Dictators, Cancer, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

At the beginning of this month I read two books about North Korea.  First I read Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son.  It was as beautiful and strange as I expected it to be.  Reading it made me realize that I know nothing about North Korea and that I desperately want to know more, so I followed that book up with a nonfiction book that had been way down on my TBR list, Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power. (hashtag longest title ever)

These books contained a lot of new information for me and it was all a surreal reminder that sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.  I should probably be embarrassed to admit that before reading Fischer’s book, I didn’t even know the most basic outline of the Korean War.  So, there was a lot for me to process.  I wanted to blog about my experiences and take-aways of reading both books, but while I was trying to sort it all out in my mind something terrible happened.

My stepmom, whom I blogged about here, was diagnosed with a terrifying and aggressive cancer.  She was admitted on a Wednesday, the diagnosis was confirmed the next day and chemo started that Saturday.  For the next week (Has it really been over a week already?) my brain was stuck in one place.  Leukemia, chemo, mortality, fragility, FUCK.  Endless cycles of fear and helplessness and just feeling frozen and raw.  It has been 10 days since her diagnosis and my brain is starting to work again.  A bit.  I think.

As I was walking to work the other day, these books that I had read about North Korea popped into my head.  I don’t remember too many details from them right now and I suspect that the people and events in the two books will be forever muddled in my mind, but there was a common theme of the power of storytelling that feels meaningful in the context of my stepmom’s illness.

Kim Jong-Il recognized this power early on.  He used terror, it’s true, but he also needed a story.  It is not enough to tell people not to believe in the West, democracy, and capitalism.  There has to be something else to recite like a mantra over and over again, to drive out and subsume anything contradictory.  He used the power of story to bend millions of people to his will.  But while one story can be used to indoctrinate, others can be used to resist even when (especially when?) you only tell that story to yourself.

Over the last 10 days many people have offered to pray for my family, to send warm thoughts and healing energies.  My first reaction is to dismiss this.  I am not a believer and I would rather that someone act than pray.  Cook a meal, walk the dog, clean their house.  Do something, don’t just think at them.  It occurred to me though, as I was walking and thinking about these books and stupid cancer and how random and unfair life can be that these prayers and thoughts and energies are really stories. They are stories about the power of one human being (and a team of highly qualified medical professionals) to defy odds and defeat illness and persevere.  I don’t believe in gods, but I do believe in stories.  They bring us hope and if they can empower us to resist dictatorships, then why not cancer?

So, thank you for your stories in whatever form they take and if you want to take action as well, please donate blood.


I am keeping on ongoing list of all of the books I have read in 2016 here.  Always looking for suggestions!


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