This is not what happened. This is how it felt.
In the film What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams says, “What is true in our minds, is true.”
I didn’t believe him. Silly me.
In my life there was only one truth.
There was never a time before it was true. Or rather there was but I was too young to speak. I wanted to understand. I didn’t know to question. I didn’t know to think. It never occured to me that someone would tell me what was not true. My parents love me. The teach me never to lie; they will never lie to me. And they don’t. Not intentionally anyways.
I am five years old. So eager. So young. Always asking how and why, wanting to know everything I can about the world. The first thing I am taught about is Our Dear Leader. Our Leader loves us. He would do anything for us. He gives us all that we need and we love him. Of course we love him. It would be terrible, unbelievable terrible, the most ungrateful thing in the world if we did not love him. I cannot possibly imagine the punishment that such a terrible thing would deserve.
I learn that The Leader has fought and suffered for us. He was hurt terribly and it’s all our fault. We did not deserve His kindness. I want to understand. I ask.
Why did he have to be hurt? So that we wouldn’t have to be hurt.
Why should we be hurt? Because we are bad.
What did I do? It’s all of us, we all do bad things.
Bad enough to be hurt? All bad things deserve to be hurt. I feel sick. I can’t think of anything bad I’ve done. What makes my parents think I’m bad?
I don’t understand. We all deserve horrible punishment but he suffered to save us from it. The pain was horrible, worse than anyone else had ever experienced.
Did it hurt worse than when I skinned my knee? Oh yes, much worse. I can’t imagine anything hurting worse than that.
How? Why? It’s like a sickness. Everyone has it so everyone is bad.
Am I bad? Yes, but you don’t have to be. If you tell the Dear Leader you are sorry for being bad he will make you good and everything will be fine. The Leader loves you and we love you too.
My stomach hurts. Why is it my fault? What did I do? I am bad and didn’t know it. I must be very, very bad. It hurts, it hurts. Love the leader and everything will be better.
How do I love the leader? Believe that he is good.
How do I believe? Don’t look at, or listen to anyone who says bad thing about The Great Leader. Those are bad thoughts and you must not have bad thoughts. The Leader knows your thoughts. He will be sad if you had bad thoughts. He doesn’t want to have to hurt you.
I don’t want to make The Leader sad. I learn the stories and sing the songs. I am determined
“Be careful little eyes what you see,
“Be careful little ears what you hear,
“Be careful little mouth what you say,
“Be careful little mind what you think….
I learn that the Leader loves us so much he has written a book filled with promises for those who truly love him. We can claim these promises with faith. I learn that The Dear Leader would never give us anything that wasn’t really good. But if we truly love and truly believe he will save us from any harm, or any fear. I read all the stories. I memorize all the characters.
If I try hard enough maybe I won’t be bad anymore. I won’t deserve to be hurt.
The Leader is Powerful. He can do anything! I am amazed. I want to be just like the Leader’s friends. The old heroes. He saved them because he loved them. He loved them because they trusted him completely. Three walked into fire and walked out unharmed because they trusted him. One was willing to kill his son because The Dear Leader asked. Of course he saved them both. He never meant to go through with it.
My parents love The Dear Leader. Would they be willing to kill me if He asked? My stomach hurts. I am afraid to ask. Maybe I don’t have to. After all they say he doesn’t do things like that, not anymore.
Only good things come from the Leader.
Why are there bad things? Bad things are not His fault. They are never His fault. You must never blame him.
Whose fault are they? They are our fault because we are bad.
Can’t he stop them? I thought He could do anything. He can but sometimes he makes good things out of bad.
He loves me. That’s what they say. He loves me more than anything. I must be good and love Him back. My heart must be pure, truly devoted. I will not be afraid.
