Developing a Theory of Mind: Amaryllis in Blueberry (#6 in 52)

Very recently, Paul Kelly sent me an op-ed piece from the New York Times entitled, Your Brain on Fiction. The thesis is straightforward:

Fiction – with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica [of life]. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The piece continues to explain that as readers, in trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters, we are developing a theory of mind that treats the interactions among these characters as something like real-life encounters.

The novel provides us with an unequaled medium for this exploration of human social and emotional life: an exploration that serves to enrich our socio-emotive development. Dr. Keith Oatley explains:

Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.

Why do I read fiction?  Well, Dr. Oatley and Dr. Raymond Mar provide perhaps the best answer in this op-ed piece:

Reading great literature . . . enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined . . . individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.

Today, after having completed a two week reading break on the beaches of Oahu, I share with you Read #6 in my 52 in 52 project: Christina Meldrum’s, Amaryllis in Blueberry.

Not having yet read Barbara Kingsolver’s, The Poisonwood Bible, I came uninitiated to this story about a family and their experiences when their father takes them all to Africa. 

The Slepys are a dysfunctional Catholic family of six: parents Dick and Seena and their daughters, the Marys – Mary Grace, Mary Catherine, and Mary Tessa – and Amaryllis, known as Yllis. After their summer in Michigan, Dick decides to take his family to West Africa where he will serve as a medical missionary.

The story starts with the end – “Dick is dead.” From this point, all six family members share their alternating points of views of the events that have unfolded.  Obsessions, imagination, storytelling, and cross cultural myth making (Greek, African, and Catholic doctrine) are explored. Each of the characters is obsessed with a secret or state of being that is never communicated or shared with anyone. However, the reader, as always, has access and it is the poignancy inherent in these self-reflections wherein Christina Meldrum displays her extraordinary talent as a crafter of powerful fiction – narrative which helps us develop the aforementioned theory of mind.  Just read what Seena thinks about her loveless marriage to Dick, words she cannot share with anyone within her own homo-fictus world:

Even so, Seena mostly complied, let Dick own her on the surface, let him touch nothing beneath. He’d possess her body at times, but that was the surface–another incarnation of taking his name. It was form. Not content. Ritual, not meaning. 

This lack of communication, connection and trust is prevalent within each of the Slepys and their decline as a family and as individuals is exacerbated with the move to West Africa.  It is here where each character is thrust into unfathomable circumstances forcing them to enter a paradigm of uncomfortable soul-searching.

Of all the characters, it is Yllis, the youngest of the four daughters, who in having synesthesia (the ability to see and feel all the emotions of everyone around her) is the most interesting. It is through Yllis that Meldrum produces some of her most incandescent and sublime writing:

People say joy is infectious, but that’s a myth. It’s melancholy that’s infectious. And sneaky. It skulks about, climbing legs, mounting skirts. It’s particularly active when joy is in the room. Joy shows up sort of humming, and melancholy gets the jitters.

Indeed, it is Yllis who provides, in two sentences, the epiphany of the novel:

And I realized: souls don’t stand alone. What makes a soul a soul is the shared burden and pain, the shared joy: it’s the connection between us that carries us on.”

Having just returned from Spring Break and having purposely disconnected from all things technological, I think of these words as I delve back into hashtags like #bced.  I read the tweets here and begin to feel as alienated educationally as the Slepys do emotionally with each other.  I draw solace however in Yllis’ comprehension of the essence of life as something that can ground me in these tumultuous times.

Amaryllis in Blueberry: my copy is sticky from suntan lotion but I’m ready to lend it out.