Friday, October 8, 2010

Why I love making villains sympathetic

I'm about to embark on the National Novel Writing Month competition with a subject that has been languishing in my computer for years. I'm very excited about it. What's interesting about the subject of Typhoid Mary is that it echoes today with decisions that have been made about public health, with prejudice and bias about disease and misunderstandings about the cause of disease.

I'm going to write about Typhoid Mary - one of the world's great medical villains. Mary was the first person identified as a healthy disease carrier. This is such a twisty story it's going to be interesting to see if I can bring it off.

Just as the early handling of HIV-Aids was colored by prejudice against the gay population, so Mary's case was mishandled by the prejudice against Irish Immigrants. A bias against Immigrants that resonates today.

Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) always claimed that she was persecuted. And she was. Other typhoid carriers killed and infected more people and they were not locked in quarantine for life. The supposition is that she became famous because she was Irish at a time when Irish immigrants were not widely popular. She was a woman without children and not regarded as a "bread winner." She was powerful, violent and profane. She used salty language that the people who dealt with her found offensive. Most of all she denied her condition (and had the medical findings to back her up) and fought for her freedom. My theory is that George Soper the man who discovered her and isolated the cause of a disease that killed 23,000 people in America (when only 10% of those infected died) used her to make his fame and secure his place in medical history well beyond the simple fact that he discovered her. The interesting thing is that her fame persists while you only learn his name by reading about her.

My job as a writer is to make her sympathetic. George Soper, because we wrote and spoke about her extensively, controlled her story. Much like the losers in a war, Mary Mallon became a villain in the perception of the general public of her time. But Mary as villain is too easy a story and not nearly as interesting as Mary Mallon whose life would be destroyed if she ever admitted even to herself that she was a carrier. Mary Mallon the proud woman, valiant victim, who had learned to support herself at the top of her profession. I plan to get her up a tree and throw stones at her. I plan to strip her bare and pour salt in every wound. I plan to make you love Mary even as you understand that she made very bad choices.

I have never liked two dimensional villains or 100% sympathetic heroes. Pure evil might be frightening but it is not nearly as much fun as villains with foibles and contradictions. Childish behavior. Passionate if unlikely love interests. Behavior that everyone in the play, film or book interprets as a good child or good person that masks the evil below. In my book George Soper will be Mary Mallon's nemesis. A physically short, Jesuit-like person with OCD who is very interested in being really famous. Although he has already achieved a certain status as a Typhoid Expert, Mary is his ticket to true and lasting fame. During his life he enjoyed that fame but it has not outlasted her.

The joy of this story is that it skates along the time line of history and my job is not to make up the whole story but to bring these characters to life - to fill in the blanks and make the characters alive and interesting. It is also my job to put things like the science of the day into perspective. It was just the beginning of microbiology. The chemist who regularly tested Mary for Typhoid at her own expense found her to be consistently negative - quite possibly because his science was not as cutting edge as the Department of Health. Lots of mysteries to explore. It will be a marvelous month.

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