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Excellent narrative with a fatal flaw
on 20 June 2013
The 2* rating I've given AS IF in no way reflects on the excellence of the narrative, which leads one to read compulsively from page to page.
Rather, my rating of this book is to highlight what is mostly forgotten in this book: that a society, which forgets the victims of a crime in its concern for the rights of the perpetrators, is neither liberal nor civilised, but merely sliding from one unhealthy extreme of human nature to another.
Yes, as Morrison so eloquently calls for in the last chapter of AS IF, to be considered civilised, we must move away from a lynch mob mentality, which demands retribution with no thought or consideration of understanding the WHY of a seemingly unpardonable act. But that does not mean society should move to the opposite pole either, where thinking becomes so liberal that no individual, however violent, has to take responsibility for the consequences of his/her actions.
This is what AS IF does. An elegant and intellectual essay exploring the WHY behind the James Bulger murder, AS IF has one fatal, fundamental flaw: the author's blindness to the fact that, in his strong identification with Thompson and Venables (more about the WHY of *that* later), he forgets to understand the fears and feelings, limitations and troubles of another young child and his family.
Several other reviewers of this book have indicated that Morrison focused too much on his own feelings to the detriment of the book. Although, at times, the prose is to consciously literary, too consciously long-winded (he likes his long lists, he does), it's so lyrically emotional that this interiority of the well-written prose is what makes it such an interesting read.
However, what is more challenging and thought provoking about this book is the way the author identifies so strongly with the perpetrators and seeks excuses for them in their upbringing. He constantly defends them; in his aching compassion for them he seeks justification and excuses for their act to such a strong degree that he appears to lose sight of "the tiny victim" James Bulger, and his parents. This brought to mind the angry cry in Ralph Bulger's recent book: "I get so angry that it always seems to be about them and not my baby." [Pg 98 "My James: The Heartrending Story of James Bulger by His Father" by Ralph Bulger, Rosie Dunn|17269253]]
AS IF does make the Bulger murder case all about the "innocence" of the child murderers and the effect it had on their families and, by doing so, Morrison forgets the ravished innocence of James Bulger and the shattered expectations his parents.
Given the anguished suffering of Morrison's search for understanding the WHY behind the perpetrators actions before condemning them, this seeming inability of an otherwise erudite, compassionate and intelligent author to show an equal compassion for the Bulger's side of the story puzzled me.
Why is his empathy reserved so clearly for the "terrifying experience" of the child murderers to the exclusion of any exploration of the utter terror of what young James must have experienced at the hands of these two perpetrators? Is it because Thompson and Venables are there, alive in court to garner sympathy with their youth and their tears, but James is dead and buried out of sight and, it seems in this book, mostly out of Morrison's mind as well?
Why the understanding and compassion for the difficulties of Thompson's mother Ann, and Venables' parents, Susan and Neil when, even as he sympathises with her, Morrison subtly sneers at Denise Bulger for allowing Hello magazine to tell her story [Pg 58]? The Bulgers come from a similar background to the Venables and the Thompsons - poor, rough and uneducated. Thus, Morrison's prejudice against them throughout the book [Pg 32; 227-229 & others] is incomprehensible when given his intense search for understanding and the compassion he has for the Thompson and Venables families.
Incomprehensible, that is, until near the end when he reveals - with what appears to be a searing honesty - the WHY of why he identifies so strongly with Thompson & Venables as "innocent" children unfairly judged for a crime they committed without a full understanding of what they were doing.
Morrison's guilt at his youthful actions [Pg 208 to 214] lies at the heart of his need for society to forgive Thompson and Venables for, if they can find forgiveness, then surely he can too. But the cases are vastly different and Morrison's arguments and defence of Thompson and Venables fail because of his inability to detach himself from his personal reasons for identifying with them. With that inability, he creates another injustice: he forgets the torment and suffering of the only truly innocent child in this case, young James Bulger.
For, as young as they were Thompson and Venables had a window of opportunity, when - even with a child's supposedly limited consciousness of the difference between wrong and right - they could have chosen not to murder, and brutally murder at that, a young toddler who, in his innocence, had trusted them. Morrison himself, in justification and understanding of Thompson and Venables extreme abuse of James, quotes statistics that say 80% of abused children become abusers themselves [Pg 200].
Again, Morrison's reasoning fails him because of his too-strong identification with the perpetrators. Why didn't he look at this statistic in another way: 20% of abused children do NOT grow up to become abusers. On that long walk from Boodle Strand to the railway line, in all those long minutes that baby James was crying for his mum and his dad, why didn't Thompson and Venables choose to become part of the 20% who do NOT abuse others and release young James rather than kill him?
Morrison's closing chapter is a brilliant exposition of what forgiveness means and why it's necessary for humankind's evolution. But at what point does forgiveness become a doorway to condone actions that take humanity away from the very path of civilization that it's supposed to lead us to in our quest to become more humane, rational beings?
Like the Bulger case itself, AS IF by Blake Morrison will raise more questions than it answers. Whichever side of the divide you stand on in this case, AS IF makes an important contribution in that it succeeds in removing much of the "demonization" of Thompson and Venables. One is left wondering whether they are merely lost souls, rather than pure evil. And one can't help thinking, there but for the grace of God go our children: safe, happy and, hopefully, kind.