chechnya, Beirut, Kampala and Sri Lanka, and Gretel Ehrlich’s dogsled journey with Inuit subsistence hunters in Greenland. Each of these story, coincidentally, revolves around the killing of a mother and the writer’s guilt in not preventing it.
“There is something about that day I have never told anyone,” Anderson confides. “Before Athuma is led into the hut, I believed I was the one they meant to kill … Emotional, irrational — to anyone else, perhaps absurd — but whenever I see Athuma’s silhouette, I believe that she is coming forward to die in my place, that once again I am being called upon to play a part in her murder.”
Ehrlich, in Greenland, after sled dogs accidentally kill a polar bear cub and her companions decide to shoot its mother: “I plead for her life using English verbs and Greenlandic nouns,” but the Inuit hunters need food and pelts to survive winter, so they take aim. “Peeking over the top of the ice, the bear slumps back halfheartedly. She is tired, her cub is gone and there is no escape … The bear’s fur is pale yellow, and the ice wall is blue. The sun is hot. Time melts. What I know about life and death, cold and hunger, seems irrelevant. There are three gunshots. A paw goes up in agony and scratches the ice wall. She rolls on her back and is dead.”
The hunters butcher the mother bear and stow her on the sled beneath them. “We are riding her,” Ehrlich writes, “this bear that, according to Inuit legends, can hear and understand everything human beings say. We travel the rest of the day in silence.”
A tip: Read one story a week rather than all in one gulp. Otherwise, prepare for testosterone overload. Ten of the 12 stories are written by men, mostly about guy things: hunting, boxing, dog fight, searching for boxer, searching for father, searching for boxer who is stand-in for father and, sigh, suppressing the urge to touch the beautiful brown breasts of a trilingual Tahitian interpreter. ‘Nuf said. Probably too much.