I am nine the first time they come to take someone away. A girl from my community, 12 maybe 13. She babysat me. We used to play together. We even had a pretend wedding once, fighting over who would have to play the boy. Her parents and mine are friends at the house of The Great Leader. I hear about it from my parents. There is trouble. The Leader has called for her. She has been taken to The Dear Leader, the whole community is going to gather to beg for her safe return. Why wouldn’t she come home safe? After all, the Leader loves us. But we must show him, of course we must show him. We have to show him we love him every day, every hour. We must do more when we ask for a favour. We are asking for something very special after all. He could take anyone at any time. It’s very kind of him to let us live at all.
We will ask him not to take her away for good. Our love and faith gathered together will show Him. That’s what the promises say. We can claim them if we are good. He wants us to. We will be good. She will come home. I never think to be afraid. He will be merciful, he is always merciful. All the stories say so.
I don’t hear the shot. I’m not close enough to be there for it. My parents come to tell me in the morning that she is gone. She will never come back. The Leader said no. They try to hide their tears. The Leader has his reasons. He loves us so much they must be good ones, everyone says so.
Why didn’t it work like the stories? He can say no, He can always say no.
I don’t understand but I will believe. I will be good and believe. Believing is the most important thing. All I have to do is believe. Maybe we didn’t believe hard enough. Is it their fault she’s gone? Is it mine?
I try to read The Great Book itself, I already know all the stories. Or I thought I did. I suppose I knew all the stories that you could tell to children. There are dark things. Terrible things.
But I know that The Leader is Good. The Leader is Good and His Word is Good and the Great Book is His Word. To doubt this is the most evil thing I can do. So It must be good. I must find a way to make it good.
My stomach hurts.
There is a procedure and I understand it better this time. It is called a Trial. It may come at any time. Only the Great Leader can change the outcome. When the follower is called, they are taken to face the Leader. They kneel, and the gun is placed to their head. They will beg for mercy. All their friends and family gather to beg for mercy. We beg and plead but we may not look up to see The Leader’s face. Then we wait. We wait and wait and wait. The decision might be made in an instant or you could kneel for months not knowing. The gun has to fire. It always has to fire. But He doesn’t always kill. Sometimes the hand moves and the gun points to some less vital part before the shot rings out. Sometimes the wound will heal eventually. Sometimes it will weaken them for life. “I have torn that I might heal.” Why is it this way? Is it supposed to make us stronger?
I am eleven and it’s my Aunt this time. She has already been called to Trial twice. The family gathers, we beg and cry, we claim the promises of The Great Book. He shoots again, to wound but not to kill. The Leader is merciful, they tell me. He always has a reason. He always makes something good out of our trials. See how strong he is making us, making our faith, making her. Eyes see what I try not to see. What I must not see. The red of Joy has bled out of her. She isn’t stronger. She was so vibrant. Strong, laughing, sharp wit, unafraid. But now her spirit has become brittle, shimmering with fear. Be careful little eyes what you see. Perhaps the leader is humbling her, making her heart softer? I don’t know, but I must have faith. The Leader knows best. He will make everything good again.
The wound comes from The Dear Leader so it is good. We must thank him for the wound. He will make it good.
My cousin, her only daughter. She is eight when she is first called to trial. Wounded, not killed. My Aunt does everything she can to appease The Leader. She is nine when the second shot rings home. The day after Christmas. That was a bit uncalled for. Why, why, why is it this way? Why does the gun have to fire? Why does the Leader take children. “Dear Leader loves the little children, all the children of the world…” Why does he hurt them? A place inside of me is beginning to feel hollow. A shell of promises I can’t let go of, like an egg made of cracked glass cutting every time you touch it. We must have misunderstood the Leader’s promises. They seem clear but life is complicated, there is always more. All I can do in hold on to faith. Not to is the worst crime I could commit. This was the first lesson I was ever taught, and I have learned my lessons well. Oh very, very well.
