Our three year old grandson, Beau, is enamored with my old copy of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” On a recent weekend in the mountains, he convinced several family members to read it to him. Papa, Uncle Matt, and I each succumbed to those blue eyes fluttering below his wispy blond hair and read the story multiple times.
When it was my turn to read, I noted that Beau is now old enough to follow the storyline. Yet, he did not quite grasp the nuances of the plot. He failed to see how the Billy Goats outwitted the Troll by playing into his greed nor did he care. What mainly held his attention were the illustrations of the Troll. Paul Galdone’s ink and watercolor drawings are particularly well suited for this tale. The errant ink strokes give the Troll’s hair a wild look, and his fur togo seems as scratchy as his voice. The pale water colors make his yellow teeth and gnarled nails all the more distasteful. Beau was particularly intrigued by the malevolent looking chain around his waist which he referred to as, “his belt.”
After the fourth or fifth reading, we lingered over the last page where the Troll is in the river with his hands upraised and his bulbous nose barely above the water. Of course, the main focus is on the triumphant Big Billy Goat who struts across the bridge to join his clever brothers. However, I drew Beau’s attention to the Troll and asked, “Should we give him your floaties?” Beau shook his head firmly, his dandelion hair swinging with certitude and said, “No, Nonie!” Half teasing, I continued, “But what if I gave him my floaty and dried him off? Maybe we could give him a warm bowl of soup? Maybe then he’d be nice?” However, my pleas failed to persuade my grandson. In his mind, the Troll was unredeemable and got just what he deserved.
It was a few days later after reading Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay, “We Are Not Beyond Repair” that I recalled this conversation with Beau. Bruenig reminded me of all the “trolls” recently caught and called out…Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Louis CK, Senator Franken, Matt Lauer, and on and on. Bruenig asks an interesting question. What do the friends and colleagues of these “trolls” think of them now?
These men “who were friends or allies, are suddenly being revealed as agents of wickedness. The mutation of the familiar and ordinary into the frightening and unknown is one of the chief characteristics of nightmares, and for good reason.”
Comedian, Sarah Silverman, distraught over the allegations against her friend and colleague Louis CK tearfully asked, “Can you still love someone who did bad things?” I wonder if it is implausible for colleagues and friends to see these modern day trolls as completely evil. They know what Beau has yet to understand. We do not live in a black and white world where quick witted Billy Goats defeat the evil trolls. The people we know cannot always be put into tidy little boxes. If we do, perhaps we do not know them well enough.
So where do we go from here? Bruenig rightfully suggests that we examine the power structures that condone such abuse. Cultures where power is so clearly tipped in men’s favor leave a “path of least resistance” for those prone to abuse women. Yet, a corrupt or unfair system does not excuse these real life trolls nor should it let them off the proverbial hook. They must be called out, fired, and shamed, but also given a chance to atone for what they have done. As Bruenig suggests perhaps they are “not beyond repair.”
Those of us who are tempted to scold, point fingers, and dismiss such trolls, must also find a way to see these men and their situations holistically. Perhaps the best and most appropriate place to start is at our own doorstep. As a woman, I need to tell my stories of encounters with men who have belittled or worse taken advantage of me. I also need to stand up for myself and not always defer to the men in my life when it comes to money and legal decisions. As a parent and grandparent, I must make sure that the men and boys in my life respect and understand a woman’s point of view. As a citizen, I need to support policies and legislation that ensure a level playing field for all genders. Surely, ensuring parity in the work place will begin to ease the discrimination that so many experience around the world.
Finally, as a writer and reader, I must seek out the voices of women and the disenfranchised so that I do not categorize and limit people I do not know or fully understand. I must own up to my own biases. Clearly, there is much work for all of us to do. Yet, I believe that if we offer each other a warm cup of understanding we, too, will find redemption. ~c.h.