Stories, and What to Do About Them

Book Reviews

Of what importance are stories to the modern mind? Humans have entertained and enlightened one another for centuries using the power of words, relating true or fictional tales that promote virtues and discourage evils. While a person could be excused for thinking people don’t care about stories anymore, because they like movies and TV more than books (the traditional method of storytelling) They’d be wrong. Stories are not bound to one package, and can be just as powerful in visual or auditory form as they are when written down. Perhaps this principle can be best highlighted in the life of Owen Suskind, a young man whose lifelong struggles with autism found some relief in the films of Disney. Suskind, the subject of his father Ron’s book Life Animated, had spent the formative years of his life locked inside of his own head, unable to communicate with the family that loved him. The tale of Owen’s fascination with Disney movies and how they led him to learn language illustrates that yes, stories carry a weight incomparable to any other even today.

Owen began life as a normal child. His parents, not knowing what was to come, enjoyed their time with him and assumed that it would never end. Owen was talkative, inquisitive, and loved to play pretend with his father; one of the last videos the Suskinds had of their child was of him and his father re-enacting a scene from the Disney movie Peter Pan. All was not well, however, as Owen began to developmentally regress. The formerly verbose child lost the use of words, and retreated inside of himself. For years afterwards, the Suskinds could hardly communicate with their child. Ron Suskind writes this about his wife’s struggling during this period:

Come mid-December, Cornelia finds herself lying with Owen in his lower bunk, Walt fast asleep up top. A small lit tank hums on the bookcase, where Artie and Tyler swim silently through the bubbles. It’s three A.M. Owen is rolling side to side, mumbling nonsense. Cornelia holds him as tightly as she can, to calm him down. In the dark night of desperation she now prays, whispering through tears to her baby, hoping God can hear: “Please help us. Whatever is going on I’m going to love you so much that I’ll love it out of you. I’ll keep holding you until this is all over.” (4)

The terror of these parents is all too real. No one wants to see their child suffer, but the Suskinds were forced to watch as Owen slipped away from them to somewhere they could not follow.

                Years pass. Owen is diagnosed with autism. He still cannot speak.

                Then, miracle of miracles, words begin to form. At first it is snatches of dialogue from his favorite Disney movies, then whole phrases. He learns to read because he wants to be able to see who made these films that he so enjoys. The Suskinds use them as tools to help push Owen to greater and bigger things, turning his love of animated movies into prizes for his completing homework.

                “We’re already placing some controls on viewing,” Ron writes. “Now we add to them. We set up a point system at school, a behavioral technique, where he can pick up points for appropriate behavior… Enough points meant a video that night.” (76)

                The child who could not speak, could not leave his own mind to communicate with his very parents, is thusly drawn out of his shell because of his love of stories. These films enraptured his mind and refused to let him go, held him fast and encouraged him along to become a person better prepared for the situations that life had and would send his way.

                While most of humanity will not be forced to go through the nightmare that Owen Suskind endured, in many ways his affinity for stories mirrors mankind’s. Just as Owen was encouraged and pushed along by stories, so too is everyone else. Stories, whether they be Disney films or Tolkien novels, aim to make people better than they were before they first turned the page or started the movie. The tale of Peter Pan shows the audience how to be a hero, letting go of one’s pride in order to protect others. Luke Skywalker’s epic journey teaches one that there is more to life than vengeance, even when one has been wronged. The journey of Taran Wanderer is an archetypal story of growing up, a boy who turns into a warrior intent on protecting his land from the machinations of the evil King Arawn. Each story one experiences becomes a part of oneself, adding to the cairn of knowledge and experience like so many stones. What one loves turns one’s heart, and what better way to turn one’s heart to love virtues than by inundating oneself in stories that teach said virtues?

Stories have been with mankind since the beginning, and they will stay there as long as man has spirit to breathe and ink to write. Modernity is awash with tales of all kinds, dousing society with everything from books to movies to video games to podcasts. Such abundance could be mistaken for worthlessness, but that is far from the case. Instead of seeing the plethora of stories set before oneself as indicative of meaninglessness, one should see them as shining beacons of hope, assurances that man’s spirit for stories remains entirely intact. While many of these stories may not be of great or lasting value, their very existence is a testament that man has not forgotten their power, and is set on using them (for good and for ill) to shape the minds of other men. One should remember that as one picks up books, watches movies, listens to audios, or plays games. These forms contain an ancient art that should be respected, nurtured, and discerned. Only then can one be pushed and challenged to be better, seeing through others’ eyes the way that things should be.