The Penance of the Lambs

In the classes I teach on story structure I often point to Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs as a great example of a Success/Bad story in which the goal (save the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill) is achieved, but the personal angst of not being able to save that spring lamb remains, as evidenced by Lecter’s final conversation with Starling over the phone in which he asks, “Are the lambs still screaming?” Starling’s silence in response plus the somber soundtrack music (even though this is her graduation from the academy) indicate she is still holding on to that angst.

We usually leave it there, having served our purpose of illustrating what Success/Bad means. Sometimes we go on to say that the reason she is trying to save all these people today – the reason she got into law enforcement (besides the fact her father was a sheriff) was because she can’t let go of that one lamb she couldn’t save and keeps trying to make up for it.

But now I’m thinking that while that may be true in an objective sense, nobody would carry that weight in their heart and act out that way for those reasons alone. You’d see it, you’d understand it and move on.

Rather, I think the reason she does what she does is not to make up for that lamb but to avoid having to carry another similar sense of loss in the future. So every extraordinary effort – even to the extent of putting herself at risk of death – is to keep from adding one more victim to the pain or failure she already carries.

It would seem, then, counter-intuitive to put oneself in a profession where the risk of failure in the exact same subject matter area as your angst. But consider – most of us need to pay penance when we feel we have screwed up. The risk of hurting herself emotionally even more by her choice of profession, therefore, is part of her penance for the first lamb she lost, while the extra-human effort she puts into each case is the attempt to avoid adding another instance to the pain she already carries.

Pretty screwed up, really, but in actuality the only way a mind, a heart, can make up for failing another in a way that can’t be fixed is to try to help others in a similar way.  Yet then the risk of failure is omnipresent, so we give up a life of our own to excel enough to avoid another failure.

It is a never ending cycle of emotional self-flagellation: trying to make up for the failure by putting oneself in the situation most likely to create a repeat, then devoting one’s life to trying to avoid the failure and thereby punishing oneself for the original failure.

Of course, the only way out of this vicious circle is to accept the original failure, call it a clean slate, and move on. But who can easily do that, and how?

Those are the questions for which readers and audience yearn for answers.  They hope that the author possesses some special insight based on personal experience or extensive observation.  Stories work at a passionate level because, even in the most outlandish sci-fi situations, the human heart beats along side our own.  And the more you draw your characters from the issues we face every day (“We envy what we see every day” – Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling), the more your readers or audience will embrace them and make the passion of your story their own.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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