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In each of my novels, the theme I decide to explore inevitably leads to a year of therapy minus the therapist. In He’s Gone, I tackled a weighty one: guilt. Wait. Let’s rewrite that: GUILT. What is it, and why-oh-why do some of us have so much of it? He’s Gone begins when Dani Keller wakes up one morning to find that her husband, Ian, has disappeared. In the days that follow, as Dani tries to determine what has happened to him and what part she might have played in his absence, she sifts through their entire relationship: their tumultuous affair, their prior marriages, even their relationships with their children. Her story, more than anything, is a confession in the broadest sense, a self-reckoning that leads to self-realization. This, all of it, is what she is guilty of.
Like Dani, guilt can be my default setting. After a social gathering, I, too, am often left with a vague sense of wrongdoing that I have to pinpoint the source of, hoping I haven’t laughed insensitively, or slighted someone unintentionally. I, too, can feel guilty when I eat white bread and when I don’t recycle and when I’ve yelled at the dog for laying down right in the doorway. But worse are the big regrets — the ways I’ve treated people badly or hurt the ones I’ve loved or screwed up big-time with my kids. My conscience is ready to convict for small, daily misdemeanors, and hand over life sentences for larger crimes. Like Dani, I always thought it would be so freeing not to care so much.
Our human failings and transgressions are tricky things to sort through, though. Like an overstuffed closet, you’ve got to decide what’s yours forever, what you should toss, and what really belongs to someone else. Dani and I have a hard time throwing any of it out. And while I won’t tell you what Dani has — or hasn’t — actually done, I can tell you what both she and I have learned about dealing with guilt. Grasping one, small, simple fact is the first step to self-forgiveness, and that fact is this: We all do the best we can with what we’ve got. “What we’ve got”, of course, is complicated baggage, stuffed full of motivations and needs and longings that go back generations. No matter how hefty or numerous the bags, though, I don’t believe they quite add up to an excuse for the offences in a life, but understanding our own history and its role in our decisions is our best hope for compassion and forward motion.
I usually feel a sense of finality as my writing-trip through a particular theme ends. With He’s Gone, though, I found no clear answers, and I hope you’ll find this reflected in the book’s uneasy and dramatic conclusion. Like many of us, I continue to struggle with guilt and giving myself the room to be human, and I probably always will. Now, I might step over the dog in the doorway with self-allowed irritation, as I head to the kitchen for that tuna sandwich on regret-free white bread. But my greater wrongdoings will still likely be coming along.
- Deb Caletti
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