Vanessa Blakeslee’s “The Lightness of Absence” and the Beauty of Having the “Wrong” Emotions and Thoughts
There’s a narrative that dictates how one is supposed to feel after a terrible event occurs. When a family member or acquaintance dies in a car accident, most people feel and act the same way. As Claudius said of the reaction to his brother’s death:
…it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe
The reality is that everyone is different and will respond to trauma differently. In her Prime Number essay, “The Lightness of Absence,” Vanessa Blakeslee tells the story of her reaction to the very sad murder of her cousin and describes how her feelings about the matter evolved.
Ms. Blakeslee introduces the death in the first line, taking advantage of the inherent power in such an extreme condition: “When I was twenty, my cousin Cara was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. We were both attending college in Florida at the time.” All of Ms. Blakeslee’s readers are surely as human as she is, so the release of this exposition earns instant emotion from the reader.
Much more interesting is the way Ms. Blakeslee deals with an emotionally loaded issue in a very calm and methodical manner. If you haven’t read the piece, do so now, as I’m going to discuss the ending. (I even linked it twice.)
Ms. Blakeslee certainly mourns the senseless loss of her “childhood best friend,” but she doesn’t give us a standard grief narrative. Instead, the author confronts a much more unanticipated question and one that invites thought from the reader: “What do you call it when even the weight of loss has disappeared?”
Ms. Blakeslee had a little bit of a problem. How do you create tension and keep people reading when that “weight of loss,” those emotions that were much stronger years ago, are currently absent? The solution is simple: you turn the absence of emotion into the story.
On one hand, I think I would love if the piece were a little bit longer, if we had more of a discussion of the dilemma posed by the end of the piece. Then again, ending the piece with a dilemma forces the reader to go through their own discomfort with respect to the issue.
- There are certain events and conditions that don’t evoke as much emotion in me as they might. Is there something wrong with me?
- Do people say and do things that makes me treat them differently? Is this wrong? When is it wrong?
- How long should I grieve for those I’ve lost and the bad things that have happened to people I love? What does it mean to “get over” a misfortune?
Further, the ending of the piece is appropriate to its length. At 1600 words, Ms. Blakeslee had to avoid some of the more complicated possibilities for the material. So what could be more appropriate than ending the piece with an ethical quandary?