I am twenty when my Aunt finally falls. My Uncle, her brother, follows soon after. Then Grandfather. At least he had a full life. I miss her vibrant spirit, red and daring. I miss his stories and his laugh. Most of all I miss not being afraid. Having hope that does not cut. I don’t know how to ask for mercy anymore. I beg for a reprieve, Just a little time until the next trial. I hurts so much I just need some time to recover. I almost get it too. No family. One family friend is called away in an instant. At least there is no waiting this time. Close enough, I think. I am numb to the mourning. The pain is familiar. Close and distant. Everything feels fuzzy.
I do not cry, It never helps.
Years pass. Broken things inside seem to heal. But there are scars. I still hold to my faith but it has become nebulous and poorly defined. The cracks cut if I press against it. Why is that? I thought I was meant to rely on my faith. To stand on the promises. It must not have meant what I thought it did. I know I did not understand before. I must not be doing it right. Others misunderstood and taught me wrong. It wasn’t their fault, they did not mean to lie. But I cannot blame The Great Leader for their mistake. We must never blame the Leader. The Leader is always good. Perhaps the pain is the touch of The Great Leader’s presence. They said He would never leave me. The pain never leaves me.
I pour all the passion of my heart into faith, hoping that will make up for the parts I don’t understand. But I’ve had peace for so long, I’m almost expecting it when the summons comes again.
No, no, NO! A baby, my nephew, my blood. I watch my sister beg with tears in her eyes and her heart and soul wrapped in her hands. The family gathers. Everyone is begging, pleading with all their souls. Willing to do anything, make any trade, if only Our Dear Leader will spare the child.
Everyone but me.
I am frozen, watching in horror. Suddenly the world shifts in my mind. The scales fall from my eyes. For the first time I look up unblinking and I see. I face the knowledge that I have hidden from for far too long. Our pleading makes no difference. It never has, it never will. We want to stop this but we can’t and never could. The Leader doesn’t love us. The Dear Leader probably can’t even hear us. The mad and desperate pantomime is only for ourselves. We want so desperately to have power over this but we don’t. We can’t. We only have power over ourselves.
I only have power over myself.
I will never beg again.
That is the moment the shot rings out. Hope breaks, faith too. All the love I have poured into the Dear Leader for a lifetime turns to black bile and something inside me dies.
I walk away.
Walk away from the fear, the subservience, the powerlessness I learned from my first breath. Nothing and no one is worth this. I did not deserve this. We did not deserve this. And no matter what it takes or what it costs me I will never go back.
The knowledge sits in my gut hard, solid, unlike the fear that sat there so long. For the first time I stand tall without apology. I look around and see everything anew. I watch them scramble desperate through the haze and I know I cannot tell them. I know they will not see. They see only my anger but will not hear the cause. Their only hope is that that little life had meaning because Dear Leader wished it so. Fear makes them cling to shadows to keep the loss at bay.
Now I know the truth, the loss was always absolute. It cannot be held at bay. All I have is this moment. And this. And this. The now in which I chose what I will be, and what I will not be.
The wounds are old and deep. I cannot run too quickly. So I walk. I plan my escape.
The restraints, the bars, the fences in my mind fade to wisps. Others see walls that I walk through like air. I can see a freedom beyond, so I pack light. I take my knowledge of the enemy’s camp. Of his excuses and his tactics. My knowledge of the slave’s mindset, the forging of adamant chains with which they shackled my mind.
Sometimes I wonder if there was ever anything behind those dead black eyes or if, all together, we made our monster.
It doesn’t matter. Because now I know the purpose I will give my life. The one the leader would never give. I will fight. All I know, all I have seen I will use to tear the scales from blinded eyes. To undermine all that I once served.
And perhaps, someday, a child will not be told that they are bad. That they deserve to be hurt because they were born. A child will learn not to fear questions, to value doubt and shun belief. To choose their life, not abdicate it. That it is not a sin to fight for their freedom. That it is not a virtue to be a slave. That they are not here on borrowed time but simply here. To live life, in all it’s terror and beauty, and not to be afraid of shadows.