As Dance with Dragons burns up the fiction bestseller list, a considerably more sobering title has been the talk of the non-fiction world this week: Jayce Duggard's A Stolen Life. From the little I know of her story, it is an unconscionable tale that strains the limits of what we understand as survivable. The early reviews of the book have been somber, almost reverent, and have remarked on Duggard's calm and restraint.
But I will never read this book. Not only am I quite squeamish by nature, but I am not sure that hearing this story is really, well, good for me. I'm not saying the truth shouldn't be told if we find it discomforting, only that the general outline is enough for me. People are fascinated by her story, and I can understand why. But it does lead me to wonder: at what point does a story become harmful? Should some stories not be told?
In the final chapter of Beloved, Toni Morrison includes the line "This is not a story to pass on," suggesting, quite paradoxically, that the harrowing story we have just read is not one we should have heard.
In Elisabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee's titular character wonders about the limits of story-telling when she reads the memoir of particular villainous Nazi commandant. She is afraid that the evil of his being, revealed intimately in prose, can infect or damage her own humanity.
At what point does a story become dangerous? Would you listen to any story? Does it matter if it is factual? If we believe that stories can be good for us, doesn't it necessarily follow that some of them might well be bad for us?