Unreliable Narrators

Yesterday Liav came home from school with quite a dramatic story to tell. She rushed in the door, breathless and frenzied, and before she had even made it to the sink to wash her hands with soap for two minutes—the first thing we all do when we walk in the door in these crazy Corona times—the story was already pouring out of her. “Ima, Ima, you won’t believe it,” she told me.

Tagel took the words right out of her mouth. “There were Ganavim in school today! Real Ganavim! And Doron caught them and now they are in Beit Keleh!” Sad to say, that is really how my kids speak – a sort of Ramah Hebrew, with the less commonly-used nouns in Hebrew and all other parts of speech in English.

Liav would not stand for it. “No Tagel, it’s my story, be quiet. I’m telling Ima.” The problem of who gets to narrate what has been an issue in our family for years. Back when the twins were in Gan, the Ganenet always assured us that the girls played beautifully together and had their own independent relationships; but when I picked them up each afternoon our entire walk home inevitably devolved into arguments over who got to tell me about a particular incident that had happened that day. For the most part it’s better now that they are in separate classes, and indeed that’s the main reason we separated them when they started first grade—so that they could each have their own stories to tell at the end of the day. But apparently Liav had already relayed this story to Tagel, and now Tagel wanted to be the one to relay it to me. Except that Liav would not stand for it.

Liav has always spoken faster and with greater fluency than Tagel, but Tagel is physically stronger and more agile; so generally in these situations, Liav gets the words out first and then Tagel “accidentally” turns a cartwheel and kicks Liav in the face. I tried to avert this catastrophe.

“Girls, whose class did this happen in?”

“Mine, it’s my story,” said Liav. Tagel stormed off. I let Liav continue, relieved that it hadn’t come to blows.

“OK, so there were thieves in school and now they’re in jail?” I repeated back entirely in English.

“Yes, you won’t believe it,” said Liav. I was already skeptical, but Matan, who was waiting for me to make him lunch, piped in up alert me that “they need a better Shomer at school. It’s very dangerous. Every time Shilon goes inside for a break, Ganavim can climb right over the fence.”

“I’m sure Shilon is an excellent guard,” I assured Matan. “You don’t need to worry.”

“Not true,” insisted Liav. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Today when Doron was going to the bathroom, he saw Ganavim. They were trying to steal Machshevim from Chadar Machshevim.”

“Thieves were trying to steal computers from the computer room?” I echoed.

“And they weren’t wearing masks!” Liav exclaimed indignantly.

This one had me puzzled, but only for a moment. I was picturing bank robbers in comic books. Don’t thieves usually wear masks? But now, in Corona times, when everyone is supposed to be wearing a mask, anyone who isn’t is immediately suspect.

Liav went on to relate that Doron—a diminutive first grader, the son of a lawyer and a policewoman—went straight to the secretaries and reported what he saw. The secretaries called the police, who arrived with handcuffs and apprehended the Ganavim, who are now incarcerated in the Beit Keleh.

“Really?” I asked, still somewhat incredulous.

“Oh yes,” said Matan. “It’s true. I know it’s true. They really need another Shomer to guard the gate when Shilon has to take a break.”

By this point, Tagel, overcome by hunger, had emerged from her bedroom and was sitting at the counter eating the salad I had placed before her. When it comes to salad, they each have their own versions of the same basic story: Peeled cucumbers red peppers yellow peppers Liav. Peeled cucumbers tomatoes Tagel. Unpeeled cucumbers red peppers tomatoes oil salt Matan. They crunched their vegetables heartily and continued to elaborate on the incident. All the kids were determined to impress upon me what seemed to them most critical takeaway. For Liav, it was Doron’s heroism when confronted with real-life criminals in his midst. For Matan, it was the security breach. Tagel just wanted to tell the entire story again herself, which she did, with some embellishment. I tried to make sense of it all. Back when they were in the same Gan, the twins’ narration was more reliable, because they fact-checked one another – as per the biblical injunction that “It is upon two witnesses that a matter is decided” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Liav and Tagel had always been my two witnesses, corroborating or discrediting one another’s tales. But this was Liav’s story, Tagel had heard it only secondhand – and so Tagel’s recapitulation did not help much.

That night, I happened to be texting Doron’s mother, the policewoman, about a homework assignment. After we exchanged a few messages, I added a postscript: “Oh, and by the way, you must be so proud of Doron. I heard all about the thieves.” She wrote back with a bewildered emoji: “I have no idea what you are talking about – for real?” And I realized that I had been duped. “If your son is not a policeman, then my daughter is a creative writer,” I responded with a smiley face.

