I grew up in a family of compulsive readers. My mother allowed my brother and me to read anything and everything we could get our little hands on. (I didn’t discover the high cupboard where she stashed the really good stuff until I was about twelve.)
This is not to say that there weren’t any rules associated with reading. My early interest in the New Yorker magazine gave rise to: “If you have to ask, you are too young to understand (so don’t ask)!” Reading instead of doing homework or chores was Very Bad and resulted in Confiscation of Books. And reading while unloading the dishwasher, setting the table or folding laundry was Inefficient and resulted in Shouting about Books.
Sometimes my mother, my brother, and I all tried to read the same book at the same time. In that case, the book in question could not be squirrelled away out of reach of the other readers.
When I was about eleven, Mom had to yell: “Harriet, do you have Euripides in your bedroom?”
I did. Not Euripides in the flesh (dude’s been dead for a long time), but in the form of the third volume of The Complete Greek Tragedies. This gorgeous set of four books arrived at our house courtesy of a book club (the Amazon of the 1950’s). Aeschylus was bound in light orange, Sophocles in a slightly darker shade of orange, and the two volumes of Euripides were in dark and darkest orange. Mom started with Aeschylus and I started with Euripides. Since she didn’t have to waste any reading time going to school, she caught up with me.
By then I had met my first murdering mother. I refused to return Volume III of The Complete Greek Tragedies until I had finished reading Medea.
(Even if Medea was the one who ended up crowded into the edge of the scene on the ceramics.)
Medea helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father. She encouraged him to steal her, as well. She did her best to get rid of the man who had usurped the throne that should have been Jason’s. And then, in Corinth, she gave him sons.
She did everything she could for the man she loved and he dumped her to marry a princess. He also had the gall to reminder her that she was a “barbarian” and that his new marriage would benefit her children. As far as I was concerned, Medea had every right to kill that princess and her father (with a poisoned dress and crown no less). She also had the right to make Jason suffer.
She unleashed one bad-ass revenge on that husband of hers. Even though it grieved her, even though she did not want to kill her sons, she had no choice. Not only did she kill her sons, she refused to let Jason have their bodies.
We all look at stories through the lenses we craft from our own stories – those we have lived and those we have heard. At eleven, I had only the lens of my growing understanding that the world is not always fair to women to apply to Medea.
Now I see Medea through a whole set of lenses. The world was not fair to her, and her own actions and the expectations her culture backed her into a corner where all her decisions were impossible. She was a victim. She was a monster. She was a bereaved mother all at the same time.
I am beginning to suspect that these lenses, built from story and experience are a vital part of the process of working with the stories that are difficult to craft and distressing to tell. Understanding the lenses helps me understand the story.