STORY TELLING: ABANDONMENT
Credit: Dorothea Lange, Farm Security AdministrationThe source of all story telling is the act of abandonment. We all begin life in an act of abandonmentthe moment the umbilical cord is cut when we are born. We then spend the greater part of our lives either attempting to maintain a sense of belonging, pursuing it, or running away from it. All ultimately stem from one singular idea: At one point we were united with our maker and caretaker and now we are separated. Why? How do we return? Understanding any story’s character is ultimately understanding how they’ve chosen to act in response to their own abandonment.
Let’s look at a few examples from classic movies.
“The Wizard of Oz” is a movie that that has become a classic because it is a pure and simple distillation of how a young woman, Dorothy, behaves when she feels that she’s being ignored (abandoned) for a second time. “Second time,” you say? Yes. She lives with her aunt and uncle not her mother and father. In the classic film adaptation of Frank L.Baum’s classic, Dorothy is a casualty (we presume) of the Great Depression. And, for whatever reason, she has been left in the care of her aunt and uncle.
Dorothy, now feeling ignored (abandoned) by her aunt and uncle who are furiously working to batten down the hatches before the big storm hits, runs away. This act of running away completes the cycle of the main character’s dilemma. They have now abandoned someone. Look for this again and again… The main character’s story often begins in an act of abandonment that they then perpetrate on someone else. They commit the sin that was committed against them.
For a parlor game, look for an almost identical or symmetrical act of abandonment by the main character in both the way they were abandoned and how they then abandon another. The similarities are often uncanny. In the case of Dorothy, she was abandoned by family who we presume were looking for a better (more exciting) life and felt they must do that away from family. Perhaps there’s another, special place (not Kansas) that can provide them that better life? In an unconscious act of symmetry, Dorothy abandons (runs away) from her family in search of a better, more exciting life where someone cares about her in a way that satiates the emptiness she feels from her original abandonment by her mother and father. She does only to find that the “special place” she goes to inevitable cannot satiate her sense of abandonment and, instead, reframes her need in terms of others needing her.
This idea… The idea that the real key to happiness is not what the world can give you but what you can give the world… Is the foundation for huge shifts in human consciousness throughout the history of our species. Dorothy, in the end, discovers that she is loved and her absence does affect her aunt in uncle. She is loved. And she must now return that love. It's happiness's contract.
Incidentally, if you’re interested in making a fortune, use this very basic premise of an orphan living with an aunt and uncle. It’s been put to incredible use and success in the Star Wars saga as well as the Harry Potter movies. All share this common orphan/aunt and uncle backstory for the main character. We are all orphans at some point in our lives!
“Casablanca” is another classic because what its main character, Rick, chooses to do with his abandonment defies expectation and reveals heroic behavior that exceeds our expectations for him. The layers of abandonment are thick with Casablanca.
First, Rick abandoned his life as a gun-runner for the underdogs (as revealed in a conversation with his friend/adversary, Louie). Next, Rick is abandoned by the love of his life, Ilsa, who stands him up at the train station where they were to run away from Nazi-occupied France. She, of course, provides no explanation. She just disappears. Rick reacts in another act of abandonment - the abandonment of empathy for others in need. Rick starts a speak-easy that caters to both the desperate and the criminal. And both are given equal consideration. Which is to say, not much. We know that Rick hasn’t become totally morally corrupt as we see him occasionally give a leg up to someone in need. But we’re also keenly aware that his generosity has its limits when he lets a regular petty thief, Ugarte, be gunned down outside of his nightclub when he refuses to give Ugarte shelter from the local police. Rick abandons people. Maybe not the most ethical people but, none-the-less, people who have become desperate that he might be able to help.
When Ilsa reappears with none other than her husband at Rick’s nightclub, Rick must confront his abandonment directly now that the person who abandoned him now needs his help. Needless to say, Rick is not in the giving mood. Especially considering the love of his life has reappeared without warning with a husband in tow.
Ultimately, Rick’s heroic act is accepting Ilsa’s act of abandonment as not a selfish act but one of necessity. Not only one of loyalty to her original husband (Victor Laszlo - a key figure in the resistance against Nazism who she believed to have died in a concentration camp), but her willingness to leave Laszlo and come back to Rick, her real true love. Rick has no choice but to consider that the importance of the events that surround Laszlo’s well-being and safety (Ilsa being present as his wife being key to this) outweighs his desire to get the love of his life back. Rick is faced with abandonment again but this time he meets it not with a wounded heart but with a sense of responsibility and an understanding that his heartbreak is a small thing in light of the greater problem… the threat of Nazi world domination.
“Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
- Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)
- Screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch. Based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.
We all face abandonment which is why we all live within a life dominated by story telling. We are comforted by the fact that we are not alone in our search for “home” and belonging. Truth and justice. Balance. We look to others who have also faced abandonment and have endeavored to learn why they’ve been abandoned or what they did to recover a sense of home. Or how they failed and suffered and even deeper consequence.
Abandonment is the source of all story telling because abandonment is the source of life.