A recent conversation reminded me of something I’ve long considered to be a very significant event in my life… something that affected my early moral development in a more basic, emotional level than anything else.
Now, I do want to say that my family had a great influence on my moral development. They did this largely through teaching by example, rather than edict. For instance, I never heard my father speak ill of another person in my life. That wasn’t something I consciously recognized as a kid, but the older I became, the more that behavior stood out in my mind as an example of being a fundamentally decent human being. I admire my dad deeply and miss him every day.
But this event went the other way. It showed me examples of another sort. The event itself was a movie I saw when I was seven years old, in the theater, with my twenty-two year-old sister. I thought I was going to see a cool, kung-fu movie. And I was. But the plot revolved around extreme bigotry and racism. It was not, in fact, a movie meant for seven year-olds. The film was Billy Jack.
I can just imagine the horror on my sister’s face as we sat there watching an extremely violent film, which included a rape and a guy getting shot between the eyes. It was after we left, though, that she discovered what in the film had truly affected me.
I remember saying to her, “Are there really people in the world who believe the things those people believed, and treat others like that?”
And she looked down at me, her face sorrowful, and said, “Yeah, honey. I’m afraid there are.”
In that moment, I began to die a little, inside.
You see, racism was a totally new thing to my young mind. This was 1971 and I lived in a very small town that was pretty much entirely white. It was surrounded by many other small towns that were also mostly white. I never saw racism because of that relative homogeneity.
It wasn’t the violence that affected me. It wasn’t seeing bare boobs. Rather, it was watching racists verbally and physically abuse non-whites, of watching them humiliate these people in public, and in some instances, outright murdering them. Just because of the color of their skin.
So yes, I died a little inside that day. But another part of me woke up. I learned that day just how powerful an impact made-up stories could have on someone. That day, it was a movie, but in later years, it would be novels.
I have always tried to write stories that have that sort of effect on people, stories that present unusual concepts or different viewpoints, and of course, stories that stress acceptance of those different from ourselves. In a very real way, all that is because of Billy Jack.