“Liav,” I said to her the next morning when she was the first to jump into our bed as usual. “I spoke to Doron’s Ima last night and she hadn’t heard anything about the thieves in school. Did that really happen?”

“Well,” she said, “Like I told you, it was mostly true.”

“Like you told me?” I told her that it reminded me of the story in next week’s parsha about the twelve spies who were sent to scout out the land of Canaan while the Israelites were still in the wilderness. Ten of them—all but Caleb and Joshua—returned with a terrifying report about the inhabitants of the land: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (14:32-33). The Canaanites weren’t really giants. The land didn’t really swallow up its inhabitants. The Israelites weren’t really grasshopper-sized. But they were scared about entering the land, and their fear colored their perspective. As Avivah Zornberg writes about the spies’ account, “All language is shot through with hues of fantasy, of love and hatred, wonder and fear.”

I think for Liav, as for the spies, the dominant emotion was fear. The return to school after Corona has been fearsome and fraught for all of us. The first week back, Matan insisted on wearing three masks, and came home each day complaining about classmates who were not following the rules. The girls told me last week that the classroom next door to them had been completely vacated after the class was quarantined – even the tables and chairs had been removed for sanitizing. I imagined it felt haunting each time they passed by. Liav wants to believe that there is a superhero who will rescue her from danger, even if that superhero is three feet tall and carries a Sponge Bob backpack. Matan wants to make sure that someone is always standing guard to keep the bad guys out – whether they are thieves or germs or unmasked germ-bearing thieves. In school they are sometimes scared. They sometimes feel like grasshoppers. No wonder their imaginations are enthralled by tales of stolen computers – they, like the spies, are finding the images with which to articulate their fears.

I suppose I ought to have known to be more skeptical, if not from the spies then from “Charles,” a story Shirley Jackson tells in Life Among the Savages. Jackson writes about her son Laurie, who returned from kindergarten each day regaling his parents with stories of an ill-mannered, undisciplined classmate named Charles. Charles yelled during story hour, Laurie reported. Charles said an evil word. Charles hit the teacher. Charles had to stay after school. Jackson wondered if her son ought to be exposed to such a problematic child, but her husband assured her, “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later.” Soon Laurie began reporting that Charles had begun to shape up– he was helping the teacher by passing out crayons and behaving so nicely that the teacher gave him an apple. Jackson became increasingly intrigued about the reformed hooligan in her son’s kindergarten, and she was eager to ask the teacher about him at parent-teacher conferences – after she heard about her own son first, of course. When she showed up at the conference, the teacher assured her that her son Laurie had had a difficult first few weeks of school, but he had become a “fine little helper.” Jackson asked about the boy named Charles, and the teacher responded with surprise. “Charles? We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”

In his own eyes, Laurie looked like Charles, much as the spies looked like grasshoppers to themselves. For my kids, school looked like a crime scene, or perhaps a haunted house, with danger lurking in the halls. Should I have reacted to my kids with more skepticism? Laurie’s parents believed him. The people of Israel believed the ten spies. And I’d believed Liav — as perhaps well I should. The sin of the spies was one of skepticism – they refused to believe God, who assured them that the land was good. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:6) compares it to the case of a king who secured his son a beautiful wife, but whose son insisted on seeing her first because he did not trust his father. I believed Liav’s story because her story was true – it was true to the emotions that she and her siblings were experiencing at school. Sometimes unreliable narrators are the most reliable narrators of all, even if the story they are telling us is not the story we think we are hearing. I’m glad that in Liav’s account, the thieves were apprehended and order was restored. May the story of our own times, too, have a happy ending.

2 thoughts on “Unreliable Narrators

  1. Rella Feldman says:

    Another terrific essay by you, dear Ilana. I could just picture a breathless Liav running home to convey this story. And, of course, the way you frame it in light of the מרגלים, is quintessential Ilana. Thank you! And mazal Tov on your Aunt Shuly becoming the next chancellor of JTS! What a tremendous position, and I’m sure she’s the first woman to hold it. Love, Baba

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Tamar says:

    “I believed Liav’s story because her story was true – it was true to the emotions that she and her siblings were experiencing at school. Sometimes unreliable narrators are the most reliable narrators of all, even if the story they are telling us is not the story we think we are hearing.”

    This is what sympathetic listening is about. Beautiful. Thank you.


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