Must Our Stories Come Out Right?

Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Photo by David.

In my passage from childhood to young girlhood, there were two stories I relied on for clues about the life that lay ahead of me. The first was Homer’s Odyssey. The second was Joseph and His Brothers (from Genesis 37-50) – as retold in four volumes by Thomas Mann!

In both stories, which concern their respective hero’s long and dangerous voyage home, the divine element enters to help shape the plot, prevent the enemies-of-the-story from prevailing and finally bring all the unruly subplots together to make the whole thing come out right.

Thus, Odysseus gets home to Ithaca from the Trojan War and kills all the young swells who’ve been consuming his estate and paying court to long-suffering Penelope, his presumed rich widow. All along, the hero has had help from Athena, the goddess who favors him. During the showdown fight with the suitors, she takes the form of an owl and watches from the rafters. At the end, the goddess even prolongs the bedtime reunion, restoring the youthful roses to Penelope’s cheeks for that marital night.

Thomas Mann’s version of Joseph’s life may be the best commentary on the best single story in the whole Bible. As it did with Cain and Abel, we see the history-making, fratricidal motif still playing out. The envious brothers sell Joseph, their father’s favorite child, into slavery. They show their father the coat of many colors that he gave Joseph, now bloodied, as evidence that a wild beast must have devoured him. If envy is a wild beast, they’re not lying!

Meanwhile, starting out as a slave in Egypt, Joseph will go through difficult trials before finally rising to be a kind of CEO to Pharoah, the king of Egypt. As Vice Regent, he will oversee the steps needed to prepare for the seven-year famine that he foretells by deciphering Pharoah’s precognitive dreams.

The famine that ensues is of such wide scope that it reaches Canaan and drives Joseph’s brothers to seek provisions in Egypt. They don’t recognize the smooth-shaven, high-level Egyptian official as the brother they sold long ago, but he of course knows them. After putting them through certain covert tests of character, Joseph is satisfied that they’ve grown up – matured ethically and perhaps spiritually. Recognition and reunion follow. The long exile ends, as happily as such things can, if we’re talking about real life.

Although these good stories must have been somewhere in the back of my mind by the time I was writing A Good Look at Evil, good stories were not the dominant feature of that book. I wrote it because things had happened in my life that were the reverse of good.

Somehow I’d drawn the attentions of ingenious, effective and durable enemies! At least at the start of their attentions to me, they’d understood me better than I understood them. And, as I came to notice, bystanders would show a striking reluctance to admit that they too had seen this prolonged and extraordinary phenomenon – or to call it by its real name: evil. Hence the title of my book. 

Before I thought of writing about it, I searched through the annals of philosophy, as far as I knew them, but did not see much useful on that topic. Theology had terms like “sin,” of which Judaism and Christianity gave partly divergent explanations. But I didn’t come across a book that actually told you how to recognize evil when it came along. I mean, it doesn’t always wear horns and a tail. Some discernment is required!

Most of that book is concerned with the encounter with evil and how to recognize it at its different levels of intensity. Only the last chapter, “God and the Care for One’s Story,” offers a contemporary story that’s not only good but overcomes adversaries all the way to its happy ending.

But notice the title of the final chapter. There’s “God” in it. Like the stories of Odysseus and Joseph, there’s a providential element. This prompts a particular concern in me – one I’ve only recognized recently. 

Not everyone CAN live a good story.

Here I’m not thinking about the fact that life stories can end prematurely, or be ground down by bodily suffering, or economic privation, or undeserved social or political reprisals, or even martyrdom at the behest of tyrants. This fact gives rise to what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” It becomes a theoretical problem if there’s a good and all-powerful God, and many solutions or explanations have been thoughtfully proposed. My problem is a different one.

I’ll give just one illustration of what I have in mind. In the case I’ll describe, the person has died and no surviving relatives are likely to read this. Other examples of the same phenomenon don’t meet these privacy criteria, so I’ll confine my examples to this one.

The young woman I am thinking of had been radiant in her first youth. Unfortunately, her mother’s relation to her was marked by a faint, subsurface, near-disapproval. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it. It was expressed in the mother’s starchy, New England speaking style. The mother was quite likable. Only you wouldn’t want her for your own mother. She discouraged spontaneous expressions of feeling.

In her twenties, the daughter first drowned her natural feelings in alcohol, but fortunately later recovered sobriety and went on to a successful work-life. She was widely admired and held influential positions. She had a few disappointed romantic hopes before she stopped hoping. In the summer when she received a grim medical diagnosis, she told no one that she expected to die soon. Quietly as usual, she put all the things for which she was responsible into good order. Her memorial service was a moving celebration of an achieved life of a certain type.

What she never knew was that her starchy mother had been, as a young girl, easily and widely available sexually because her weight problem led her to see herself as unable to attract men by any other means than that one.

So the wifely and maternal “starchiness” had been the mother’s lifelong cover story. She had genuine and fine qualities, but I’ve underscored the one I believe relevant to her daughter’s womanly life.

I knew the secret her daughter couldn’t know. Out of respect for her mother, and for her, I never breathed a word of it to anyone. 

At the start of the daughter’s life, a few life clues were conveyed to her, to be figured out and made sense of, as best she could. Of other clues – that might have deepened her self-comprehension, and widened her chances for happiness – she was deprived.

She made wonderful use of the restricted ingredients she had. They did not include the raw materials for happiness.

I feel the sorrows of her life
and can’t say more.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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