A couple of years ago, as I was working on the initial drafts of the manuscript that would eventually become my new book, One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals
, I was invited to read at a university, something I’ve done many times. I had no idea at the time, though, that this reading and the audience’s reaction would ultimately force me to confront some of the deeper questions in the book and of myself as a writer, questions that would end up fueling much of the writing of the book.
Having read these same early drafts from the manuscript just a few weeks before at another event and been warmly received, I felt fairly confident in my choice to read some of this newer, raw material when I showed up at the campus venue. In retrospect, perhaps I should have stuck with one of my oldies, maybe a funny essay about my kids or something on ’80s pop culture, at least something I’d read before. I once saw The Doobie Brothers band perform during one of those reunion tours, and for nearly an hour, I watched drunken bikers boo and grumble about the band’s new material, only to launch into full-throated sing-along worship when the Brothers returned to their classic oldies. If only I could have summoned that memory as I stepped up to the microphone for my reading.
Streams of sweat poured down my face as the audience squirmed in their seats.
To add to the pressure, the modest crowd was peppered with a lot of faculty from the English department, many of them literature scholars with specialties and PhDs, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, most of whom were much younger and highly skeptical of pretty much everything in the world, and especially of me. We were all packed into an overheated room in an old building on the campus.
I gave a short introduction, explaining that this was some new work focused on my research interest in people who throw themselves into violent situations with lions and tigers and bears, and then I launched into a graphic retelling of some particularly gruesome encounters between humans and, in this case, polar bears. I paid special attention to a couple of incidents that occurred in New York City in the ’80s at the Central Park Zoo and the Prospect Park Zoo, one of which involved the death of a young boy. I sprinkled in some graphic descriptions, even imagining and embellishing a few details, trying to tap into the subjectivity of the events, trying to move beyond the few facts reported in the news stories.
Almost immediately, I began to sweat.
And not just a little bit.
Streams of sweat poured down my face as the audience squirmed in their seats. I could feel my collar dampening as I described a polar bear playfully tossing a man’s corpse around. Things weren’t going well. But I trudged ahead, one story after another.
And then it happened. A woman in the front row stood up and walked out. Honestly, I think I was so busy trying to stem the tide of perspiration that gushed from my head, that I didn’t really realize what was happening at first. Someone had brought me a box of tissue, from which I pulled tissue after tissue as if they were rabbits from a hat, capable of magically damning a flood of nervous sweating. Instead my reading glasses fogged up and began slipping down my nose; bits of tissue stuck to my wet face, and I kept on reading. For 15 or 20 agonizingly long minutes.
Following the reading, I took a few questions from the audience, several people asking me different versions of the same question, “Why would you write about that
I tried my best to fend off the questions and respond in a way that made it sound like I’d thought deeply about all of this and that I was totally confident in what I’d read. But the truth is that, at this point, it was new material, untested and, in many ways, undeveloped. I might as well have been just jamming on stage, freestyling some disconnected riffs on my acoustic guitar. I don’t play acoustic guitar, and I didn’t really have good answers for the “why” questions that came. Even now, some years and a couple hundred pages later, it’s still hard for me to explain.
Later on, outside the venue, the woman who’d left in the middle of my reading confronted me. “I don’t even watch horror movies,” she said. “I can’t handle all that blood and gore.”
“I don’t either,” I said. I tried to explain that I was just retelling stories that had been in the news, things that had actually happened. I didn’t make up any of this. It was my way, I explained, of approaching empathy.
“You don’t do that to your students, do you?”
“Do what?” I said, squirming in my shoes.
Maul them like a polar bear?
Toss them into a zoo cage with predators?
“You know,” she said, staring hard at me, practically wagging her finger, “Do you, like, make them write about that kind of violent, graphic stuff? Or read that stuff to them?”
Part of me wanted to quote Marlon Brando from the movie Apocalypse Now
“The horror,” I’d say, rubbing a towel over my sweaty bald head. “You have to make a friend of the horror.”
Instead, I assured her that I did not force my students to write about the same subjects that I write about, which would just be weird, and I explained that I did not regularly read aloud to my students from works-in-progress. I tried, mostly in vain, to apologize, but I was honestly so gobsmacked and blindsided by her recriminations that I barely knew how to respond.
I had never intended to traumatize her or anyone else, or even suggest that I enjoyed romanticizing violent encounters between humans and animals, but that’s exactly how I’d come across. Another faculty member admitted, over a late dinner, that I did seem to relish the violence, even quoting a particular word from the essay, suggesting that my word choice alone revealed my complicity in sensationalizing and romanticizing some very violent and tragic situations.
I’d written into the uncomfortable subjectivity of my obsessions and tried to open up these events for a reader or an audience member in the same way they bloomed in my imagination. I wanted to get beyond the facts of these stories and the simple, superficial explanations. But perhaps, before I ever really began, I’d already gone too far, at least for this individual. Perhaps my book does ultimately have, as one review says, a “questionable message,” but I think that’s okay with me. The whole point of the book was to get around the easy answers to the central question, “Why would someone willingly leap into a cage with an apex predator?”
I wanted to move beyond one message or meaning in one man’s leap or one author’s interest in that leap, and instead consider the larger archetypal story that persists over history, a story that plays out again and again. Take, for example, the tragic case of the little boy and Harambe, the silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. This story, like many of these kinds of stories, somehow worked to catalyze a collective emotional response to violent human/animal interactions in a way that exposed something deeply weird and fascinating about human nature; and I think to deny our interest in these stories and what they represent is to deny a fundamental, if not troubling, part of that nature.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the new book One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals
, along with The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record
, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents
, The Day After 'The Day After': My Atomic Angst
, and Ultrasonic
, which was featured in the Los Angeles Times
, the Paris Review
, and Tin House
, among others. His essays have been published and anthologized widely, including in the Best American Essays
and most recently in After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays
. He teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State, where he is the Hallowell professor of creative writing.